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Waiting for the Barbarians in Paris, Berlin, London

Sunday, 15 November, 2015

«la France sera impitoyable à l’égard des barbares» said French President François Hollande in response to the Islamist terror that left 129 people dead in Paris on Friday night. Hollande’s evocation of “the barbarians” makes Waiting for the Barbarians, written by the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in 1898 and published in Egypt in 1904, seem particularly prescient today.

In a huge square in an unnamed city (Athens? Rome? Constantinople?), the emperor is preparing to present a “scroll” that is “replete with titles” to the designated barbarian leader. Not that the brutal fighter will care. He can take what he wants, anyway, and there will be no negotiations. As Cavafy notes, the barbarians are “bored by rhetoric and public speaking.” Oratory and punditry, laziness and luxury have made the empire cynical and soft and the citizens have lost interest in politics: “What laws can the senators make now? Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.”

Cavafy delays until the last two lines before tossing in the hand grenade. The crowd is, in fact, waiting eagerly for the barbarians: “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

One can picture a decadent polis, after a lengthy culture war, longing for a radical solution to the empire’s crisis. Cavafy’s bigger point is that barbarians have been at the gates since the dawn of civilization and their presence always poses an existential test for leaders and nations. When the barbarians arrive, when concert-goers and diners are being slaughtered, action is needed. That’s why the supine appeasement Cavafy brilliantly evokes in Waiting for the Barbarians is so loathsome.

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
     The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

     Because the barbarians are coming today.
     What laws can the senators make now?
     Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
     He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
     replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
      And some who have just returned from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933). Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard


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