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Just One Man: Silence and Defiance in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians

In: English and Literature

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Just One Man:
Silence and Defiance In J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians

This past summer, I had occasion to find myself in a number of airport terminals in various cities around the world. The scenes and memories of each mostly blend together in a mill of nondescript faces, foreign tongues, and ambling bodies. Much of the time I spent waiting, clutching a coach ticket, could be likened to an animated state of sleep. I was there to function, to shuffle into line and put my body in a seat and nothing more. I was awoken from this once in the international terminal in Milan, and it was a rather rude awakening. While sitting in one of the seemingly endless rows of black, plastic seats, I found myself six paces from a family speaking a language that I didn’t know and couldn’t identify; Eastern Europeans, perhaps. There was a small baby in the mother’s arms and the young boy, probably about the age of three or four years, was being wrangled back at the wrist by his father. For whatever reason, the boy was not happy: he screamed, he cried, he pulled his weight against his oppressor. For me, a child throwing a tantrum in an airport had become a very typical sight. And this one was no different, right up to the moment the father drew back and slapped the child hard across the face. I jerked in my seat, as if the slap had reached a further six feet and knocked me back as well. The boy became silent. I stayed silent. I was stunned and offended and angry…and I said nothing; I did nothing. My mind acted quickly in making many excuses for not involving myself: it is none of my business, I don’t know what their culture is like, I don’t even speak their language, I would not make a difference. I knew that all of my thoughts were logical. I also knew that what I had just seen was wrong. I knew that child had been hit hard in anger, not tapped gently in disapproval. My own disapproval was immediate, as was my judgment, and yet I resided to an instant course of inaction. Why? I asked myself that question as I picked up my bags and walked away to find a fresh place to wait, a place that didn’t echo with a man’s strike against a child. It is true that it is easier to sit than it is to stand, easier to say nothing than to speak. It is often more comfortable…unless one’s comfort becomes one’s guilt and shame. It is one thing to turn away from a single slap and another entirely to turn away from a beating. There is a measure of self disappointment in both, but the margin between the two is great. In Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee explores one man’s inner struggle between silence and defiance in the face of injustices both great and minor. It is through showing the Magistrate’s responses to these injustices that Coetzee makes his own stand against man’s inhumanity to man and conveys a strong statement to his audience: abuser and onlooker are one in the same when the witnesses of injustice remain silent and inert and it is only through voice and action that one can maintain their own humanity in the presence of cruelty. The reader meets the Magistrate as a comfortable bureaucrat, a man that has “not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times.” (p.8) While the Magistrate relates to the reader experiences of unease with the treatment and view of the Barbarians (indigenous people), he relates no experiences of having voiced his views or acted to defend the people he claims for which to have sympathy. It is not until his peaceful life on the frontier is intruded upon by the arrival of Colonel Joll that the Magistrate begins to question his own role as silent onlooker to the events that surround him. The Magistrate begins to look to his own behavior, hoping to find a distance between himself and the cruel Colonel only to find that his own opinion of himself leaves little space between them:

On the other hand, who am I to assert my distance from him? I drink with him, I eat with him, I show him the sights, I afford him every assistance as his letter of commission requests. (p.5)

The Magistrate begins to realize that, by treating Colonel Joll as a civilized member of society, he is signaling his acceptance of the Colonel’s practices, even though he does not truly accept them. After recalling how the two of them have managed to behave well toward one another during Joll’s first visit, the Magistrate relates that “the memory leaves me sick with myself.” (p24) The Magistrate does not want to lose a part of his humanity through his association with the inhumane. He realizes that through his silence and his willingness to perform his duties despite his own misgivings, he comes closer to those he wishes from which to distance himself. Even as he reaches out in his first encounter with the Barbarian girl in an effort to help her, he admits “the distance between myself and her torturers, I realize, is negligible; I shudder.” (p27) Though he comes to see that his silence makes him more alike to the torturers than he wishes to admit, the Magistrate also sees that his core as a man is not the same as those that commit such cruel acts. When thinking on Joll’s tortures, the Magistrate wonders “whether he has a private ritual of purification, carried out behind closed doors, to enable him to return and break bread with other men.” (p.12) Later, when Coetzee’s tale finds the Magistrate a prisoner and torture victim of the Empire, he boldly asks Mandel: “…Do you find you find it hard to take food afterwards? I have imagined
That one would want to wash one’s hands. But no ordinary washing would be enough, one would require priestly intervention, a ceremonial of cleansing, don’t you think?...” (p126)

The Magistrate cannot imagine any man that can flatly accept cruelty as an acceptable practice, a man that cannot see such actions as unclean. It is because of his own character that the Magistrate cannot view Joll or Mandel as oblivious to the stain that torture leaves on the soul. The questions that the Magistrate poses to Mandel are the questions that Coetzee is posing to his readers. In Coetzee’s account of the Magistrates ordeals with the Empire and their representatives, the author is asking us to do as the Magistrate has grown to do; we are asked to turn the gaze inward, for each reader to question what they would do “when their limit of endurance is reached.” (p.108) With each juxtaposition that fluxes the Magistrate’s metaphorical distance between himself and the cruel Empire the reader too is forced to compare their hearts against those of the just and of the wicked. It is through the Magistrate’s ability to see not only the difference, but the likeness between himself and the Jolls and Mandels of the world that he is able to begin to break the links that have been built in his own thoughts between himself and the torturers: I know somewhat too much; and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to be no recovering. I ought never to have taken my lantern to see what was going on in the hut by the granary. On the other hand, there was no way, once
I had picked up the lantern, for me to put it down again. The knot loops in upon itself; I cannot find the end. (p21)

He knows that he is neither opposite nor identical to the torturers, that he and they are “Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less,” (p.135) but that the defining distinction he can comfort himself with is the conviction he holds to never let the light of his humanity dim and flicker out.
It is impossible for the Magistrate to ignore the injustices that now surround him. Furthermore, it is impossible for him to continue in his life of silent complicity. The Magistrate is empowered by his conscience to pick himself up against injustice because the light has been shed on the problem. He has seen torture for the wrong that it is and, by seeing it, finds he will not reside to simply sit quietly down when faced with its cruelties. Where he was before at ease with the minor offenses of the Empire against the Barbarians (their prejudice towards and wiliness to take advantage of the indigenous people), he is now unable to put aside the Empire’s escalation into dehumanizing the Barbarians (and by doing so, stripping the people of the Empire of their own humanity). After he has taken his lantern up, the only road that will lead to the salvation of his own humanity is a lonely and rocky one traveled by those that would be the voice of decent against the imperial mob. It is in a conversation with a young officer that has newly arrived in the province, that the Magistrate makes his first action in defense of the Barbarians. Despite knowing that it is in his best interest to keep his opinions to himself, he finds that he cannot stay silent. He speaks to the young man on the views that the Barbarians hold of the land and the provinces that the Empire has imposed on them throughout it. The Magistrate outlines the pettiness of the differences in appearance and culture that the agents of the Empire employ as justifications in their cruelty toward the Barbarians. In this lecture to the young officer, the Magistrate willingly offers up and owns his opinions, knowing well that the view he expresses would not be a popular one. Even though the Magistrate says “I will say nothing of the recent raids carried out on them,” he goes on to voice exactly what he thinks of the situation by immediately continuing to state that the raids are, “quite without justification, and followed by acts of wanton cruelty…” (p.50) By speaking his mind rather than placating his listener the Magistrate begins to move in the moral direction that Coetzee’s novel urges its readers toward. The sympathy that he expresses for the Barbarians (simply by viewing them as people) through his words and actions make him a target for the agents of the Empire, and the Magistrate is himself imprisoned, but it is his imprisonment that lets loose the final tethers and allows him to declare himself a “free man.” (p.78) He is free of his association with Joll, Mandel, and Empire. He is kept more like an animal than a man by the men that he views as animals. This aligns the Magistrate with no one. He is neither a Barbarian nor an imperial oppressor.
The Magistrate is one man doing as he knows a just man should do. He is aware that in his “opposition there is nothing heroic,” (p.78) because the sacrifices that he makes are not for anyone but him alone. The Magistrate harbors no belief that he can help anyone outside of himself: …what has become important above all is that I should neither be contaminated by the atrocity that is about to be committed nor poison myself with impotent hatred of its perpetrators. I cannot save the prisoners, there for let me save myself. Let it at the very least be said, if it ever comes to be said, if there is ever anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived, that in this farthest outpost of the Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian. (p.104)

Coetzee is not telling the story of a man succeeding in extraordinary feats. His story is rather one of succeeding in remaining a man in extraordinary circumstances. Coetzee’s aim is the examination of one’s own singular sense of just behavior. Waiting for the Barbarians is, in effect, Coetzee’s own voice against injustice. By leading his audience to examine the thoughts, words, and actions of an average man in the midst of a gravely unjust situation, he leads them to identify and contrast their own beliefs and experiences with those of the Magistrate. The questions that emerge from between the pages of this novel are ones of self realization: To what can You bear silent witness? When would You speak? At what point would You act? Would it be You that stops the hand of cruelty before it can strike the face of innocence? Would You retain your humanity, or would it be lost to indifference?…...

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