Constantine Cavafy, the Greek poet writing in 1898 in his adopted homeland, Egypt, understood the ebb and flow of political events and the turmoil of change. His parents, with Greek and Turkish heritage, had settled in Alexandria, where Cavafy was born. He learned to speak half a dozen languages.
Egypt in the 1890s was a turbulent place. Greece scarcely better. The British occupied Egypt from 1882 and didn’t leave until 1922, and in that time the Mahdist War broke out, mainly due to the debts the country had incurred. In Constantinople an Armenian revolt was brutally crushed, and Cavafy, whose origins were associated more in Alexandria and Constantinople than in Athens, was dealt a cruel blow when the British fleet bombarded Alexandria and his books and letters were burned. Cavafy later renounced his British citizenship.
Although the family left Alexandria for England in 1872 and lived in Liverpool, where they had business offices, Cavafy and Co as a merchant company was wound up in 1877 and the family returned to Alexandria once more.
Essentially the Cavafy family were wanderers, living mainly in Alexandria but visiting Constantinople and Athens as well as England. They saw at first hand the changes that followed from political upheaval.
Who were the Barbarians in the poem? The English, who were heavily involved in the fighting and cared little, it seemed, for libraries; the Sudanese fighters allied to the Egyptian army, or the Turks crushing the Armenian nation? What the poem captures is the passivity of the crowd, who stand and wait, expecting something to happen.
The New Yorker published a superb piece on ‘Waiting For The Barbarians’ and the Government Shutdown, by Daniel Mendelsohn on Feb.3rd. The parallels are well drawn. The Senate is silenced. Everyone is waiting, silent and expectant. There is a hint of punishment to come. There is also the promise of rewards for the right people. There is also ‘a perverse yearning for some violent crisis that might invigorate the state.’
Sounds familiar? Cavafy saw history repeated in his own lifetime, over and over again. He saw apathy and lack of willingness to tackle the difficult tasks of government as dangerous inaction, and disliked the self-serving, indolent attitudes of the rich and powerful.
In our time, present leaders appear as barbarians and are held up as dangerous bogeymen, yet there’s a secret wish within the population for the overthrow of the old order, no matter what the cost.
When the bogeymen go missing, or simply fail to appear, who can we blame? If the Barbarians don’t put in an appearance, we’ll have to take on any changes ourselves. This could be dangerous. Our inner barbarians are never far from the surface.