And what if the Barbarians were us?

Toula Foscolos
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Wednesday night found me at the Segal Centre for Alexandre Marine’s stage adaptation and North American premiere of J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, 'Waiting for the Barbarians'.

Toula Foscolos

Told from the perspective of the Magistrate, a civil servant in an unnamed Empire who watches helplessly as a state of emergency is declared and a military campaign is launched to capture the “Barbarians”, the play has plenty of the absurdist undertones of Arthur Koestler and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s writing. The play was inspired by well-known Greek Egyptian poet Constantine Cavafy’s poem of the same name, whose work I loved as a teenager and still do to this day.

While the stage adaptation doesn’t always work (allegory is a hard thing to translate on stage, and I saw more than my share of people scratching their heads in bafflement), it left me pondering a number of questions, and I suppose that’s all one can hope for from art.

It’s inevitable that a novel written in South Africa during the Apartheid regime is going to reference the malevolence of imperialism and the psychology of evil that permits for such atrocities to take place. At its essence, however, the novel is about the constant thread running throughout the course of human history that insists on pitting 'us' against 'them'. It’s about humans reacting to this, most contemptible, of emotions that chooses to fear, to be repelled by, to be suspicious of that which is unlike them.

“Have these Barbarians in any way affected your life?” the Magistrate asks Colonel Joll.

“They are ugly and immoral,” he replies. A blanket statement that, of course, reveals his utter ignorance of his subject. Ultimately, they are not like him. He, therefore, does not recognize them as human.

History is littered with examples of the 'civilized' attempting to 'civilize' 'barbarians' and despite the slight variations on the official reasons for such attempts, at the heart of these actions the same sentiment constantly reappears; you are not like us, we don’t recognize your way of life as legitimate, we must make you more like us or eradicate you and your culture.

The Middle Ages are full of such examples. The attempt to 'civilize', assimilate, and ultimately 'save' was the underlying principle of French and Portuguese colonial rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Native Americans had built great civilizations with many millions of people long before Columbus wandered lost into the Caribbean. He didn’t 'discover' America; it was already there. And the death and destruction he brought with him in the name of his 'civilization' should make Americans who know their history a little less inclined to celebrate Columbus Day with such fanfare. The idea that 'savages' need to be saved from themselves is also the ideological premise on which Christian missionary evangelization attempts were based on. Bringing the word of God and the light of culture was every civilized man’s obligation.

Here at home the Canadian Indian residential school system, whose Commission's hearings are still ongoing today, is a giant stain on our country’s conscience, and should be. Perhaps if the average Canadian knew more about the monstrosities committed they would be more inclined to pay attention to the Idle No More movement and why it matters.

Even in its most benign form, nationalism; the idea that there exists an 'us' and a 'them', and that somehow the 'us' is far superior to 'them' simply because it’s more familiar and more relatable, is humanity’s major failing.

The notion of humankind being above this kind of rudimentary thinking today is, of course, laughable. One doesn’t have to look any further than the Middle East, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the way Arabs continue to be viewed by many Westerners as savages.

Even in its most benign form, nationalism; the idea that there exists an 'us' and a 'them', and that somehow the 'us' is far superior to 'them' simply because it’s more familiar and more relatable, is humanity’s major failing.  We continue to make the mistake of believing that other cultures are just “failed attempts at being us”, as Wade Davis so eloquently phrased it. It’s hubris of the worst kind.

Humans' predilection to value the 'same' is manifested in the intolerance displayed by those who are suspicious of the 'different'; the way recently-arrived immigrants are looked down on by those who did nothing more than catch an earlier boat. This constant clash of cultures, values, languages, religions, plays out on a daily basis right here in Quebec. The blatant – sometimes crass - division between the ideological right and the ideological left is what made covering the student protests such a failure in objective reasoning. Most people had already made up their minds from Day One about what the police and the students were all about, based on their own preconceptions and prejudices. There was no room for dialogue and very little for much-needed shades of grey.

The fact that Cavafy was also a gay man living in a place and time where he had to hide his sexual orientation is not lost on me. The vehemence and hate with which gay people are still treated by many in today’s world makes one wonder about the unreasonable vitriol directed at those who are simply not living by others’ rules and norms of acceptable behaviour.

In Cavafy’s poem, after waiting for them to arrive, the barbarians fail to materialize.

“Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

Those people were a kind of solution.”

And here’s the truth finally revealed: the concept of 'others' sometimes only exists to validate, confirm and assuage the insecurities of the 'us.' If the 'others' exist, than so do we; if only as a contrast and a comparison. One that we always set ourselves up to win, because it’s too dangerous for our sensitive egos to ponder the possibility that we might be on the wrong side of history.

The idea, however, that there is more than one reality, is not redundant. It is in fact refined reasoning. Perhaps humanity will one day recognize that one does not need to be at war with the 'different' in order to be at peace with the 'same'.  In the meantime, we keep lurching along…

Organizations: Segal Centre , Quebec , Apartheid

Geographic location: South Africa, Middle Ages, Caribbean America Middle East Iraq Afghanistan Quebec

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  • Holly Friesen
    February 01, 2013 - 09:38

    Toula, Really enjoyed reading this terrific piece. I love how you have used history to illuminate current issues in our society. Until we confront the "other" within ourselves we will never be comfortable with it in the outer world. Thought provoking, insightful and as always, your courage to write about difficult subjects shines through! Bravo!

  • John Savard
    January 31, 2013 - 18:58

    People should not commit aggression against others because those others belong to a different group. But they do have the right to defend themselves against aggression from outside groups. Israel and the United States have been victims of aggression from within the Islamic world; in both cases, from terrorist groups, and in the former case from several national governments through their regular armed forces as well.