C. P. Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1904) has been adapted and restaged in art, music, and literature throughout the twentieth century. Since the early 1990s, and especially since the events on 11 September 2001, however, it seems to be haunting the Western imaginary. Its various allegorical uses in the press and cultural theory demonstrate the poem’s prominent figuration in debates about post-Cold War and post-9/11 realities. Cavafy’s poem is mobilized in critiques of the American Empire. It helps express the fear of others or of the unknown after the purported rupture of 9/11. But it also captures the desire for overturning saturated systems and forming new narratives and communities in the context of the financial crisis and recent protest movements. Besides functioning as an allegorical formula for capturing contemporary (global) realities, the poem also assumes a mediating function in current debates: it seeks alternative expressive modes, beyond metaphysical truths and essentialist oppositions, as well as beyond cultural relativism. This function takes effect through the poem’s evocation of two genealogies of “barbarism”: a negative and an affirmative one. The poem neither rejects nor fully affirms either of these genealogies. It thereby generates a kind of irony that can be termed “reluctant” in its questioning of and simultaneous attraction to metaphysics and presence. Through its reluctant irony, the poem seeks a viable practice of living in liminal times—a practice much needed in (our) times of crisis.


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pp. 55-80
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