"Quanta...like spit in the dust of a baseball field" - Cody

November 30, 2004

The Barbarians Are Among Us

After reading J.M. Coetzee's novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, which deals with Empire and the moral ambiguities its functionaries must navigate during times of decline, the image of Snoopy on this blog's home page seems quite appropriate, or more accurately, the way I've characterized his image, Snoopy guides an empire to grace, seems quite remarkable. It's true I've had empire on my mind for quite a while, most probably due to some very earnest and enjoyable discussions with my friend Dan Small several years back.

I had even started an allegory of my own about empire. But that story was complicated by trying to write about animals, while Coetzee has used the stock characters of empire in a powerful way. The situations he creates exposes the elusive truth that when power is employed in its own defense, and unjustly diminishes human values, it expedites its own demise. He gives achingly detailed accounts of torture, struggles against nature, and twisted desires that could never be transposed onto animals without sacrificing the essential kernel of humanity.

And he is able to carry his main character through the most difficult of redemptions; recovering humanity after beastly humiliations.

But what I really want to say about what this book teaches is that we are living in a time where we cannot afford to forget the main message of this novel. That the barbarians, which the characters in this novel so greatly fear, exist within each person. All of humanity--you, your family, coworkers, every single person that you know--is capable of the grossest acts of brutality, if the situation compels it. Safe at home, or where ever you are reading this, such situations are remote and not likely to be encountered. But when you commute to your job or your school, how many homeless people do you see and what do you do about it? What did the soldiers at Abu Graib do to stop the atrocities their fellow soldiers were committing?

I'll tell you, people beg of me every day for money, and what compassion do I show them? The days are few when I bother to even say "Sorry," and you can be sure that the tone of my voice doesn't acknowledge the suffering, the humiliation that I repeatedly ignore.

When we have stopped valuing certain forms of humanity's diverse expressions, when some people are people, some are homeless, some are terrorists, and some are religious, and the basic rights and respect that we afford them are contingent on which group they fall within, the barbarians are already among us.

Let no one mistake me: every society will confront another that is bent on destroying them, eventually. In the case of citizens of the American empire, who find themselves on many continents other than North America and whose nationalities could be any one of dozens, we have reason to fear the forces of terrorism around the world. But we must remain cognizant of how that fear influences our actions. We must be vigilant, that our values are not compromised in our quest to feel more secure. And we must at all times question: are the actions committed in our name really bringing the security we desire?

If one considers the recent election in the United States against the backdrop of history, we have to seriously consider where American Empire is headed. The "return" of moral values to the center of political debate should not be seen as an aberration caused by a high voter turnout among evangelical Christians. It reflects a deep suspicion that we are all complicit somehow in the disintegration of a grand tapestry that too large to be seen as a whole. Like ants crawling through the wreckage of a landfill, we have too narrow a view to comprehend our place in the world.

The nugget of truth that this book teaches is a difficult lesson: brutality is a human inevitability. One of the central questions raised and not answered is: can there be a moral, just and humane Empire?

Posted by cbsisco at November 30, 2004 11:21 PM

Allow me first to transcribe this longish poem by C.P. Cavafy, because I like it and was reminded of it by what you wrote:


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.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Historically speaking (since on the historical level Cavafy is writing about the Romano-Byzantine Empire), inner fragmentation and disintegration is what is going to happen to them, precisely because, as you wrote, the barbarians are ultimately within, both within our souls as (for example) unkindness, and within our polity as in (for example) passing by the beggar on the street.

I've been thinking about the same questions you raised ever since seeing a production of 'Julius Caesar' in Stratford on Wednesday. The production, it seemed to me, got it wrong by imposing our contemporary political assumptions onto a late sixteenth century text. Since we all assume that democracy is good and empires are bad, this production naturally made Brutus and even Cassius the good guys and painted Mark Antony (not to mention Caesar himself) as a blood-thirsty, boorish, power-mad tyrant -- and, I might add, they were forced to remove whole chunks of Shakespeare's text in order to justify this characterization.

I was very irritated by this, so I spent most of yesterday reading the play and thinking about it. Shakespeare was no democrat, and spent most of his career glorifying the historical process by which the monarchy in England became more and more powerful and centralized. 'Julius Caesar' is by no means straight-forward, I think, and is messy as a result. We don't know whom we are to identify with, there is no clearly defined main character, and so just whose tragedy it is is also unclear; perhaps by writing such a confused play, Shakespeare is doing justice to the rather convuluted nature of the questions he raises, about the nature of empire and imperial ambition, and their political and personal consequences.

Shall we have another 'earnest, enjoyable discussion', my friend? I'm holed up in a very grey and rainy Oxfordshire with nothing to do, and would like to work these things out. Because the world scene depresses me -- not just because Bush is president, not by any means -- and there seems to be only stupidity everywhere, however arrogant that makes me sound.

Shall we enter upon it, then? First, what do we mean by empire?

Posted by: djsmall at December 17, 2004 06:16 AM

Where are you, Cody? Why have you denied us your genius for so long?

Posted by: Kristina at March 4, 2005 09:45 PM

Dan, I am a big flake. I appreciate your comments and will respond as soon as possible. Sorry for being an unavailable cyberfriend.

Kristina, instead of excuses, I'm going to give you more of what you're asking for. stay tuned.

Posted by: Cody at March 7, 2005 08:38 PM