American university honors the life and work of Cavafy

In the town of Ann Arbor, at the crossroads of American and international intellectual life and among the scattered buildings of the University of Michigan, the C.P. Cavafy Professorship in Modern Greek Studies, only five months old, is actively participating in the life of this university town. A composite exhibition on Constantine Cavafy opened a few days ago at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology; an exhibition which quite thoroughly redefines the image that we have of the poet today. It is the high point of a series of events around Cavafy as an emblematic figure of the discourse of the diaspora. Throughout this academic year, a series of exhibitions, talks, a conference and publications will take place in the various buildings of this vibrant and culturally thriving town. These events are being organized by the C.P. Cavafy Professorship in Modern Greek Studies, and reflect its general approach. «Cavafy provided the role model,» says Artemis Leontis, professor of comparative literature at Michigan and one of the main organizers of the Cavafy exhibition. «The ‘Hellenic’ interested him both as history and as language, but always within the broader horizon of the eastern Mediterranean, in which he came into contact with many languages, religions and traditions.» In this way, Cavafy is made into an internationally acceptable vehicle for a modern interpretation of the Hellenic spirit. Indeed the title of the Cavafy chair, currently held by Vassilis Lambropoulos, was not chosen by chance. «As a university program, we are attempting to combine the three areas of teaching, research and cultural events,» he explains. «The purpose of the C.P. Cavafy Professorship in Modern Greek Studies, then, is to educate tomorrow’s scholars, to promote the study of Greek culture and to coordinate various cultural activities. Our ambition, then, is to organize activities that serve all three aims at the same time. Take this year’s Cavafy events, for example, which encompass exhibitions, conferences, publications and talks. They have an educational purpose (they introduce the public to the Alexandrian poet’s world), a research component (they propose completely new approaches to his work) and a cultural aspect as well (they combine various forms of artistic expression and communication). In this way, we can present a more cohesive, more complex product, the elements of which tie together.» Cavafy, the best known Greek poet outside of Greece and Cyprus, becomes a common homeland for an international audience through his love poetry, his historical knowledge, his multicultural elements, his own cosmopolitan life, his subtle irony and his aesthetic sense. He is the most «international» Greek. «The poet found ways in which to turn his diasporic position into an advantage, that is his position as a Greek outside of Greece and as a Greek within Egypt,» says Artemis Leontis. «He addressed an international audience, he cultivated foreign readers, and found ways to penetrate a future audience, despite the fact that he was the product of a certain period and wrote in the Greek language. Finally, he wrote poems full of learning yet with the promise of adventure, a feeling which is often lacking within universities. And we are following his role model, presenting a Greek poet of the eastern Mediterranean to today’s multilingual public, which has its own various traditions. We are combining archaeological finds, photographs, engravings, readings, and publications. Our purpose is to present the image of a complex world and of a particular poet in a way which appeals to a non-university audience in a stimulating and attractive way, without sacrificing the strict principles of research – the point at which knowledge and adventure meet.» The Cavafy events, made possible through a happy collaboration between American and Greek institutions and bodies, are continuing, while the main exhibition will be open until May. Last Friday, Professor Alexander Nehamas of Princeton University presented a lecture at Ann Arbor on «C.P. Cavafy: The Power of Art and the Afterlife of Irony.» The Hellenic Historical and Literary Archive has published a volume on Cavafy especially to commemorate these events; it is in English, although the poems are in Greek. «We would like to put on similar programs of events in the future,» concludes Vassilis Lambropoulos. «They require a greater effort, but they reach a wider audience, both specialist and non-specialist.»

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