Odysseus Elytis

Nobel Lecture



Nobel Lecture, December 8, 1979


May I be permitted, I ask you, to speak in the name of luminosity and transparency. The space I have lived in and where I have been able to fulfill myself is defined by these two states. States that I have also perceived as being identified in me with the need to express myself.

It is good, it is right that a contribution be made to art, from that which is assigned to each individual by his personal experience and the virtues of his language. Even more so, since the times are dismal and we should have the widest possible view of things.

I am not speaking of the common and natural capacity of perceiving objects in all their detail, but of the power of the metaphor to only retain their essence, and to bring them to such a state of purity that their metaphysical significance appears like a revelation.

I am thinking here of the manner in which the sculptors of the Cycladic period used their material, to the point of carrying it beyond itself. I am also thinking of the Byzantine icon painters, who succeeded, only by using pure color, to suggest the “divine”.

It is just such an intervention in the real, both penetrating and metamorphosing, which has always been, it seems to me, the lofty vocation of poetry. Not limiting itself to what is, but stretching itself to what can be. It is true that this step has not always been received with respect. Perhaps the collective neuroses did not permit it. Or perhaps because utilitarianism did not authorize men to keep their eyes open as much as was necessary.

Beauty, Light, it happens that people regard them as obsolete, as insignificant. And yet! The inner step required by the approach of the Angel’s form is, in my opinion, infinitely more painful than the other, which gives birth to Demons of all kinds.

Certainly, there is an enigma. Certainly, there is a mystery. But the mystery is not a stage piece turning to account the play of light and shadow only to impress us.

It is what continues to be a mystery, even in bright light. It is only then that it acquires that refulgence that captivates and which we call Beauty. Beauty that is an open path – the only one perhaps – towards that unknown part of ourselves, towards that which surpasses us. There, this could be yet another definition of poetry: the art of approaching that which surpasses us.

Innumerable secret signs, with which the universe is studded and which constitute so many syllables of an unknown language, urge us to compose words, and with words, phrases whose deciphering puts us at the threshold of the deepest truth.

In the final analysis, where is truth? In the erosion and death we see around us, or in this propensity to believe that the world is indestructible and eternal? I know, it is wise to avoid redundancies. The cosmogonic theories that have succeeded each other through the years have not missed using and abusing them. They have clashed among themselves, they have had their moment of glory, then they have been erased.

But the essential has remained. It remains.

The poetry that raises itself when rationalism has laid down its arms, takes its relieving troops to advance into the forbidden zone, thus proving that it is still the less consumed by erosion. It assures, in the purity of its form, the safeguard of those given facts through which life becomes a viable task. Without it and its vigilance, these given facts would be lost in the obscurity of consciousness, just as algae become indistinct in the ocean depths.

That is why we have a great need of transparency. To clearly perceive the knots of this thread running throughout the centuries and aiding us to remain upright on this earth.

These knots, these ties, we see them distinctly, from Heraclitus to Plato and from Plato to Jesus. Having reached us in various forms they tell us the same thing: that it is in the inside of this world that the other world is contained, that it is with the elements of this world that the other world is recombined, the hereafter, that second reality situated above the one where we live unnaturally. It is a question of a reality to which we have a total right, and only our incapacity makes us unworthy of it.

It is not a coincidence that in healthy times, Beauty is identified with Good, and Good with the Sun. To the extent that consciousness purifies itself and is filled with light, its dark portions retract and disappear, leaving empty spaces – just as in the laws of physics – are filled by the elements of the opposite import. Thus what results of this rests on the two aspects, I mean the “here” and the “hereafter”. Did not Heraclitus speak of a harmony of opposed tensions?

It is of no importance whether it is Apollo or Venus, Christ or the Virgin who incarnate and personalize the need we have to see materialized what we experience as an intuition. What is important is the breath of immortality that penetrates us at that moment. In my humble opinion, Poetry should, beyond all doctrinal argumentation, permit this breath.

Here I must refer to Hölderlin, that great poet who looked at the gods of Olympus and Christ in the same manner. The stability he gave a kind of vision continues to be inestimable. And the extent of what he has revealed for us is immense. I would even say it is terrifying. It is what incites us to cry out – at a time when the pain now submerging us was just beginning – : “What good are poets in a time of poverty”. Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?

For mankind, times were always dürftig, unfortunately. But poetry has never, on the other hand, missed its vocation. These are two facts that will never cease to accompany our earthly destiny, the first serving as the counter-weight to the other. How could it be otherwise? It is through the Sun that the night and the stars are perceptible to us. Yet let us note, with the ancient sage, that if it passes its bounds the Sun becomes “Text in Greek“. For life to be possible, we have to keep a correct distance to the allegorical Sun, just as our planet does from the natural Sun. We formerly erred through ignorance. We go wrong today through the extent of our knowledge. In saying this I do not wish to join the long list of censors of our technological civilization. Wisdom as old as the country from which I come has taught me to accept evolution, to digest progress “with its bark and its pits”.

But then, what becomes of Poetry? What does it represent in such a society? This is what I reply: poetry is the only place where the power of numbers proves to be nothing. Your decision this year to honor, in my person, the poetry of a small country, reveals the relationship of harmony linking it to the concept of gratuitous art, the only concept that opposes nowadays the all-powerful position acquired by the quantitative esteem of values.

Referring to personal circumstances would be a breach of good manners. Praising my home, still more unsuitable. Nevertheless it is sometimes indispensable, to the extent that such interferences assist in seeing a certain state of things more clearly. This is the case today.

Dear friends, it has been granted to me to write in a language that is spoken only by a few million people. But a language spoken without interruption, with very few differences, throughout more than two thousand five hundred years. This apparently surprising spatial-temporal distance is found in the cultural dimensions of my country. Its spatial area is one of the smallest; but its temporal extension is infinite. If I remind you of this, it is certainly not to derive some kind of pride from it, but to show the difficulties a poet faces when he must make use, to name the things dearest to him, of the same words as did Sappho, for example, or Pindar, while being deprived of the audience they had and which then extended to all of human civilization.

If language were not such a simple means of communication there would not be any problem. But it happens, at times, that it is also an instrument of “magic”. In addition, in the course of centuries, language acquires a certain way of being. It becomes a lofty speech. And this way of being entails obligations.

Let us not forget either that in each of these twenty-five centuries and without any interruption, poetry has been written in Greek. It is this collection of given facts which makes the great weight of tradition that this instrument lifts. Modern Greek poetry gives an expressive image of this.

The sphere formed by this poetry shows, one could say, two poles: at one of these poles is Dionysios Solomos, who, before Mallarmé appeared in European literature, managed to formulate, with the greatest rigor and coherency, the concept of pure poetry: to submit sentiment to intelligence, ennoble expression, mobilize all the possibilities of the linguistic instrument by orienting oneself to the miracle. At the other pole is Cavafy, who like T. S. Eliot reaches, by eliminating all form of turgidity, the extreme limit of concision and the most rigorously exact expression.

Between these two poles, and more or less close to one or the other, our other great poets move: Kostis Palamas, Angelos Sikelianos, Nikos Kazantzakis, George Seferis.

Such is, rapidly and schematically drawn, the picture of neo-Hellenic poetic discourse.

We who have followed have had to take over the lofty precept which has been bequeathed to us and adapt it to contemporary sensibility. Beyond the limits of technique, we have had to reach a synthesis, which, on the one hand, assimilated the elements of Greek tradition and, on the other, the social and psychological requirements of our time.

In other words, we had to grasp today’s European-Greek in all its truth and turn that truth to account. I do not speak of successes, I speak of intentions, efforts. Orientations have their significance in the investigation of literary history.

But how can creation develop freely in these directions when the conditions of life, in our time, annihilate the creator? And how can a cultural community be created when the diversity of languages raises an unsurpassable obstacle? We know you and you know us through the 20 or 30 per cent that remains of a work after translation. This holds even more true for all those of us who, prolonging the furrow traced by Solomos, expect a miracle from discourse and that a spark flies from between two words with the right sound and in the right position.

No. We remain mute, incommunicable.

We are suffering from the absence of a common language. And the consequences of this absence can be seen – I do not believe I am exaggerating – even in the political and social reality of our common homeland, Europe.

We say – and make the observation each day – that we live in a moral chaos. And this at a moment when – as never before – the allocation of that which concerns our material existence is done in the most systematic manner, in an almost military order, with implacable controls. This contradiction is significant. Of two parts of the body, when one is hypertrophic, the other atrophies. A praise-worthy tendency, encouraging the peoples of Europe to unite, is confronted today with the impossibility of harmonization of the atrophied and hypertrophic parts of our civilization. Our values do not constitute a common language.

For the poet – this may appear paradoxical but it is true – the only common language he still can use is his sensations. The manner in which two bodies are attracted to each other and unite has not changed for millennia. In addition, it has not given rise to any conflict, contrary to the scores of ideologies that have bloodied our societies and have left us with empty hands.

When I speak of sensations, I do not mean those, immediately perceptible, on the first or second level. I mean those which carry us to the extreme edge of ourselves. I also mean the “analogies of sensations” that are formed in our spirits.

For all art speaks through analogy. A line, straight or curved, a sound, sharp or low-pitched, translate a certain optical or acoustic contact. We all write good or bad poems to the extent that we live or reason according to the good or bad meaning of the term. An image of the sea, as we find it in Homer, comes to us intact. Rimbaud will say “a sea mixed with sun”. Except he will add: “that is eternity.” A young girl holding a myrtle branch in Archilochus survives in a painting by Matisse. And thus the Mediterranean idea of purity is made more tangible to us. In any case, is the image of a virgin in Byzantine iconography so different from that of her secular sisters? Very little is needed for the light of this world to be transformed into supernatural clarity, and inversely. One sensation inherited from the Ancients and another bequeathed by the Middle Ages give birth to a third, one that resembles them both, as a child does its parents. Can poetry survive such a path? Can sensations, at the end of this incessant purification process, reach a state of sanctity? They will return then, as analogies, to graft themselves on the material world and to act on it.

It is not enough to put our dreams into verse. It is too little. It is not enough to politicize our speech. It is too much. The material world is really only an accumulation of materials. It is for us to show ourselves to be good or bad architects, to build Paradise or Hell. This is what poetry never ceases affirming to us – and particularly in these dürftiger times – just this: that in spite of everything our destiny lies in our hands.

I have often tried to speak of solar metaphysics. I will not try today to analyse how art is implicated in such a conception. I will keep to one single and simple fact: the language of the Greeks, like a magic instrument, has – as a reality or a symbol – intimate relations with the Sun. And that Sun does not only inspire a certain attitude of life, and hence the primeval sense to the poem. It penetrates the composition, the structure, and – to use a current terminology – the nucleus from which is composed the cell we call the poem.

It would be a mistake to believe that it is a question of a return to the notion of pure form. The sense of form, as the West has bequeathed it to us, is a constant attainment, represented by three or four models. Three or four moulds, one could say, where it was suitable to pour the most anomalous material at any price. Today that is no longer conceivable. I was one of the first in Greece to break those ties.

What interested me, obscurely at the beginning, then more and more consciously, was the edification of that material according to an architectural model that varied each time. To understand this there is no need to refer to the wisdom of the Ancients who conceived the Parthenons. It is enough to evoke the humble builders of our houses and of our chapels in the Cyclades, finding on each occasion the best solution. Their solutions. Practical and beautiful at the same time, so that in seeing them Le Corbusier could only admire and bow.

Perhaps it is this instinct that woke in me when, for the first time, I had to face a great composition like “Axion Esti.” I understood then that without giving the work the proportions and perspective of an edifice, it would never reach the solidity I wished.

I followed the example of Pindar or of the Byzantine Romanos Melodos who, in each of their odes or canticles, invented a new mode for each occasion. I saw that the determined repetition, at intervals, of certain elements of versification effectively gave to my work that multifaceted and symmetrical substance which was my plan.

But then is it not true that the poem, thus surrounded by elements that gravitate around it, is transformed into a little Sun? This perfect correspondence, which I thus find obtained with the intended contents, is, I believe, the poet’s most lofty ideal.

To hold the Sun in one’s hands without being burned, to transmit it like a torch to those following, is a painful act but, I believe, a blessed one. We have need of it. One day the dogmas that hold men in chains will be dissolved before a consciousness so inundated with light that it will be one with the Sun, and it will arrive on those ideal shores of human dignity and liberty.

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

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