Kwame Anthony Appiah in IAI:
“And now what will become of us without barbarians? / Those people were a kind of solution.”
—C. P. Cavafy, “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1898)
Perhaps you know this poem? Constantine Cavafy was a writer whose every identity came with an asterisk, a quality he shared with Italo Svevo. Born two years after Svevo, he died only a few years after him. Cavafy was a Greek who never lived in Greece. A government clerk of Eastern Orthodox Christian upbringing in a tributary state of a Muslim empire that was under British occupation for most of his life, he spent his evenings on foot, looking for pagan gods in their incarnate, carnal versions. He was a poet who resisted publication, save for broadsheets he circulated among close friends; a man whose homeland was a neighborhood, and a dream. Much of his poetry is a map of Alexandria overlaid with a map of the classical world— modern Alexandria and ancient Athens— in the way that Leopold Bloom’s Dublin neighborhood underlies Odysseus’s Ithaca. No single sentence captures this Alexandrian genius better than E. M. Forster’s evocation of him as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” 1 And I conjure Cavafy, here, at journey’s end, because I want to persuade you that he is representative precisely in all his seeming anomalousness.
Poems, like identities, never have just one interpretation. But in Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” I see a reflection on the promise and the peril of identity. All day the anticipation and the anxiety build as the locals wait for the barbarians, who are coming to take over the city. The emperor in his crown, the consuls in their scarlet togas, the silent senate and the voiceless orators wait with the assembled masses to accept their arrival. And then, as evening falls, and they do not appear, what is left is only disappointment. We never see the barbarians. We never learn what they are actually like. But we do see the power of our imagination of the stranger. And, Cavafy hints, it’s possible that the mere prospect of their arrival could have saved us from ourselves.