What does “Collected,” as in “Collected Works,” Mean?

Yesterday I had a wonderful conversation with Will Stroebel, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, about his dissertation-in-progress, which contributes to Book Studies by examining the materiality of literary production and circulation in Greece and Turkey. Stroebel devotes a chapter to C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) where he explores two interrelated issues: first, the fluid circulation and malleable fitting together of the poems which Cavafy himself had them printed; and second, the various efforts, following his death, to fix together an authoritative corpus and produce a comprehensive “Collected Works.” Thus he is not interested in an archaeology of versions and variations but in a genealogy of restorations and restitutions.

While we have several studies of Cavafy’s practice of issuing and disseminating his work, relatively little has been written on the philological and other methods that several editors, both scholars and amateurs, have been deploying since his death to present in some inclusive, integrated fashion the author’s poems, prose, articles, notes, marginalia, letters and the like. In the broader field of cultural studies genealogies of canons have discussed primarily literary histories and anthologies. It would be equally important to trace the coagulation of a body of texts (say, Cavafy’s) by exploring how they became “literature” and later established its internal canon by advancing to the status of “Collected Works,” often closely associated with the most prestigious publishing houses, like the Greek Ikaros. Several other famous cases of comparable editorial complexity come to mind from poetry (Solomos, Hölderlin), philosophy (Nietzsche, Wittgenstein), and music (Verdi, Bruckner). Once creators become canonized as major figures, the competition for the best canonical edition of their work never stops.

Cavafy’s case is quite unique in that throughout his life he resisted the very idea of a standard poetry collection (including two offers facilitated by E. M. Forster and made by Leonard Woolf in 1923 and 1925 for an edition by The Hogarth Press, both included in Peter Jeffreys, ed.: The Forster-Cavafy Letters, 2009) and instead distributed his poetry according to his idiosyncratic understanding of publishing. Starting with the first edition by Rika Segkopoulou in 1935 in Alexandria and continuing well beyond 2003, when the European copyright expired and Cavafy’s work entered the public domain and can be published practically by anybody and even given away by Sunday newspapers, editors have been grappling with several matters of completion. What makes a text complete? How does it qualify for inclusion in a projected Collected Works? Cavafy’s texts exist in various stages – published and canonical, repudiated, finished but unpublished, unfinished, drafted and so on. Should the Collected Works incorporate everything that has survived or only what can be deemed complete? Should it include all writings or limit itself to poetry only?

Editions can be vastly different even though they all claim to be faithful to some notion of authenticity. Diverse principles generate new authors. One way of doing this, often implied but always operative, is to dispute the accuracy of earlier ones. Editions construct new collections by deconstructing and reconstructing earlier editions.

A lot is at stake in the monumentalization of an artist, thinker, or maker. The idea of completion becomes tangible: an entire work is archived, assembled, ordered. The idea of the creator is validated: a genius with talent, vision, and determination devoted their lives to a project that they turned into a task. The idea of oneness is substantiated: Collected Works mobilize an interpretive approach that presents a unified, continuous, unique, and autonomous oeuvre. The idea of collectivity is reinforced: an ethnic, religious, linguistic, sexual, regional or other community feels their legitimacy and superiority reinforced by this coherent body of craft and insight.

Studies like the one planned by Stroebel as a chapter of his thesis can stimulate a very different approach that un-collects Cavafy, questioning his monumentalist stabilization by essentialist interpretations as well as the populist marketing in schools, local associations, and the media of the brand “Cavafy” selling commodities that guarantee customer satisfaction. Following Deleuze and Guattari these two realms may be called normative domain and structuring terrain respectively. Norms control while structures organize.

Yet there is a third realm that the two thinkers call “plane of immanence” (what exists within) as opposed to transcendence (what is beyond). This is the realm of emergence and heterogeneity where incongruous, discordant forces interact. In domains and terrains forms coalesce into works, that is, seamless totalities, each with its unique characteristics.   The form proper to immanence is the assemblage, the provisional outcome of historically specific and contingent processes. In two complementary Greek newspaper articles (one, co-authored with Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” and published right before the start of the 2013 Cavafy year; the other, titled “How Cavafy turned from Author to Assemblage” and published right after that year’s end), I draw on Deleuze and Guattari to propose that Cavafy is no longer an Author or Oeuvre that can be collected but an assemblage. To assemble and not to structure, to present an arrangement and not an entity, is to understand Cavafy in terms of becoming and not being. Assemblages un-collect. They do not de-collect or disperse. They catalyze immanence into appearance.

[Note:  The C. P. Cavafy Chair in Modern Greek maintains the “C. P. Cavafy Forum” on the website of the Modern Greek Program at the University of Michigan.]

October 10, 2014

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