Barbarian Encounters: Rethinking Barbarism in C. P. Cavafy's and J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians
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Barbaric Encounters:
Rethinking Barbarism in C. P. Cavafy'S And J. M. Coetzee'S Waiting For The Barbarians

The reign of independent barbarism is now contracted to a narrow span; and the remnant of Calmucks or Uzbecks, whose forces may be almost numbered, cannot seriously excite the apprehensions of the great republic of Europe. Yet this apparent security should not tempt us to forget that new enemies and unknown dangers may possibly arise from some obscure people, scarcely visible in the map of the world.

-Edward Gibbon1

Reflecting on the second half of the eighteenth century, Edward Gibbon points out in chapter 38 of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that the barbarians, as they were known in Roman times, have disappeared. At the same time, he does not believe that the "republic of Europe"-the domain of civilization in Enlightenment thought-should rest assured. The barbarian threat to civilization is always there in "scarcely visible," "obscure people." The more invisible and obscure they are, the more they tantalize the civilized imagination. Their invisibility fosters the myth around them and enhances its threatening force.

Barbarian enemies (or so the story goes) do not just wait to confront the troops of the civilized world on the battlefield. Their threat is that of invasion from the outside into domestic territory, which would violently disrupt a prosperous community and force civilization to return to a primitive, barbaric state. "inline graphic" ["Waiting for the Barbarians"], a poem written in 1904 by the Greek Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, [End Page 67] and J. M. Coetzee's novel with the exact same title in English (1980) both unravel around the anticipation of such an invasion, which never actually takes place.2

Barbarism and civilization are opposed and interdependent concepts. In this opposition, the notion of the barbarian operates as the constitutive outside of civilization and feeds the superiority of the civilized. In terms of its etymology, the ancient Greek word barbarian [inline graphic] is supposed to imitate the incomprehensible mumblings of the language of foreign peoples, sounding like "bar-bar" (or, as we would say today, "bla bla"). As such, it has a double implication: on a first level, it signifies a lack of understanding on the part of the other, since the language of the other is perceived as meaningless sounds. At the same time, it suggests an unwillingness to understand the other's language and thus to make the encounter with the other a communicative occasion. Consequently, the term barbarian entails a collective construction of the other in a way that helps define the civilized subject itself-by specifying its negative limits. In this construction, the other is supposedly invalidated because it can never speak back and question its construction (its language would not be understood). The barbarian thus appears as an abjected outside, which, according to Judith Butler, is always inside the subject "as its own founding repudiation."3

The conditions according to which the pair civilization/barbarism has remained operational from its birth in ancient Greece until today have been under constant change. Nevertheless, despite the historically variable interrelationship between the two concepts and the changes in the semantic space that they occupy, such categories in history appear as ahistorical entities, operating in time but not themselves historicized.4 Within the foundationalist discourse of history, the oppositional pair civilization/barbarism is naturalized, posing as the way things have always been.

The opposition becomes established in ancient Greece with the Persian Wars. As we see in Herodotus, the criterion for the opposition between Greeks and barbarians is not only linguistic but cultural differences as well-Greek democracy, freedom, and logos as principles and ways of life, as opposed to the decadent luxury, lax morality, servile manners, and despotism of the Persians. However, the connotation of savageness that we ascribe to the word today does not become standardized until the barbarian invasions of Rome.5

During the Enlightenment, thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and others expressed their skepticism about the merits of civilization and invented the well-known image of the "noble savage," who is closer to nature and more pure than the decadent and corrupt "civilized" [End...