Monday, March 23, 2015

Photios Kontoglou on American Writers (Emerson, Poe and Dana)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Dr. Constantine Cavarnos

On November 21 [1958], the day after my first lecture on American philosophy, which was on Ralph Waldo Emerson, I visited Kontoglou at his home. He had not come to my lecture. As I noted earlier, he hardly ever left home in the evening. And, so far as I know, he never attended public lectures. He had some acquaintance with Emerson's essays and regarded him as a great philosopher. Emerson was one of the few American writers that really interested him. The others were Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and Richard Henry Dana (1815-1882).

He asked me to tell him some of the things in Emerson's philosophy that I considered a special significance and which I discussed in my lecture. I mentioned Emerson's emphasis on the soul, his ethical and metaphysical idealism, his distinction between "beauty in nature", which is perishable, and "inward and eternal beauty", and his views on the fine arts, particularly his conviction that higher art is characterized by simplicity, universality, and spirituality. With all these features of Emerson's philosophy he was in sympathy, and he was glad I brought them to the attention of my audience.

Poe he admired more than any other American writer. He regarded Poe as profound, metaphysical, religious. At one of our meetings, during which Poe's name was mentioned, Kontoglou observed that Poe had written a hymn to the Theotokos and had occupied himself with religious themes. He had become acquainted with Poe's works through French translations made by Baudelaire. At an early age, he informed me, he had translated some of Poe's short stories, but these were lost in 1922, during his flight from Asia Minor. In the periodical Philike Hetairia (Friendly Society), which he published in 1925, he included his translation of Poe's short story Shadow. And in his article Giatriko tes Psyches (Medicine for the Soul), which appeared in Eleutheria on January 3, 1965, he mentions something which Poe had said about books in the future.

Today, the world has become filled with books, and I recall Edgar Allan Poe who has written somewhere that after one hundred years there would be published so many books by all sorts of persons, that even those who love books will come to have an aversion for the book. And his prediction has turned out to be true.

Edgar Allan Poe

Of Richard Henry Dana, Kontoglou translated part of his book Two Years Before the Mast. His translation, together with a prologue, has been published in Volume 2 of his Works, which is titled Indomitable Souls (Adamastes Psyches; Athens, 1962, pp. 340-368). In his prologue, he says:

In this book Dana speaks about hardships that existed on American ships at the time when they were propelled by sails, and about the hardheartedness which many captains showed towards their sailors. It has been written by an American named Richard Henry Dana, whom it made famous.... First printed in 1840, it has been translated into many languages. But not into Greek.... That book made a deep impression on those who read it, and contributed much to the improvement of the life of the unfortunate seamen on American vessels. Besides having an ethical message, Dana's book is beautifully written. It is a story describing great suffering, cruelty and fright, written by a sensitive and Christian soul.

Meetings With Kontoglou by Constantine Cavarnos (Institute For Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Belmont, MA, 1992) pp. 56-59.