Friday, September 18, 2009

Waiting for the Barbarians

"A Roman Slave Market" or "Selling Slaves in Rome" by Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904)

"Phryne before the Areopagus" by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1861 Click on the picture to see it larger.

Waiting for the Barbarians
A poem by Constantine Cavafy

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.

"The Roman Slave market" by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1867)

Read a novelWaiting for the Barbarians” inspired by this poem by J M Coetzee.
"The story is set in small frontier town of a nameless empire. The town's magistrate is the story's main protagonist and narrator. His rather peaceful existence on the frontier comes to an end with the arrival of some special forces of the Empire, led by a sinister Colonel Joll. There are rumours that the barbarians are preparing an attack on the Empire, and so Colonel Joll and his men conduct an expedition into the land beyond the frontier. They capture a number of "barbarians," bring them back to town, torture them, kill some of them, and leave for the capital in order to prepare a larger campaign against the barbarians. In the meantime, the Magistrate becomes involved with a "barbarian girl" who was left behind crippled and blinded by the torturers. Eventually, he decides to take her back to her people. After a life-threatening trip through the barren land he succeeds in his objective and returns to his town. Shortly thereafter, the Empire's forces return and the Magistrate's own plight begins."

Author Rian Malan has said about Coetzee's personality that: "He is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word."

Pollice Verso (1872) Click on the picture to see it larger.

A quote from Coetzee:

"…I would contend that we all suffered, together. We lived an impoverished intellectual life, just as we lived an impoverished cultural life and an impoverished spiritual life. If there is any general thesis in the book, it is that the unintended or not-fully- intended consequences tend to be more significant than the intended consequences" (Coetzee, as quoted in WLT).

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