At The Noisy End of The Café

Portrait of Alberto Giacometti by Robert Doisneau

 
 

AN OLD MAN

“At the noisy end of the café, head bent
over the table, an old man sits alone
a newspaper in front of him.

…And in the miserable banality of old age

he thinks how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strength, eloquence, and looks.

He knows he’s aged a lot: he sees it, feels it.
Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.
So brief an interval, so very brief.

And he thinks of Prudence, how it fooled him,
how he always believed—what madness—
that cheat who said: “Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”

He remembers impulses bridled, the joy
he sacrificed. Every chance he lost
now mocks his senseless caution.

But so much thinking, so much remembering
makes the old man dizzy. He falls asleep,
his head resting on the café table.”

Constantine P. Cavafy

Before Time Altered Them

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, David Hockney, 1968

 
 

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, David Hockney, 1976

 
 

“…The love they felt wasn’t, of course, what it once had been;
the attraction between them had gradually diminished,
the attraction had diminished a great deal.
But to be separated, that wasn’t what they themselves wanted.
It was circumstances. Or maybe Fate
appeared as an artist and parted them now,
before their feeling died out completely, before Time altered them:
the one seeming to remain for the other always what he was,
the exquisite young man of twenty-four.”

Constantine P. Cavafy

But the Wise Perceive Things about to Happen

“For the gods perceive future things,
ordinary people things in the present, but
the wise perceive things about to happen.”

Philostratos

Life of Apollonios of Tyana

 

“Ordinary people know what’s happening now,
the gods know future things
because they alone are totally enlightened.
Of what’s to come the wise perceive
things about to happen.

Sometimes during moments of intense study
their hearing’s troubled: the hidden sound
of things approaching reaches them,
and they listen reverently, while in the street outside
the people hear nothing whatsoever.”

Constantine P. Cavafy

 
 

cavafy hockneyPortraits of Cavafy by David Hockney, 1966

In Despair

Illustration by David Hockney

 
 

“He lost him completely. And he now tries to find
his lips in the lips of each new lover,
he tries in the union with each new lover
to convince himself that it’s the same young man,
that it’s to him he gives himself.
He lost him completely, as though he never existed.
He wanted, his lover said, to save himself
from the tainted, unhealthy form of sexual pleasure,
the tainted, shameful form of sexual pleasure.
There was still time, he said, to save himself.
He lost him completely, as though he never existed.
Through fantasy, through hallucination,
he tries to find his lips in the lips of other young men,
he longs to feel his kind of love once more.”

Constantine P. Cavafy

In an Old Book

Illustration by David Hockney

 
 

“Forgotten between the leaves of an old book—
almost a hundred years old—
I found an unsigned watercolor.
It must have been the work of a powerful artist.
Its title: “Representation of Love.”
“…love of extreme sensualists” would have been more to the point.
Because it became clear as you looked at the work
(it was easy to see what the artist had in mind)
that the young man in the painting
was not designated for those
who love in ways that are more or less healthy,
inside the bounds of what is clearly permissible—
with his deep chestnut eyes,
the rare beauty of his face,
the beauty of anomalous charm,
with those ideal lips that bring
sensual delight to the body loved,
those ideal limbs shaped for beds
that common morality calls shameless.”

Constantine P. Kavafy

In the Boring Village

 Illustration by David Hockney

 
 

“In the boring village where he works—
clerk in a textile shop, very young—
and where he’s waiting out the two or three months ahead,
another two or three months until business falls off
so he can leave for the city and plunge headlong
into its action, its entertainment;
in the boring village where he’s waiting out the time—
he goes to bed tonight full of sexual longing,
all his youth on fire with the body’s passion,
his lovely youth given over to a fine intensity.
And in his sleep pleasure comes to him;
in his sleep he sees and has the figure, the flesh he longed for…”

Constantine P. Kavafy

Two Young Men, 23 to 24 Years Old

Illustration by David Hockney

 
 

“He’d been sitting in the café since ten-thirty
expecting him to turn up any minute.
Midnight went by, and he was still waiting for him.
It was now after one-thirty, and the café was almost deserted.
He’d grown tired of reading newspapers
mechanically. Of his three lonely shillings
only one was left: waiting that long,
he’d spent the others on coffees and brandy.
He’d smoked all his cigarettes.
So much waiting had worn him out. Because
alone like that for so many hours,
he’d also begun to have disturbing thoughts
about the immoral life he was living.
But when he saw his friend come in—
weariness, boredom, thoughts vanished at once.
His friend brought unexpected news.
He’d won sixty pounds playing cards.
Their good looks, their exquisite youthfulness,
the sensitive love they shared
were refreshed, livened, invigorated
by the sixty pounds from the card table.
Now all joy and vitality, feeling and charm,
they went—not to the homes of their respectable families
(where they were no longer wanted anyway)—
they went to a familiar and very special
house of debauchery, and they asked for a bedroom
and expensive drinks, and they drank again.
And when the expensive drinks were finished
and it was close to four in the morning,
happy, they gave themselves to love.”

Constantine P. Cavafy

One Night

Illustration by David Hockney

 
 

“The room was cheap and sordid,
hidden above the suspect taverna.
From the window you could see the alley,
dirty and narrow. From below
came the voices of workmen
playing cards, enjoying themselves.
And there on that common, humble bed
I had love’s body, had those intoxicating lips,
red and sensual,
red lips of such intoxication
that now as I write, after so many years,
in my lonely house, I’m drunk with passion again.”

 
 

Constantine P. Cavafy

Their Beginning

Illustration by David Hockney, 1966

 
 

“Their illicit pleasure has been fulfilled.
They get up and dress quickly, without a word.
They come out of the house separately, furtively;
and as they move along the street a bit unsettled,
it seems they sense that something about them betrays
what kind of bed they’ve just been lying on.
But what profit for the life of the artist:
tomorrow, the day after, or years later, he’ll give voice
to the strong lines that had their beginning here.”

Constantine P. Cavafy

 
 

David Hockney came across the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy, as early as in his studies. He was fascinated by Cafavy’s clear and unpretentious way of writing about homosexuality. Thus the idea for a cycle of fourteen etchings was born, which was, however, not solely due to his fascination for the Greek poet, but also because of his basic desire to create literature etchings. The project was not put into practice before 1966, as the translation of the poems which was in existence then could not be used for legal reasons. This is why Hockney decided to entrust his friend Stephen Spender, an English poet, and his colleague Nikos Stangos with a new translation of the poems. The project was completed in just 6 months. In general, the works of the cycle were not intended to be exact illustrations of the poem, but rather visual interpretations of Cavafy’s poetry.

What These Ithakas Mean

The Old Man Kills the Minotaur, Duane Michals, 1976

 
 

ITHAKA

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Constantine P. Cavafy

Growing in Spirit

Photographs by Duane Michals

 
 

“He who hopes to grow in spirit
will have to transcend obedience and respect.
He’ll hold to some laws
but he’ll mostly violate
both law and custom, and go beyond
the established, inadequate norm.
Sensual pleasures will have much to teach him.
He won’t be afraid of the destructive act:
half the house will have to come down.
This way he’ll grow virtuously into wisdom.”

Constantine P. Cavafy

The Intervention of the Gods

Kate Moss wearing “Ginsberg is God” jumper by Bella Freud

 
 

“Rémonin. —… Il disparaîtra au moment
nécessaire; les dieux interviendront.
Mme. de Rumières. — Comme dans les
tragédies antiques?”
Acte ii, sc i.
“Mme. de Rumières. — Qu’y a-t-il?
Rémonin. — Les dieux sont arrivés.”
Acte v, sc x.

A. Dumas fils : L’Etrangère

 
 

Now this, then that, may happen, and in such wise;
and later — two years hence, as I surmise —
the actions may be these, and these the ways.
We will not meditate on far-off days.
We for the best will strive. And always more
defective, more perplexing than before,
shall all things fare; until, as in a mist,
we stray bewildered. Then we shall desist.
For in that helpless hour the gods attend.
They always come, the gods. They will descend
from their machines, and straightway liberate
some and as suddenly exterminate
others; and having reformed us, they will go. —
And afterward, one will act so; and so
another; and in time the rest will do
as they needs must. And we shall start anew.

Constantine P. Cavafy