Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

“A Kind of Solution”: Cavafy’s Barbarians

Aaron Belz


May 10, 2013

By Aaron Belz 

In the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy’s vision, art speaks to politics as the uncivilized to the civilized— a wild enemy approaching the gate. “What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?” begins his 1904 poem “???????????? ???? ?????????” (“Waiting for the Barbarians”). “The barbarians are due here today,” replies the indented second line, invoking a question-and-answer structure that continues throughout the poem.

“Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?” begins the third stanza, and the fourth repeats the original answer, adding, “What’s the point of senators making laws now? / Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.” It’s a power play, described by unidentified voices, that escalates step by step, becoming more specific. Why are the politicians wearing “embroidered … scarlet togas” and why have they “put on bracelets with so many amethysts, / rings sparkling”? The barbarians are coming, and they’re easily dazzled, answers the second voice.

The reader perceives a sense of fearful anticipation among the people of the town, but in the ninth and tenth stanzas, Cavafy introduces a different sense. Asked why “our distinguished orators” are nowhere to be found, the second voice explains that their orations would bore the barbarians. Barbarians want something more exciting, more dazzling, more spectacular than orderly government.

Human nature craves excitement. Even politicians must not be too enthusiastic about the prospect of listening to speeches and casting votes. Perhaps they’re just as bored as those incoming barbarians by “the conversation of the highly trained” that W. H. Auden describes in his poem “The Embassy.” Cavafy’s barbarians embody a vital antithesis to the quotidian business of the State— a colorful, unpredictable, and dazzling spectacle to be both feared and desired. But it’s not just excitement that the barbarians bring. Cavafy has made it clear that they will usurp power: “they’ll do the legislating.”

The volta, or turn, in this poem occurs in its eleventh stanza: “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?” The answer begins, “Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.” Rumor has it they no longer even exist. The poem’s concluding couplet—“Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? / Those people were a kind of solution”—spoken by the first voice, implies a new synthesis: the barbaric subsumed into the expected practice of the official.

This paradigm extends beyond art, of course, to the polarities of war and peace, life and death, male and female, even good and evil. It is ubiquitous in literature, from Milton’s God and Satan to Twain’s authoritarian Aunt Polly and superstitious outsider Jim; Huck Finn’s balancing act between the two realms is what ultimately produces his quintessentially American character. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the paradigm takes the form of the town’s social orderliness contrasted with the forest’s romantic wildness, which is full of necessary magic because it is unknown. The child Pearl symbolizes a synthesis of the two poles.

While the paradigm is productive for art and literature, it may not be so productive for political culture in the United States. Historically, other societies have done a better job of offsetting the order of the State with the madness of art found in human wildness, eroticism, and unpredictability. Ancient kings consulted shamans and witches, oracles and wise men. They commissioned music for banquets. They danced. Medieval France and England had game hunts and court jesters that became the stuff of their epic poetry. But they also hung enemies’ corpses from their city gates.

Obviously times have changed. We don’t want to return to barbarism, and we don’t want evil. Nor do we want the hedonism of the bacchanal. But it seems that our government could allow for a bit of healthy wildness, something more aggressive than Michelle Obama’s White House music series but just short of allowing our best graffiti artists access to the Pentagon’s exterior. We could use more pageantry, our own Coliseum of American splendors. Such cultural changes would contribute to the public good in a practical way. They would signal the same hope Cavafy’s barbarians promised their fictional townsfolk: that there is life beyond the bureaucracy, the expected patois, the nine-to-five way of doing things. There is unpredictable beauty that challenges the quotidian, a grace that shocks us back to life, satisfying and exceeding the demands of the law.

—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010). 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”