Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit #10 - Cavafy's Poem

Waiting for the Barbarians by ‎J.M. Coetzee

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit #10 - Cavafy's Poem

Unread post by fireflydances » Mon Aug 19, 2019 9:31 pm

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Constantine Cavafy



Coetzee and Constantine Cavafy's "Waiting for the Barbarians"


In 1898 a Greek poet living in Alexandria, Egypt wrote a poem entitled Waiting for the Barbarians. The poet was Constantine Cavafy. He worked variously for the Egyptian Stock Exchange and Ministry of Public Works until several years before his death in 1933. But his real work was that of poetry. In fact today he is considered “the most distinguished Greek poet of the twentieth century.” (Poetry Foundation)

He rarely published, preferring to circulate his poems among friends. A strong interest in ancient civilizations led Cavafy to draft many poems about the ancient Roman and Greek empires. Almost a hundred years later, Coetzee decided to name his novel after Cavafy's poem Waiting for the Barbarians because it is clear that poem and novel mirror each other. The former offering a distilled version of Coetzee’s novel-sized vision of the paranoid empire which requires ‘the other’ as an organizing principal. As if an empire cannot organize itself without some barbaric horde to rally against. The last line is so telling.

I have included the poem here so that it will be available during our discussion. I wish to thank FANtasticJD for suggesting the tidbit and providing a link to a wonderful translation by Edmund Keeley. Sometimes a second pair of eyes can come in handy.


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





Sources:

Attwell, D. JM Coetzee and the Life of Writing, Face to Face with Time, Penguin Books, 2015.

C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Princeton University Press, 1975 and 1992) Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.


Poetry Foundation ‘C.P.Cavafy’
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit #10 - Cavafy's Poem

Unread post by SnoopyDances » Mon Aug 19, 2019 10:01 pm

:hatsoff: Thanks FF and FantasticJD.

Very interesting tidbits, as always.

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit #10 - Cavafy's Poem

Unread post by fireflydances » Tue Aug 20, 2019 10:55 am

Thank you snoopy! And yeah, I am glad I added it.
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies