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Friday, 5 August 2016

When one does not die for the other, we are dead already

N.N. Trakakis has a marvellous meditation on humility and anonymity in his excellent article
Found in Translation: on translating Tasos Leivaditis:

"Leivaditis has often been classified as a poet of the margins, even the ‘guardian angel’ of the marginal, the outcasts of society that repeatedly populate his poems: the blind, the forgotten, beggars, anarchists, prostitutes, drunkards, the mentally ill—‘those poor and mad souls who imagined themselves to be birds, ladders or trees’, as he wonderfully put it. Leivaditis helps us see that the marginal is that which cannot be placed under the rule of the conventional and the socially acceptable, and so it resists falsification, dishonesty and dissembling. The real critics of the establishment are therefore those who live precariously on the margins, not those ‘professional sceptics’ (e.g., academic philosophers) who invariably turn out to be the system’s co-conspirators.

Perhaps the greatest value Leivaditis unearths in these marginal characters is their anonymity, a value he wants to ascribe to writing as much as to existence. In a prose poem entitled ‘Anonymity’ and displaying Leivaditis’ characteristic magic realism, anonymity is linked to notions of authenticity and freedom:

No-one waited for him. And he himself knew no-one. Who was he? Where was he going? This was never discovered. The only established fact was that the other day he was found dead on the street and when they went to lift him, as they would have been expected to do, they saw that the dead man—despite the continuing rain—was untouched and his old worn-out clothes were dry. They were naturally taken aback, for they of course could not see the beautiful cover of anonymity…

There is no attempt made by such outsiders to ‘make a name for oneself’, to secure a place in the cherished annals of history, for they recognise that, ‘What else is anonymity but to live in purity and to depart even purer’. This naturally provokes perplexity and fear in those who have compromised with the standards and expectations of society:

At times mother would ask me with tears in her eyes, ‘Why do you like to humble yourself?’ ‘I want to understand, mother’.

It is only the anonymous themselves, Leivaditis writes, who ‘comprehend the mystery of being a nobody’. Anonymity, to be sure, may well arouse in self-defeating fashion curiosity. But the point of anonymity is not to incite in an underhand way the interest of others, but to open up another way of being and writing. Anonymity as a matter of not merely going underground, but as emerging onto new ground.

Together with anonymity, one can detect an insistence in Leivaditis on ‘lightness’—to be become unobtrusive, like light, remaining invisible so as to make it possible for the other to be seen. At work here is something like a Levinasian principle of ‘substitution’, reflected in Leivaditis’ oft-quoted line: ‘And when one does not die for the other, we are dead already’. The life of the writer, on this model, is sacrificial, commanded by a call to give, and so always at a loss and always at sea."


Corinne Bailey Rae - The Skies Will Break.

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