Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Elytis and silence

Silence has to be a first thematic consideration when seeking to understand the poetry of Elytis. It may give as well a chance to look again on how we relate to and deal with silence.

Poets have many relationships to silence. While Gabriel Rosenstock mentions that it is wise to stay silent at times with your source of inspiration, Waqas Khwaja reminds on the contrary of those who have been silenced especially by those who consider themselves to be a part of the academics.

In view of this, it raises the question, if poets are able to convey their notion of good poetry as being the very opposite to bad practices as exemplified by academics and those who have become entangled in their incestous game? This question can let one think of how Rosa Luxembourg described academics, namely as opportunists who should be kept outside when wishing to create a political party with an ethical vision. Since this leads to still further questions about the world which seeks to administer knowledge, rather than foster and encourage it as incomplete answer to open ended questions, and therefore is bound to fail, it might be better to seek an alternative route to answer this question about silence.

It is interesting to explore 'silence' on how Elytis understands it. In his seven stanzas each having seven lines about nightly reflections, he starts out from an acknowledgement that he does not succeed to stay silent when he speaks about the light.

It can be the light of inspiration Gabriel Rosenstock speaks about, but in Greece light exists in a most wonderous hemisphere and is an integral part part of the world Zbiegniew Herbert calls paradise. Indeed, anyone about to depart from Athens airport will feel the pain of having to say goodbye to this light. For back home awaits one the grey world of Northern Europe.

However, silence means in the case of Elytis as well:


the beams of the stars brought silence

and behind silence suddenly melodies

of love

that magician of other sounds


So remains the pale shadow

and its broken down trust

and its confused stumble - there


That is a mysterios and real experience at one and the same time. The wonderous nature of the stars can silence one, while the explanation thereof is like the shadow which can merely stumble on while having to live with a broken down trust. 

It is not pathos which brings about the poetic insight into what knowledge of the stars is possible. Elytis had an ethical vision. It is reflected in the term 'beams'. 

Of interest is as well on how the shadow is perceived, not as a threat or something negative which is the case in Northern Europe, for Mediterranean people seek the shade especially when the sun stands the highest during the day. Camus refers to this popular wisdom calling that the hour of death for then no one casts a shadow to say only the living cast shadows. Naturally the shadow has to live with a broken trust and stumbles on to where he has to be: there.

I wrote a series of poems called 'here' and 'there'. It follows that we cannot compare, if we only pit the one against the other. In that sense, it is not possible to bring out the positive by naming the opposite being the negative. Gabriel Rosenstock does so by declaring here is the pure poetry of inspiration and there the confused poets who have become entangled in the academic world and therefore just 'head poets'. The derogative sense of the opposite reveals a dependency upon the opposite to find one's own true meaning, and therefore does not work out in the end.

The dilemma can be explained in case of war. Peace cannot be found by searching for it solely as being the opposite to war. Subtle differences exist. Foucault named one of them, insofar as "one begins to speak only then with the other when no one has any victory necessary".

The same applies to discursive practice with the other. If the definition is unjust equally not clear enough, then the participants of this discourse will stumble along like the shadow and not follow the ethical vision since they are equally trapped. This is because of a failure to be truly independent.

So my question would be why the need of resorting to such opposites to make a point?

To explain this question, Elytis can also be criticized by staying too much aloof while still engaged directly in war. He did serve during Second World War as a soldier, and his poem 'Axion Esti' is directly an outcome of this. It may not be propaganda to be used to strengthen the own ranks, but it can be compared with Camus and his letter to his German friends, in order to note a slight difference in how the other is perceived. Even when that other is doing something more negative than those lost poets in the academic field, namely occupying France and other countries and in so doing commit atrocities, there is something incurred by those who stay silent when it happens.

Seldom are touched upon the deeper or historical wounds. It would require a taking into still further consideration, why George Steiner gave to his book the title 'Language and Silence'? His thesis about whether or not art, or artistic reflections can prevent inhumane acts, is that it requires a still further going reflection about 'silence'. For it might mean inherent in the arts is as well something like that 'ennui' which drives people to go to war.

However, I want to come back to Elytis since he does introduce another kind of silence, the one which marks the beginning of separation. It is like the moment after making love to a woman, silence is demanded of her since he is married, she not and the pleasure can only be shared under the condition that she does not tell anyone else of this relationship. Elytis introduces this kind of silence by describing in the next stanza the following midnight situation


All cypress tress point towards midnight

all fingers

into silence


Out of the open window of the dream

unfolds slowly


and strives like an image towards the stars


There is already a sign of struggle in these lines revealed by the religious component of confession. Why is that needed, we may ask ourselves. Circumstances don't seem to demand it, but lets go back for a moment as to what the cypress tree stands for! Their peak is not straight but bent by the wind. It is like a half moon at the top. Yet it is a tree which does not spread out its branches but strives towards the sky. There is a clear line in that type of tree except for that ending at the peak. The contradiction is indirectly indicated and like the fingers which are pointed inwardly, it does go into silence - a peculiar silence.

If silence has not been identified as of yet, we cannot know why this silence exists. Apart from that it has a distinctive quality for so far silence does not disturb us. This is as obvious as subtle: silence by itself does not disturb because it is in the absence of any noise simply 'silent'! So why are human beings finally disturbed not only by noise, but by silence? The answer may lie in this striving towards the stars from where the beams came from many light years ago. We do not know, if that star still exists since what we see is its light travelling on till it reaches us on earth.

A beautiful answer is given by Elytis in the following stanza to this perplexion since now he describes the situation and we can imagine what took place and therefore it allows us to participate in an obvious dilemma vis a vis a silence demanded out of sheer necessity that something should not be revealed. Elytis continues in a most subtle way and this time the seven lines are conjoined, not broken up in between into three and four lines.

A shoulder

naked like the truth

pays a price

in the high middle of the evening -

an evening which radiates lonely

under the half moon

of my longings.


Painful moments of truth are not the moments of inspiration to which Gabriel Rosenstock refers to and to which the poet should remain faithful to as it is the origin of the poem. Yet who would want to describe the origin of poetry if one fails to stay silent? The failure can be ascribed to experiencing a moment of agony the moment we realize something we always wanted has come about, become possible, like making love to that extraordinary woman or man, and yet we seem to know instantly, this cannot last due to circumstances: him being married to another woman, and she being free and hence available so as to reveal her naked shoulder! That realization of a basic truth is due to being very sober and therefore realistic. At the same time, this deep pain unravels due to the beauty just experienced.

As said before, the cypress tree indicates already the tendency towards the half moon, but not of the same kind as it has become a symbol in the Turkish flag. Rather the half moon reminds of light coming and going, but never being fully absent. It is like the dream almost forgotten and just then when thought to have been lost, reappears. That is why Elytis puts emphasis upon the evening and not upon the moon for it is the evening which gleams alone. The evening hovers in loneliness since the only known underneath the half moon is a kind of longing which is called in German: 'Sehnsucht'. The German word entails something like an addiction for what we long for. It is like being painfully aware that we are here and not there - with her and not alone.

Elytis poetry is an attempt to resolve the unresolvable, but once his lines are interpreted truthfully, with human understanding providing the key, then the next lines make a lot more sense or open up simply to what eyes can see and read to understand something crucial without our conscious bonds to life:

The unprotected night is overpowered by memories


Rubin red



Ihr open arms fill themselves with sleep

Her rested hair with wind

Her eyes with silence


How beautiful this notion of her eyes being filled with silence. It declares fully that dilemma only to be seen if the entire problematic situation becomes the frame for understanding these lines.

It should be said in German we distinguish between silence as stillness and silence as someone not saying a word: Schweigen. Also to come back to another contrast, in the nineteenth century we had not the opposite but the dominance of reason: anything else not reasonable was delegated to be silent, if not to insanity. This is why Foucault wrote 'l'histoire de folie': the history of insanity. He wanted philosophy to step out of this schism of here reason, there insanity. He wanted to over come duality of a vicious kind since it entails using negative categories to exclude the other who seems not to respond to reason and therefore he wanted a philosophy much more differentiated. Hence his book 'les mots et les choses', translated into English as 'the order of things' does mean representative logic cannot be deduced out of and be traced in a world if conceived to exist by the sheer power of mere opposites.

Naturally a lot of pain was involved in this schizophrenic world emerging out of the nineteenth century and still lasting till today. Many a son had to face the wrath of the father who would not talk to his son but delegate him to the representative of reason in society, namely the psychiatrist.

Foucault would also explain onhand of the evolving psychiatry as institution how silence can be used to imprison someone. He describes how Pinel, a doctor of the reformist and humanist movement enters psychiatry and sees a wild man who has been put into chains. That man frightens everyone when he rattles his chains. Pinel orders that these chains be taken off as a sign of his intention to realize some humanist reform. Implied is thereby to wish to do something for the human being, but there are structural contradictions which can pervert the meaning of these measures. Foucault continues his story. Naturally the whole staff is frightened by the prospect of freeing this man from his chains. Pinel reassures them and adds just follow my instruction. And what were these instructions? Once the chains were taken off, the man was broken within two weeks, for without the chains he could no longer frighten anyone. He lost his means to gain in identity since Pinel had ordered the staff to do one prime thing, namely not to respond at all to whatever the man might do or say after the chairs were taken off. Without getting any feedback as he had before when rattling his chains and seeing how frightened the others were of him, he was without any means. Literally he was from then on imprisoned by silence. This silence is brought about by not giving the person any feedback whatsoever.

Sometimes poets and others do it like the man in chains. They wish to provoke or to cause some kind of response, for without feedback from others, no one can face this kind of silence alone and shall be imprisoned like this man by silence. In a most telling observation, Robert Musil stated in his book 'Man without attributes', the worst thing for young people is to sent out ideas into the world for worse than criticism is silence i.e. not getting any feedback.

Since so many people have been silenced by these kinds methods, it is important what Foucault said as well, namely that "we have to discover the places of silence before they are covered up by the lyrical protest." It should be noted that lyrical protest does not qualify for the term poetry. That is any denunciation of academic poetry falls way short of the real problem best shown by the difference between Homer and Virgil. While the former wrote out of the free spirit of man, Virgil was a state poet and therefore not really free to create what he wanted but he did something under order. The order was to create a myth of the state. It would prompt later on Hegel to say people without myth are blind. Vergil saw that myths remind people what to do at the right time. 

Likewise academics are silent since they are an extension of an administrative approach not to merely society as such, but to the kind of knowledge needed, in order to administer the reality of society or more precisely to define what reality any state can cope with. Everything else shall be subsequently silenced if it does not go conform or fit into the categories made available in due process by research and academic deliberations called by philosophy of science the validation of knowledge. Since it is the task of academics to dissect and to make knowledge controllable, that what poetry aspires to be, namely a syntax and synthesis of life itself, they cannot articulate themselves in just the same way.

At issue is, therefore, quite something else, if a poet or a philosopher wishes to articulate him- or herself freely. Whether or not this kind of freedom can be attained as some may declare too readily, a word of caution may be needed here. Adorno attempted to free the subjective reflection and did not succeed. For it is hardly possible since we are all determined, structurally speaking, by what resides in society and which imposes upon us all kinds of complexities. The latter are due to powerful mechanisms wounding the sensitive psyches of everyone.

In short, it is impossible to give to this problem one simple answer, and yet to come up always with the same standard conclusion. For instance, Gabriel Rosenstock thinks no matter what the problem: Haiku is the answer. Yet life does not work that way nor does it suffice to have but one simple answer.

So where does Elytis stand in all of this. In his sixth stanza he speaks about following series of problems:

non researchable night, bitterness without end

sleepless eyelids

before he finds the sobs, glows the pain

before death becomes a wave, he presses down


Preying full of downfalls

when thinking in useless meander tracks

breaks up against the knee of fate


That is the poetic outcry but indirectly it reflects a physical world from where these metaphors are taken. As a poem it reflects that the visual sense is helpless at times to grasp the other meaning. Equally, this other meaning seems to remain like the night in the realm of the unknown.

As a final outcome Elytis attests no longer the obvious, but something else more remorseful, for by now the crying has slipped into the mode of sobbing at the edge of silence:

The moon's diamond on the forehead of the night

across the open face

wander the shadows


The pain heard by the practiced ear

terminates arbitrarily

in thoughts, which remain in vain

under the signals of heaviness


It cannot be said that Elytis tried to give an answer to the kind of silence he encounteres but once the mood has become heavy, it is like darkness. Only fingers can touch and sense a way ahead but what if they too point only into silence?

So poets should continue along that path marked by trying to give a voice to those who have been rejected, indeed been silenced by wrong forces, or by those who demonstrate constantly the inability to give recognition to greatness in others. Van Gogh said doing that is a true sign of greatness.


Hatto Fischer


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