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15 May 2019

So who are the Barbarians?



I know I’ve written here before about Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”, but another thought about how apt it is in the current circumstance has just occurred to me. To recap briefly, it’a a piece written at the turn of the twentieth century and describes the situation of an - unnamed - city-state, we presume of Ancient Greece, where everything has shut down and the population and their leaders are all dressed up to the nines and milling around the forum. Why? Because they have been told that today the barbarians will arrive and that they will take over the state. So the people, the senators, the emperor, all are in a fever of excitement to welcome the barbarians, who will assume the responsibilities that seemingly have become too much for the citizens themselves and their leaders to handle.

The second verse reads as follows:

“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.”

This morning, the radio and the newspapers were full of the fact that the current sitting of the UK Parliament is now the longest since the one that sat through the Civil War and its aftermath between 1640 and 1660 (to be absolutely accurate, it sat from 1640 until 1648, when it was purged by Cromwell's New Model Army, but then resumed in 1658, after Cromwell's death, until 1660).  And yet, our legislators have finished early in recent days, because they have no business to discuss. It’s a hollow parliament, sitting because to bring it to an end and start a new session would - in the current electoral arithmetic - probably bring about disaster for all of the main players. So they sit doing nothing except endlessly rehashing the Brexit debate, desperate for some outside force to change something. Is that not what Cavafy describes? “What’s the point of senators making laws now? Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.”

So who are the barbarians who are going to solve the problem? 

Are they are the massed ranks of the EU, flexing their fingers across the Channel ready to do all the legislating they can, to ensure their dominance over the domestic rule-makers?

Or are they already here infiltrated amongst us, the Brexit populists ready poised with their  slogans and war-cries to grasp their opportunity and take power?

Whichever side you tend towards, look at the end of the poem; disturbingly, this seems to be almost where we are………


“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.”


For me, I guess the true barbarians - in the normal usage of the word now - were the ones who originally posed the question and then fled the scene without resolving the problem they had created, leaving the majority of the people waiting, “assembled in the forum. The barbarians are due here today.”



And here, in its entirety, is the poem: it’s a haunting read.



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.


("Waiting for the Barbarians", by CP Cavafy.)



  

   

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