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Monday, February 27, 2012


First sentences: Waiting For The Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

Content warning: torture, pain

I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire.

Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee's bleak masterpiece, takes place in a strange and timeless country where our narrator, the Magistrate, tries and fails to sustain moderate decency and dignity in a small town on the outpost of the 'Empire.' Human comfort will be rendered ridiculous by the end of his journey through pain, human ordinariness a humiliating failure: the Empire's torturers will have reduced him to nothing more than physical fear. One of the most important passages on the nature of power I have ever read is part of this book:

In my suffering there is nothing ennobling. Little of what I call suffering is even pain. What I am made to undergo is subjection to the most rudimentary needs of my body: to drink, to relieve itself, to find the posture in which it is least sore. When Warrant Officer Mandel and his man first brought me back here and lit the lamp and closed the door, I wondered how much pain a plump comfortable old man would be able to endure in the name of his eccentric notions of how the Empire should conduct itself. But my torturers were not interested in degrees of pain. They were interested in demonstrating to me what it meant 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 did not come to force the story out of me of what I had said to the barbarians and what the barbarians had said to me. So I had no chance to throw the high-sounding words I had ready in their faces. 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.

This is humanity in Waiting For The Barbarians: the utter humiliation of discovering that pain and discomfort take up all our attention.

The Magistrate's first sentence is proportionately small-scale. The man wearing the sunglasses is Colonel Joll, foremost among the brutes of the Empire we will meet, and within a few pages he will be torturing some 'barbarians' who have been captured while travelling to the city in search of a doctor. He will be doing it off-stage, though: the Magistrate has some compunction about the torture and doesn't like to see people suffer, but knows better than to try and halt Joll in the course of his business and does nothing more than accept Joll's suggestion that he does not attend. Yet amidst this quiet horror, already permeated with the revelation later wreaked upon the Magistrate's own body that one person's suffering causes no disruption in the world, ordinariness cannot be banished. Joll is wearing a peculiar apparatus on his face, and the Magistrate cannot help noticing it, quite as if nothing else notable were happening.

This first sentence does, in fact, present a notable event: it is the first impression of a man who has only just arrived and will bring hell with him. But the message of this book, repeated throughout like a cry of dismay, that we are small creatures who depend upon physical limits, is already present in this first sentence: the Magistrate cannot help but notice the odd sunglasses. As well as the dismay of littleness, of course, it's also a reflection on the avoidance of painful thought: just as a body tries to find the least sore posture, so the Magistrate, at this stage of his life, tries to find the least painful psychological position. He is a servant of evil and required to enact cruel commands that he has little power to soften: reacting to Joll as a curiously-dress colleague is, after all, less painful than recognising him for a monster.

At the same time, there's an element of monstrosity in the description of his sunglasses: they are chilling, alienating, they conceal his eyes. On examination, Joll explains how they save him from squinting and protect his face from wrinkling: the hardships of physical reality, which he imposes so efficiently on others, are not such a problem for him. While the Magistrate is already complicit in the Empire's brutality, there's something almost prelapsarian about his naive wonder at this strange, protective, intimidating invention: the first sentence is close to a last flicker of innocence. After Joll's arrival, the Magistrate will see many things he has never seen before, and they will be terrible things that he cannot unsee.

As well as innocent, the tone is intimate. 'I have never seen anything like it,' the Magistrate tells us: his voice is conversational, mildly exclamatory, willing to share emotion. He will be sharing his findings about vulnerability with us, and even in his first sentence he has no problem revealing his ignorance. Incomprehension, bafflement and the inability to form conclusions will, in fact, permeate his broken consciousness: we begin with minor bewilderment and will end with utter desolation. There will be no 'high-sounding words' or confident conclusions: the fragility of the human body does not allow for them. There will be disaster, and there will be surprise, and mild, threatened surprise is about as close to safety as we will ever come.

Amazing. Thank you for this. This is very much helpful for my essay, and I did not see the significance in the first sentence before.
Thanks for this analysis. I would add:
"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 if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind. The disks are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention. 'They protect the eyes from the glare of the sun,' he says. 'You would find them useful out here in the desert. They save one from squinting all the time. One has fewer headaches. Look.' He touches the corner of his eyes lightly. 'No wrinkles.' He replaces the glasses. It is true. he has the skin of a younger man.' At home everyone wears them."
This description summarises the core aspect of the empire. The 'new invention' that everyone back home wears, shields them from the glaring truth of their own evil. This new propaganda brings the emissary to 'the desert', this place where the operationalisation or impact of the propagandic lense must shield one from the glaring truth of what is really going on here.
This opening paragraph is a most brilliant metaphor for the nature and working of the filtered perception, delivered as the reigning narrative of what truth is - the empire's truth, sanitised and crafted to support the empire's agenda. It is this state filter or definer of the truth that enables those - like the emissary, to exist within its impact, its horror, without 'headaches' or 'wrinkles'.
As the first paragraph, Coetzee makes a very important point, right at the outset, that the reader must not loose sight of. It is germane to understanding how this horror could occur. It is a clarion call to retain sight of truth. For when truth is corrupted, this desert horror can occur.

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