Waiting for the Barbarians

posted Jun 27, 2016, 9:01 AM by Scot Casey   [ updated Jun 27, 2016, 9:05 AM by Scot Casey ]
These days there is nothing more vital, more central to my being than memory. It is the ever fixed mark that guides me through my days, the pole star that orients my journey. 

Even at my advanced age, I meditate often on the perfecting disciplines of Paidea. As time continues to wage its mostly quiet and always sinister war upon my flesh, I begin to worry over the depredations of my spirit. Of course, the constant paranoia laced fear is to slowly lose my mind and, through this loss, have no awareness of it. 

During the worst of my mother's dementia and memory loss, I started on my Memory Project. Initially, as a set of mental battlements which would serve as watchmen for the barbarian hoardes of Amnesia; as singing canaries in the diamond mines of my memory. There on the walls and in the cages deep in the earth, I placed Villion's Straight Tip to All Cross Cove, Carroll's Jaberwocky, Auden's Funeral Blues, Yeats' Second Coming, Keats' Bright Star and Thomas' And Death Shall Have No Dominion, along with an ever growing host of others. After a time, recognizing the sonnet form as an ideal mnemonic device, I began to the Sonnet Project - to memorize all of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets.

This was over three years ago. To date, I have memorized hundreds of poems, passages of prose, lists and systems of belief (astrological signs, seven deadly sins, books of the Bible, etc), songs, jokes, melodies and works of art. What started as a fearful and defensive strategy to one day alert me that it was time to die, has mutated into a deeply enriching practice that approximates a religious belief. Indeed, the daily rituals of memorization are religion to me. They bind me to the mast of my belief and keep me from jumping overboard in pursuit of Siren's Songs. They grant me sanctuary from the daily trials, tribulations and trivialities of the world around me and provided me with the foundation upon which to construct a rich and rewarding inner life. 

I built a Memory Cathedral within my mind as a place to practice my Religion of Memory. There are transepts lined with Chapels devoted to the Nine Muses, to the Decades of my Life, Monuments to Lost Loves and Alcoves for The Books That Changed Me Most , statues of poets and philosophers, family and friends, paintings and photographs, fragments of music, sounds of the natural world. I spend much of my time there. There is a burning fire in its center wherein abides the core of my self. 

Given the richness and wealth of this internal Memory Cathedral, I have increasingly been neglectful of my physical health. Forgetting the Paidea and the necessity to maintain balance and harmony between all aspects of my being, I have left myself exposed to those barbarian hoardes of blankness, absence, meaninglessness, forgetfulness and amnesia. When we are fully present in a moment, our innermost self entirely invested in the unfolding of events before us, dancing with time in the most intimate of embraces, then we are within the innermost core of memory. These are the unforgettable events of our life: the first moment of falling in love, the birth of a child, the death of a parent. It is when we are distracted by the silence of the Siren's Song (Kafka) that we lose our presence and vital involvement in our world, in our life. 

Deep within my Memory Cathedral, I have been neglectful of the outside world, the flesh and bone that my Memory Cathedral exists within. 

I have been waiting for the barbarians, watching the distant horizon, standing with the Poets on the ramparts, forgetting the warning implicit in Cavafy's poem: 

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
            The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
            Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
            replete 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,
and 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 come forward 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 restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
            Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution. 

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)