1. Prophecy. A contemporary and lamentable example.
When the Taliban destroyed the two colossal Buddha statues at Bamiyan in the spring of 2001, one recalled the simultaneous bombings of two American embassies in Africa previously and noted that some extreme Muslim terrorist groups– al-Qaeda, the Taliban– had a penchant for attacking double targets. Perhaps there was a Quranic or Scriptural prototype as the motive: the destruction of the pillars of Iram, or Samson bringing down the Philistine temple of Dagon. He stood between two columns and pushed, at least that’s how Saint Saëns’ gorgeous opera ends: with a bang. Just as likely it was not a theological point but a tactic calculated to cause the maximum of chaos. I wrote a letter about this to the campus newspaper at the college where I then worked, suggesting that there might soon be another attempt to bring down the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and security there should be increased. “We don’t print prophecy,” replied the omniscient student editors smugly. This was not so much prophecy as analysis, one might have retorted, but why bother. Не оспаривай глупца, “Don’t argue with a fool,” Pushkin cautions in his poem Exegi monumentum. I didn’t pursue the point.
A genial retired New Englander named Bob Johnson, may he rest in peace, used to come around fortnightly to clean up and tidy my apartment in a desultory sort of way, for a modest fee. He arrived Tuesdays, around 9 AM. I’m a night owl and the clock radio went on a nine, tuned to the BBC News. Bob and I were friends, and always chatted as I brewed morning coffee. I shared the above frustrating tale with him, and he shook his head. Why don’t they listen? he wondered. It’s a university, I explained. It’s their business to keep their minds closed.
The first bit of this saga is simple analysis of the facts, gentle reader. Anyone who can figure out water runs downhill should have seen a second attack on the Twin Towers as inevitable. Now for the prophetic part. On a Tuesday in late August of that year I woke from a vivid dream of planes falling in Manhattan. I stumbled out of bed to open the front door to Bob. Now I know how they’re going to do it, I told him a little later. But, I added, I don’t know if they will, since they might be afraid of our response. Two weeks to the minute after that, shortly after nine in the morning on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, the doorbell rang, and Bob came in and said laconically, Well, you were right; and they don’t care about our response after all.
2. Ancient prophecies. William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?
Apollo made a pass at Cassandra and she rebuffed him. He decreed that she was to be a prophetess. Cassandra’s prophecies, all of them true, were to be ignored. There’s always a catch like that in Greek mythology. The nymph wanted eternal life for her boy toy Tithonus. She didn’t ask for eternal youth, though; so he got older and older and shrank and became a cicada. The phrase you may have thought was a proverb, “After many summers dies the swan,” is a verse from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem about Tithonus. He reappears in Christopher Isherwood’s perfect little novel A Single Man, about an aged Englishman in Los Angeles. I wonder, did the book inspire Sting to write that song about another elderly homosexual, “An Englishman in New York”?
Cassandra did not survive her last-minute prophecies at Mycenae, the poor dear. Teiresias, the decrepit seer who lived altogether too long, was blind but saw the truth of things more clearly than those whose eyes had sight. That ironic contradiction’s a first in world literature. Aeschylus and Sophocles were tragedians, and the grinding of that machine makes a noise human ears receive as irony. Thebes is at the top of the Attic peninsula and when my train south stopped there just before dusk, the air was pale and clear: I thought, My God, it exists. It’s as bleak as it should be.
Prophecy is by its nature a peculiarly social activity: the prophet’s whole purpose is to warn and admonish the people in whose midst he lives, and he does so on behalf of a divinity. There were many thousands of prophets in ancient Israel, but the only ones we know by name are those whose adjurations were committed to writing and canonized because it was judged that they addressed not only their contemporaries, but also posterity. Theirs is a social literature, these short and long prophetic books, from Obadiah’s tiny squeak to the rolling, stentorian thunder of Jeremiah. What does that mean, social? Isn’t all literature social? If it were not, a writer would not set words down on paper in hope and expectation that they be read by a reader. For all his authorial intention (and yes, of course there is such a thing, pace the English and Comparative Literature departments of American universities), a man’s book is in a way not complete till a reader reads it. It is meant to be read, unlike, say, the case of a tree falling in the wood whose crash nobody hears. The tree’s point is to fall down, not to be heard to do so. At least I think that is the case. It is difficult to discern the intentions of a tree. But the intention of a book is to have somebody open it and read it. And inside the book, the author provides a message he means to convey. Me novelist, you Jane. Authorial intent. Social. Coupling.
Is a literary composition more or less powerful for being political? Are the voluble, politically-engaged Hebrew Prophets weaker, in a literary sense, than, say, the more intimate, erotic Song of Songs? That question about quality is a corollary to the previous one about the social nature of literature. Politics is sociability, just with more folks at the party and somebody taking notes on how they interact. I have two anecdotes about this that qualify as literary history and should be set down somewhere before I kick off and it might as well be here. The first: back in the 1990s Helen Vendler, the dean of American academic poetry critics, published an article in The New Yorker about Allen Ginsberg. She wrote, inter alia, that the more political his poetry was, the worse it got; and that this principle holds for poetry in general. This assertion from Parnassus annoyed my younger self more than it perhaps should have. I did not think then, and still do not, that poetry is a private luxury item to be consumed by wealthy ladies as they set down their fine china cup of weak tea on a lace doily. Vladimir Mayakovsky would have had something to say about that, and his verses for the occasion might include the sound of shattering crockery. On the other hand, George Orwell rightly observed that politics perverts the English language; and poetry is the purest distillation of language, coming asymptotically close to music. Poetry doesn’t get better by being political; but it doesn’t necessarily get worse, either.
If there is such a thing as authorial intent, which there is, and an author is alive, which they sometimes are, then it seems a sound method to read his book, think about it, and then if you have a solid question, write to him and ask him for his opinion about an issue, or his clarification of a fact. I’d already done this with William S. Burroughs, whose work I taught. In his trilogy of novels from the 1980s, there are six nightmarish, post-apocalyptic Cities of the Red Night. Their names are Tamaghis, Ba‘dan, Yaswadda, Waghdas, Naufana, and Ghadis. As it happens, these are the words of a spell, probably in mangled Aramaic, which the medieval Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun says in his Muqaddimah (“Introduction to History”) will induce a desired dream and bring down an angel to interpret it for you afterwards. A sort of do-it-yourself prophecy kit, as it were. I wrote to Burroughs, who was then living happily in retirement in Lawrence, Kansas, asking him whether he’d read the Muqaddimah. He replied that he hadn’t: his friend Brion Gysin, an artist who lived in Morocco and was well versed in Islamic culture, had told him the names many years ago, in Tangier.
In the 1930s Burroughs had attended the college where I was then working. He detested Boston so rootedly (a sentiment one understands and applauds) that I was afraid he might not reply; but I knew he loved cats, so I added in my epistle that I lived with my beloved cat. He added to his response that he had six cats. I also sent him a strange drawing from the Voynich manuscript. He told me that the night after he looked at it, it induced a dream. I still have his letter, corrected choppy typing, crabbed signature, and all. For a million dollars, it can be yours!
Anyhow back to poetry, prophecy, social context, and politics. As it happens, I had a friend, the learned writer and scholar Peter Lamborn Wilson, who lived in the East Village and knew Allen Ginsberg well. I passed on a question for the poet: Do you agree with Professor Vendler’s assessment that your political verse (however she defines that) is inferior to your personal verse (however she defines that, also); and do you agree with her general point about this? The answer came back, and was classic Ginsberg: I agree with you and think she’s wrong on both counts, but it’s still nice to be written about by Helen Vendler in The New Yorker.
Nowadays one would approach the whole matter quite differently. Ginsberg wrote in the prophetic mode, as many poets do; but he seems particularly close in the golden chain of being to the irate and very social, political, and metaphysical prophet William Blake. Blake, an impassioned reader of the Bible, was heir to Jeremiah, Amos, and the other ill-tempered seers of ancient Israel, who were often not just disbelieved but dismembered. They were not so different from the Hellenic prophets, really, except that the latter are remembered in drama, whilst the versified fulminations of the former make up a chunk of the Hebrew Bible, the books of Nevi’im, Prophets. The Bible is good literature, much of it is poetry, and much of that poetry is very political indeed. As to authorial intentionality, let’s just say that religious people consider the Bible’s, ah, Author to have expressed His intention in His Book. I should not bother to discuss any of this with an academic, if I were you. Blake in the comparatively enlightened days of the late Eighteenth Century called Oxford and Cambridge “dark satanic mills”; were one to mine a metaphor for the American universities now, the smoke-and-flame-belching chimneys of Auschwitz-Birkenau would work. Best to avoid them altogether.
3. A more enigmatic prophecy, of my own.
I have started to look back over the backward and abysm of my days on earth, tie up the loose ends, that sort of thing: one has the sense that this is a good time. Gentle reader, I will share with you now a prophecy from the days of my youth. Perhaps it encrypts what are yet to be current events. But if so, then God help us.
The prophecy emerged darkly towards the end of a sunlit, halcyon summer. During the long vacation of 1975 my parents came from our home in New York to visit quaint Oxford, where I was then studying, and we spent a pleasant holiday. They liked the country pubs, dreaming spires, and my witty, hobbit-like English friends with their endearing accents. Dad rented a car and we motored through Wales, a green and mystical country. They speak a Celtic language there, much gentler and more musical than Scottish Gaelic. Conversation in it, like distant singing, hushed whenever a foreigner came close. I like the furtive, secretive character of the Welsh: it seems that they, too, understand that the world is a very dangerous and hostile place that is best kept at a safe distance. We crossed the river border from England and spent a few days wandering around the bookshops of Hay on Wye, then carried on to Barmouth, which after all these years lingers in memory as the most beautiful and restful of seaside towns. Our itinerary turned north, to Caernarvon and its castle, and then back over to England and the lakes district.
On a walk around Barmouth, Dad recommended to me Ward Moore’s counterfactual historical novel, Bring the Jubilee, which is about much more than its main story line, in which the Confederacy has won the Civil War and the American dream lies dead. Counterfactual themes are the sci-fi writer’s way into historical commentary; and there is something of prophecy in the very nature of science fiction, with its predictions of future technologies. It’s naked imaginative writing. Americans, a practical people, could never bear very much imagination. Poe died drunk in the gutter, Melville languished unread for a century, it took the French to make Lovecraft respectable (and now, thanks to political correctness, he’s verboten again in this unhappy land), and Philip K. Dick barely made a living. Sci-fi is the leper colony of literature here in the country Henry Miller, a voluntary exile, bitterly called the Air-Conditioned Nightmare. I did not appreciate Moore’s book then; but now it is a favorite. Moore was a lonely, dissident Jew who made his way to California and wrote that one masterpiece, though he published some other books. Go figure. Anyhow, nobody reads him now.
A few days after Mom and Dad returned to NYC, I crossed the Channel and took the long train journey across Europe and down to Thessaloniki for the IMKha (Ιδρυμα Μελετων Χερσονησου του Αιμου) summer program in Modern Greek. Let me explain. My maternal Grandmother was born in that port city, then called Salonica, in 1900. Northern Greece had been part of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries and was to remain so for another decade. Muslim Turkey had welcomed my Sephardic Jewish ancestors when Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled us. The Jews had been in Spain since Roman times, and being uprooted from that home was as traumatic as the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem had been, fourteen centuries earlier. Many Jews converted to Catholicism in order to remain, and some practiced their genuine faith in secret. The Inquisition was determined to capture these insincere proselytes: that’s where the auto-da-fé and Poe’s story “The Pit and the Pendulum” come in.
My clan preferred exile to apostasy, and took our faith and heritage, the Spanish language, some manuscripts, and our house keys across the Mediterranean, to Hellas. Many Christian Greeks found the τουρκοκρατια– Turkish rule– more onerous and oppressive than we did, but Greece is one of those countries one must love so much that it brings one to tears. I don’t know if our sojourn in Salonica was as good as the one in Spain. Jews experience nostalgia for one place of exile after another: a sort of emotional equivalent of those Russian souvenir matryoshka dolls, where you open one plump wooden peasant lady only to find another. Salonica, too, was to end for us: the Germans, with assistance as everywhere from local collaborators, murdered more of the Thessalonian Jews than in any other martyred community of Europe. Given German efficiency, that’s saying something.
When I was little, Salonica was the sweet vision interrupted when history, that tradesman from Porlock, crashed through the door and sprayed the poet with machine-gun fire, and Kubla Khan was never written. Grandma sang me the Greek lullaby “Samiotissa”. Once we got a box of Greek loukoumi, and I gaped at the image of the Parthenon with religious awe. A friend gave Mom and Dad a phonograph record of the songs of Mikis Theodorakis: Tes agapes haimata, “The bloody wounds of love”. Strose to stroma sou gia dyo, “Make up your bed for two”. Tes dikaiosynes helie noete, “The Sun of justice”. To gelasto paidi, “The Laughing Boy”. Nobody around me spoke so openly, with such naked feeling, and the sound of the ancient, beautiful words was nothing like any song anywhere else. The record was for me a private, passionate, intellectual and spiritual Beatlemania. https://youtu.be/23VZDS36c7k
Very late one night in 1972 Dad came home from work. He was a corporate lawyer then and had an inhuman load of work. I was still up in bed reading Kurt Vonnegut’s book, “Cat’s Cradle”, a classic which is, incidentally, sci-fi and darkly prophetic. (I have written about it elsewhere in this Chronicle, in a meditation on islands.) Why don’t you study Greek this summer? Dad suggested. So I took Attic Greek (not the cramped space under the roof, but the Classical dialect of fifth-century Athens). My teacher was Professor Peter Smith, one of the best teachers who ever lived. He wore round glasses, and was reserved and thoughtful. Altogether he reminded me of an owl. I like owls. The Athenian drachma, with the little owl of Athena perched under an olive sprig, is the most attractive coin ever minted. We worked extremely hard; but one day Professor Smith declared a ten-minute break from the aorist passive optative or whatever hellish verb form it was, and extracted from his briefcase an enormous volume with the very large title on the spine, GREEK OARED SHIPS, printed on the spine. “This is a book about Greek Oared Ships,” our teacher explained owlishly.
It was a good summer. When my parents were away at the seashore and I was alone in the city, I sometimes ate at a popular, inexpensive Greek restaurant inside the block on 113th Street off Broadway, the Symposium. They made very good moussaka, toothsome baklava, and perfect Greek coffee. I liked the name of the place, too, since in freshman year we had read Plato’s Symposium, and though my classmates cringed in disgust, I was secretly overawed to read a book in which homosexuals were not criminals to be entrapped by the cops or sick perverts to be pitied, but the best and the brightest of Periclean Athens.
But back to 1975. The students of the IMKhA program lived on the university campus, which had been built after the war intentionally over the desecrated and vandalized Jewish cemetery, one of the largest and oldest in Europe. Many generations of my ancestors were buried there. It was an unhappy place to live. Fascist rule had been gone only a year and the sinister party Nea Taxis (“New Order”! Really!) was active. Obliteration of the centuries of Jewish and Islamic heritage in northern Greece had been part of a chauvinistic policy of “Hellenization”, more Balkan than humanistic, that would have depressed every diner at the Symposium of Socrates as a descent into barbarism. The Nazi wartime Gauleiter of Thessaloniki spent his summer holiday in the city the year I was there, as he did every year. IMKhA smelt unpleasantly of this seedy Balkanization.
What we didn’t know then! How Yugoslavia, just to the north, was to shatter, with the horrors of the Second World War replayed at Srebrenica and Sarajevo, how the Euro was to plunge Greece into penury. Nowadays the fascist party in Greece is Khryse Avghe, the Golden Dawn. William Butler Yeats, who was a mage of the occult order of the Golden Dawn in Edwardian London, would retch. But none of that is Hellenism, the golden chain that goes through Melina Mercouri and Yiannis Ritsos back to Cavafy (standing, as E.M. Forster said, at a slight angle to the universe), to Digenes Akrites and Romanos, to John on Patmos, and somewhere farther on, where I hope to go, there is Aristophanes telling whimsical, cosmogonic tales about the invention of love. At a certain moment in the evening the drunken, radiant, beautiful Alkibiades will burst in. Farther, onwards, and here is my friend Odysseus and the most wonderful of all companions, Athena, and her little owl perched on an olive branch with its head at a quizzical tilt. It is a hot day on Mt. Lycabettus and the honeybees are buzzing. In the distance the waves pay, the wind whistles, the mast bends and creaks. Melissa is bee. Thalassa is sea!
At the end of the IMKhA course I took the train south to Athens, and shared a cheap room with an Armenian and a Lebanese Arab whom I met in the ticket line. They had together escaped the Lebanese civil war and were hoping to get to Los Angeles. I hope they made it. The hotel, in the seedy district off Omonia square, did double duty as a house of ill repute. Despite this economy, I still did not have enough money left in my frugal budget for meals: I had injudiciously spent precious drachmas on Hebrew prayer books salvaged from the Holocaust. They had Judeo-Greek inscriptions. I also took the ferry to the nearby island of Aegina and stayed in the little fishing village of Perdika, where I had been the previous spring. Food was less important.
The Athenian brothel-hotel was in the spice market (μπαχαρικα) and the trucks unloaded in the small hours. It was very hot. I didn’t sleep much. I stood at the window and I swear this: I saw people down below stop work unloading bags of spices, form a circle, and then dance to a tune on the radio. Kharis Alexiou’s Dimitroula mou was the big hit just then. https://youtu.be/ORsSpW7yLic
They drank and the glasses shattered in the gutter. Do you really think Zorba is fiction? (Fiction is not fiction, it is λογοτεχνια, the technology of the Logos! That is the Greek word for literature.) https://youtu.be/BS0w3Wkric8 Do you think Melina Mercouri in “Never on Sunday” was just an actress? When the Colonels took over in the Spring of 1967 and disfigured the islands with prison camps, she fled to France and the junta took away her citizenship. “I am Greek. I will always be Greek. Pattakos is a fascist (she said “fassist”, since Greek has no “sh” sound, as Herodotus observed long before). He will always be a fascist.”
When freedom came, and Theodorakis was released, democracy celebrated her victory (ελευθερια, “freedom”, is feminine, think of the Statue of Liberty) with a performance of his “Mauthausen” in a stadium. It is an oratorio about a concentration camp. That is where nearly all the Greek Jews, my mother’s community, vanished. Grandma could name fifty from our family. Some of us had been there since before Alexander; and in Alexandria others of us produced the Septuagint. And Philo. The teacher and prophet Jesus Christ, is there not something of the Athenian philosopher in that rabbi. And then there were us wandering Spaniards, like ghosts out of the nested tales of Jan Potocki’s The Saragossa Manuscript. Those Russian dolls again. A story within a story within a story: has anybody written about this? Stay tuned.
After World War II, the British and Americans tried to install the king in Athens, with his retinue of collaborators and thugs. The few Jews saved in German-occupied territory had been spirited into the mountains by the Communist resistance. The same Communists, EAM-ELAS, fought back yet again after the war, not knowing that Stalin had already written Greece off. But my Dad and a college friend, a Greek American, helped smuggle arms for the Reds onto tramp steamers at Port Elizabeth, NJ, in the dark of night. BLM and Antifa beware! The victims of Nazism may be ghosts but we are armed. Eleftheria i Thanatos– Freedom or Death! https://youtu.be/vOq-fthhewA
In Athens I hung out with a Jewish boy from the north of England who had also been on the IMKhA course. Mickey was short on cash and hungry, too, and when George Pappas, a friendly Greek American from New Jersey, invited us two bony stray cats to dinner we did not so much eat as inhale the rabbit stifado stew at the taverna. I sucked the marrow from every tiny bone. May the Easter bunnies forgive me. Mickey and I later nursed frugal iced coffees on Syntagmatos till the café closed around 3 A.M. and they politely threw us out. I would like to be able to tell you we met the revelers with their torches weaving their drunken way home from Plato’s Symposium.
Instead Mickey and I wandered aimlessly around downtown Athens and told each other about our dreams. His was this: “I met a very large bird who said to me, ‘You can get quite a nice half cup of tea over there.'” We climbed the Acropolis at dawn. Then I crawled back to my whorehouse to sleep till mid-morning. One wishes one could add the sheets were soiled. They were not. They were quite clean. Harmodios and Aristogeiton laughed at me. So did Alkibiades. All of Mary Renault’s beautiful Hellenes tossed their shaggy heads and sauntered away. I was a virgin. Life can be a misery. Prophets are often brokenhearted.
And now comes the prophecy you’ve been waiting for.
In the village of Perdika on the island of Aegina a prophetic dream came to me and upon waking I inscribed it in microscopic script on one of the note cards I’d brought, good little me, for work on my Oxford thesis on a medieval Armenian poet, Hovhannes of Tilkuran, which Michael Stone was later to publish as a book in the University of Pennsylvania Armenian series. This evening– it’s June 14th, 2021, my friend Leon Wieseltier’s birthday– I thought I had better transcribe what is on the card. My eyes are not as keen now as they were nearly half a century ago. But the technology of today enabled one to scan the text large, print it, and then type it out. I’ve not shared it before: for nearly half a century it has lain undisturbed, but now it slouches towards Bethlehem.
Azhdahak, which is the title of the dream-prose-poem, is the Middle Iranian form of the name of a monstrous mythical tyrant of the Zoroastrian sacred scripture, the Avesta. Two snakes grew from his shoulders, and these had to be fed with the brains of young people. As Iran’s population began to vanish into the insatiable maws of the serpents, a blacksmith named Kaveh rose in revolt. Azhdahak— Zahhak, in modern Persian— was captured and crucified in a cave in Damavand mountain by the hero Faridun. The monster bides his time in confinement but is to burst forth at the end of time for the eschatological war between the forces of good and evil. The Armenians, many of whom were Zoroastrian before their conversion to Christianity, applied the imagery of the myth to the epic of a royal house, that of the Artaxiads, from the second and first centuries BC. There, king Artavazd assumes some of Azhdahak’s role and his place of confinement till the apocalypse is the Biblical mount Ararat. All of this, together with musings on one’s future career in scholarship, probably got mixed together in one’s subconscious, where the busy creative artist added plenty of his own. I fear the film “The Exorcist”, which had been released two years earlier, also contributed to the scenery and sound. Read the books one has recommended by all means; but I would warn you in the strongest possible terms against watching that film. I believe the powers of darkness are very strong and genuine in it, and it can cause devastating spiritual harm. At least it disturbed me greatly.
The dream is prophetic. Once one decodes it, it may reveal in metaphor an alarming truth about where the world is headed now. But that’s for you to decide. I have not deciphered it or performed a surgical exegesis, and to me it is still just a rather nice bit of prose from back when one was very young, an old heirloom of one’s Lovecraft-obsessed soul. I am starting to understand how old age is the second childhood. You see good as good and evil as evil, and imagination is so much stronger than the quotidian. You are very close to the world of physical nonbeing, though at the other end. Your parents and your home mean everything to you once more. And you see the various institutions where you’ve done time for what they are: obstacles and prisons. You care less and less about what the wardens think.
In my train travels across Europe to Greece, twice in 1975, when there were frontiers and Communism and things, but no pandemics, the book I had taken with me as a companion on the odyssey was the collected verses of the modern Greek poet George Seferis. I have that very book open on my lap, with a little note neatly inscribed in Greek recording the place and time one transcribed the dream vision that is “Azhdahak”. There is a crumpled broadsheet of poems stuck in the book, from an outdoor stadium concert Mikis Theodorakis conducted of Neruda’s Canto General. I did not like either Neruda or the music the poems were set to, which was a disappointment: sometimes too much politics damages art. But I quite liked the tawny-haired, lithe Macedonian boy who was selling the printed sheets in the stands. Το γελαστο παιδι, “The laughing boy”: it is not just Theodorakis’ song, it is a canticle of love, and the love is for Greece, too. This takes us into Cavafy country. In those days loneliness and longing hurt much more than a wound. The blood of the wounds of love, της αγαπης αιματα: https://youtu.be/_lQ42qltdUU
When the junta fell, in August 1974, I heard of it on a transistor radio on Columbus Circle. I began crying and yelling and jumped into the fountain, then called Mom from a pay phone.
There were no cell phones in 1974. There were phone booths with metal counters and directories underneath. Salonica, Greece, Grandma, Mom is now unable to speak anymore or feed herself or move, so it’s got to be me left to remember, and to remember to turn the lights out, then go join them when the good Lord says it’s time. I believed then in E.M. Forster’s brave assurance that this silence cannot last forever, that the Sirens will sing again. Spring will come. We will open the windows wide to the Sun. But just as the dark vision of apocalypse came to John on the sunlit isle Patmos, I must tell what came to me, the exile of exiles of exiles of exiles, on another Aegean island.
(Anixte ta parathyra, “Open the windows”, which I painted for my mother on Feb. 20, 1977, in London)
Αληθεια, τα συντριμμια
δεν ειναι εκεινα, εσυ ‘σαι το ρημαδι
σε κυνηγουν με μια παραξενη παρθενια
στο σπιτι στο γραφειο στις δεξιωσεις
των μεγιστανων, στον ανομολογητο φοβο του υπνου
The truth is that those aren’t the fragments You’re the ancient ruin
They hunt you with a strange virginity
At home in the office at receptions
For important people, in the unconfessed terror of sleep
γιατι θα φευγουν τα πευκα και τα καθρεφτισμενα βουνα και το τιτιβισμα των πουλιων θ’ αδειασει η θαλασσα, θρυμματισμενο γυαλι, απο βορια και νοτο
θ’ αδειασουν τα ματια σου απ’ το φως της μερας
πως σταματουν ξαφνικα κι’ ολα μαζι τα τζιτζικια
Because the pine trees will flee, and the mountains in the mirror and the twittering of birds. The sea will be emptied, shattered glass from north to south
Your eyes will empty of the light of day
As suddenly, and all together, the cicadas stop
And that is all.
And here is the prophecy:
In the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, the philological profession underwent profound, though little-noticed reforms among certain of its members. Wisdom was recognized as a power, and knowledge of ancient traditions was called into the battle to relieve the souls of men in the profound troubles that beset them. At that time, walls were vexed with shadows. People grew small in rooms with their cosmic sadnesses.
In my fortieth year, I was drawing a meagre salary as assistant professor of an Oriental language at Columbia. On a night in late summer I had been working in the dark recesses of the Columbia Library’s Oriental Annexe in 103rd Street. A colleague had come to speak about a book I was writing on the Dragon. He was on a short visit from England. My research had been consuming months, and I had had to postpone my plans of travelling into the Greek hill country. This was not a misfortune; I could barely afford it in any case. We talked about the Dragon a long time. Then I felt that the lights downstairs had gone out. Perhaps my friend felt it too, for he stopped speaking suddenly, conscious of a sentient, heavy breath in the deserted building. I scooped my notes and books into a sack and motioned to him to run. It was almost too dark to see, but I cautioned him away from the lift, and we escaped somehow down the stairs, which gnashed, yawned, multiplied and shifted beneath our feet. As we fled through the antechamber, a gash ripped through his forearm, but in a moment we were on the streets under the lamps, alive.
Inside the houses, lights flickered, and hollow rooms exhaled the voices of the sick: cacchinations over a dull, feral howl. In the first days of autumn, I would take the IRT after the Modern Prose Writers class to the printer to supervise the typesetting. In mid-November, Anatomy of the Dragon was published. Its reception in the academic world was characteristic of the time: “The skeleton is his own imagination, even though the flesh is philologically attested and demonstrated.” And from the other side: “Now the structure of the beast is revealed, and the javelin will find its sticking place there.”
Now I am fifty. There were dreams of encountering the Dragon in a flamelit hall and destroying it. In the dreams, I heard battle-cries and professions of faith in many languages. And in the morning I would awake to the same clay landscape of low, animal roars and wild laughter. Perhaps the dawning Supremacy of the Dragon can yet be prevented. Ten years ago, that night, perhaps it was only the phantasy of overworked minds, a power failure, and a protruding bit of jagged metal in the lobby.
I do not understand where outside my own mind the truth of the meaning of things must lie. But in the prevailing gloom, such speculation is considered superfluous. The truth, they insist, is in the snakes, the snakes that grow out of one’s shoulders and the snakes, pale white, that entwine themselves around the legs of one’s bed and slither up, and the snakes that arch suddenly on a tile floor. These people who live entirely in the present have altogether lost the capacity to see what is going on.