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Finding the true voice

In the spring of 1967 I was about to have a book published, containing essays on poetry, fiction, contemporary trends, and so on. The book was not published; but the manuscript and notes remained. I was glancing through them the other day, with a certain amount of curiosity, trying to see what could be salvaged for the reader of today, and for myself.

I found this strange note: "In the kingdom of the mute, only a poetry of gestures will flower; the criticism of that poetry will be a criticism of pantomime." I was struck by the relevance of this observation, and decided to use it.

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I had grown completely estranged from such things as writing paper and pencils, from the tyrannies and delights of self-expression. I had come to feel , perhaps naively, that these things were useless, irreverent, and inaccessible, since we did not even have the right to speak as we wished. I still believe that a restrictive use of language cannot possibly give birth to living literature. Whether or not it is necessary and useful to keep language alive simply for the elementary requirements of survival is another matter. Only great craftsmen can do something about it, but again, how often, and for how long?

However, one uses what one has. Within the stifling framework of moderation (which does not mean wisdom), I found I had to push across the page words that were absolutely concrete, stripped of allegory, symbol, satire, myth -- all those devices which literature, even in better days, uses freely to enrich, but not smother.

What could I write about then? I had to begin somewhere. So on a clean page I wrote down the brief passage I mentioned before. Empirical procedures. My first mistake, I soon found out, was trying to talk about the present with words from another era. I don't remember how that brief passage happened to be written, but I remember whenm it was written. In those days our blissful state of expressive freedom gave me the intoxicating ability to see the course of poetry unhindered even by the most unfavorable circumstances. The rather elegant and lighthearted style, the slightly raised tone of voice in that short passage, not only did not denote any real anxiety, but betrayed a certain complacence. Words carry a ponderous weight, and if we are not careful how to handle them, they may fall over and crush us. In the old days, the observation about the kingdom of the mute was true, because it was supported by facts and conditions, and by my own carefree frame of mind. But now that this ghost of an observation has taken on the flesh and bones of actuality, its words ring in my ear with a false and hollow sound.

I refused to listen to this sound, and here is how other words -- springing from the heart of reality -- answered it. My second observation -- in reality my first -- was: "For those whose gestures are too 'poetic,' there are always laws and authorities to bind or cut off their hands." Between those two observations lies the same gap that separates words describing a precipice itself.

After this, a moment of utter helplessness. How am I to get out of this mess? Petrified, I stare at the two passages; they hypnotize me. I was not fully aware of the trap I let myself into. So I got caught, clever bird that I was.

Then along came a third note: "Why so much confusion? What has poetry to do with authority? How did this initial observation, concerning the 'flowering' of poetry, come to founder so soon in condemnations and punishments? Are things not working properly, or is thought not working properly? Or do they proceed hand in hand and therefore work beautifully?"

Things were functioning beautifully. Only my mind was confused. What was I trying to do? Was I attempting to reveal, to highlight, the dramatic reality of our true condition by this device of hypocritical ignorance and query, by cheap conjuring tricks with words? ("We can no longer earn our living with our work, but only through cunning," I immediately wrote in the margin.) I had merely been imitating the only style of writing in existence at present, the style we encounter every day in the newspapers -- nowhere else. Such mishaps are necessary "to teach us humility," as the wise teacher said, and to check our conceit and pitiful self-importance in the midst of our inaction, as we rely on pompous words like "mission" and "responsibility," while others carry on with their job the best they can.

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I felt the need to justify myself. And so the fourth note: "In the turmoil of the times, with this aching inside me, with so much to say that I cannot possibly say, with my tongue so numb under constant pressure to weigh each single word and its consequences in the balance, I have finally lost the conscientiousness, the humanity of my language. From the very beginning I have been obsessed by the thought of how best to disguise my language, what form to choose to say what I have to say. For I have something to say; but I cannot say it without cheating, without tricks. I am filled with fear and passion. What kind of truth can I articulate in this condition? I am, literally, speechless."

Now, for the first time, I discern a breath of life in the pitiful sincerity of my words. I notice that I have used words I respect, words I fear, words I do not handle easily, even in everyday speech: humanity, conscientiousness, sincerity. Qualities I would like to possess, though I don't know whether I have any claim to them. I have had to go through great upheavals to arrive at this flattened tone of voice, this poor mutilated text, a thousand times scissored full of holes -- the most difficult I have ever written.

It occurs to me that the labors of duty, like those of decay, reach fruition slowly and are the work of a lifetime.

For today, then, I submit this broken gesture, these defeated words. For tomorrow, we'll see.

Reprinted by permission of the publishers of "Eighteen Texts: Writings by Contemporary Greek Authors," edited by Willis Barnstone, foreword by Stratis Haviaras: Harvard University Press, c 1972 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.$m