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Konstantinos Kavafis - 'Waiting for the Barbarians'

I woke this morning contemplating Rudolf Steiner's musings on Ahriman, which I won't go into here, and felt drawn to Peter Kingsley's 'A Story Waiting to Pierce You.' Tucked away in his notes is a brief reference to Konstantinos Kavafis' poem '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. Source: C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Princeton University Press, 1975)


We might say, as Kingsley does, what we civilised people deem barbarian is a projection of our own cultural shadow. We see darkness in the other and recoil in fear, too afraid to confront this darkness within ourselves; we fail to appreciate the ecstatic wildness represented by our uncivilised brothers. The barbarian belongs to nature, prefers shelter to architectural structure, the high steppes to coastal shores, prophetic shamans to private cisterns. There is no certainty with barbarians, nor ability to control what they confront us with. We see their destruction and disregard for brick and mortar as anathema to our comforting, consistent way of life; we are subdued below while they live free above. But what, we ask, is it to see with barbarian eyes? What is it in our living that to them is a death to be destroyed? Perhaps it is the unploughed field, beyond the threshold of our imagination, that stirs their heart.


John Moriarty in his book 'Dreamtime' describes an encounter with a rabbit (maybe a hare) while walking out in nature. The rabbit rests within a flattened hollow of grass. The two observe each the other until the rabbit darts away. Moriarty in that moment prostrates himself, pressing his head into the scent and hollow just now vacated by his unsought companion. He pleads for all his Western knowledge to be sucked from him, to enter into the mysteries of existence. He is beyond the threshold of rationality and certainty in this moment, an initiate in what to another might appear as wistful folly. Yet there is a deeper truth in his encounter and yearning. It is the call of the barbarian within.


Kingsley begins his book with a line from Kavafis' poem. Already the barbarians are at the gate. Whether those words speak to one of guarding against or are there to act as a form of radical hospitality is left unspoken. He invites you to discover that for yourself.


Another poem to end for now, this time from WB Yeats, 'The Second Coming':


Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

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