The Master/Slave Dialectic in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting For The Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians


Written for Dr. Fred Stockholder, Department of English, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.  April, 1984.

Waiting For The Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee is a novel of self-discovery and self-determination.  The protagonist, the Magistrate, is nameless for good reason, for allegory. He could be you, could be me, could be anyone who has had to face up to whatever it was that he had to face up to: fear, guilt, shame, disgust, frustration, hatred, greed, injustice, truth, life, death, master, slave, white, black.  For me, it has been a hard novel to read and even harder to come to terms with.  I knew that this novel would not be an easy read and that I would not be the same after I read it.  I knew that I would have to dig deep down into my inner being to find my soul before I could come to terms with this novel.  But having dug deep down into my inner being and found not only my soul but also the horrible truth about this world, I cannot go on anymore, knowing what I now know, had always known and not saying what I want to say.  And I should say what now must be said: that this world is incredibly fucked; that human beings should not fuck up other human beings but we do, even as I condemn mankind, of which I am a member of, though soon I shall slit my throat for my humanity because there can be no other way to absolve, or if it is not absolve, then to obliterate the guilt and shame but in death.

This is not the critical analysis you expected, my Master.  When life ceases to have meaning, the escape from this world will not be betrayed.  Dr. Stockholder, this slave cannot give you what you demand from him.  The literary analysis, if that is still what you insist from me in these final hours — my God, I cannot, I will not.  You will have to fail me but your “F” will hurt me no more than the hundredth bullet fired into a corpse.  Fire away, you bastard!  I have died a thousand times, my Master.  You have killed me a thousand times and yet I still call you ‘Master.’  It is perhaps not your sickness; but mine.  Perhaps I derive pleasure from pain as much as you derive pleasure from inflicting pain; and if this is not the case, then why is it that I have not killed myself yet?  Why do I address you, my tormentor, my Master, when instead I should be bleeding to death?  My Master, my tormentor, please punish me.  I deserve your punishment; it sustains me.  I devour it.  I will… yes, I will give you what you want, my Master.  I will give you my heart and soul because, finally, I am a coward.  I am afraid to die.  Or more precisely, I will give you a proper literary analysis because I do not want to fail your course.  You are the Professor and I am your pupil.  You have the power to pass or fail me, just like the Master has the power of life and death over his slave.  You win.  The Master always wins.

But what happens when the Master does not want to be the Master anymore?  This is the 64 thousand dollar question of the Magistrate.  Or more accurately, and in the language of philosophers and theologians, the Magistrate is having a crisis of conscience, a crisis of faith, and a crisis of being.  When everything that you have been taught and known all your life turns out to be false and wrong, how do you not rebel?  Or do you just continue living your life knowing it is nothing but a big lie?  These are the ontological as well as epistemological questions that he must resolve.  This novel traces the Magistrate’s spiritual journey to discover the truth about himself and about his society and the men of Empire.

Furthermore, how does one remain true to one’s own definition of self and be in harmony with society, when one has no autonomy in such matters but inherits the culture and myths of the society in which he or she is born?  To question the collective psyche of one’s society is, in effect, to question those modes of thought and experience that formed one’s own psyche.  The freedom of the self can never be achieved completely, though self-evaluation and self-definition are a beginning in the effort to free oneself from the oppression of the controlling forces of the collective.  In short, the point that I am trying to make is this: It is impossible for a white man to think of himself as anything other than a white man and consequently he thinks of himself superior to the black man.  Waiting For The Barbarians is the Magistrate’s honourable attempt at self-definition and self-determination, but the old prejudices of a psyche in which white superiority is deeply ingrained creep up from time to time and I’m afraid I’m going to have to take him to task for it.

However, we are not told that the setting is South Africa, nor are we told that the conflict is necessarily black versus white, perhaps partly for the reason that Coetzee wanted his novel to be published in South Africa and perhaps largely for the reason that the novel was written as an allegory of mythic and universal significance.  Hence the master/slave dialectic of Coetzee’s novel does not overtly address issues of race, nor politics, nor economics — though these issues, I take it, are at the heart of the South African turmoil.  But rather, the novel, as the title suggests, is concerned with more general and lofty notions of civilization, our civilization, of course, and how we must protect it from those who are not like us, those who are, well, barbarians.  Don’t expect to find any practical solutions to the actual black/white conflict in South Africa in this novel, for it is a novel; just that, and not a revolutionary’s handbook on how to overthrow the enemies of humanity and those who would enslave us.  Indeed, by the end of the novel, we discover just who exactly are the barbarians and just how ironic was Coetzee’s title for his novel.  In other words, our world as we know it, our understanding of what civilization is and is not, will be entirely turned upside-down and inside-out by the end of the novel.

The protagonist of this novel is the Magistrate, who, as I have already stated, is nameless.  He is the proverbial nobody and everybody. Everything is told from his point of view.  The Magistrate is a member of the ruling class and also one of the critical lynch pins of Empire, but his true sympathy, however, lies with the so-called ‘barbarians,’ the people who are oppressed by his very presence and livelihood.  Indeed, the Magistrate is a man who is sincere when he says, “All my life I have believed in civilized behavior.” (p. 24).  This is in sharp contrast to the other “guardians of Empire,” in particular Colonel Joll, who represents the new Empire, with its amoral and lethal power.  Despite the Magistrate’s claim that he did not want to resist the new men of Empire, he is indeed embroiled in the struggle against the “devotees of truth and doctors of interrogation,” as he sarcastically described Colonel Joll’s men who tortured and murdered the old barbarian who came into the fort seeking a doctor for his sick grandson.

Unlike the new men of Empire, the Magistrate’s attitude towards the barbarians is much more paternalistic: “I will struggle on with the old story, hoping that before it is finished it will reveal to me why I thought it worth the trouble.  Thus it is that, administration of law and order in these parts having today passed back to me, I order the prisoners be fed, that the doctor be called in to do what he can, that the barracks return to being a barracks, that arrangements be made to restore the prisoners to their former lives as soon as possible, as far as possible.” (p. 125).  The Magistrate’s paternalism and the motive for his paternalism are explicitly revealed in the following passage: “I gave the girl my protection, offering in equivocal way to be her father.  But I came too late, after she had ceased to believe in fathers.  I wanted to do what was right, I wanted to make reparation: I will not deny this decent impulse, however mixed with more questionable motives: there must always be a place for penance and reparation.”  (pp. 80-81).

The Magistrate is a relic of an old empire whose ideas about governance are much more complex and much more complicated than the simple brute force of Colonel Joll and the young lieutenant.  Unlike Colonel Joll who is seen only as a torturer, the Magistrate is both a torturer and lover of the barbarian girl, and I mean this literally, as in, he becomes her ‘lover’: “Where civilization entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of a dependent people, I decided I was opposed to civilization; and upon this resolution I based the conduct of my administration. I say this who now keeps a barbarian girl for my bed.” (p. 38).  If the Magistrate cannot free the slaves at least he will try to be a more humane and loving master, no pun intended. (Miscegenation does not seem to be an issue in this allegorical novel.)

Moreover, the Magistrate is reluctant to let go of his civility, a civility that really belongs to an older moral order of the Empire that men like Colonel Joll know nothing about.  It is, incidentally, an older moral order not unlike the plantation gentility of the old American South before the Civil War.  Though the Magistrate’s antebellum paternalism is at times excruciatingly condescending, this is its least objectionable aspect.  When the Magistrate says he wants to be the girl’s surrogate father, the Magistrate is being disingenuous to both himself and to the girl.  Even if miscegenation is not an issue in this novel, he really has gone off the deep end and into uncharted territory by playing the role of her father.  He really shouldn’t be her father because he cannot be her father and lover at the same time.  The two roles are diametrically opposed to each other, if not mutually exclusive and tabooed — even in the far distant outposts of Empire, I would think.  In any event, the Magistrate is really asking for more crazy trouble than he knows.  By consorting with and becoming the lover of the enemy barbarian girl, he has broken just about all the moral and social conventions of his society and has made himself an enemy of Empire.

The Magistrate is a complex and complicated character indeed, but is he a good man?  Coetzee wants us to think so.  Whereas Colonel Joll has absolutely no shame or guilt about how brutally he treats the barbarians, the Magistrate is burdened with them, and will try to exorcise the shame and guilt as much as possible.  The Magistrate does try to help the barbarians whenever he can, and as best as he can, and in the case of the barbarian beggar-woman, he sincerely does try to help her by offering her an honest pay for a honest day’s work: “I offered that you should come work here.  You cannot beg in the street.  I cannot permit that.”  But will an honest day’s work and honest pay really help the beggar-woman and her lot?  Does the Magistrate really think that honest hard work and a few dollars will set the beggar-woman free and get her out to the ghetto, or move uptown, as they say?  Does Coetzee really think that the current crisis in South Africa will be solved if only the blacks embraced the Protestant work ethic of the white Afrikaners?
Contrary to what the Magistrate believes, the master/slave dialectic cannot be resolved by advocating the same notions of decency that settled the “old Empire.”

What is unwittingly revealed here is the Magistrate’s total failure to understand that the imposition of white values upon blacks does not bridge the gap between blacks and whites; but rather, it further widens the gap precisely because it assumes white ethnocentricity: it assumes that the black race will be better off if it just acted more like the white race.  Hence the Magistrate will never be able to penetrate the surface of the barbarian beggar-woman; he is unable to get beyond his self-righteousness: “I do not want to see a parasite settlement grow up on the fringes of the town populated with beggars and vagrants enslaved to strong drink.  It always pained me in the old days to see these people fall victim to the guile of shopkeepers, exchanging their goods for trinkets, lying drunk in the gutter, and confirming thereby the settlers’ litany of prejudice: that barbarians are lazy, immoral, filthy, stupid.” (p. 38).

On the one hand, the Magistrate wants the barbarian beggar-woman to have dignity and be spared the stereotypical white litany of blacks being stupid and lazy; not, however, realizing that he, himself, has already judged her in those terms.  On the other hand, he does make a conscious effort to reject the white paranoia of black savages on the rampage when he says, “[t]here is no woman living along the frontier who has not dreamed of a dark barbarian hand coming from under the bed to grip her ankle, no man who has not frightened himself with visions of barbarians in his home, breaking the plates, setting fire to the curtains, raping his daughters.  These dreams are the consequence of too much ease.  Show me a barbarian army and I will believe it.” (p. 8).  Thus he rationally dispels the irrational fears and myths of his race and sets himself apart from his collective in an attempt at self-definition and self-determination.  But this attempt at self-definition and self-determination, however courageous and honorable, is never fully achieved, and his morally ambivalent relationship with the barbarian girl reveals this.

Not only is the relationship dominated by the sexually exploitative if not incestuous paternalism mentioned earlier, but it is a relationship entered into rather sacrilegiously to boot: “First comes the ritual of washing, for which she is now naked. I wash her feet as before, her legs, her buttocks.” (p.30)  This is just too weird.  It is as if he is Christ, and she, like the apostle Paul, needs his cleansing, both physically and spiritually. What is implied by this is either megalomania or sacrilege of the highest order, and at times the redemption which he seeks for her (which he seeks for himself more likely) reveals the equivocal mindset of an old ruling class that has lost its ability to rule without guilt and self-recriminations: “I must believe she was unmarked as I must believe she was once a child, a little girl in pigtails running around after her pet lamb in a universe where somewhere far away I strode in the pride of my life.  Strain as I will, my first image remains of the kneeling beggar-girl.” (p. 33).

For the Magistrate, the barbarian girl is, in the end, just that, a barbarian girl.  He cannot accept her as an equal because he is, after all, her “Master” and at times he even identifies with Colonel Joll: “The girl lies in my bed, but there is no good reason why it should be a bed.  I behave in some ways like a lover — I undress her, I bathe her, I stroke her, I sleep beside her — but I might equally tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate.” (p. 43).  But this is really not the Magistrate speaking; his true desire is “for a quiet life in quiet times.”  Rather it is the Magistrate’s white psyche speaking, telling him he is her ‘Master’ and, as such, sub-humans deserve to be brutalized by their superiors. “No! No! No!  I cry to myself.  It is I who am seducing myself, out of vanity, into these meanings and correspondences.  What depravity is it that is creeping upon me?  I search for secrets and answers, no matter how bizarre, like an old woman reading tea leaves.  There is nothing to link me with torturers, people who sit waiting like beetles in the dark cellars.  How can I believe that a bed is anything but a bed, a woman’s body anything but a sight of joy?  I must assert my distance from Colonel Joll.  I will not suffer for his crimes’.” (p.44).

The Magistrate really does not want to see himself as Colonel Joll nor suffer his crimes.  Instead, he truly wants to love the barbarian girl, but he cannot.  And although his relationship with the barbarian girl is an attempt to repudiate the roles and restrictions that his apartheid society imposes on individuals in personal relationships, the relationship was, in the final analysis, loveless, meaningless, and hopeless from the start.  He did not really love her, could not have ever loved her in a million years, and wonders in hindsight how he could have been with her in the first place: “Only days since I parted from that other one, and I find her face hardening over in my memory, becoming opaque, impermeable, as though secreting a shell over itself.  Plodding across the salt I catch myself in a moment of astonishment that I could have loved someone from so remote a kingdom.  All I want now is to live out my life in ease in a familiar world, to die in my own land and be followed to the grave by old friends.” (p. 75).

But the quiet life among old friends that the Magistrate yearns for will never materialize.  In fact, what awaits the Magistrate is just the opposite of a quiet life.  He will find himself a wanted man who will be hunted down and thrown in jail for freeing the barbarian girl.  Imprisoned and starved and beaten and treated no different than the barbarian prisoners, he will come the closest he will ever come to seeing things from the point of view of the barbarians.  In prison, he realizes that perhaps he is much closer to the barbarian girl than he once thought. Even if the Magistrate was being selfish and entered into the relationship with the barbarian girl to ease his own guilty conscience, he did in fact set her free to return to her people.  This was his moment of truth: he relinquished his role as her “Master” in the act of returning her to the barbarians hiding in the mountains: “I am surprised by her fluency, her quickness, her self-possession,” he says of her in their journey across the wasteland in which, as opposed to the whites, the natives find sustenance.  And as if he had sensed it all along and asked to be punished, he is imprisoned for his attempt at redemption, the one act that would have restored what little semblance of a human being is still in him.

Curiously, or perhaps appropriately, it is only when the Magistrate is imprisoned that he attains any degree of understanding into the real nature of his relationship with the barbarian girl.  Free from the guilt that he no longer suffers over the girl’s deformity (because he himself is now a victim, too) he comes closer to self-definition and self-determination in the exact prison cell where the barbarian girl had been tortured than he ever did when he was in the same room with her or even when she was in his bed: “I am aware of my source of elation: 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.  Who would not smile?  But what a dangerous joy.  It should not be so easy to attain salvation.  And is there any principle behind my opposition?  Have I not simply been provoked into a reaction by the sight of one of the new barbarians usurping my desk and pawing my papers?” (p.78).

Labeled an enemy of the Empire, by choice and by misfortune, those values which up until now he had always cherished as being good are revealed for what they really are: “They came to my cell to show me the meaning of humanity, and in the space of an hour they showed me a great deal.” (p.115).  In other words, what the Magistrate is saying, what he has been saying all along in this novel, is this: ‘We, the whites, are the barbarians!’  This is the irony of the novel and of its title that both confuses and distresses us.  And now having a clearer vision and stronger sense of who he is and his real self through this suffering, the assertion of his individuality becomes his salvation and a defense for mankind and civilization.
Henceforth, he is unable to remain silent when he sees the new prisoners being lashed mercilessly.  He is unable to remain silent precisely because he does not wish to renege on his new contract with mankind and his renewed humanity and commitment to protect us from the barbarians, if not from ourselves: ‘No! No! You would not use a hammer on a beast, not on a beast,’ he cries out in defiance of the mob which now surrounds him and the twelve captives whom he tries to save and whom are made totally helpless already by the metal wire the thickness of a dart looped through their cheeks.  ‘Look,’ he says… ‘We are great miracles of creation.  But from such blows this miraculous body cannot repair itself.  How…’  But before he finds the words to finish his sentence, a blow catches him “full across the face” — the consequence of him speaking out in defiance against this insane mob.

There is something genuinely heroic about his defiance, even though it did not stop the brutality; but it was a start, a beginning of something great, like the building of that badly needed community in which blacks and whites can live in harmony: “The words they stopped me from uttering may have been very paltry indeed, hardly words to rouse the rabble.  What, after all, do I stand for besides an archaic code of gentlemanly behaviour towards captured foes, and what do I stand against except the new science of degradation that kills people on their knees, confused and disgraced in their own eyes?  Would I have dared to face the crowd to demand justice for these ridiculous barbarian prisoners with their backsides in the air?  Justice.  Once that word is uttered, where will it end?  Easier to shout No!  Easier to be beaten and made a martyr.  Easier to lay my head on a block than to defend the cause of justice for the barbarians, for where can that argument lead but to laying down arms and opening the gates of the town to the people whose land we have raped.” (p.108).  In other words, a voluntary mass exodus of the whites is not in the cards, nor will there be voluntary mass reparation to the blacks forthcoming any day soon.

It was René Descartes who famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” (Je pense, donc je suis.) which has become the fundamental element of Western philosophy and the Western Enlightenment.  Coetzee’s contribution to Western philosophy if not to Western literature might be thus: “I suffer, therefore I am”. (Je souffre, donc je suis.)  If I am not mistaken, the Magistrate (Coetzee) thinks collective guilt is a good thing, that collective guilt may even be the closest thing we have to salvation when our tribe does bad things to other tribes: “When some men suffer unjustly, it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it.” (p.137).  This is the philosophical bent of the novel, if I can call it that, and this collective guilt is once again espoused and underlined at the end of the novel, when Colonel Joll is retreating back to the capital, the Magistrate asserts: “The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves.  Not on others.” (p. 146).  Really?

Not only does the Magistrate want us to embrace collective guilt, but he also wants us to embrace masochism, it seems.  Why?  Will collective guilt and or masochism (aren’t the two things the same?) solve any of the problems facing South Africa or anywhere else with a similar situation where an alien minority rules over a vast native majority by brute force and murder?  Though the Magistrate is presented in the novel as the “one man who in his heart [is] not a barbarian,” he is not without “his own twinges of doubt,” and later he confesses, “[f]or I was not, as I like to think, the indulgent pleasure-loving opposite of the cold rigid Colonel.  I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow.” (pp. 135-137).

Such ambivalent statements made by the Magistrate if not his ambiguous endorsement of Colonel Joll perhaps reveals Coetzee’s own ambivalence and discomfort with collective guilt and or masochism of the kind that got Christ nailed to the Cross.  Indeed, collective guilt is not the answer.  How lame of Coetzee to have even suggested it as a possible solution; he may have done so by default because of his Roman Catholicism, which places a high premium on penance and reparation, atonement and redemption.  But how, exactly, could anyone possibly achieve atonement and redemption for the abominations and sins of men like Colonel Joll?  Perhaps speaking out against injustice is more preferable than just suffering it in silence, as was first believed by the Magistrate.

The Magistrate’s finest hour may very well have been the time when he spoke out against the brutality being meted out to the new “barbarian prisoners” or rather, and more accurately, to his fellow human beings.  Perhaps an isolated act of goodness by an individual can make all the difference in the world.  Wasn’t it Mahatma Gandhi who advised us to ‘be the change you wish to see in the world?’  Indeed, towards the end of the novel, the Magistrate is no longer content to suffer injustice in silence.  Instead, he acts in defiance of it, even if by doing so he did not measurably change the world for the better.  Perhaps the gesture is more important than the results.  Perhaps the journey is more important than the destination.  The Magistrate will change his society by first changing himself.  Thus his opposition to the mob and his later attempts to take the lead role in the reconstruction of what little remains of his community after the exodus of Colonel Joll and his men, the real barbarians, should be seen as the triumph of the individual and the importance of individual acts of decency in a world gone totally mad.

Notwithstanding civil disobedience, I regret to tell you that neither collective guilt nor French existentialism, if that was what Coetzee was pushing in this novel, will help South Africa.  Moreover, where is the black voice?  Where is the black perspective?  Was the practically death, dumb, and mute barbarian girl in the novel the black voice and black perspective?  There was no black voice and no black perspective in Coetzee’s novel!  Other than as a well-written tale of a certain genre called the dystopian novel, this story has absolutely no relevance to South Africa.  It sheds absolutely no light on the situation in South Africa.  No black man can take this novel seriously.  Let’s be honest, this novel wasn’t even written for black men to read.  It was strictly intended for a white audience.  Can we at least be honest about that?

Well, Mr. Coetzee, here’s what I have to say to you: Take your collective guilt and French existentialism and shove them both up your lily-white ass.  Don’t give me no garbage about “a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere.” (p. 156).  That kind of thinking and talking is for old men who don’t have no balls to do what is necessary to make things right.  Doing nothing is not the answer.  When people in your own country are being tortured and killed just because they want equal rights and better lives and futures for their children, you must do something to make things right.

Besides, Mr. Coetzee, existentialism never liberated France: it was the Allies with their big destroyers and big planes and big tanks and lots and lots of soldiers with lots and lots of guns who liberated France and Europe.  What South Africa needs are men of action, not passive old intellectuals of the sort like the Magistrate who will grin and bear it, who will muddle through it, who knows he is lost but doesn’t want to be found and so he goes “along a road that will lead to nowhere.”  What utter rubbish!  Mr. Coetzee, if you really want to help black people to help themselves, you should maybe first write the way like I’m writing now.  The revolution will not be mobilized by the language of Samuel Beckett or Jean-Paul Sartre or whoever the fuck it was that you were imitating.

And then secondly you should take some of the royalties and money from those awards that those other guilty white men gave you for making yourself and them feel less like shit and buy South Africa a revolution.  Just shoot the fuckers on sight!  What?  What’s this, you ask?  What’s happening to this essay?  Oh, pardon me.  Is my rant causing you distress?  Is my language too compact?  Do I need to further develop my ideas?  Did my cynicism throw you off previously and doesn’t my vulgarity throw you off even more now?  You say you don’t understand this?  Well, what about this?  Can you understand this?: YOU’RE A MOTHERFUCKER AND THIS NIGGER AIN’T PLAYING YOUR GAME NO MORE!


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