Waiting for the Barbarians Essay

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¶ … Internal Struggle for Anonymity in Waiting for the Barbarians

Anonymity saturates J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. From the nameless narrator (the near-to-retiring magistrate of the novel) to the very-limited-in-description time and place and people (such details as race are not immediately apparent), Coetzee attempts to create an Everyman in an extraordinary frontier setting. His Everyman is interested in ordinary things, a fact gleaned from the very beginning of the novel: "I should take you fishing one night…" he says to Colonel Joll, a man who wears dark glasses even indoors, lending him a sense of inscrutability (p2). What effect does this opening have on the reader? Immediately, the reader is sympathetic to the narrator and suspicious of Joll. But that is the point. In Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee presents a world where some wear shades to keep out the Light of truth -- to hide themselves from that same Light -- regardless of what side of the political field they inhabit; regardless of race, creed, or sex; regardless of whether they are superior or inferior in the hierarchy of the governed.

Colonel Joll is such a man.

The nameless narrator who is our Everyman is another.

However, the two are different in one respect.

Col. Joll wears dark glasses to keep others from discovering what is hidden in his eyes -- the fact that he is a barbarian; while our Everyman wears no such devices -- but is still oblivious to the Light of truth in the novel. Everyman's protection is not eye ware; it is naivety. It is his naivety that allows him to speak for the abused boy in the prison, who looks at Colonel Joll with some sense of what the man represents. Our nameless narrator thinks the boy is awed by the colonel's glasses: "He must think you are a blind man," he says jokingly to Joll. Joll, we are told, does not smile back (p4). The reason is clear: Joll is not blind. It is Everyman who is blind.

We quickly come to know the degree of Everyman's blindness when he says in his own words that Joll is one who "finds out the truth" (p4). Yet, there is fear behind this statement. Why? Does Everyman suspect his own ignorance? The compassion Everyman tries to evince is lost on the prisoners -- the old man and his boy -- in Everyman's words, for his words convey his gullibility. Joll is not interested in the truth. He is not interested in mercy. Even when Everyman, despite himself, pleads on behalf of the prisoners, the man who "finds out the truth" is shielded from these petitions. Everyman registers a slight annoyance at Joll's "cryptic silences, at the paltry theatrical mystery of dark shields hiding healthy eyes" (p5). He realizes his own ineffectiveness and suddenly reflects upon his own ignorance, not only of this man Joll but also of everything the Colonel represents: "Of the screaming which people afterwards claim to have heard from the granary, I hear nothing" (p5).

The two men have a conversation on the subject of torture. All the reader comes away with is the fact that Joll expects lies: "First, I get lies, you see -- this is what happens -- first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth. That is how you get the truth." But it is clear to Everyman, and should be to the reader, that for Joll there is no such thing as truth. Or to put it as Everyman puts it: "pain is truth…" (p6). The Light is too painful to bear.

That being the case, Everyman subscribes to the letter of a nameless law (p7) when he summons the guard to give a statement following the prisoner's torture and murder. The reader cannot expect Everyman to have a sense of the spirit of the law -- for he does not even know that law which he is following. He is as much a prisoner as the one just killed. When he subscribes to the letter, he foreshadows his own end: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

The naivety that protects Everyman from being killed by this letter will not last -- for his spirit insists he look. Unlike Joll, he does not put on shades. Instead, he gets a lantern and goes to look upon the scene with his own eyes, trespassing, he says, on the "mysteries of the State" (p6).

Only after Everyman gets "embroiled," in the affairs of the prisoners (caring for the boy) does he finally fess up any information about himself. With a kind of Samaritan solicitude comes a kind of self-awareness: as though waking up for the first time and realizing who he is: "I am a country magistrate, a responsible official in the service of the Empire, serving out my days on this lazy frontier, waiting to retire. I collect the tithes and taxes…" (p7) and suddenly he reveals himself as like that one, who also went oblivious, the Levite, upon whom the Christ descended to bring his Light. However, that was a different story. Christ is nowhere in this one.

If Christ, as St. Paul says, offers the crown, our Everyman wants only "to merit three lines of small print in the Imperial gazette" (p8). His cognizance is incredible. He sees nothing, wants nothing -- only quietude.

Unfortunately, tales of unrest are reaching his ears. He chalks these tales up to idleness and continues on in his own idle way (p8). Again, the parallel to Christian mythology is too apparent to be ignored: Everyman says, "Show me a barbarian army and I will believe." But blessed are they who haven't seen, and still believe. Ironically, Everyman is a member of the barbarian army -- the Imperial Army.

Perhaps it is a hint of this irony that troubles him, for Everyman reflects again, with a touch of self-pity, "If I had only handed over these two absurd prisoners… if I had gone on a hunting trip for a few days… if I had done the wise thing, then I might now be able to return to my…placid concupiscence…" (p9). With this final reflection, the novel is underway; the trigger has been pulled. The light of reality has revealed itself to Everyman. What follows is his struggle to absorb it or repel it.

At first, he tries to displace these revelations of encroaching insecurity. He strolls the deserted ruins after seeing the Colonel off. He puts his ear to the ground. But this jaunt is ineffective: "I pamper my melancholy and try to find in the vacuousness of the desert a special historical poignancy. Vain, idle, misguided! How fortunate that no one sees me!" (p16). There is no comfort in a handful of dust. The Light cannot be put off so easily.

When Colonel Joll's new prisoners arrive, Everyman explodes: they are not thieves, they are fishing people from the villages. The Light of truth is dangerously close to burning him. So he feigns indifference, idly watches the new batch of prisoners, loses sympathy for them, indulges in useless rationalization. Yet, he "curses Colonel Joll for all the trouble he has brought…and the shame too" (p19).

The trouble is that the Light cannot be shunned once it has come. "The joy has gone from my life…I sleep like a dead man," Everyman says (p21). His nightmares disturb the girl he uses for his own comfort. He tells her next time to wake him up. Everyman's consciousness of others' suffering is impeding on his own rest. But he has already been asleep too long. Now, he will try to wake?

In another instance of solicitude, Everyman washes the beggar girl's feet -- just as Christ washed the feet of His Apostles (p26). His interest in the girl is now patristic. He washes her completely. Eroticism combines with his paternity. Gossip spreads. But what of it. Like a Dostoevskian schizoid, our Everyman strives to remain aloof. He only has twinges of conscience when returning to his girl, whom he has elevated "in rank" from beggar prisoner to household member, and fears she may smell on him the scent of the girl he has just left (p40). When she questions him without reprisal, his duplicity smacks him in the face. He violently cries within himself: "I must assert my distance from Colonel Joll! I will not suffer for his crimes!" (p41). Again, it is Everyman's response to the Light of truth: no longer protected by naivety, he knows; but he must assert that he is different from Colonel Joll, who also knows but wears glasses to mask this fact. Everyman is in denial about his own culpability. Everyman will not suffer as Christ suffered for every man.

And yet, perhaps he will, despite himself. Again and again he asserts himself against the falseness Joll and his men represent. He ambles toward the children playing in the snow[END OF PREVIEW]

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Waiting for the Barbarians.  (2011, February 14).  Retrieved January 24, 2020, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/waiting-barbarians/1562

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"Waiting for the Barbarians."  Essaytown.com.  February 14, 2011.  Accessed January 24, 2020.
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