Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
Essays

The Objective History on the Subjective Body: The Magistrate’s Search for Truth

J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians examines the actions and thoughts of the Magistrate, who becomes conflicted as the Empire he is a part of becomes increasingly violent against the perceived barbarian threat. Central to the Magistrate’s turmoil is the perceived superlative nature of the Empire with its objective history and absolute truths, and the irreconcilably immoral actions the Empire performs. The idea of history being written on the body is integral to this supposed unequivocal nature and history of the Empire. Literally, the barbarian captives are written upon. On a more metaphorical level, the torture of prisoners can be seen as an extension of the Empire’s writings. Torture provides an objective narrative, pain, on the subjective body. It absorbs and converts the subjective into the objective, so that only the history of the writer (i.e. the history of the Empire). remains. As articulated by Hegel, the modern Western idea of civilization has long rested on the union of history and its written record(Moses 117). The writing of history on the body then is the Empire, representing Western civilization and colonization, consuming the uncivilized colonized. At its core, Waiting for the Barbarians is about the Magistrate’s search for truth. Coetzee charts the evolution of the Magistrate’s beliefs from objective to subjective, from a Hegelian and teleological perspective to a post-modern and post-structural perspective.

The Magistrate is the narrator and the main character; it is his through his body that the entire narrative is written from. Coetzee writes Waiting for the Barbarian as a form of metafiction, a deliberately unconscious history about history. At the close of the novel, the Magistrate attempts to write a history of the frontier. “We too ought to set down a record of settlement to be left for posterity” (Coetzee 108). However, he discovers he is unable to write the truth, and can only produce a hackneyed description of Paradise. In Coetzee’s fictional universe then, the Magistrate has not written anything down. The dramatic irony of course, obvious to the reader, is that Waiting for the Barbarians is that record of the settlement. Hence, in the reader’s universe, the history exists; but in the Magistrate’s universe, it does not. In the Magistrate’s universe, he is only able to experience what is happening to him—the history of the frontier is written on his body through his experiences. It should be noted that the Magistrate is ultimately triumphant against the Empire. Not only does he provide an alternative narrative to the Empire’s, but he arguably presents the true narrative.

It is in this context emphasizing the role of the Magistrate that Waiting for the Barbarians must be read. That is why the novel is written from the first-person perspective of the Magistrate, who speaks in the historical present tense. The Magistrate describes his actions and thoughts as he performs them. The historical present is so important because it emphasizes the present at the expense of the past and the future—every moment is the present. This lends weight to the reliability of the narrator. He is recounting events as they happen, unfiltered. The reader begins to empathize and sympathize with him, colluding with Coetzee’s ideas.

The historical present is also tied to the theme of torture and pain. In torture, only the present pain is important. Barbara Eckstein elaborates on the philosophical and psychological implications behind pain. Pain does not appear visibly, and hence cannot be seen as factual truth. But for the person in pain, it is factual truth. There is certainty in pain, especially intense pain. Eckstein uses Sartrean existentialism to characterize pain as being-for-itself, an invisible reality that exists in its own space and time(Eckstein 180). This idea of pain as being a separate reality, easily mistaken for an objective one, is a central idea in Waiting for the Barbarians—the Empire uses the reality of pain to enforce their alleged absolute truths. Crucial to the narrative of the Empire is the counter-narrative of the barbarians. In many ways, the barbarian acts as a foil to the Empire citizen. By propagating the barbarian threat, the Empire is able to maintain and define itself. As the Magistrate acutely notes, the “Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history” (Coetzee 93).

The novel begins with the arrival of Colonel Joll. Joll, as a member of the governmental Third Burea, represents the Empire. Coetzee immediately establishes what pain and torture means to the Empire. Torture is bureaucratized pain, carefully planned by the Third Bureau in the Empire’s best interests. Joll explains to the Magistrate: “Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt” (Coetzee 5). By creating pain, the Empire creates a truth, an objective narrative and reality dictated by the Empire. Torture is firmly in the colonizer and conqueror’s domain, extinguishing the reality of the tortured colonized.

There are already two prisoners prior to Joll’s arrival: an old man and a sick boy. Importantly, they have already been beaten before Joll further tortures them. Joll does not introduce torture to the frontier; he merely heralds a new intensification of it. The Magistrate is already a cog in the Empire’s torture machine. The old man dies during his torture. The official report claims that when “Confronted with these contradictions, the prisoner became enraged and attacked the investigating officer” (Coetzee 5). This is quite obviously a lie, as the prisoner’s hands were tied. Coetzee shows the power of the Empire in its language and law. Crucially, the guard testifies “as required by the law” corroborating Joll’s story(Coetzee 5). The bureaucracy of the Empire is able to create an official narrative, one based on the “objectivity” of pain that has no regard for the facts. The Magistrate has his misgivings, but nonetheless continues to accept the narrative of the Empire. Indeed, after the man’s death, the Magistrate advises the boy to “tell the officer the truth. That is all [Joll] wants to hear from you—the truth” (6). Later, the boy is tortured, and falsely confesses that his clan is arming themselves against the Empire. He has been warped by the Empire’s history: he tells Joll what Joll wants to hear.  The boy is not so different from the guard who corroborates Joll: both tell lies to appease those in power. Importantly, the boy never speaks directly. He has no voice, no history, save that forced upon him by Joll and the Empire.

Much later, Joll returns with other barbarians captives, writing on their backs with charcoal: “‘ENEMY’… The game, I see, is to beat them till their backs are washed clean” (Coetzee 74). Here, Coetzee explicitly and literally shows how the Empire creates their enemy, then proceeds to use pain to destroy this created conception. This is very much a public display. It has a purpose, to unite the citizens against the barbarians. “On every face around me, even those that are smiling, I see the same expression: not hatred, not bloodlust, but a curiosity so intense that their bodies are drained by it and only their eyes live, organs of a new and ravening appetite” (Coetzee 74). Like the Magistrate with the barbarian girl, the public is not motivated by hatred of the barbarian. Instead, they are drawn to the irresistible power and superficially objective narrative of the Empire. They are curious to experience the same objective truth the Empire possesses that allows them to do what they do.

After his “confession,” the boy leaves with Joll as a guide for the first expedition. The boy is not mentioned again, and his ultimate fate is unresolved. The irony is that he has been absorbed into the Empire’s history, but is hence obscured by it. There is no place for the barbarians in the Empire. The boy and the old man represent the barbarian masses. They are the prisoners who are completely denied, who are destroyed by the Empire. What then, makes the barbarian girl special? It is her continued presence. The old man is dead, the boy disappears, and the other prisoners are returned home—but she remains on the streets. He has chosen to ignore it before, making excuses such as “someone else will be appointed to bear the shame of office, and nothing will have changed,” but the impetus provided by Joll and sustained by the barbarian girl’s continuing presence means he can no longer ignore the issue(Coetzee 97).

The Magistrate says to her: “You cannot beg in the streets. I cannot permit that” (Coetzee 19). She is a reminder of the barbarians and Joll. She must be absorbed by the Magistrate, who seeks to “normalize” her, while simultaneously seeking to understand the barbarian and Empire conflict personified in her body. An ulterior motive is also hinted at. “I prowl around her, talking about our vagrancy ordinances, sick at myself” (Coetzee 20). He commands her to undress and show him her tortures. The Magistrate is growing increasingly conflicted over the correctness of the Empire’s narrative. When the Magistrate examines the barbarian girl, it strikes him that, “The distance between myself and her torturers, I realize, is negligible” (Coetzee 20). And indeed, the difference between the Magistrate and Joll becomes marginal here. Both are looking for truth. Both impose their gaze the barbarian girl. Both treat her as a means to an end. The Magistrate seeks to understand the Empire through the girl. “It has been growing more and more clear to me that until the marks on this girl’s body are deciphered and understood I cannot let go of her” (Coetzee 23). The Magistrate objectifies the barbarian girl to her torture, to his history. “I lose myself in the rhythm of what I am doing. I lose awareness of the girl herself. There is a space of time which is blank to me: perhaps I am not even present” (Coetzee 21). This loss of reality is particularly interesting. Her objectively tortured body supersedes other realities: the girl does not exist, the Magistrate does not exist; only the Empire’s work exists.

At this point, the Magistrate is still firmly under the teleological historical perspective of the Empire, where the subjective individual human consciousness is second to the grand narrative of the collective identity(Moses). This grand and “objective” narrative espoused by the bureaucracy of the Empire elevates the Empire above any individual, particularly individuals outside the Empire. In the barbarian girl’s tortured body, there is a sense of objectivity in her pain that appeals to the Magistrate’s conflicted feelings, there is the false truth of the Empire’s objective truth. The Magistrate places his own body in juxtaposition against that of the barbarian girl’s. Crucially, because the barbarian girl is so yielding, it allows the Magistrate to truly be himself. “I can undress without embarrassment, baring my thin shanks, my slack genitals, my paunch, my flabby old man’s breasts, the turkey-skin of my throat” (23). If torture is the history written on the barbarian girl’s body, the Magistrate’s aging body reflects his fading strength. His obsession with the girl derives in part with the new power and honesty it gives him, as well as an affirmation of his alliance with the Empire. The torture offers an objective narrative that quells his previous concerns. “It is rapture, of a kind” (Coetzee 22). He accepts the teleological view, and is able to fall asleep.

But at times, he sees the barbarian girl as ugly. He fundamentally and morally feels and understands that torture is wrong, but he nonetheless attracted to the objective and powerful writings of the Empire. “I suffer fits of resentment against my bondage to the ritual of the oiling and rubbing, the drowsiness, the slump into oblivion” (Coetzee 30). At this point, he recognizes the reality provided is actually an “oblivion,” an absence of the subjective human. Lance Olsen, in a Derridean context, emphasizes that the core of Coetzee’s text is absence(49). Derrida argued that because writing was the process which the writer created words, it actually severed the word from the writing, distorting the meaning. It is up to the reader to retrieve the meaning—writing is hence a subjective, rather than objective, art. Olsen characterizes Joll as a believer in the metaphysics of presence, who believes in an absolute single truth(53). Joll and the Empire believe that torture and writing provides them with an ultimate authority. The Magistrate, on the other hand, becomes a believer in the metaphysics of absence, where meaning can be manipulated and imposed. Under this Derridean view, the barbarian girl can be viewed as an alternative narrative to the Empire. That is why the Magistrate becomes increasingly obsessed with remembering the barbarian girl before her torture. It is necessary for her to have her own history, one separate from that of the colonizer Empire. If the Magistrate can remember her before she was touched by the Empire, it confirms the existence of an alternative and legitimate history. The Magistrate eventually arrives at a post-modern view, where text and writing has no intrinsic meaning, save that imposed by the reader. The barbarian girl eventually propositions sex to the Magistrate when he is oiling her but is rebuffed. The Magistrate realizes he is no longer attracted to the barbarian girl and her body. “Physical intimacy between us ends” (Coetzee 40). In effect, the Magistrate has made his choice. The Magistrate recognizes the Empire’s torture and its blank desolation as an ultimately false truth.

The Magistrate decides to bring the girl back to her people at the start of a new season. “Spring is on its way, one of these days it will be time to plant” (Coetzee 41). There is a distinct sense of change reflected in the pathetic fallacy of the season. This is the moment the Magistrate concretely breaks his alliance with the Empire. He knows that he will be punished when he returns to the frontier. Upon leaving the frontier, the physical landscape changes. They are no longer in the domain of the Empire, but in the land of the barbarians. The bodies of the Empire citizens react negatively: “After a day of salty tea all of us except the girl begin to suffer from diarrhea” (Coetzee 42). Once again, she initiates the sexual contact, but this time he accepts. In the barbarian’s domain, where he is weakest and she is strongest, the power structure is inverted and the Magistrate can in better faith accept. At last, the barbarian girl is given a choice. Interestingly, the Magistrate asks if the barbarian girl wishes to stay or to leave at the last possible moment. With the girl physically gone, her metaphysical absence begins. “I am forgetting the girl… I cannot remember certainly what she looks like” (Coetzee 61). She is no longer having meaning imposed upon her. She has returned to her natural state of absence, of simply being beyond the reach of the Empire or the Magistrate.

Upon the Magistrate’s return, he is promptly imprisoned by Mandel to await trial for treason. But in this prison, there is a metaphorical freedom. “My alliance with the guardians of the Empire is over, I have set myself in opposition, the bond is broken, I am a free man” (Coetzee 55). Coetzee compares and contrasts literal and metaphorical freedom and imprisonment. For the first time, the Magistrate’s body is on the other end of the Empire’s narrative. Coetzee is able to elaborate on the Empire’s methods more deeply. Of foremost importance is the unavoidable reliance on the body. “They were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well” (Coetzee 81). One’s physical body is inescapable, and provides the means to dominate the person.

The Magistrate is humiliated in various ways, including a mock execution while dressed in a smock.  Again, there is an imposition of the body by the Empire. The Magistrate’s jailers seek to undermine his masculinity and authority. There is a distinctly public element to this humiliation, as the town gathers to witness the mock hanging. At this point, the Magistrate has been diminished to the same status as a barbarian.  Yet the Magistrate is not broken. Indeed, the torture only affirms his desire to live, “to live and live and live. No matter what” (Coetzee 86).

The scene where Joll finally interrogates the Magistrate serves to demonstrate the new disparity between the two. Joll and the Magistrate both examine the wooden slips. Joll, the believer of the metaphysics of presence, cannot but see the slips as part of the official Empire counter-narrative—as a barbarian threat. The Magistrate truly does not know the meaning behind the slips, but Joll would refuse to believe that. In a post-structural understanding of interpretation, the Magistrate creates the meaning behind the signs as a means of defiance. The Magistrate ironically mocks Joll by offering three interpretations for a single character: “There is no knowing which sense is intended. That is part of barbarian cunning” (Coetzee 79). The Magistrate highlights the metaphysics of absence, which the non-conquering and non-colonizing barbarians practice.

Ultimately, the Magistrate is triumphant. The Third Bureau and the soldiers leave the frontier, beaten by the barbarians. The Magistrate resumes his post and explicitly reiterates his desire against any proclaimed objective narrative. “I wanted to live outside history. I wanted to live outside the history that Empire imposes on its subjects, even its lost subjects” (109). The novel closes with some children building a snowman. This relates to a series of visions and dreams the Magistrate previously had regarding the barbarian girl as a blank figure in the snow, where he strived towards making sense and defining the blankness. Now, the Magistrate resists imposing any meaning on it. “It strikes me that the snowman will need arms too, but I do not want to interfere… That is not the scene I dreamed of” (Coetzee 109).

Coetzee uses the Magistrate’s journey from the Hegelian and teleological perspective of the Empire and the colonizer to the post-modern and post-structural perspective of the barbarian to show the power and danger of history written on the body. The Magistrate’s search for truth ends with that post-modern acceptance of absence: “I leave it feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere” (Coetzee 109). The Magistrate has changed in every way possible. He is able to fully accept that perhaps, a snowman is simply a snowman, and indeed, “It is not a bad snowman” (Coetzee 109).

Works Cited

Coetzee, J.M.. “Waiting for the Barbarians.” J.M. Coetzee WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2013. <http://www.ketabkhun.com/sites/default/files/books/Waiting%20for%20the%20Barbarians.pdf>.

Moses, Michael Valdez. “The Mark of Empire: Writing, History, and Torture in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.” The Kenyon Review, New Series, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Winter, 1993)., pp. 115-127. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/4336813>

Olsen, Lance. “The Presence of Absence: Coetzee’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians.’” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 16, No. 2 (1985)., pp. 47-56. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.ariel.synergiesprairies.ca/ariel/index.php/ariel/article/view/1887>

Eckstein, Barbara. “The Body, the Word, and the State: J. M. Coetzee’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians.’” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Winter, 1989)., pp. 175-198. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/1345802>

 

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One thought on “The Objective History on the Subjective Body: The Magistrate’s Search for Truth

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