Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
       The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?
       Because the barbarians are coming today.
       What's the point of senators making laws now?
       Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city's main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?
       Because the barbarians are coming today
       and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
       He's even got a scroll to give him,
       loaded 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,
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 turn up 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 bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?
       Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
       And some of our men just in from the border say
       there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

C P Cavafy (1863 - 1933)

Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Translation Copyright © 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard   

This poem has occupied me since I read an article on Kuwait before Iraq's invasion.  Finishing it, I thought if this were a person unconsciously they would be hoping that something externally would break in to change their situation.  A society radically transformed from tradition to an emptiness sated only by shopping! I am reminded of it again when I was thinking of 'Uncivilization' and its presumption that we will not make an orderly (or voluntary) transformation to a genuinely sustainable society. The external conditions (and limits) will necessarily chastise us. 

I sense in Cavafy's poem the suggestion that emptiness requires external forces to transform it - and it occurs to me that our continuing failure to take the steps necessary to find a renewable future is driven by an unconscious inability to step forth without pressure from without. We invite destruction, conjure forth 'barbarians' because we cannot take the steps into uncertainty without such pressure.

It is, after all, a central motif of popular science fiction - in films, by way of example, the alien invasion of 'Independence Day' or the 'natural' catastrophe of "2012' -only then (under external pressure) can we rediscover the values of collaboration and living within limits. 

It is not an encouraging motif!


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