Jm Coetzees Waiting For The Barbarians English Literature Essay

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This semester, we have looked at several works that have incorporated the theme of identity. One in particular, Waiting For The Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee , makes prevalent use of objectification language in establishing identity. Whether for the purpose of making torture easier for the torturer, or for simply creating a class for the purposes of social “planning” (i.e. conquest), objectification language is used by the characters in the story to make certain that we, as the reader, have an equally difficult time avoiding the objectification that the characters themselves are guilty of. Objectification involves establishing the identity of the “other” as well as the self in contrast to the other in whatever forms it may take. In this paper, I will briefly examine and respond to three critical analyses of Coetzee, each addressing the concept of objectification to some degree, then I will examine a typical critical response to the concept of objectification of the self that argues that any serious intellectual analysis of the self must involve a degree of detachment. Is this same level of detachment necessary when analyzing the concept of the identity of the other? After all, Waiting For The Barbarians is only a book, right? By writing his poignant portrayal of the evils of humanity that sees itself as less than human, what is Coetzee trying to say? Can we escape the need to objectify?

To begin, let us first look at Coetzee's novel itself. It has the convenient quality of taking place in a completely fictional world that only resembles South Africa. At first glance, this would appear to be for the purpose of allowing the author creative exercise, as well as getting us to suspend disbelief. However, is this really necessary? Why can't his story take place in our specific history? Fictionalization gives us the ability to make poignant messages because the elements are all controllable. You're dealing with a completely fictionalized world, so certain images can take on as much symbolic meaning as you wish, thus allowing for greater dramatic effect. Coetzee's not just trying to tug at our heartstrings; such sentimentality would be insulting to an intelligent audience (if you have to resort to emotional appeals, what can really be said for the actual truth-value of your claim?). Instead Coetzee, by fictionalizing his work, is demonstrating how we can't escape this objectification.

His character of the Magistrate, while the protagonist of the story, objectifies constantly in the novel. His dealings with the barbarian girl, intimate to the point of being sexual, are really no more personal than that between a lab technician and a guinea pig. The Magistrate (i.e. Coetzee) never even bothers to learn, or even invent, the girl's name. His desire to help the barbarian girl, while good intentioned, is patronizing in the extreme. It is the same type of romantic notion as that of the “Noble Savage:” well-intentioned, but ultimately a figment of ignorance.  Besides, for every “Noble Savage,” there is a “Savage Noble.”

The character of Colonel Joll, while guilty of objectification, is not guilty of the same variety as that of the Magistrate. He knows full well that the barbarians are no threat to the Empire, but he knows that their existence is necessary in order to preserve the social order. When no problems are left “outside,” they can only come from inside. His understanding of the barbarians only goes so far as necessary to assign them a motive, something that he can tell his superiors. This motive, of course, is completely fabricated, which begs the question, was his torture of the old man in the beginning even necessary? Does it simply serve to portray Joll as a sadistic murderer? I will now examine a critical response to Coetzee's use of torture.

Susan Van Zanten Gallagher discusses Coetzee's moral dilemma in writing about torture and how he goes about trying to solve it. In responding to Coetzee's two problems in writing about torture, namely that there is a fine line between portrayal of torture and the glorification of it, and thus exploiting the pain of the afflicted, and that of how to portray the torturer, Gallagher writes: “…in his allusions to un-centered language and the death of the metaphysics of presence, Coetzee also points to the moral vacuum that allows torture to exist in the contemporary world.”This moral vacuum involves objectification, detaching oneself from the moral (often emotional) issues. 

Of the Magistrate, Gallagher writes: “with his combination of sexual and authorial images, his antonymic articulations, and his failure to discover meaning in words, the Magistrate seems to be wandering in the wilderness of deconstructive criticism”and that his “sexual and linguistic failures demonstrate his lack of authority.” Coetzee writes of him having looked into himself and seeing “only a vortex and the heart of the vortex oblivion.”Gallagher suggests that this is allegorical of how the author who chooses to write about torture “must struggle to articulate torture without falsifying it, to understand and to depict oppression without unconsciously aiding the oppressor, to find texts transparent enough to carry meaning.”One aids the oppressor by inventing the language that allows the oppressor to rationalize his actions. This objectification language is obvious in the rhetorical tool employed by Coetzee in creating an allegory that takes place in another time, albeit, a very self-aware one. As Gallagher puts it, “the effect of this time displacement is to reveal truths about any oppressive society, any society that employs torture as a technique.”In the name of intellectual “truth-revealing,” Coetzee has created a contrived world that only resembles the world in the ways that he needs it to in order to prove his point. By removing the concept of torture from a real social context, he can assign his own motivations to the torturers. By doing this, is he trying to ignore the real reasons people torture each other, or is he aware of this, and only uses this to demonstrate that we can only find truth if we fabricate it?

Gallagher concludes her article by saying that “Coetzee identifies the absence of moral authority that results in torture with the absence at the heart of contemporary literature since the advent of deconstructive criticism.” This absence is of the ability “to write and proclaim the truth about this kind of oppression…completely and effectively.”By fabricating his own context for the torture that he portrays, Coetzee is able to accomplish this, albeit a little unscrupulously. It's almost like creating a laboratory model where your theory holds true because you can ignore all compromising circumstances. By isolating his narrative in his own fabricated context, he's guilty of objectifying. He is asserting that all instances of torture are motivated by the same primary factors (hatred, etc.). However, I don't believe that this wasn't intentional. Coetzee is simply demonstrating that the only way to establish “truth” about a subject is to detach yourself from it. We can thus establish what makes the torturers all the same, as well as identify what distinguishes the torturers from us, the reader.

This kind of objectification language, the “perfect-world” scenario where you're always right, can lead to some interesting realizations, as long as one understands that it's only fiction, and that the moral “truths” it espouses may not be applicable to the real world. It is also not the only kind of objectification that Coetzee employs in Waiting…. He also uses the concept of “literary” foreignness to highlight the short-comings of allegory.

Rebecca Saunders, in her article “The Agony and the Allegory: The Concept of the Foreign, the language of Apartheid, and the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee, writes that “if allegory is structured by a fundamental foreignness between its literal and proper meanings, it is also characterized by that zone of error through which we have described foreignness.”She then relays the fact that Heraclitus and Philo both originally used the term allegory “to designate thought tinctured by uncertainty.”She also writes “Coetzee's text not only dramatizes the zone of error that characterizes both “literal” and literary foreignness, but insists that a consequential relationship exists between them.”“Literary” foreignness, while inevitable when writing about events that haven't happened to us, is the same problem that Gallagher wrote of: the problem of writing about something that we have chosen to distance ourselves while still maintaining a degree of authority.

It is ironic that objectification is inevitable to establish “truth” when it may not actually be there while at the same time creating a sense of detachment that can cause the “truth” to be elusive in the first place. After all, allegory really only has truth in regards to itself (tautologous), and may not actually apply to the real situation it is purporting to describe.

Saunders makes comparisons between the reportial language that Colonel Joll uses in his dealings with torture and the very idea of allegory: “It is a language in which every trace of foreignness has been deported: direct, literal certain. And that certainty is fortified by a careful management of context.” This management of context is what allows Coetzee to pass judgment with certainty.

The third critical source I will examine is Barbara Eckstein's “The Body, The Word, and the State: J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians.” She writes that the novel “is about language and the body in pain…[and] if its ending is desolate, it is so with a particular and moral-centered skepticism.”Even though the Magistrate comes to realize the error of his ways, his narrative still labels the native people “barbarians,” and thus he demonstrates his inability to “undo his habits of being. Neither as character nor as narrator does the magistrate point to the keen irony so evident in the etymology of the word “barbarian,””namely, that which is not of the Empire. This is an example of how some degree of objectification is necessary: in order to maintain distinction between himself and the girl, the magistrate uses a term which does nothing but keep her at arms length. He can't even be concerned with her name, because doing so would cause her to cease to be different in any real sense of the word.

As Eckstein puts it, “Imperialism is an assertion of objectivity…that converts anxiety about one's arbitrary location in time and space into an assertion that if nowhere is my home, everywhere is my home…. If I am there, you are other.”Objectification, here in the form of political definitions of “race” “serves imperialism and torture.”By employing objectification in defining the other, it claims to possess the same kind of certainty when defining the self. This certainty is that of distinction. “In demonstrating the differences within civilization and barbarity, animal and angel, the novel asserts one kernel of certain truth,” Eckstein writes. She then evokes the Magistrate: “Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt”She then lays out the full “lesson;” “Torture produces the truth, for it produces pain, and pain is certain presence.”

What has been said about the necessity of objectification? Patricia Sanborn writes, “The use of language to refer to the self necessitates some objectification.”She then writes, “In a study of which the self is the object, it is evident that the self is a certain kind of object. It does not lose its uniqueness because of the fact that other phenomena can also be objects.”Since, in writing about the self and our relation to the “other,” we inevitably treat these things as objects of inquiry, the first step in understanding anything, we have to accept that there is a degree of error that may be involved. Since we can't experience what others experience subjectively, our only other option is to objectify them. Coetzee's novel is itself an objectification about the subject of objectification. It uses objectifying language because it is forced to by the subject matter. In order to discuss the suffering of the other, we first must distinguish the other from ourselves. Only then can we hope to understand our relationship with the other, and thus with ourselves (because everyone is someone else's “other”).

It would seem thus, that the concept of identity and that of objectification are inexorably linked. In order to establish the identity of the self, you must first distinguish that of the other in reference to yourself. J.M. Coetzee, in writing his novel, demonstrates that, for all our moral dilemmas of objectification, we can't help but do it and say anything definitive about the world. Another person's pain is another person's pain, and we can't really experience it first-hand. We know for certain, subjectively, how we feel when we are in pain, but we can't know that of others, nor can we describe our subjective experience to them in any vivid sense of the word. Can we escape the need to objectify? No. Does this make us evil? No, just not omniscient. We only have simple human methods of understanding at our disposal, and we have to make due.

Our human methods of understanding involve primarily language. Truths realized with a certain degree of dramatic (i.e. emotional) impact tend to have more poignancy. By choosing to use objectification language, Coetzee is trying specifically to cause an emotional response in the reader. We are supposed to be appalled, but in the end, we remain detached from the suffering because we know that it's only fiction, even though it relates to the very real plight of those suffering under Apartheid. We are thus left wondering just how exactly we are supposed to feel about suffering that we don't “know.”

In conclusion, J.M. Coetzee's novel is notable for taking on the issue of inevitable objectification when dealing with the suffering of the “other.” His use of objectification language is poignant because it is necessary. We, as readers, are just as guilty of objectifying the barbarians, and thus detaching ourselves from their suffering as the Imperials in the book. Just as they aren't “real” in the senses that are they are fictional, the barbarians aren't real in the book because they've been given that identity by the Imperials. They exist then in limbo, out of reach, but not too far removed from us.