Cavafy: Toward the Principles of a Transcultural Sociology of Minor Literature


  • James D. Faubion Rice University


Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari isolate three hallmarks of the disestablishmentarian,potentially revolutionary literature that they refer to as “minor literature”: the deter rito -rialisation of language; the politicisation of the individual, the particular, the personal;and the activation of a collective apparatus of enunciation (1975: 33).1They treat FranzKafka as the exemplary man of minor letters. Kafka is born in Prague in 1883. The yearbefore, while taking refuge in Constantinople from the British siege of Alexandria, anineteen-year-old Cavafy will have begun to think of himself as a poet and to write hisfirst verses (Anton 1995: 29). Between the emotionally frail Czechoslovakian Jew who writes in German and the ephebophilic Hellenic Egyptian who writes in a mélange ofancient, Koine and Demotic Greek there is nothing that literary historians would betempted to describe as “influence.” The imagistic repertoires of the two have barely anyoverlap. Kafka, the “existentialist,” has a taste for the absurd, for the grotesque, for bestialmetamorphosis. Cavafy, the “hedonist,” has a taste for irony, for the formulae of the eroticsublime, for corporal perfection. All of this is true enough. Yet it is also of a piece withthat sort of historical particularism which too often serves to conceal structural homolo -gies, and too often does so in the name of preserving a conception of the solitary andunaccountable genius that is as spiritually appealing as it is sociologically and anthro -pologically blind. Structurally, Kafka and Cavafy in fact have much in common. Theycome to write with similar assets and similar liabilities. They strive to enter and claim aplace within a literary arena that has only just begun to reveal the consequences of its increasing detachment from the arenas of value – religious and moral – to which it hadformerly been subordinate. They approach that arena not in the open air but instead onestep removed from the ghetto and still barely peeking from out of the closet. Theyapproach it not in the position of the aspirant who has had the advantage of having beenraised at its center, but instead in the position of the aspirant looking in from its semi- peripheries, its structural provinces – if for precisely that reason with a structurally moresensitive eye than many at the center could themselves manage to exercise.