Saturday, June 19, 2021

Covid-19 and Poetry: C.P. Cavafy’s “Things Ended”

Early this January, mentally and physically exhausted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I turned to poetry for solace. This included the work of Constantinos Cavafy (1863-1933), the world-renowned poet of the Greek diaspora (he spent most of his life in Alexandria, Egypt). His poetry beckons me regularly.

What I was hoping to tap into this time was Cavafy’s didacticism; his tendency to offer lessons for life. I knew “Ithaca,” one of his most famous didactic poems, by heart. Was there a lesson somewhere in his oeuvre, no matter how oblique, for living amid a pandemic? I was curious.

It was early in his book of collected poems that I froze. Here it was, “Things Ended” (Τελειωμένα), or in another translation “Finished,” staring at me. Written in 1911, it directly spoke about our condition a century later. I kept reading, and rereading. I was transfixed. 

Engulfed by fear and suspicion, 
mind agitated, eyes alarmed, 
we try desperately to invent ways out, 
plan how to avoid 
the obvious danger that threatens us so terribly. 
Yet we’re mistaken, that’s not the danger ahead: 
the news was wrong 
(or we didn’t hear it, or didn’t get it right). 
Another disaster, one we never imagined, 
suddenly, violently, descends upon us, 
and finding us unprepared—
there’s no time now—
sweeps us away.

Read from the perspective of our experience under Covid-19, “Things Ended” feels dramatically prescient.

Cavafy’s unadorned, prose-like verse communicates this message clearly: it is impossible to accurately predict the danger that will haunt humanity next. We agonize over an anticipated crisis, but this is in vain; the real danger lies elsewhere. “Another disaster, one we never imagined, / suddenly, violently, descends upon us,” the poem warns us in no uncertain terms.

The poem makes this situation applicable to all humanity. The repeated use of the plural pronouns “us” and “we” makes the reader part of a shared predicament. We try to prepare ourselves for what we think threatens us, only to discover how mistaken we are in predicting the disaster that will be descending upon us. “The news was wrong /(or we didn’t hear it, or didn’t get it right). Another disaster, one we never imagined…” The conclusion is sober, we are all in it, there is no place to escape.

It is part of being human to worry over impending disasters. The first two stanzas communicate this state of being dramatically: The short lines are packed with words conveying deep distress––fear and suspicion, agitation and alarm.

This fright is exhausting and requires vast psychic resources, taking a huge mental and physical toll on us.

What are we to make of the main message in the poem? Are we condemned to perpetually miscalculate the nature of a future catastrophe? Are we to live fatalistically or under constant, conscious panic that a destruction impossible to predict is just around the corner? Are we to turn apathetic and let developments slap us to the ground?

There is indeterminacy in life, true. Humans are not omniscient and omnipresent. But it is this condition, after all, that drives human curiosity to know, to understand their world.

The poem, I believe, refrains from an all-consuming pessimism. It opens the space for an instructive lesson: “… that’s not the danger ahead: the news was wrong (or we didn’t hear it, or didn’t get it right).

Perhaps the poem is heeding that we should be more alert, more careful, more imaginative in attending to signs and warnings? Perhaps it implies that we should keep cultivating areas of human endeavor that we currently deem irrelevant in practical terms (say, poetry) but may prove vital for our psychic and physical survival in the future?

But didn’t we, at some level, already know? In the early 2000s, the “World Health Organization developed a global outbreak alert and response network shortly after the SARS outbreak.” This was almost twenty years ago. We knew about the deadly effects of the various strains of coronavirus and the ominous threat of a pandemic because of it.

But we did not hear the warning well, “for that was not the danger ahead, the news was wrong,” we thought?

Yiorgos Anagnostou
(published in the community magazine Greek Ethos, Spring 2021, 12)

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