Odysseas Elytis, Greece
A PILE OF RAW MATERIAL
Speech of the second Greek Nobel Prize winner, the poet Odysseas Elytis, delivered before the Swedish Academy at the Nobel Banquet
Academicians, Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to speak in the name of luminosity and transparency, since these are the qualities, which define the space I was destined to grow up and live in. They are the ones I gradually began to identify within me along with the need for expression. It is right for a man to contribute to art what his personal experience and virtues of his language dictate. Even more so when the times are dark and what he’s dictated is a possibly better clarity. I am not referring to the natural ability to perceive objects in all their detail, but to the metaphorical one – to keep their essence and bring them to such purification, which at the same time gives expression also to their metaphysical semantics. The way Cycladian sculptors worked their material, almost overcoming matter itself, clearly shows this. As well as the way Byzantine iconographers managed through the use of pure color to suggest the “divine”.
I believe every high poetry has been trying for quite a while to achieve similar insightful and simultaneously transforming impact on reality. Not to satisfy itself with “that is what I have right now”, but to reach for “what is possible to happen”. Indeed, something which has never been appreciated. Perhaps because collective neuroses have not allowed it. Perhaps because utilitarianism has left no opportunity for human eyes to be open wide enough. It happened that beauty and light were perceived untimely and painlessly. But, I am sure, the process necessary for man to acquire the form of the Angel is much more painful than the other one, which wrenches out every possible Demon.
Of course, the puzzle exists. Of course, the mystery exists. But the mystery is not some staged performance taking advantage of the shadows, playing in the dark just to impress us. It is that which remains mysterious even in broad daylight. When it acquires that effulgence, which captivates and which we call Beauty. Beauty, which is a path – maybe the only path – towards the unknown dwelling places of our self, towards that, which surmounts our limits. Because this is poetry in its essence: the art of leading to and reaching what is transcendental to your very self.
To sculpture words from the millions of secret signs scattered all over the world, which also represent just as many syllables in some unknown language; from the words – phrases whose deciphering brings you closer to the most profound truth. Where in the end is truth? In perishability and death, which we find every day around us, or in the propensity, which drives us to believe that this world is indestructible and eternal? It is prudent to avoid pompous words, I know. The occurring-at-different-times cosmological theories have used them, have gone into conflict, have reached their zenith, and have faded away. The essence, however, has remained and still remains. And Poetry, which rises when rationalism lays its weapons down to continue to the restricted area, strives to be the one least susceptible to perishability. It safeguards in pure form the constant viable elements which become difficult to discern in the obscurity of consciousness, just like algae becomes in the depths of the sea.
That is why we need transparency. In order to discern the knots on the thread, stretched over the centuries that aids us to keep ourselves standing head high. From Heraclitus to Plato and from Plato to Jesus, we have discerned these “knots” which come to us in different shapes and tell us just about the same thing: that this world contains, and its elements re-create the other: the world “beyond”, the second reality situated above the one we unnaturally dwell in. This is a reality we are entitled to and which, because of our own worthlessness, have not deserved.
It is far from accidental that in times of solid principles, Beauty has been identified with Good, and Good with the Sun. To the same extent, to which consciousness is purified and filled with light, the dark portions give way and die out leaving empty spaces which, just like in nature, are filled by their opposites.
And this happens in such a way that in the end the result rests on both aspects, I mean “here” and “beyond”. Didn’t Heraclitus mention this already, “…opposites yield the most delightful harmony”? Whether Apollo or Aphrodite, Christ or Virgin Mary is the one who incarnates or personifies our need to see materialized that which, at certain times, we anticipate, it doesn’t matter at all. What matters is the breath of immortality which they allow us. In my humble opinion, by overcoming certain dogmas, poetry is obliged to allow us this breath.
How can I not mention the name of Friedrich Hölderlin, the great poet, who addressed in the same manner the Olympians and Jesus? The stability he gave to a vision is invaluable. And the new horizons he uncovered for us were vast. I would say, awesome. It is, by the way, what made him exclaim when the evil which haunts us today, was just arousing: Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit* . Unfortunately, for a very long time, times have turned out to be spiritually poor for man. But poetry has also worked for a very long time.
Two phenomena destined to accompany our earthly fate, one of which compensates for the other. Was it possible otherwise? If in order to see the stars at night we need the sun. With the difference that, according to an ancient sage, if the sun passes its bounds, it becomes a “hubris”** We have to keep the right distance from the moral sun, just as our planet does from the natural sun, so that life would be possible. By the past, we blamed ignorance. Today it is excessive knowledge. In saying this, I don’t want to become one in the long line of censors of our technological civilization. Wisdom, ancient as the country which has raised me, has taught me to accept evolution, to swallow progress along with all it consequences, no matter how unpleasant they may be.
But then what becomes of poetry? What does it represent in such a society? I answer: the only place where the power of numbers is powerless. And fortunately, your decision this year to honor, in my person, the poetry of a small country shows in what harmony you are with the biased perception of art as the only resistance to the power, which in our time has gone so far as to be identified with the quantitative esteem of values.
I know it’s inappropriate to give personal examples. And even more so, to praise my own home. But sometimes it is indispensable, as much as these things help us see more clearly a particular state of things. And such is the occasion today. I was destined to speak a language, which has been spoken with few changes over the past two and a half thousand years. This absurd, at first sight, discrepancy corresponds also to the material and spiritual being of my country, which covers a small area in space, but is infinite in time. I mention this not to derive pride, but to show the difficulties a poet encounters when he uses the same words for his most beloved things as the words used by Sappho or Pindar, for example, without having the backing-up they had in their time in the then civilized humanity. If language were just a means of communication, that wouldn’t be a problem. It is, however, an instrument of enchantment and a carrier of moral values. And this moral comes with responsibilities. Keeping in mind that for twenty-five centuries now there hasn’t been a single one without Greek poetry being written. This is the great burden of tradition this instrument lays down on its shoulders. Modern Greek poetry represents this exceptionally vividly.
We could say that the sphere formed by Modern Greek poetry has, just like any other sphere two poles: north and south. One is Dionysos Solomos, who from the point of view of expressiveness has succeeded, before the appearance of Mallarme in European literature, in describing extremely coherently and rigorously the concept of pure poetry with all its consequences: to subdue sentiment to intellect, to ennoble expression and activate all the possibilities of the linguistic instrument towards the miracle. The other pole is K. P. Kavafis, who in parallel with T. S. Eliot, has reached the ultimate refinement of verse, to the most effective expressive accuracy possible neutralizing the infiltration of personal experience.
Gravitating between these two poles are other great Greek poets: Andreas Kalvos, Kostis Palamas, Angelos Sikelianos, Nikos Kazandzakis, Giorgos Seferis, some of them more to the north, some to the south. This is a superficial and the most schematic cartography possible of Modern Greek poetry. The problem for us, who came afterwards, was to take up on our shoulders the high morals left in heritage and to adjust, everyone in his own way, to the contemporary sensibility. Beyond the limits of technique, we had to accomplish a synthesis, which should, on the one hand, combine the elements of Greek tradition, and on the other, express the public and psychological demands of our age. In other words, to get to the point of bringing forward the character of the “European-Greek”. I do not mean success, I mean effort. Direction is what matters to the researchers of literature.
But how are these directions to develop freely when the living conditions of today are murderous to the creator? And how to form a spiritual community when the linguistic barriers are insurmountable? We know you and you know us from the twenty, thirty at the most, percent left after the translation. Especially all those of us, who come from a particular tradition and rely on the miracles of the word, on the sparkle, ignited every time two words get appropriately collocated, we remain speechless and unconveyable. We lack a common language. And, if we expand the scope, the repercussions of this absence leave their mark even on the political and social reality of our common homeland of Europe.
Every day we say and find we live in a moral chaos. And this is so at a time when, as never before, the allocation of the elements of our material existence is done in such a way, under such, I would say, military order, and such severe control. When one of the two limbs is hypertrophic, the other atrophies. The praiseworthy inclination of European nations to unite in one whole is hindered by the impossibility of synchronization between the atrophic and hypertrophic limbs of our civilization. Even our values are not a common language.
It may be strange, but it’s true that for the poet the only common language he feels he has left is the senses. For thousands of years, the way two bodies touch has not changed. Nor has it led to conflict, like dozens of ideologies that bathed our societies in blood and left us empty-handed. But when I refer to senses, I do not mean their accessible first or second level. I mean their furthest. I mean the “analogies of the senses” in the spiritual world. All arts speak through analogies. One single smell may symbolize mire and innocence. The straight or curved line, the piercing or deep sound represent a translation of some visual or audio contact. All of us write good or bad verse to the extent we live and think, in the good and the bad sense of the notion. An image of the sea reaches us unchanged since Homer. Rimbaud mentions it as mere melee au soleil* and identifies it with eternity. A girl holding a myrtle branch in the poetry of Archilochus comes to life in a Matisse painting and gives a more tangible Mediterranean sense of clarity.
It is worth noting here that even a virgin from the Byzantine iconography doesn’t differ much. With minimal exception, oftentimes the worldly light seems to be not of this world and vice versa. A sense bequeathed to us by the ancients and another one - by the Middle Ages, come together to give birth to a third one resembling them like the child resembles its parents.
Can poetry walk in these steps? And can senses reach sanctity through a constant purification? Then their projection will reflect on the material world and influence it.
It is not enough to dream in verse. It is too little. It is not necessary to politicize all the time. It’s too much. In its very essence the material world is only a pile of raw material. How good of architects we are is what will make the difference in the end. The Heaven or Hell, which we will construct. If poetry gives some kind of assurance in these spiritually poor times, it is this: despite all, our fate lies in our own hands.