The Nobel Prize in Literature 1979
Presentation Speech by Doctor Karl Ragnar
Gierow, of the Swedish Academy.
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
When Giorgos Seferis, compatriot of this year's Nobel prizewinner in literature, came here in 1963 to receive the same award, he presented at the airport a bunch of hyacinths each to the then Secretary of the Swedish Academy and to its officiating director that winter as a greeting to their respective wives. He had picked them himself on Hymettus, the mountain a few miles east of Athens where Aphrodite had her miraculous spring and where, ever since antiquity, hyacinths grow wild in a profusion which makes the whole mountain smell of honey.
The episode comes naturally to mind now that we have the pleasure of welcoming Odysseus Elytis, the Greek writer who in his youth made his name with the collection The Concert of Hyacinths, in which he calls to his beloved: "Take with you the light of hyacinths and baptize it in the wellspring of day" and assures her that "when you glitter in the sun that on you glides waterdrops, and deathless hyacinths, and silences, I proclaim you the only reality."
But there is a more immediate reason today to think of the chivalrous gesture in the inhospitable sleet of the airport. The hyacinths Seferis gave us were not at all like those we are accustomed to see. And, freshly picked as they were, they became symbols not only of the climatic difference between the giver's sunny south and our snowy north. If Odysseus Elytis, the author of The Concert of Hyacinths, had wished to use that flower as one of the analogies between environment and perception that are an essential part of his cultural outlook, he could have said that our potplants are a west-European rationalization of something which in his country grows wild, thereby acquiring its everlasting beauty. To this beauty he has devoted most of what he has written, and a recurrent theme is the prevalent west-European misconception of all that goes to make up the distinctive world of ideas whose legitimate heir he is.
He has arrived at his critical view of our all too rationalistic picture of Greece, which he traces back to the Renaissance's ideal of antiquity, by his own familiarity with western Europe's poetry, art and way of thinking. It may seem like a paradox - one which he himself has pointed out-that it was this western Europe, branded by him for its sterile rationalism, which gave Elytis the impulse that all at once set free his own writing: surrealism, which cannot be said to exaggerate reason.
The paradox is, if not apparent, at any rate not entirely unusual. Like a rebellious pulse of exuberant life surrealism broke through the hardened arteries of calcified forms. Outside France too poetry was dominated by a school which called itself "Les Parnassiens" but which never reached even the foot of Parnassus, if we share Elytis's view of what Greece has been and still is. But also on the Greek Parnassus of that time sat the same connoisseurs of degeneration who, in ornate words, declared their pessimistic conviction that nothing in this world was worth anything except their ability to express perfectly this very thought. If such an atmosphere is to be called captivating, surrealism came as a liberation, a religious revival, even if the sign of the saved here and there was a mere speaking with tongues.
But much of the best that happens when an art form is rejuvenated is not the result of a definite program but the fruit of an unforeseen cross. For Greek poetry the contact with surrealism meant a flowering which allows us to call the last fifty years Hellas's second highwater mark. In none of the numerous important poets who have created this age of greatness can we see more clearly than in Elytis what this vigorous cross signified: the exciting meeting between epoch-making modernism and inherited myth.
A cursory presentation of a poet hard to understand should, then, first establish his relationship to these two components - surrealism and myth. The task is not as easy as it looks. We have his own word for it: "I considered surrealism," he says on the one hand, "as the last available oxygen in a dying world, dying, at least, in Europe." On the other hand he states definitely: "I never was a disciple of the surrealist school." Nor was he. Elytis will have nothing to do with its fundamental poetry, the automatic writing with its unchecked torrent of chance associations. His explorations in poetry's means of expression lead him to surrealism's antipodes. Even if its violent display of unproven combinations released his own writing, he is a man of strict form, the master of deliberate creation.
Read his To Axion Estí, by many regarded as his most representative work. With its painstaking composition and stately rhetoric it leaves not one syllable to chance. Or take his love poem Monogram, with its ingenious mathematical basis; it has few counterparts in the literature we know. It comprises seven songs, each with seven lines or multiples of seven in a rising scale 7-2 l-35 up to the middle song's culmination of 49, where the poem turns round and descends the staircase with exactly the same number of lines, 35-21 - down to the final song's 7, the starting point. This is nothing that need worry the poem's readers; it has its beauty without our having to count its steps. But poetry with this structure like an Euclidean linear drawing does not take after surrealism's écriture automatique.
Elytis's relationship to the other component, to Greek myth, also calls for clarification. We are used to seeing Greece's treasure of myths melted down and remoulded to contemporary west-European patterns. We have an Antigone à la Racine, an Antigone à la Anouilh and we shall have more. For Elytis such treatment is odious, a rationalistic pot-cultivation of wildflowers. He himself writes no Antigone à la Breton. He imitates no myths at all and attacks those compatriots who do. In this world of ideas he also has his share of responsibility, though his writing is a repetition not of ancient tales from the Greek past but of the way in which myths are produced.
He sees his Greece with its glorious traditions, its mountains whose peaks with their very names remind us how high the human spirit has attained, and its waters the Aegean Sea, Elytis's home, whose waves for thousands of years have washed ashore the riches that the West has been able to gather in and pride itself on. For him this Greece is still a living, ever-active myth, and he depicts it just as the old mythmakers did, by personifying it and giving it human form. It lends a sensuous nearness to his visions, and the myth that is the creed of his poetry is incarnated by beautiful young people in an enchanting landscape who love life and each other in dazzling sunshine where the waves break on the shore.
We can call this an optimistic idealization and, despite the concreteness, a flight from the present moment and reality. Elytis's very language, ritually solemn, is constantly striving to get away from everyday life with its pettiness. The idealization explains both the rapture and the criticism that his poetry has aroused. Elytis himself has given his view of the matter, point by point. Greek as a language, he says, opposes a pessimistic description of life, and for la poésie maudite it has no expressions. For west- Europeans all mysticism is associated with the darkness and the night, but for the Greeks light is the great mystery and every radiant day its recurrent miracle. The sun, the sea and love are the basic and purifying elements.
Those who maintain that all true poetry must be a reflection of its age and a political act he can refer to his harrowing poem about the second lieutenant who fell in the Albanian war. Elytis, himself a second lieutenant, chanced to be one of the two officers who opened the secret order of general mobilization. He took part at the front in the passionate and hopeless fight against Mussolini's crushing superiority, and his lament over the fallen brother-in-arms, who personifies Greece's never-completed struggle for existence, is committed poetry in a much more literal and harsher sense than that familiar to those who usually clamour for literature's commitment.
Elytis's conclusions from his participation were of a different nature. The poet, he says, does not necessarily have to express his time. He can also heroically defy it. His calling is not to jot down items about our daily life with its social and political situations and private griefs. On the contrary, his only way leads "from what is to what may be". In its essence, therefore, Elytis's poetry is not logically clear as we see it but derives its light from the limpidity of the present moment against a perspective behind it. His myth has its roots by the Aegean Sea, which was his cradle, but the myth is about humanity, drawing its nourishment not from a vanished golden age but from one which can never be realized. It is pointless to call this either optimism or pessimism. For, if I have understood him aright, only our future is worth bearing in mind and the unattainable alone is worth striving for.
Malheureusement, mais sans doute au soulagement de l'auditoire, je ne parle pas votre langue. Pour employer la locution anglaise spécifique à quelque chose d'etrange: "It's Greek to me". Mais votre poésie n'est certainement pas étrangère, portée par la mer, qui est en même temps la mere de la civilisation européenne. Dans cette descendance nous mettons notre gloire, et, par consequent, il faut que je contredise votre diagnostic de notre état deplorable. Ce dont nous sommes atteints, ce n'est pas du tout d'un excès de rationalisme. Au contraire, la maladie de l'Europe occidentale c'est justement que le rationalisme est rationné. Et le peu que nous en détenons encore, ce ne sont pas les devoirs que nous ont donnés à apprendre nos philosophes de la renaissance. La sagesse claire et la logique pure de Platon et d'Aristote, peut-être aussi de Protagoras, de Gorgias et de Socrate lui-même, voilà les racines du rationalisme, dont nous ne voyons aujourd'hui que les épaves pitoyables.
Néanmoins Socrate, quand la raison ne lui donnait pas de gouverne, a écouté la voix de son daimon, et, cher maître, c'est avec une admiration très profonde que nous avons écouté se faire entendre en votre poésie la même voix de mystère, le daimonde votre pays.
J'ai grand plaisir à vous transmettre les felicitations les plus cordiales de l'Académie suédoise et à vous demander de recevoir des mains de Sa Majesté le Roi le Prix Nobel de litérature de cette année.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1979