Waiting for the Barbarians: A Set of Contradictions | Teen Ink

Waiting for the Barbarians: A Set of Contradictions

September 4, 2021
By aliu23 GOLD, Simsbury, Connecticut
aliu23 GOLD, Simsbury, Connecticut
11 articles 0 photos 0 comments

From the perspective of an anonymous magistrate, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) tells the story of an empire’s attempt to eradicate “the barbarians,” a group of nomads who live beyond the final outpost. Close to retirement, the magistrate initially hopes to spend his last days in office in peace, without having to concern himself with anything challenging. However, his hope is shattered when he witnesses the torture that Colonel Joll puts the barbarians through during his interrogations about the location of the rest of their tribe. Witnessing the brutality imposed upon the barbarians, the magistrate finds himself amid intense emotional struggles. A mixture of conflicting thoughts and emotions battling inside of him. The struggles of the magistrates speak to the conflicts that are taking place in the empire.

The central conflict between empire and otherness evokes the classic paradigm of us (empire) vs. them (the barbarians). The magistrate articulates the essence of the Empire’s ideology when he points out that “if these ugly people [the barbarians] were obliterated from the face of the earth and we swore to make a new start, to run an empire in which there would be no more injustice, no more pain.” The empire believes it has a monopoly on civilization, because of which its dominion of the world is justified. The presence of the uncivilized barbarians would contaminate civilization; therefore, the barbarians need to be eradicated. The ideological premise of the empire is hierarchical, and the barbarians occupy the lowest position. While the magistrate agrees in part with this belief, his actions speak otherwise. When he encounters a barbarian girl, he takes her home, “bathes her, massages her feet,” and gives her food. This reveals that he does not fully accept the ideology of the empire. If he were one the empire’s true sons, he would either avoid the barbarian girl or visit new torment upon her.  Instead, the magistrate tries to be a father figure to her, a replacement for her biological father who has died under the colonel’s torture. Admittedly, the magistrate’s motives are complicated and not completely the result of kindness--a point to which we will return. Nevertheless, his behavior is set in stark contrast to the belief of the empire. The tension between empire and otherness is pushed to its climax when the magistrate sends a barbarian girl back to her own people. At this point, the magistrate believes that the barbarians should not be considered outcasts. His inner change reveals that his mind is trying to break the dichotomy between empire and otherness; instead, he tries to blend the two. 

The magistrate’s unauthorized return of the barbarian girl to her own people causes him to be regarded as a traitor, a barbarian sympathizer, who stands in open opposition to the empire. For “treasonously consorting with the enemy”, the magistrate is subjected to torture and imprisonment. A second conflict -- namely, the tension between civility and inhumanity -- is introduced when the magistrate is tortured for his unorthodox opinion on the barbarians. The empire prides itself on being civilized. Yet in this supposedly humane civilization, torture -- a vestige of savagery -- is frequently used. Ironically, the empire uses this uncivilized device to maintain civilization. It tortures the barbarians to maintain its outpost, and it tortures the magistrate to defend its right to violence. 

While imprisoned, the magistrate ponders his relationship with the barbarian girl. Their relationship is complex. On the one hand, the magistrate tries to be a father figure to her. At the same time, he has sexual feelings toward her. Somehow, when he experiences carnal relationships with the girl, he feels utterly disconnected (both physically and emotionally) from her. He even struggles to remember her appearance. Reading this portion of the novel, readers might wonder what the magistrate is using the barbarian girl for? Often, she appears in his mind as fleeting and ambiguous. Is the magistrate using the girl to satisfy his sense of justice, or is he manipulating her to reaffirm his masculinity? His opposition to torture and his benficence to the barbarian girl shows that he is trying to balance his sense of justice, to make up for the injuries that his empire has bestowed upon the barbarians. However, his carnal desires toward the barbarian girl and their two episodes of intercourse show that he is also using her to satisfy his masculinity. Even the magistrate cannot understand his exact motive. He recognizes “the marks her torturers have left upon her, the twisted feet, the half-blind eyes, are easily forgotten.” In this case, he wonders, “is it then the case that it is the woman I want, that my pleasure in her is spoiled until these marks on her are erased and she is restored to herself; or is it the case […] that it is the marks on her which drew me to her but which, to my disappointment, I find, do not go deep enough? Too much or too little: is it she I want or the traces of history her body bears?” There is a clear tension between justice and sexuality. The tension complicates the relationship between the magistrate and the barbarian girl.

Ultimately, Waiting for the Barbarians makes readers think about both the historic and current situation of racism and xenophobia in the world. The empire’s fear of the barbarians derives from ignorance about the barbarians and the assumption of its superiority. Similarly, many arguments for segregation were based on the inherent evilness of Black people. Even in contemporary society, many xenophobic crimes against Asians in America are based on the assumption that Asians are equivalent to carriers of the coronavirus. By extension, the quarantine restrictions, masking, social distancing requirements, the shutting down of stores, the plunging of the American economy, and the suffering of the American people, which excludes Asians, can be placed at the feet of these others. 

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