“Waiting for the Barbarians” by J. M. Coetzee Essay
“Waiting for the Barbarians” by J. M. Coetzee
“All this erotic behavior of mine is indirect: I prowl about her, touching her face, caressing her body, without entering her or finding the urge to do so. … But with this woman it is as if there is no interior, only a surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry. Is this how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought it was?” – pg.43.
One of the central figures in J. M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” is the barbarian girl. The Magistrate finds the girl maimed and nearly blind after being interrogated and tortured by the ruthless Colonel Joll, and takes her in. The Magistrate’s relationship with the girl revolves around his search for the girl’s significance; he questions her about her torture, he attempts to understand her through her physical surface, and tries to use her as the key to unlocking his own meaning. Ultimately, the Magistrate’s treatment of the barbarian girl mirrors her treatment by Colonel Joll; they both use her as a tool in their respective searches for knowledge.
The parallels between Joll and the Magistrate’s behavior towards the barbarian girl can be seen in the selected passage. The Magistrate is going over his conduct towards the girl in his head, and expressing some puzzlement as to the motivation behind his actions as well as over their lack of fruition. He puts effort into making romantic gestures towards her, but does not sleep with her, nor does he really want to. He seems to want something from her, but is unsure about what that is or how to go about getting it. This makes the woman seem mysteriously full of meaning and yet impenetrable to him, in more ways than one.
His last thought is to compare his search for meaning in his relationship with the girl to her torturers’ search for an elusive secret from her.
By describing his own behavior as “indirect,” we get a sense of the Magistrate’s own lack of clarity towards the subject. He makes “erotic” overtures towards the girl, but he makes them “indirect[ly],” implying that his goal is not to seduce the girl… but what his true intentions are remain unclear, even to him. The Magistrate does not understand his fascination with the barbarian girl. This can be illustrated on pg. 40 where he asks her not only why she is with him, but also, “why do I want you here?” He tries to analyze his relationship to the girl and use it to somehow get a better understanding of who he is.
However, his philosophical questions get few answers from her, and none that satisfy him. He focuses his interest on her scars and what transpired during her torture sessions, questioning her incessantly. He bathes her and massages her with almond oil, paying special attention to her injuries. Using his hands to feel all over her body, repeatedly he tries to recreate in his mind the ‘whole’ of what she was like before the torture, the ‘whole’ of the person she is and was. Yet it seems to him as if she has “no interior, only a surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry.” Because he cannot find her “interior,” or the meaning that she holds for him, he blindly searches the physical surface for meaning.
The Magistrate tries to interpret his own meaning through the girl’s body. Like the wooden slips covered in barbarian characters that the Magistrate polished and pored over for so many hours, her oiled body becomes a text to decipher his own meaning. When she grudgingly reveals some of the torture methods used on her, it does not bring her and the Magistrate any closer together, neither does it bring the Magistrate any closer to understanding her; interestingly enough, it functions to give the Magistrate more insight into Joll’s character and his relationship to him. Her scars are like the ugly truth of the Magistrate’s quiet complicity in the atrocities committed in the name of Empire that he must bring himself to reconcile with, by looking at them and feeling them over and over again.
Once the Magistrate begins to realize the role he had in facilitating the acts of torture, and how horrendous they truly were, he also begins to see the similarities between Joll and himself. The verbs the Magistrate uses to describe his own actions towards the girl in the selected passage, such as “prowl,” “hunt,” and even “seeking” create an image of a furtive predator rather than a lover. This is a manifestation of the guilt he feels for his part in her injuries.
But we do not get a real sense of threat or danger from the Magistrate because he states that this hunter is non-invasive: he does not “enter” her and has no “urge to do so.” Even the phrases “touching her face,” and “caressing her body,” which normally would invoke intimacy, when put in the context of ‘prowling’ give the impression of a hunter thoroughly examining the pelt of its prey. It is easy to make the connection between this image and the image of the Magistrate examining the barbarian girl’s broken ankles and scars.
Joll and the accomplice “torturers” are also referred to as “hunting” the girl;
while Joll was aggressively searching for a “secret” he never found, the Magistrate hunts for how to figure her out and enter her “surface,” which he also fails to find. However, they both hunt for some sort of meaning from this girl, suggesting Joll’s use of her is similar to the Magistrate’s use for her. Joll tortures her to try to get secret information about an impending barbarian offensive attack (which turns out to be nonexistent information in the first place). However, he still “hunts” the truth from her until she is left blinded and crippled.
The Magistrate presses for details of her torture, harasses her with philosophical questions, and engages in his cryptic washing and oiling rituals while searching for meaning through her body. In his various ways he also tries to “hunt” out meanings from the girl, and he comes to realize his relationship to the girl thus mirrors that of Joll’s. They both use the girl as a means to some desired end of knowledge, whether it be a secret of war or a secret of why. Furthermore, the Magistrate comes to see his mirroring of Joll might not just end with the barbarian girl.
The girl ultimately serves as the interface for the Magistrate to see the parallels between himself and Joll. It is significant that the Magistrate takes up with the girl only after Joll has discarded her- the fact that the Magistrate must have overseen her arrival with the soldiers was a recurring thought of his. However, he had no interest in her until after Joll had left her permanently handicapped.
The Magistrate eventually comes to see that his attempt to connect with the woman was an attempt to retrace Joll’s footsteps; to understand the man and his actions by putting himself into an intimate relationship with the barbarian girl. But he also does this to distinguish himself as different from Joll; he “regretted” he could not “engrave [himself] as deeply” (p.135) on her as Joll had, but he wished to leave the mark of his pseudo-loving on her rather than the marks of pain and torture she had from Joll.
The relationships the barbarian girl has with Colonel Joll and the Magistrate are similar in that both use her as a tool in their respective quests for knowledge. Joll tries to coerce her into saying something to justify an attack on the barbarians, while the Magistrate tries to use her to interpret himself and his role in the Empire, but they both believe that she is the key to unlocking some truth they seek. They both use the girl for their own purposes, without any regard for her as a person, and Joll treats her very cruelly.
The Magistrate cares for her physical well-being, but he does not truly attempt to get to know beyond her surface, and only attempts to understand her through what function she serves in his life. Eventually he realizes through his relationship with her how many parallels exist between him and Joll. The girl stands between the two men as a one-way mirror that they both use, but gradually becomes two-way for the Magistrate, allowing him to see the Joll alter ego mingling with his own reflection. Coming to accept this also means collapsing some of the distance that he had mentally established between himself and Joll, and likewise accepting a certain share in the responsibility for all the atrocities committed by Joll in the name of the Empire.