Scholars' Association News
Issue 31
July 2014


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Cavafy Archive: A treasure open to the general public. Interview with Archive Chairman, Prof. I. Metaxas
By Titika Karavia

TK: A major poet, an important archive, an exceptional initiative. Professor, what was the thinking behind the Onassis Cultural Centre acquiring the Cavafy Archive?

IM: The Cavafy Archive is now part of the Onassis Cultural Centre's cultural wealth. The decision taken by the Onassis Cultural Centre’s President, Anthony Papadimitriou (because we have him to thank for the idea of acquiring the Cavafy Archive) is part of a plan to promote the work of this major poet and philosopher.

As part of this plan, the Archive will be housed in a highly functional space that meets all international specifications, so that it is open to society, and it can be easily and efficiently accessed. Even though the term ‘archive’ has a well-established technical meaning, people tend to think of it as some sort of storage facility. It is nothing like that at all. We are striving to ensure that this major asset is the symbolic starting point for many other initiatives.

TK: I’d agree that the term ‘archive’ in the mind of modern Greeks refers primarily to some sort of storage facility. It is understood more as some spectral or imaginative way of ‘preserving’ the past rather than as a creative restatement of our cultural heritage as a promise for the future.

IM: Things are classified in a technical way. However, there is a high degree of ‘real functionality’. Any researcher who has done the right short of groundwork will be able to visit the Archive, actually ‘handle’, read and think about the words and ideas of C. P. Cavafy. He will also have access to anything else we have in the way of works by other academics, those who have dedicated themselves to his poetry: and believe me there are many of them, and they are important thinkers.

TK: When do you imagine the Archive will be open? Will it only be accessible to researchers or to the general public?

IM: The appropriate answer to your question is that it will be widely accessible. At present, we are in phase one of readying the facility. Over the months to come, all this precious, diverse body of materials will be presented with all the requisite technical guarantees and information needed.

TK: The Cavafy Archive, of course, has its own story to tell, and at the same time over its long history has reflected important aspects of modern Greek cultural heritage and history. What is your approach to this valuable acquisition? How are you planning to manage and showcase it?

IM: I'm not an archivist even though in the past I have frequently had some contact with that field, with facilities storing attractive old books and other items that need to be preserved for posterity. We are organising a meeting (a small conference to be more precise) that will be attended by experts on how archives are run, bearing in mind that this will be an asset open to the public. Those experts will give us suggestions and advice about how the materials, the facility, services should be organised for each category of user. Not all users have the same features or the same objectives.

We have already established real, actual contact with renowned archives including the Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka archives, to name a few. This is more than mere correspondence. Because of his training and personal interest in the matter, Mr. Hiotis, Archive Project Manager, to give him his correct title, has been closely monitoring developments in cultural archiving to ensure that the running of the Archive reflects international standards, and also that the Archive can communicate with other archives in other countries and with groups of researchers of Cavafy’s works in other countries worldwide, some of whom are particularly important. One such group is Greece’s very own poets. We are not talking about one or two individuals here. Cavafy has provoked a lot of interest. The world's gaze has reverted to Greece, to modern Greece.

TK: Will you have any specific publishing policy?

IM: Your question raises issues of great responsibility. We intend to have not only academic publications and studies (which of course we must have) but also works based on other criteria such as historical, philosophical, social and aesthetic criteria. In one word, because Cavafy is a ‘field unto himself’ as Professor Vasilis Lambropoulos so elegantly put it, one needs to have the right sort of contact with a body of work like his. As such, the results may be quite unexpected. Some results may even be quite revealing.

For example the Cavafy Archive in cooperation with a range of other organisations is developing a demonstrator (a digital interface) in the context of the cultural depository Europeana, designed to show off the Archive’s capabilities in terms of online education. The interface will not only be a guide to the life and works of the Alexandrine poet using new media, but will also serve as an example of the multiplier effect that cultural management can generate.

TK: What are your plans for the immediate future?

IM: Last year and this year important things have been achieved at the Onassis Cultural Centre, at other venues, at schools such as the Arsakeion College in particular, and away from Athens, in England at King's College and in New York, where much of what was presented or examined will be published. If you wouldn’t mind I'd like to emphasise that much of what we have done is accessible online, and interactive online publications, which is to say publications that ensure a vibrant relationship between Cavafy and Society, are something we are currently working on. We are utilising all the new technologies out there. The Onassis Cultural Centre, and its President in particular, is a real supporter of these not just on paper but in practical terms too.

TK: That is particularly visible in the Archive’s educational programmes. At the same time, it’s noteworthy that hyper-textual readings of Cavafy through comics, for example, or through setting his poems to hip hop music have ‘modernised’ the poet’s language so that children and teenagers can become more familiar with him.

IM: The Cavafy Archive’s educational programmes are already inspiring a more creative, participatory approach to teaching, which is helping modernise it. The ‘Cavafy goes to school’ educational programme as well as the digital toolkits which will be sent to schools nationwide, offer suggestions and are springboards for adopting a different form of education in general and cultural education in particular. These programmes will continue and will spread to encompass the regions as well.

TK: How far can your reach go? I have the impression that using Cavafyian dialogue you are in effect attempting a ‘coordinated peaceful invasion’ of Modern Greek literature into international cultural life.

IM: In cooperation with bodies and platforms such as Europeana, the Cavafy Archive plans to develop digital applications to promote Modern Greek literature in international cultural life. One example here is the major event in honour of Cavafy at the Onassis Cultural Centre in New York. I would stress here just how efficiently the ambassador Mr. Loukas Tsilas and his associates worked for this. Another example is the series of seminars on ‘Cavafy at Oxford’ that seek to spread Modern Greek literature wide and far internationally.

Let me point out that the blind now also have access to Cavafy’s poetry thanks to his poetic works being transcribed into Braille. This isn't only in Greek but in other languages too. Generally speaking, anything to do with Cavafy in terms of handwriting, images or manuscripts will be digitised so that anyone who wants to can experience it, given the universality of Cavafy’s work. People will be able to access all or part of his universal work or derivative works. For instance, the Cavafy font is a tool through which the poet conveys directness and clarity. One might even say that a denunciatory discourse even emerges from the curvilinear acuity of the line. It’s just an example of the sort of things one can draw out from Cavafy. The public may have seen the exhibition hosted at the Museum of Cycladic Art with the support of the Onassis Foundation, where Prof. Stambolidis, in cooperation with Mrs. Donga-Toli and Mrs. Giannopoulou provided an example of how ancient sculpture, Cavafy’s poetry and Cavafy’s handwriting blend finely together.

TK: From December 2013 to date, the Onassis Cultural Centre has held a series of debates relating to the Archive. Can you tell us a bit about the participants and the issues they examined?

IM: Of course, it would be my pleasure. Daniel Mendelsohn is one of the first names that come to mind. He had an insightful discussion with Dimitris Papanikolaou. Professors Dimitris Dimitroulis, Giannis Papatheodorou, Michalis Chryssanthopoulos, Christina Dounia, Stathis Gourgouris, Takis Kafetzis, Kyrkos Doxiadis, Dimitris Plantzos, Eleni Papargyriou, author and researcher Dimitris Daskalopoulos, writers Thanassis Triaridis and Theodoros Grigoriadis, researchers Fotini Dimirouli and Anna-Maria Sichani, journalists Maria Margaroni, Theofilos Tramboulis, Stavros Dioskouridis and Nikos Patrelakis, artists Angelos Papadimitriou and Panos Michail, who took part in the debates about the Archives’ public activities, talked about the means that will be used to promote Cavafy’s works and about what needs to be promoted to help us in our understanding of his work.

I could also say that the way in which journalists have presented our efforts was really beneficial for the project. C. P. Cavafy is not something one gets into for self-promotion, but is a cultural storehouse, a means to ensuring another viewpoint about our aesthetics and our day-to-day lives. I’m not complaining that AΩ is being particularly ‘interrogatory’. That’s the way things should be and you’re right to be asking these questions.

It’s clear too though that we are ready -or to be more precise obliged- to accept all forms of criticism, even 'unwarranted' criticism. Sometimes it helps reveal useful ideas that may have escaped our attention. Long, experience-filled journeys like those Cavafy refers to in his poem ‘Ithaca’ and the call for people to ‘enter through the narrow gate’ referred to in Scripture, may prompt unexpected meetings and add value to the dialogue that emerges. Any form of dialogue.

TK: Apart from yourself, who else is responsible for the Archive? What is your shared vision and what are your individual duties?

IM: My role is transitional. I'm here to ensure cooperation among team members. We look after, respect and manage the Archive collectively. Thanks to her background and experience, Ms. Afroditi Panagiotakou, Executive Vice Director of the Onassis Cultural Centre, is involved with how to bring all this cultural wealth to life. Something about this has got her very excited. The Onassis Cultural Centre may be one of the many tools that can be deployed for Cavafy’s work to reach audiences that not even the poet himself would have thought himself capable of reaching. G. Savvidis, and all the researchers in his team, and their many publications, have kept his work safe. This intellectual asset has been given modern cultural prospects by the Onassis Foundation.

Mr. Thodoris Hiotis works non-stop... with dedication and imagination. Over the last few months his contact with the Archive has developed into a particular tangible relationship with it. To know the works of Cavafy it is perhaps necessary to have all the senses in play. We also consult researchers with expertise and a good all-round education, which is a vital condition for coming into contact with Cavafy's work. Some will be invited to support our activities so that the running of the Archive draws on the opinions, ideas and suggestions of people from all known, reliable sources. As you can understand, I work from the perspective that Cavafy requires an interdisciplinary approach. His work explores aesthetics and sensuality, and is poetic and social philosophy. The universality of creation runs through his entire work. Freed from writing obligations that tied me down for three whole years, I will now strive to do what the Onassis Cultural Centre’s President thought I could do when he entrusted this task to me and others.

TK: I know that you have certain affinities with Cavafy’s work. What position does Cavafy’s thinking hold in your theories? What is your view as a political scientist about this great Alexandrine poet?

IM: I don’t think my opinion has any particular importance. However, I can’t help admitting the attraction Cavafy’s words have exerted over me for many years now. Twice at the University of Athens I have taught a postgraduate course on the political dialogue of Cavafy and at some point I felt the need to write a short book to create a kind of mental bridge between his work and the painting of the 'exotic' artist Paul Gauguin. This was something I also did at my courses at the École Doctorale at the University of Strasbourg, as I was obliged to. I wanted to argue for the philosophical and expressive relationship between the two. In one other case, by comparing Cavafy to Laskaratos, in terms of time management in their literary works, the eternal question of temporalités esthétiques, I was able to explore some common ground in their ideological thinking about today’s responsibility for tomorrow.

For the Greece of today, Cavafy is a timeless poet beyond comparison, and the most famous one at global level. Who can rule out the idea of the Archive at some later point in time - with all the seriousness that such a move would require- evolving into a Cavafy Institute? It's just a thought. When you have someone like Cavafy, should you not place him on a par with other great poets, with an institute similar to the Cervantes Institute, the Goethe Institut, and so on?

TK: Thank you.

(Titika Karavia has a PhD in Literary Theory and Cultural Critique from the Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris III University and teaches at the Οpen University of Cyprus).

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