Thursday, May 1, 2014

Waiting for the barbarians, Constantine Cavafy

Today, I'd like to introduce you to a poem written by a greek poet, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933). It is one of the so-called historical/political poems by Cavafy, which has had quite a success, be it in Greece, or internationally. It was notably the source of inspiration for Coetzee's novel Waiting for the Barbarians. I love this poem because, even though it might appear as a little old fashioned, if you were to change the words that relate to the Roman Empire and replace them with terms of today, you would see our society clearly represented. It is as if under its appearance, its meaning is one that can apply to any country, any time, any crisis, any war, etc. It is about a town waiting to be besieged by barbarians. The town seems to have stopped its everyday life, and prepared itself for the disaster that's about to happen. They've so much prepared themselves to the besieging that they even thought of wearing things and talking in a way that the invaders might prefer. In other words, they have resigned themselves to the catastrophe awaiting them. But then, as it happens, no barbarians came after all, and instead of feeling relieved, the city inhabitants feel disappointed. 

Actually, there were never any barbarians in the first place, just a common frenzy for a change and for action. These people were ready to believe anything that would make them leave their everyday lives, but by focusing on a threat that came from the outside, rather than trying to figure out what goes on on the inside. Which, I think, is a common pattern to all societies, even today, or if I dare say, even more so today. As I said in some previous articles, there seems to be a constant frenzy and fear of THE stranger in our society, as if strangers were a threat to us, we perceive them as invaders. As if it were these people that were bringing our society's problems with them, like a luggage or something. While our society's problems lie in society itself, it doesn't come from the outside. And if society was indeed as well-built as is pretended, than nothing or nobody could be a threat to it. But this is also what we do as individuals, isn't it? We always try to find what is wrong with other people, but we never seem to focus half as much on our personal flaws or issues, now does that ring any bell?

Anyway, here's the poem! I hope you'll like it as much as I do, and that it will put you into much thought.

Waiting for the Barbarians

By Constantine Cavafy (1864-1933), translated by Edmund Keeley

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.

Have a great day, and keep your mind sharp!

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