Clearing the Ground is an exhumation and exquisite, sometimes excruciating examination of autoeroticism in poetry, in this instance the spartan oeuvre of C.P. Cavafy.
Or it can be considered an opening of old wounds with an eye to removing the shards sealed in them and exposing their facets to new light.
There is still use for the biblical term for autoeroticism: onanism. Onan (meaning strong) is a minor biblical person in the Book of Genesis chapter 38, who was the second son of Judah. Like his older brother Er, Onan was slain by God. Onan’s death was retribution for being “evil in the sight of the Lord” through being unwilling to father a
child by his widowed sister-in- law. Instead, he “spilled his seed” on the ground: coitus interruptus.
Poetry carries in its nature a current of autoeroticism that animates the cyclotron of imagination in the manner of Ibn al Arabi’s premise that what we can imagine we can summon into being, a frightening metaphysical idea that challenges conventional notions of morality.
The question, aside from the issue of our responsibility, is how our imaginings come to be, on what plane, and that question confronts our notions—that’s all they really are—of reality, something quantum physics is now engaged in doing on a grand scale.
Cavafy has been both controversial and celebrated for his explicit homosexuality. Much has been written about his homosexuality and how society’s response to it shaped his poetry. Much has been made of the sense of shame that some critics have detected in him. Martin McKinsey, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, has combed through the received ideas to arrive at the insight that it is onanism, or autoeroticism, if you will, that lies at the heart of Cavafy’s sensibility, and that if shame is to be posited it lies not in having experienced the lucid homoerotic encounters of the poems but rather in having imagined them.
If this is so, McKinsey writes, then Cavafy was free—or freed himself—to say much more about them than he might have said had they actually taken place. The light Cavafy sheds is the illumination of his imagination, stricken with remorse and longing, rather than the more limited beams of memory.
Here is a breakthrough in Cavafy scholarship, perhaps even explaining his austere and scant oeuvre. But it’s much more than that, because McKinsey isn’t just clearing the ground for a new dispensation with regard to Cavafy, he’s clearing the ground for a new and freer discourse about the role of onanism in literature.
Let me depart here from book review conventions in an attempt to show how breathtaking the path McKinsey is opening can be, and how daunting. Imagine this scenario in, say, a novel in progress. An aging sailor, a man decorated in his time for bravery and resourcefulness in combat, comes upon two thugs attacking a woman
in an alley outside a pub. He hears her stifled cry. He hears the men taunting her as they tear her clothes. He intervenes and subdues them.
That’s romance novel material. No insights there. But now listen to what happens. The man is slightly injured when one of the thugs draws a knife. The police take the man to an infirmary. They get his account of what happened, and the woman’s. What she doesn’t tell the police and dares not tell her rescuer either, not yet, is that she experienced sexual electricity when the stranger beats the thugs down. The cops don’t have to know this. Neither does her rescuer. But she feels a growing need to tell him. She handles this badly, or brilliantly, depending on how you look at it. She lingers at the infirmary. I’d like to show you my gratitude, she tells the man. Her body language makes it clear she is offering sex.
Oh, come on, where’s Cavafy in all this? Where’s McKinsey’s thesis? Hold on.
The sailor, actually a merchant ship’s captain now, eyes her coolly.
You don’t owe me a damned thing. I just happened to be there. I don’t do sex. I never did it well. Some people call it post-traumatic stress. I wouldn’t want to disappoint you, or myself. Take care of yourself. He turns to leave.
I don’t either, she calls after him. I mean I do, but I only pretend. I really don’t like to be touched. You know, to be invaded. I prefer to touch myself.
He swings around and stares, almost in gratitude. Why wouldn’t you? he says. Why wouldn’t a goddess prefer her own touch? It’s a sacred rite, and it’s your absolute right.
You’re not mocking me, are you?
I never mock anybody, lady.
Well, I won’t tell you what happens. I don’t know yet. I’m thinking about it, and we should all be thinking about “it,” about onanism, autoeroticism and the role it very likely plays in literature with which we would never associate it. It is an act of the imagination. It is a conjuring. It is an example of Ibn al Arabi’s creative imagination at play, and most of us figure in it one way or another, as subject, object, collaborator, voyeur, worshipper, idolator, or companion. We
are each other’s imaginings. Certain moralists would have us believe these thoughts are soilure, but there’s no reason they should not be splendor. It’s all in their demeanor. It’s perhaps as simple as the difference between the woman who takes offense at a man’s gaze and the woman who smiles back.
Stripped of its silly moral hair shirts, onanism is the forbidden world to which we’re bidden, and for all we know it is the encounters and the trysts of our better angels as well as our demons.
This is why McKinsey’s work is important. If you have read Rae Dalven’s and Daniel Mendelsohn’s translations, among others, you will appreciate McKinsey’s translations all the more for their discard of earlier memes about Cavafy. He has concentrated on a specific period in Cavafy’s life when the die was cast, when Cavafy bid his
imagination go where he had hadn’t gone and probably wouldn’t go, and, accordingly, Cavafy had to deal with a plaintive rue within himself, and he had to find a way to etch the stone of his reality, in this case his timidity, with the acid of that rue.
McKinsey’s rethinking of the Cavafy conundrum is blessed by the stunning production values of the book itself, showing as it does that paperback books can and often do surpass hardback editions in their design and execution.
No one interested in the hidden currents that electrify great literature can afford to miss Clearing the Ground.