1. Why Waiting for the Barbarians?

    Waiting for the Barbarians


    —What is it that we are waiting for, gathered in the square?

           The barbarians are supposed to arrive today.

    —Why is there such great idleness inside the Senate house?

       Why are the Senators sitting there, without passing any laws?

           Because the barbarians will arrive today.
           Why should the Senators still be making laws?
           The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.

    —Why is it that our Emperor awoke so early today,
       and has taken his position at the greatest of the city’s gates
       seated on his throne, in solemn state, wearing the crown?

           Because the barbarians will arrive today.
           And the emperor is waiting to receive
           their leader. Indeed he is prepared
           to present him with a parchment scroll. In it
           he’s conferred on him many titles and honorifics.

    —Why have our consuls and our praetors come outside today
       wearing their scarlet togas with their rich embroidery,
       why have they donned their armlets with all their amethysts,
       and rings with their magnificent, glistening emeralds;
       why should they be carrying such precious staves today,
       maces chased exquisitely with silver and with gold?

           Because the barbarians will arrive today;
           and things like that bedazzle the barbarians.

    —Why do our worthy orators not come today as usual
       to deliver their addresses, each to say his piece?

            Because the barbarians will arrive today;
            and they’re bored by eloquence and public speaking.

    —Why has this uneasiness arisen all at once,
        and this confusion? (How serious the faces have become.)
        Why is it that the streets and squares are emptying so quickly,
        and everyone’s returning home in such deep contemplation?

           Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
           And some people have arrived from the borderlands,
           and said there are no barbarians anymore,

    And now what’s to become of us without barbarians.
    Those people were a solution of a sort.

    — “Waiting for the Barbarians”, by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn in Collected Poems, and then used as the title for Mendelsohn’s new collection of essays. He explains the title in his foreword: “The poem is about confounded expectations in more ways than one. There’s the disappointed anticipation of the waiting emperor and his people, of course, but even more, perhaps, there are the oddly thwarted expectations of the reader of the poem, which have been set up by that sonorous, portentous, and now-famous title. Detached from it’s context, the phrase ‘waiting for the barbarians,’ which has been used as everything from the title of a novel by J. M. Coetzee to the name of a chic men’s clothing store in Paris, seems to be about the plight of civilization perilously under siege by the crude forces of barbarity. And yet Cavafy himself clearly saw it differently. A note he wrote in 1904, the year he published the poem, indicates that for him it was ‘not at all opposed to my optimistic notion’—that it represented, indeed, ‘an episode in the progress toward the good.’”

Notes

  1. rosieroti reblogged this from nyrbclassics
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  3. berfrois reblogged this from nyrbclassics and added:
    Waiting for the Barbarians — “Waiting for the Barbarians”, by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn in Collected...
  4. marginalutilite reblogged this from theredshoes
  5. theredshoes reblogged this from nyrbclassics and added:
    Just got this! On the Kindle. Mendelsohn is great.
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