Archive for October 27th, 2021

Wretched -Faces Off

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.
C.P. Cavafy, Waiting For the Barbarians

Been reading some verse lately from Constantine P. Cavafy, the great Greek poet who lived from 1863 until 1933. He lived his entire life in Alexandria, Egypt and his work often captured the sensual and exotic cosmopolitan feel of that time and place. Readers of Lawrence Durrell and his Alexandria Quartet, in which Cavafy appears as a character, will know what I mean.

Though Cavafy was known for his poetry among the Greek community in Alexandria he spent most of his life working as civil servant. He didn’t actively seek widespread acclaim, turning down opportunities to have his work published while often opting to print broadsheets of his poetry that were distributed to only a few friends. His work didn’t realize wider acclaim until later in his life (and afterwards) when his friend, novelist E.M.Forster, wrote about his work, describing him as a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.

I love that description.

The lines at the top are from one of his most famous poems, Waiting For the Barbarians. It’s about a small principality in decline, with its governing bodies and citizens frozen in anticipation of an invasion from unnamed barbarians. It has a timely feel as it describes the power that fear plays in autocracies, how vilifying one’s opposition — the barbarians– is used as a tool to both govern and stoke fanatic nationalism in its fanatic followers, who in turn intimidate those seeking reasonable discussion and solutions to the problems faced by the nation as a whole.

The problem with this sort of strategy is that once that the strawmen created out of fear are proven to be less than formidable or even nonexistent, how does an autocrat keep control? 

Most likely they create new barbarians, someone newly found to fear and despise. Even if those strawmen turn out to be those people who hold the key to best addressing the needs of the citizens.

But, of course, even that strategy has an endpoint. We may find out for ourselves here, unfortunately, if we fail to pay attention in the next few years.

Here’s a fine reading of Cavafy’s poem from Miles Young, Warden of New College Oxford though I probably chose this particular version because of its use of gargoyles. There is also a bit of commentary at its conclusion.

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