“Once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians.” — Waiting for The Barbarian
Life is colorless without barbarians. Without them, there would be no red or orange or yellow alerts. That is why every generation must have its barbarians. But the best barbarians are those for whom you wait. Barbarians are like messiahs, always coming but never arriving. And contrary to what you might have heard, barbarians never die.
What though is the purpose of waiting? You know where barbarians live. The caves on the fringes of empire. The underwater villages that come and go with the tides. The sand dune cities, those ghostly towns that are visible only in the eye of a desert storm. You know where they hide.
You know the color of their skin, the specific hue of their blackness, black as the night in the cover of which they invade your bed and your kitchen and your soup. You know the strange shapes of their bodies. Yes, you’ve never met them. But from the signs of their coming, you have painted pretty damn accurate pictures of what their “faces of damnation” look like. So tell me, what exactly is the purpose of this waiting?
The truth is that what you fear is not their arrival. You have nothing that they would want. Your water has been contaminated by your own urine. Your precious potatoes have all been eaten by your own scarecrows. Your daughters are so lean no one will even steal them. Look, you’ve lost just about everything. If the barbarians were to come today, there will be nothing left for them to plunder.
What you have not lost, however, is the capacity to wait. And since living is really at bottom a kind of waiting, to have nothing to wait for is to become a living dead. So you wait just so you can stay alive. So maybe you love your barbarians. Maybe you do not. But one thing is clear. Your barbarians are merely ciphers of the hope and the promise that you will live yet another day and another and another for as long as you can boast a nightmare.
For only when generations have disappeared do their barbarians appear. They arrive when there is no one left to meet them, when there are no more tomorrows because there is no one left to anticipate them. They arrive to meet an empty world. They set down their filthy tents, and their fanny packs, and their flint stones, and their sun glasses. They sit down on the doorstep that used to be yours but that have have long since forgotten you. Right there and then they are transformed into pioneers, founding fathers, trail blazers. But their future will not be certain until they name their own barbarians for whom they too must wait.
Photo credit: Igor Tishin: Barbarian Art Gallery