Waiting for the Barbarians is certainly an imperfect movie. The performances by Robert Pattinson and Johnny Depp, for example, are one-dimensional, and the latter regrettably seems reduced to doing caricatures of other actors doing Johnny Depp caricatures. But, like the Apartheid-era novel by South Africa author J.M. Coetzee, the film is a relevant cautionary tale. An un-named empire imagines a threat on its borders, generates an actual threat, and pays a steep price.
The poet: Constantine Cavafy
Waiting for the Barbarians may indeed draw from the 1976 film version of the Italian novel Il deserto dei tartari (translated into English as The Tartar Steppe) and its 1976 film version. But we should not overlook Coetzee’s explicit intellectual debt to Constantine P. Cavafy, arguably the greatest modern Greek poet. It was in fact Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” that provided the title for Coetzee’s novel.
Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1863, and died there seventy years later. His work is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the city created by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE that served as a crucial center of power and culture for 700 years, succumbing to civil strife as Christianity advanced, before falling to the Persians and Muslim Arabs in the 600s CE. It would not return to prominence until the 1700s. Alexandrine Greeks know something of the rise and fall of empires. Cavafy seems more interested in the decline and decadence phase.
”Waiting for the Barbarians” is Cavafy’s portrait of an unspecified imperial capital that has literally stopped dead in its tracks, waiting for a visit by the leader of “the barbarians” and his entourage. Senators sit without legislating. (Sound familiar?) The emperor sits at the city gate, waiting to give the barbarian leader a scroll. (Today it might be a beautiful letter.) Officials rely on flashy dress and jewelry to dazzle the barbarians. The leading orators stay home, since barbarians are notoriously impatient with rhetoric.
But suddenly, everyone goes home, perturbed and puzzled.
“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.”
“Useful barbarians” strikes me as a currently relevant concept, unfortunately. It doesn’t take much to be a barbarian these days, in the eyes of some people, and to have that identity exploited for political purposes. Perhaps it’s enough to have been born in the US of non-US-citizen parents. (My own situation, as well as Kamala Harris’s.) Perhaps it’s enough to speak English as your second language. (Also my situation.) And who can forget the barbarian caravan supposedly marching on the US southern border before the 2018 elections? Barbarians who suddenly vanished, just like Cavafy’s. Poetry and history can shed light on the present.