Étiquette : mediterranean

The Mediterranean and Poetry

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.

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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.

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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.

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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[1]. 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.

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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.

A Question upon a very old Shore

Does the Mediterranean exist?

On the map, the Mediterranean is that kind of false blue rectangle which pretends to jealously close in upon itself, but, if one looks closely, is seen to open up via three gates, narrow ones, it is true, onto the vast and multiple universe; mingling its waters at Gibraltar with those of the western Atlantic; cautiously greeting via the Suez Canal the enigmatic world and the gods of the South and the East; holding out, between the shores of the Bosphorus, what we so nicely call, in French, ‘an arm of the sea’, towards the gods, ancient and modern, of the North and the North-East. And so, via three gates only, the Mediterranean manages to look towards the four cardinal points. In this improbable process of three becoming four, I like to see a symbol of the Mediterranean’s singular destiny; whereby the most precise measurements are bent through the intervention of the miraculous; whereby inspiration, which is, moreover, but the response to aspiration, comes along to shatter the reign of rules.

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Now, what I mean is that these rules have been invented by we Mediterraneans. The liking for and the meaning of definitions, written law, codification, are specifically Mediterranean creations. We have imagined division, and then choice; separation, and then construction. We have endeavoured to retain in our choices – it will often be held against us, moreover – just those elements capable of making the universe a livable place. In order to guarantee our victories over incoherence and tumultuousness, we have had the courage to do violence to nature: we have invented the straight line: the column, the sphere – and the hemi-sphere: the cupola. We are the fathers of syllogism, of the golden section, and of the syllogism disguised as arabesque: such signs of our culture have in common a desire to integrate the other by bringing it back to the same so that, through and beyond the illusory diversity of appearances, they might reach a place of identity. At the time when tenebrous Masters of deep Asia required man to vanish and melt into the obscure breathing of the Cosmos, we conjured and adopted that assembly of happy and light gods whose ruined temples continue to raise, upon the shores of a shared sea, their smiling challenge. And so, anthropomorphism is, too, a particularly Mediterranean philosophy. At the frontier of the logical and the less logical, the clear and the less clear, we have harnessed the most tenuous and fluid relationships whereby mind reflects world, a world returning the favour, enabling eternal and harmonious exchanges. An old image: Orpheus singing, and cities rising up.

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But here is the drama, here the heart-wrenching, terrible moment when the Mediterranean, having reached one of the extremities of itself, opens up and bursts forth. Orpheus, the architect, the builder in the full sun of cities and order, falls prey to a secret infirmity. Within him there rises up, more and more urgently, the call of a lost black Euridice. And this voice of the beautiful black bride, this deep song, this cante jondo as Spain says,  how could Orpheus, bewitched by song as he is, escape its fascination? He must, following the inflection of his personal curve oriented by the magnet of a vocation, discover the threshold of hell and undertake the perillous journey on the other side of things which offers, without any possible doubt – perhaps simply because he seizes upon a new unforeseeble direction of being – the road leading to a truth.

This reevaluation of the surface order of things at the very moment it seems to be rising up in the time of some definitive glory – this is what is Mediterranean. It explains perhaps, in part, that the immense and complex machine of the Roman Empire came to a full stop one day, disconcerted before the quiet words of a poor Nazarean. And look: Christianity, like Judaism before it and Islam later, all religions born in this region of the world one must deem inspired, all, instead of biting into Asia, east of their place of birth – Asia to which belong, geographically, both Palestinia and the Arab peninsula – all such religions initially went, as if via some ineluctable accomplishment of an inner requirement – towards the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean whose surrounding region, via diverse itineraries and in differing seasons, such religions spiritually colonised.

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Certainly, this did not happen so simply. Men of the Mediterranean, we are, as I have said, men of a certain order. And that is why we begin by violently rejecting Jesus Christ; we denature Al-Hallâj; we persecute Galileo. ‘And yet…’, the latter insisted, in the urgency of being accused of impiety. And we end up admitting he was right, and we raise a tomb in the very bosom of the Church of Santa Croce.

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Men of a certain order, but an order without certainty, sureness. Our truth, acquired at some expense, was paid for by such hesitation, the permanent refuting of the pros by the cons, the cons by the pros. It is because we endlessly rectify one thing by another that we appear, perhaps, today, to be advancing slowly, more timidly than other peoples having been able to reach satisfaction more rapidly than we ourselves, deliberately borrowing from us one or the other term of our rich ambiguousness. One day, we are told, the Spanish painter Juan Gris said to Braque: ‘I love the rule that corrects emotion’. And Braque – so often Mediterranean by the desire and affinities of his work – answered: ‘I love the emotion that corrects the rule’. And so, between rule and emotion – which is, is it not, the lesser name of passion – our destiny acts itself out.

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This is what I was seeking to get to. I was wondering, at the outset of this reverie, whether the Mediterranean existed. It could, I maintain, be and continue to develop only as a final conjunction of what we bring to it and our most contradictory signs; it could establish itself really, before the vast elementary empires that were built up by bearing to their ultime end, and to the point of caricature, one or the other profile of our definition of freedom and justice, only via a new, more vibrant, more inclusive sythesis of justice and freedom. The gestation, in the Mediterranean, of this new freedom, this new justice, is perhaps what we are witnessing today: and this birthing, as we can see, is bloody and tragical. But for we ancient Mediterranean peoples, the main thing is that in the hour in which a blind and stupid challenge  may well disarticulate and reduce the primordial rhythm of our national histories, of our common history, in the hour in which so many dark quarrels – throughout the last fifty years – have so often seemed monstrously to turn to scorn – the main thing is that those for whom, in the universe, the Mediterranean is a burning call to unite, strongly desire, contrary to all imposed formulas and all ‘given’ policies, to question the undesirable order of things and set off, alone if necessary, in search of lost Euridice. ‘The world, Gide argued, will be saved by a few’. Our Mediterranean will, too.

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And here I stand still, anxiously questioning myself, and sad not to have found an answer to the question that is perhaps the only one I want to ask at the end of all others I have asked: today, in a time of war and injustice, does the Mediterranean truly yet exist? Yes, I believe it exists and that it is, all considered, merely our trembling questioning as to its reality.

© 2020 SALAH STETIE

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