THE MEDITERRANEAN AND POETRY
Today, through all the problems it poses, the Mediterranean finds itself at the centre of the planet’s preoccupations. For a long time people had believed it was dead, having become in the eyes of the more active and dynamic civilisations of the North a Mediterranean-Museum, a monumental space devoted to the great refinements of the most beautiful aesthetic creations of the past, a vast warehouse of the most ingenious inventions, indeed civilisations henceforth collapsed beneath their own prestigious weight: Egypt, Greece, the Roman Empire, Byzantium, Andalusia, the Turkish Empire, Venice, the great Western empires – Spanish, French, English, especially – established via the force of arms, through the power of technique and technology, on the southern and eastern banks of the most fertile of seas. A sea in which were born all the myths that govern us, a sea of the three Abrahamic credos, a sea in which great epic and lyrical poetry came into being, a sea of philosophers, thinkers of the One and the multiple, who have not ceased to nourish, and today still, our thinking in all of its forms.
No, the Mediterranean is not dead and the weight of its distinctive and complementary cultures has not killed it. With the end of colonial authority after the end of the second world war, the Mediterranean wakes up, as do at times its volcanoes, with violence, demanding its place in the new concert of nations, wanting independence, recognition of its multiple identities, justice, equality with Europe, a proud continent laying forth its claim (with all the difficulties we see today) to the reestablishment of its supremacy in a unitedness reconquered. The claims from the other bank often touch on the irrational, in the midst of disorder and blood, everything for a long time being stirred up by the blindness and incompetence of the most powerful (the United States foremost) and by the ineptness of others, the European states in particular. That is what is at the root of the present ‘Arab revolutions’.
How in these conditions are we to resolve the new and often terrible questions that are posed and which have not been finding, for a half-century or decades depending on various factors, any solution. The interminable Israeli-Arab conflict, the rise of fundamentalisms, the break-up of Lebanon, the effects of terrorism in Northern Africa, the instability and impasses of ex-Yugoslavia, Turkey’s desire to become an integral part of Europe… and, close to all of this, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, still not really over, and emerging from a globalisation ill thought out and poorly implemented.
Political analysis is at loggerheads with a poetry thousands of years old from a world to which we owe an essential part of our being-in-the-world, beyond the inimitable history of this human sea, where culture and violence converge, the mother of prophets, poets, philosphers and a few other prodigious visionaries. Such a world positioned at the very source of myths and immemorial principles, henceforth is dreaming and designing the project of a new equilibrium between the northern and southern shores of a sea sharing geography, history, culture and poetry.
Between the Mediterranean and poetry there has always been a kind of pact. Perhaps because the sea, and precisely that sea, sufficiently engaging and familiar for the man of the dawn of time to dare to venture upon it, was the first to open up the space of travel to human reverie. And poetry, above all, is journeying. Perhaps because through the risks journeying entails, and the inevitable disillusionment, that sea also opens up, like a ship’s wake forming, the nostalgic space of a return. And poetry, then, is return.
This, it seems to me, is one of the possible meanings of the dual and contradictory postulation enclosed within humanity’s very first poetical monuments – a humanity that was, firstly and determinedly, Mediterranean -, a joined monument with its two spread wings, one the Iliad, the other the Odyssey.
The placeless place of poetry thus finds itself dangerously defined. At the intersection of forces, it is the confused one, the disconcerted one, that par excellence which is torn asunder, the fevered one, the one knowing no appeasement. And that does not mean that its path does not exist, but that any path it traces out is traversed by a contrary path. So does it move and its intoxication is not a pretence.
But the Mediterranean precisely, the Mediterranean of vines and wine, refuses intoxication. Other regions of the world, with their peoples, will make poetry the occasion for great agitated fervours. Since there is disconcertedness, they will seem to be saying, let it be complete! Mediterranean man, in his confusion, continues to attempt to master his going forth. A navigator, yes, cast, by his own dizziness and that thirst sharpened by salt air, into the uncertainties of the universe, he has very quickly learned, needing salvation, to map out in the teeming enigmaticalness the few firm points on which may be hung all that is visible, and all that is invisible, all that escapes and flees his grasp. And so, out of defiance to the formless anguish of the sea, is born the calm geography of the sky. And so poetry, the poetry, I mean, of Mediterreans, teaches us to contain our doubts to the point of reflecting them via some inversion that, without denaturing them, absorbs and consumes them in the fire of figuration. Such figures, though stable, are nonetheless distant and, hanging over the destiny they inflect and guide, ruggedly maintain, between man and his unalterable star, all of the nocturnal depth, the perillous agitation and the ever changeable substance of such destiny.
From the confrontation I have just defined arises the idea, in its high poeticalness, of death. The idea of death, like that of salvation, perhaps owes its most rigorous contours to the Mediterranean. All things considered, statuary, whether Egyptian or Greek, is one of the most intrinsically Mediterranean inventions, and a statue always speaks the language of death. A Mediterranean invention, the column is equally a statue. What do raised marbles and basalts tell us? That there is no salvation for man, made of perishable matter, except in stone, which is the flesh of the gods. And so, by dint of the invisible, Mediterraneans discovered the weight and price of the visible, but only immediately to recharge the particles of the concrete, of matter, with all the powers of the invisible. After place in proximity to the sea, stone in turn is transmuted into a place of ambiguousness. Mediterranean poetry I see as a stone raised upon a shore, a forgotten column. Between the column and the wave, an elemental dialogue is instituted. The one that is form and definedness seems to deny the reign of the other, which is merely the formless infinitude of breathing things in time. But, looking more closely upon all of this, via the ambiguity I have stated and which runs through stone and sea, via the simultaneous and reciprocal action of forward and backward movement, by intuiting the god that gives life to the statue which, in turn, rules the god, the column and the wave open in deep ways one upon the other, and both, over and above their apparent conflict, fashion the same spiritual sign. Mediterranean poetry, which, more than any other, loves the world’s surface, loves playing with the brilliance of contrast, is in its silent slow ways of being, upon the banks of some mental Styx, inhabited by some unique ghost. The fertileness of appearances, their happy variety, and the song that makes them quiver and shimmer like the leaves of the tree covered in olives, have as their counterpart a burnt soil. Poetry, I mean the greatest poetry, delights in the benefits of intensity: let appearance reach its maximal point, fully vibrant and a miracle of prestige, but, too, well drawn, powerfully struck in the world’s metal, let it be finally denounced as ash and dust, and poured back into nothingness! There lies, it seems to me, the moral, in the poetical sense of the word, of Valéry’s most beautiful poem – one of the most beautiful poems in French –, Le Cimetière marin, a closed space wherein we discover that at once tangled and clear exchange of sea and stone, under the aegis of death, an exchange wherein I think I may detect that mysteriously traversed and contradictory movement which, from the contemplation of things in their calm and serene figuration, leads man to the awful enigma of his silence. And when man has exhausted the powers of his melancholia, at the very moment such melancholia may have thought to have won the game played against human livingness-absence, the latter suddenly will invoke the reign of wind, and will shake himself, admirably feeling the cold, in the foam of a new beginning… Le Cimetière marin appears to my mind to trace out a path essentially contrary to the journey of Euridice: Orpheus, in a special place of reflection, in the moment of surrendering visibleness to the funereal sun – dispossessed stanza upon stanza of the many things he had thought to accumulate – suddenly is struck with illumination and, spinning about, gazing intently upon the present and the immediate future, frees himself, chains and charms, and, with his foot, kicks away the past (its long and meditative logic) into some vain philosophic tomb.
The wind that gets up in concluding Le Cimetière marin is perhaps the same wind, that other wind, that opposing wind that Agamemnon’s sailors watched for in exasperation at the time of hurling themselves, all banners flying, into the first great Mediterranean poem, beneath the action of their same and triple obsession or mirage: of the sea, of death and – because Helen is definitively the survivor, the triumphant one with her ambiguous smile – of that which subsists and is maintained above ashes after the warring of man, and which, perhaps, is love.