Book Review Essay: “Waiting for the Barbarians” by J. M. Coetzee
Review of Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee, Penguin, 1980, 162 pp.
Since its inception political theory, insofar as it has been concerned with the subject in democracy, has treated the subject as citizen. The subject of citizenship in democracy is an abstraction: the legal identity conferred by belonging to a political community ascribing rights and status, a symbolic fiction. Citizenship coincides with belonging to a nation governed by state institutions, the nation itself a symbolic fiction. Yet even as a symbolic inscription that occludes the body that is its ground, citizenship is bolstered by imaginary fantasies and real dynamics: by identification with race, tribe, or ethnicity and with speakers of a common language and believers in a common religion; by being born in a territory and by inheriting a history. Participation in “the body politic” implicates an extra-political, extra-symbolic content to citizenship.
Historically, the status of citizenship has depended upon the exclusion of others since it has been limited according to specific qualifications, such as property ownership, gender, race, and religion. Even while the rights of citizenship have been extended in western democracies—through, for example, the prohibition of slavery, universal suffrage, naturalization of immigrants—new exclusions are defined. In the many of the United States, for example, ex-prisoners may not vote; illegal immigrants lack security and wage protection; temporary workers and foreign students live in a territorial limbo; refugees wait in holding zones and jails; the homeless camp on the streets. Throughout the world, those living in what are called “failed states” enjoy minimal rights, absent the state institutions that would enforce rights. The identity of the citizen, like any identity, is predicated upon an other who may turn into a rival or enemy and become an object of violence, and state violence remains always as a potential power for enforcing the rights of citizens. This is to say that exclusion from the social symbolic is a necessity for the state and that a practice of violence, whether as a potential held in reserve or as enacted performance, is continually at work to constitute the state’s limits.
Contemporary exclusions from citizenship produce what Étienne Balibar designates as “the disposable human being.” State inscription produces an other who is merely a natural body, only natural, outside the social symbolic. This, Bablibar argues, “is indeed a social phenomenon, but it tends to look, at least in some cases, like a ‘natural’ phenomenon, or a phenomenon of violence in which the boundaries between what is human and what is natural, or what is post-human and what is post-natural, tend to become blurred.” The other who is “the disposable human being” is beyond the protection of a state, the object of the violence of the law and often—in genocide, slavery, attack—the object of armed violence, merely a body in the real. The subject of citizenship, of politics and political theory, is neutral, unmarked; the other is a body, produced and reproduced in race, blood, and material inheritances—nose shape, cranial size, skin color.
Giorgio Agamben (1998).describes modern state apparatuses as exerting “bio power” under which the human person is reduced to a body, a body to be counted in censuses, to be constructed for industrial production and commodity consumption, to be studied and manipulated in medical practice, to be defined in reproduction (as, for example, when the murder of a pregnant woman counts as the murder of two). The condition of the criminal as a bare body, or “naked life,” outside the law in the Roman Empire is for Agamben no different from the condition of the modern citizen, only a body, only a real. Every person is then a “disposable human being.” The opposition between citizen and other breaks down here, as modern state regimes reduce each to a body, which may be why the differences between citizen and other are enforced with increasing virulence. At the same time, the reduction of both the citizen and the other to the status of body opens a possibility for alliance: If the symbolically inscribed body of the citizen may be reduced to the natural body, the citizen shares a common status with the other who is only bare life, and a common ground for justice emerges.
If state law applies only to citizens, traditionally notions of justice have extended to humans by virtue of their human being. Even the law of the state is supposed to be founded on justice, regulating relations among its members by appealing to justice as an ethical basis, and justice supposes commensurability, a common measure among human beings. Judaism enjoins obligations to the stranger; Christian judgment is directed to the soul. The French Republic invokes the “Rights of Man,” Enlightenment philosophers elaborated “natural rights,” and the United States refers to rights “endowed” by a creator. Justice, that is, overrides particular state belonging, as it is assumed to stem from transcendent or so-called universal principles. Human rights as adjudicated at the International World Court are conceived as international, as extra-territorial and supranational, ascribed to the person, the embodied human being, simply as a human subject.
The problem of founding a political ethics, of determining a basis for justice for the subject of political community that is not limited by the status of citizenship, is the concern of J. M. Coetzee’s novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. The narrative grounds the possibility of justice on the subject vulnerable to pain, that is, on the real subject common to human being. Published in 1980, the text emerges from and obviously applies to the realities of an apartheid state in South Africa, where citizenship was conferred on a small minority of white, originally settler, peoples. Set in a quasi-allegorical space, in a remote town on a frontier, narrated in an anachronistic present in which sunglasses are a novelty and an army uses horses and carriages, written in a largely paratactic style, conveying in simple, common language the grain of an embodied voice and the materiality of ordinary, daily life, the novel is the narrative of the Magistrate, the unnamed subject whose very designation defines him as a function of the state and, as well, a state subject who is the agent of justice. The stark, minimal, sensuous realism of the writing, together with the extremity of the action, give to the narrative a paradigmatic significance. The novel is meant to be a representative narrative of ethical action. It is concerned with the political subject as such, with the quest for a political ethics, for a practice of justice based in the real subject valid in any political, that is to say, human community.
Given the structure of a contemporary world order based on national states, on an exclusionary political body, the quest for a political ethics must go through the relation of the citizen, the member of the state, to the other. And given that national states are unequal in development and power, that nation state must be imagined as an empire, because it defines itself through its potential for power over non-citizens. Located at the boundary between Empire and what Empire calls the “barbarians,” Coetzee’s novel calls up boundaries dividing citizen and barbarian only to cross them. Repeatedly in the opening chapters the Magistrate states “ I pass”; he enters a place of torture, the prisoners’ “hut holding the lantern high, trespassing” (6) he looks from behind his window down to a yard holding prisoners before he descends to investigate the prisoners’ condition; he crosses the frontier separating Empire from barbarians; he is exiled from his office, replaced by officers of the army, and he is confined to a prison cell, condemned as an ally of the enemy barbarians; he enters through a gate into the town’s square onto a public spectacle of torture. In the end, it is Colonel Joll, the representative of Empire’s violence, who is isolated behind the window of his carriage while the Magistrate tries to speak to him. Such inversions of space and paradigmatic crossings erase the opposition between Empire and barbarian, between citizen and other. As in Constantine Cavafy’s poem, from which the novel’s title is derived, it is the civilized members of the state who are the barbarians. The barbarian is the natural body the citizen disavows. If violence is the necessary origin of the Empire state and the means by which it perpetuates itself, the creation of an enemy other and the destruction of that enemy in torture and war locates the founding violence of the state across its own borders; what is foreclosed in the Symbolic returns in the Real. The barbarian other then can relieve the citizen of the need for an ethics by representing all that the citizen disavows: “Those people were a kind of solution,” Cavafy’s poem ends.
Indeed, from the novel’s opening, stunning words, the Magistrate finds himself on the other side of Empire, trying to reason things out as if newly come to an unfamiliar world, facing the blank gaze of Colonel Joll, who is leading an army come to crush the threat of barbarians beyond the frontier. Blindness, from the start, is a metaphor for the Empire’s disavowal of its nature and, as it will become in the narrative, a metaphor for the narrator’s ignorance:
I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in
front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand it if he
wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they
look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. (1)
The Magistrate has not admitted to the violence concealed by the state he serves, but once he does, he questions Joll, his voice driven by a demand, an urgent ethical imagination invoking in a minimal sequence the embodied experience of the other as subject of torture:
‘What if your prisoner is telling the truth,’ I ask, ‘yet finds he is not
believed? Is that not a terrible position? Imagine: to be prepared to yield,
to yield, to have nothing more to yield, to be broken, yet to be pressed to
yield more! And what a responsibility for the interrogator!’ (5)
Joll, in contrast, speaks like a mechanical instrument, using an impersonal, automated language of abstract cause and effect:
‘I am speaking only of a special situation now, I am speaking of a situation in which I am probing for the truth, in which I have to exert pressure to find it. 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.’ (5)
What the Magistrate learns is that “Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt” (5). This is an example of a habitual irony by which the Magistrate exposes himself as a split subject: Hearing the intended meaning of a statement and finding in it a different significance, he registers the act of enunciation and comes to a meaning at odds with the statement. Here he reveals what is merely the ultimate reality of state power, the power to inflict violence on the body.
The Magistrate’s narrative then is the discovery of the full significance of the Empire’s paradoxical lesson that pain is truth. He investigates the tortured prisoners, and his witness makes him responsible, “infected” by his knowledge (21). He takes in a young woman blinded by torture, consoles her, obsessively washes her body, tracing the lines of scars on her skin, trying to read her body but unable to penetrate her. He realizes that sympathy and consolation for the other is an insufficient ethical posture because it derives from superiority, from protection from pain. His pity for the girl only distances her; later he is told “‘She said you were somewhere else. She could not understand you. She did not know what you wanted from her. . . . You made her very unhappy’” (152). He therefore returns her to her people across the desert and returns to find his office occupied, “the new barbarians usurping my desk and pawing my papers” (78). He is confined in a cell and stripped of familiar civil status, reduced to “a pile of blood, bone and meat that is unhappy” (85), a body guzzling “food like a dog” (80), listening to cockroaches, “the horny clicking of their wings, the scurry of their feet across the paved floor” (79). Images of insects, mice, and dogs permeate the narration of his imprisonment, as he undergoes “subjection to the most rudimentary needs of [his] body: to drink, to relieve itself, to find the posture in which it is least sore” (115).
From caring for the other, the Magistrate becomes identified with the other, finding in a “bestial life” (80), as does King Lear, when he is denied his prerogatives and exposed to the elements, that the human being is not only “a poor, bare, forked animal” because he can speak. But the speaking subject is a divided subject, potentially reducible to a real subject. Thus when the imprisoned Magistrate hears muskets calling the town’s people, he escapes from his cell to intervene in a spectacle of torture in the town’s square, a kind of staging of patriotic cohesion. His hope is to save the citizens from their “new and ravening appetite” (105) for enjoyment of cruelty. Even more pressing, he responds to a claim he makes upon 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” (104). He fetches water to relieve the prisoners and then pushes through the crowd onto the scene, describing in careful, simple language a punishment of ingenious brutality that creates paradoxically a community of pain out of the enforced solidarity of the prisoners’ bodies:
The kneeling prisoners bend side by side over a long heavy pole. A
cord runs from the loop of wire through the first man’s mouth, under
the pole, up to the second man’s loop, back under the pole, up to the third
loop, under the pole, through the fourth loop. As I watch a soldier slowly
pulls the cord tighter and the prisoners bend further till finally they are
kneeling with their faces touching the pole. One of them writhes his
shoulders in pain and moans. The others are silent, their thoughts wholly
concentrated on moving smoothly with the cord, not giving the wire a
chance to tear the flesh. (104-5)
Already visualizing the punishment from the subjectivity of the victims—he imagines what their experience of pain must be—the Magistrate fully puts himself in the place of the other when he calls violence down upon his own body after he intervenes: “No” he cries repeatedly; “Not with that” he shouts at Joll, who is about to hammer the naked “prisoners who lie docilely on the earth. . . . ‘Look!’ I shout. ‘We are the great miracle of creation! But from some blows this miraculous body cannot repair itself! How—!’ Words fail me. ‘Look at these men!’ I recommence. ‘Men!’” (107) Consequently, subjected to torture, he is in the position of the state’s other, a body cast out beyond symbolic capacities:
But my torturers were not interested in degrees of pain. They were
interested only in demonstrating to me what it means to live in a body,
as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as
it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is
gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are
poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself. . . .
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. (115)
The basis of ethics, what the Magistrate calls “the meaning of humanity,” is in the body’s experience of pain that is irreducibly common to human subjects.
In taking on the place of the other as the subject of political violence, the Magistrate acts as a witness for those who cannot speak, cannot enter into the symbolic community of the state. Giorgio Agamben, in Remnants of Auschwitz, describes the paradoxical, impossible position of the witness, for no one can be literally in the place of the other or speak for the other:
the value of testimony lies essentially in what it lacks; at is center it
contains something that cannot be borne witness to . . . . The “true”
witnesses, the “complete” witnesses,” are those who did not bear witness,
cannot bear witness. . . . The survivors speak in their stead, be proxy, as
pseudo-witnesses; they bear witness to a missing testimony. . . . Whoever
assumes the charge of bearing witness in their name knows that he or she
must bear witness in the name of the impossibility of bearing witness. (Agamben 1999, p. 34).)
The Magistrate bears witness as he experiences the pain of the tortured subject. He becomes “the voice of something or someone” that “cannot bear witness. It is thus necessary that the impossibility of bearing witness, the ‘lacuna’ that constitutes human language, collapses, giving way to a different impossibility of bearing witness—that which does not have a language.” (Agamben 1999, p. 39) In pain, his body enters the gap of the unspeakable to take on a lacking voice.
Torture expresses the jouissance that, as the work of Slavoj Žižek constantly shows, is the underside of the law. The torturer as the instrument of the Other enacts the phantasy of the sadist, performing as an agent to reveal the hidden objet a on the body of the other so that the object, the remainder or leftover of the subject, will fall. The agent of state torture, like the sadist, makes the subject appear as real. Pain is the sign of the real subject, as anxiety is for Lacan the sign of the desiring subject approaching close to jouissance (Lacan 2004; 1963). Pain is the minimal index of the body outside the Symbolic and hence the point of the presence of the minimal subject in the Real. Elaine Scarry vividly describes how pain reduces the subject to mere body, only body, a body that every subject may be made to become—however inscribed and inserted in symbolic systems, of whatever sex or gender—yet it separates each subject as impenetrable and isolated (Scarry 1985). One cannot literally share or feel an other’s pain; “Do I have a headache,” Wittgenstein argues, is an impossible sentence. One may talk about sex—“Was it good?” “Did you come?”—and obviously we talk about sex, talk sex, constantly. Desire propels speech as it moves successively through metonymy; it is the force of language. Pain, however, is unspeakable. We ask “Where does it hurt?” referring to metonymies, and we answer “How does it feel?” with metaphors and similies. Yet the capacity to feel pain, to be a body in pain, and to imagine an other in pain unites human subjects, as even death, unspeakable and really unimaginable, cannot. If we cannot enter the consciousness of the other, the imagination may recognize an equality or a commonality in the real body. The body in pain, as common human being, stands as the common measure for justice, beyond the legal standing of citizenship.
The Magistrate, employing a metaphorics of spatial boundaries and of purity, tied to biblical notions of guilt as pollution and transgression, tries to imagine the torturer as subject, excluded from community. Communal social life takes on a sacred character in his language when it is figured in traditional Christian terms as the eating of bread:
I wonder how he felt the very first time: did he, invited as an apprentice
to twist the pincers or turn the screw or whatever it is they do, shudder
even a little to know that at that instant he was trespassing into the
forbidden? I find myself wondering too whether he has a private ritual
of purification, carried out behind closed doers, to enable him to return
and break bread with other men Does he wash his hands very carefully,
perhaps, or change his clothes; or has [Empire] created new men who can
pass without disquiet between the unclean and the clean? (12)
Even more urgently, having survived suffering, he questions his torturer, appealing to the diction of ritual and religious ceremony: “Do you find it easy to take food afterward? 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? Some kind of purging of one’s soul” (126). Waiting for the Barbarians is a first person narrative, so the subjectivity of the torturer is unavailable from the reader’s point of view. Nevertheless as readers, as spectators, we are invited to occupy the position of torturer all the time, to participate in the crimes of Macbeth, say, or the gleeful jouissance of Regan before Gloucester’s perverted trial in King Lear, to enjoy rape in reading Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” and in looking at a Titan. If so, if we can all take up the phantasy of the sadist, in what way can the imagination be an ethical faculty? The Magistrate is “trying to understand the zone in which [the torturer] lives” (126); the imagination constantly solicits such understanding.
A motif of writing and deciphering runs through the narrative, developing in several directions. The Magistrate tries to understand the blinded girl, finding her body and her blank, nonreciprocal gaze a barrier, “only a surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry” (43). He feels himself to be approaching her “like an old woman reading tea-leaves” (44) and with horror recognizes that his effort to enter her as a subject, to read her body and thereby comprehend her subjectivity, allies him with the Empire’s power: “Is this how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought it was?” (43) The treasure concealed in the other is ethically inviolable, must not be laid bare. The Magistrate’s decision to return the girl acts as an acceptance of the limits of imagination, a refusal to cross over into what his language consistently figures as a forbidden area. Writing frames and thereby limits the imagination even as it incites understanding and fantasy.
Interpersonal relation calls on a perpetual attempt to read the other, while state power works continually to inscribe the other. The subject, unknowingly and unwillingly, takes on an identity conferred by the Symbolic. The power of the state literally to write the body is dramatized in an operation powerfully evocative of Franz Kafka’s short story, “The Penal Colony,” whereby the body of the prisoner becomes a material surface for inscription: “Stooping over each prisoner in turn [the Colonel] rubs a handful of dust into his naked back and writes a word with a stick of charcoal. I read the words upside down: ENEMY . .. ENEMY . . . ENEMY . . . ENEMY. ” The biblical diction reminds that the body is after all only a handful of dust, vulnerable but also sacred. “The game,” the Magistrate sees, “is to beat them till their backs are washed clean” (105). The scene dramatizes the rationale for state violence that produces the very enemy it requires in order to justify its violence. At the same time it reveals the violence that installs the real subject in the Symbolic, constructing through an inscription on the body the symbolic subject and hence the subject of the unconscious. The writing on the barbarians’ bodies reproduces a parable Lacan describes as a kind of primal scene of symbolic being in an inscription “in a discourse, of which, like the ‘messenger-slave’ of ancient usage, the subject who carries under his hair the codicil that condemns him to death knows neither the meaning nor the text, nor in what language it is written.”(Lacan 1977, p. 302). Every political subject is written by state violence. The Magistrate’s efforts throughout the narrative to read the unreadable writing of the barbarians is an ethical practice of giving speech to what cannot be said.
All writing encodes a common symbolic, productive of community by realizing a common capacity for language and social alliance and identification; one reason the torture of the prisoners has so powerful an effect is that it perverts the potential of language to create community. Throughout his narration, the Magistrate constantly works at deciphering the characters inscribed on wooden slips he digs up in the desert, relics, he supposes, of earlier civilizations. The forms defeat him; he has “no idea what they stand for” (110). Yet he comes to know their meaning as “an allegory” (112) and reads to Joll their story, which tells already the story the novel has told of barbarians taken from ordinary life to be broken by Empire. History repeats the same violent action of the state upon the natural, “disposable” human being, the same story of the body in pain. Hung from a tree with his arms pinned behind him, dressed in a woman’s smock, swinging “like a great old moth,” emitting a noise streaming “out of a body that knows itself damaged perhaps beyond repair and roars in fright,” the Magistrate comes to learn the barbarian’s language: “‘He is calling his barbarian friends,’ someone observes. ‘That is barbarian language you hear’” (121). The comment is intended ironically, an expression of the enjoyment of a bystander who is impervious to its truth. All language signifies a real body capable of entering into community because of its capacity for pain. The Magistrate, as the subject of the body in pain, speaks in witness to what cannot be spoken.
Sade demonstrates for Lacan the failure of Kantian universal morality based on reciprocity, as Freud demonstrated the weakness of Christian morality. Psychoanalytic ethics shows that the Real is at stake in ethics. The neighbor that is the Thing inhabiting me, the neighbor that is the other Thing, has to be handled. Language is laid down at the limits of the Real and reduces its potential; at the same time, coming out of nothing, language makes the Real come into place and creates a potential. Human being begins with a prohibition of the mother’s enjoyment. All that psychoanalysis can do is to make possible a “savoir-fare,” a way of dealing with the Real that has been prohibited by the Symbolic and possibly reduced. In the end, the Magistrate understands neither himself nor the girl whom he continues to dream of; the soldiers depart, defeated by an invisible enemy, and the town returns to daily life, loosely governed by the Magistrate. What he has come to formulate he tries to convey to Joll, who is fleeing the town encased in his carriage, looking through the glass of the carriage window as he escapes. “‘The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves,’ I say. I nod and nod, driving the message home. ‘Not on others,’ I say” (146). The Magistrate does not explain his assertion nor give a logic for it; rather it is the conclusion his narrative inevitably leads to. This is not an ethics of the victim nor of sympathy but an ethics of the imagination. His experience of bodily pain in torture makes him aware of a common capacity to feel pain and consequently of a responsibility to protect the other from one’s own potential for an enjoyment of violence.
“The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves.” Coetzee’s words lay down the basis for a political ethics of the subject. The relation to the other, insofar as it is based on an opposition, inevitably alternates between identification and rivalry; citizenship, founded as it is on national belonging, inevitably slides between exclusion of the enemy and pity for the outsider. In such a relation, the citizen remains in a condition of immunity, protected by the state’s monopoly on violence, hence relieved of the potential violence disavowed in his abstract body. The ethics of the subject, however, begins in confrontation with the Thing, with a potential jouissance, which in a political setting is a potential enjoyment of violence, and issues in a practice of handling jouissance.. A stance of innocence is consequently unethical, since a potential for violence is inherent in every subject; the subject is likewise responsible for the violence of the state to which it belongs since the subject by definition is inscribed in a political community. The Magistrate denies the citizen’s position of invulnerability: “‘When some men suffer unjustly,’ I said to myself, ‘it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it’” (139). A response to participation in social participation, shame acknowledges the subject’s implication in violence directed at the other, while at the same time shame acts as a barrier to the enjoyment of violence.
Coetzee’s most recent novels, Disgrace (Coetzee 1999) and Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (Coetzee 2003) meditate on the scope of rights, on their application even to the bodies of animals. Questioning and extending the limits of rights, Coetzee’s later work seems to develop the Magistrate’s reflection on the tortured body: “A miracle of creation . . . It occurs to me that we crush insects beneath our feet, miracles of creation too, beetles, worms, cockroaches, ants, in their various ways” (107). However far the validity of ethics is to apply, Waiting for the Barbarians opens the possibility for any ethics by dramatizing the conditions for a politics superseding citizenship that originates in the subject’s confrontation with the pain of the real body. The International World Court at The Hague, as well as Geneva Conventions and similar treaties covering prisoners of war already recognize human rights as applying universally. The extension and global protection of international laws would ensure a politics of rights proceeding not from national belonging but as attributed to the real embodied subject.
It has been impossible to write about Coetzee’s novel without being overcome again and again with deep sorrow, anger, and shame as a citizen of a United States leading a war in Iraq whose corollary is the torture of prisoners. Equally stunning is the absence of popular, national outrage in the face of the scandal of Abu Ghraib and the general complacent acceptance of the violation of law in Guantánamo and other prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. The contempt for international law and treaties and for human rights by a nation founded on the principles of law and rights must inevitably issue in more terror. None of this is news by now, but it makes the more imperative that the scope of international law be secured and that psychoanalysis, as a knowledge and a practice, account for violence, not only as individual potential and pathology but as systemic political action and structure.