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Haunting the future through poetry

Table of contents


Preface: Cavafy and Specters
1. Introduction: Cavafy’s Ghost Ships
a. Ghost Ships
b. Specters, Time, and Justice
c. Reading Cavafy Preposterously
d. The Writer’s Inkwell: From Tyrannical Prehension to Foreign Hands
e. Ghosts and the Archive
f. Outline
2. Cavafy’s Poetics of the Spectral: On Broken Promises and Conjurations
a. Introduction
b. On Broken Promises
c. On Conjurations
d. Living with Specters
3. Haunted Modernity: Cavafy’s Noonday Demon
a. Reading Preposterously: From Sotiropoulos’ What’s Left of the Night to Cavafy’s “In Broad Daylight”
b. Ghosts and Modernity
c. Cavafy’s Noonday Demon: From Religion to Capitalism and Back
d. A Little Box…
e. …and a Big Box
f. Ghosts of Capitalist Futures
g. Haunting and Desire
4. The Reluctant Ironist: Affect, Spectral Truth, and Irony’s Temperature
a. Introduction
b. Irony and Affect
c. “A Diary of Occurrences,” But Not Quite
d. Philosophical Scrutiny
e. Cavafy’s Little God of Irony
5. Specters of Barbarians
a. Introduction 
b. The Poem’s Literary and Artistic Restagings
c. The Poem as a Figure of Cultural Mutation
d. Waiting for the Barbarians After the Cold War
e. Between Enlightenment, Decadence, and Modernism: Barbarians and Historical Time
f. Barbarians and the Desire for New Narratives
g. Reluctant Irony as Being-With-Specters
6. The Futurity of Things Past: From Colonized Egypt to the Greek Crisis and Beyond
a. Introduction
b. Cavafy’s Fractured Statue
c. Verses in Transit
d. “Violence Is A Dangerous Thing”
e. Debt, Reform, and Violence in Colonies Past and Present
f. Reading-by-Fragments and the Promise of Futurity
Epilogue: Returns and Unknown Destinations
a. Cavafy as Control-freak, Collector, Surgeon, Reluctant Destroyer, Revolutionary
b. Concluding, Or Returning


The Greek Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy (1863–1933) has been recognized as a central figure in European modernism and world literature. His poetry explored the conditions for animating the past and making lost worlds or people haunt the present. Yet he also described himself as “a poet of the future generations.” Indeed, his writings address concerns and desires that permeate the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. How does poetry concerned with the past, memory, loss, and death, carry futurity? How does it haunt, and how is it haunted by, future presents? 

Specters of Cavafy broaches these questions by proposing spectral poetics as a novel approach to Cavafy’s work. Drawing from theorizations of specters and haunting, it develops spectrality as a lens for revisiting Cavafy’s poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, as well as his poetry’s bearing on our present. By examining Cavafy’s spectral poetics, the book’s first part shows how conjurations work in his writings, and how the spectral permeates the entanglement of modernity and haunting, and of irony and affect. The second part traces the afterlives of specific poems in the Western imagination since the 1990s, in Egypt’s history of debt and colonization, and in Greece during the country’s recent debt crisis. Beyond its original contribution to Cavafy studies, the book proposes tools and modes of reading that are broadly applicable in literary and cultural studies.

Maria Boletsi is Marilena Laskaridis Endowed Professor of Modern Greek Studies at the University of Amsterdam and Associate Professor in Film and Comparative Literature at Leiden University. 

“Maria Boletsi has already distinguished herself at the forefront of the new generation of thinkers about Greek literary and cultural matters, and her book on Cavafy is a splendorous confirmation of her unique vision. A talented writer and careful reader, Boletsi navigates the spectral wake of Cavafy's path through the history of literary modernity with incisiveness, subtlety, and graceful reflection.”


- Stathis Gourgouris, Columbia University

"Cavafy’s literary work not only inspires new approaches to literary and cultural analysis, with what is pursued in this book through the concept of spectrality. Due to its exciting merging of the temporalities of present, past, and future, his work inevitably also merges poetic and political issues. In this highly original and sharply critical book, using the concept of spectrality, Boletsi tersely revisits that very special integration that the conceptual metaphor of spectrality enables: of times, of figurations, of forms of address. In other words: of the poetico-political force of words. The separation between fiction and reality loses its relevance. Fiction, the literature that shapes it, is based on it, is an integral part of reality. Only within such a conception can literature contribute new insights into the world, in a way that makes the meeting of present, past and future team up to deal with the anxieties and other affects that surround us."

- Mieke Bal, University of Amsterdam

“Maria Boletsi’s innovative reading of Cavafy offers a compelling reappraisal of the poet’s oracular and enigmatic 'spectrality.' His necromantic aesthetic and transgressive liminality lend his work an almost gothic dimension that is explored with meticulous attention to archival and textual sources.  The book presents an impressive critique of the poetry’s afterlife and our enduring fascination with Cavafy’s spectacular oeuvre."   

- Peter Jeffreys, Suffolk University

“In looking at Cavafy from the strange angle of the specter, Maria Boletsi shows that the poet haunts our present because he understood our past. By returning to Greece’s ancient heritage and his own personal history, Cavafy spooked us with his predictions of the future. And when we arrived at our own time, Boletsi says, we found Cavafy waiting for us with an ironic smile.”

- Gregory Jusdanis, Ohio State University

"Specters of Cavafy is a vivid, incisive, and theoretically sophisticated reflection both on Cavafy’s writing and on the ways in which it “haunts and is haunted by future presents”—including those created by writerly and artistic engagements with as well as social and political mobilizations of his work in an ever-growing list of posthumous contexts and settings. Maria Boletsi is a keen reader, brilliant thinker, and elegant writer; this book will surely haunt the future presents not only of Cavafy studies but of numerous other fields of scholarly endeavor."

- Karen Emmerich, Princeton University

"Maria Boletsi's wide-ranging study of Cavafy’s poetry and prose, both early and late, adds a fascinating new dimension to the poet’s well-known preoccupation with the past and finds in it a theme that permeates his work. Again and again, the past returns as an apparition, a vision, an image, an idol, a shadow, a fantasy, a ghost—as a specter that haunts the present, giving it part of its character and, importantly, receiving some of its own character from it. The shimmering undecidability of their relationship is reflected in Cavafy’s theoretical writings, in his desire to control the sense of his work while also making it available for new interpretations, in the way his poetry itself has been received and, most important, in what Boletsi calls his “reluctant irony,” the sense that the need to hold on to the lessons of the past is as inevitable as the necessity of questioning them."

- Alexander Nehamas, Princeton University

“In this brilliant, engrossing, and important new study, at once dazzlingly far-ranging and admirably fine-grained, Maria Boletsi takes one of the most distinctive Cavafian motifs—the poet’s interest in ghosts, phantoms, apparitions, and hauntings—and persuasively argues for seeing it as the key to an entirely new reading of the poet’s work—a 'poetics of the spectral' that, she demonstrates, informs the entire body of work. This is a remarkable achievement that will be indispensable to all readers and scholars of 'the Alexandrian.'


- Daniel Mendelsohn, Bard College

"What makes things past – including the poems themselves – active forces in future presents?' With this question at the center of her inquiry, Maria Boletsi invites us in a radical rethinking of Cavafy the modernist, the ironist, the queer, the intersectional thinker, the icon of world literature. For Boletsi Cavafy is not elusive; he is a specter persistently returning to define our present. He is not a prophet or a fortune-teller – he is the one who speaks in the uneasy languages of the future. Specters of Cavafy is a brilliant critical intervention, a text showing what it means to be haunted by hope, by time passing, by love. This is a book that will change its field and in that it resembles its subject matter. It is, just as Cavafy’s poems, meant for 'the future generations.'

- Dimitris Papanikolaou, University of Oxford

"In this subtle and intricately rendered study, Boletsi offers a path-breaking analysis of Cavafy’s influential and elusive writings and their wayward reverberations into the present. Gathering Cavafy’s poetry and prose as well as ephemeral writing (diaries and letters) together with contemporary receptions in the political, cultural and visual fields, this book elaborates an incisive and open concept of spectrality as an indispensable new frame of interpretation. Attentive to the archive and yet resolutely and creatively theoretical, this is a major work in the new Cavafy studies."

- Natalie Melas, Cornell University