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Thursday, October 21, 2010

EXPECTING THE BARBARIANS

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Greek poet of the late 19th century and the early 20th, Constantine P. Cavafy, lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the Greek community there. Greek communities flourished in the Mediterranean port cities due to Greek shipping that goes all the way back to Homer's stories of the Trojan War and the adventures of Odysseus on his way home from the war. Cavafy lived a modest life and wrote some beautiful poems. One of his poems stays with me all down through time. Expecting the Barbarians seems to me a pattern that repeats often in perhaps every place. It is written around the belief that barbarians (outsiders, others who are not us) will come to save us, because we can't save ourselves.



It begins:
What are we waiting for, assembled in the public square?

The barbarians are to arrive today.

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the senators sit and pass no laws?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What further laws can the senators pass?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.



Through the course of the poem it is often repeated, "Because the barbarians are to arrive today." What is pictured as a kind of Roman government with red embroidered togas, bracelets amethyst-studded, emerald rings, canes made of silver and gold. "Because the barbarians are to arrive today / and such things dazzle the barbarians."



The perhaps capital city in the poem is ready to turn itself over entirely to the barbarians, outsiders, people from someplace else. Historically, I think of Genghis Khan, when he approached a city (medieval times) he gave them a choice. Give the mongols all their finery, horses, money, to keep them from killing everybody and burning down the city. It's never clear in the poem if the barbarians are a threat or if they will they create jobs.



I think of Bristol Compressors. Outsiders moving in to be management for the new factory. The town of Sparta went nuts. Outsiders coming to save us, because we cannot save ourselves. White liquid shoe polish writings on Main St windows welcoming Bristol Compressors, parties, the town government giving Bristol all kinds of tax breaks, electrical deals, a very expensive welcome package. Everybody jumping up and down. The barbarians are to arrive today. They're going to bring jobs and save us. They brought in management, hired a few workers, left before the end of their contract, refused to pay the fine for breaking the contract and that was that.



Teapot museum was an outsider from California, a rich barbarian offering his teapot collection to vitalize a small mountain town that didn't want it. All the town had to do was come up with enough millions to make the kind of museum he demanded. All the way along I'm thinking, you want the damn museum, you put up the money. We who don't want it don't have the money. Rich barbarian fell through, withdrew his collection and Sparta's attempt at a small museum fell through thanks to the ED (economic downturn). Mrs Rich Barbarian was quoted in the Winston-Salem Journal calling Sparta "a black hole," she who comes from Los Angeles Society, a bigger black hole. Maybe she knows one when she sees one.



The half of the county population here from other places, barbarians, outsiders, were behind the teapot museum for something to save us. The mountain portion of the population never could figure out what a teapot museum had to do with Sparta. The only tea ever drank here was iced tea with sugar. No pots, no fancy cups. Tall plastic glass with plenty of ice and a straw. That's tea drinking in Sparta. Sweet tea. Lemon maybe. Alas, another barbarian appealed to for our salvation when we can't help ourselves.



I've often wondered if this general belief that we of the county cannot help ourselves, that we need an outsider to come in and save us, might be based in that most foundation of Baptist beliefs, that we cannot save ourselves. Only Jesus can save us. It's a different kind of save we're talking about for Sparta, but I have a feeling we're held back by a general belief we can't save ourselves. It's so drilled into us from the time we're kids that we can't save ourselves, when in another context of the word save we can indeed save ourselves. I fall out of a boat, I save myself by swimming. If I say, I can't save myself, I go to the bottom.



Cavafy's poem changes when confusion starts, streets and squares clearing of people going home, "deep in thought."

Some people arrived from the frontiers,
And they said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.



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