Waiting for the Barbarians

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Themes and Colors
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
History and Time Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Waiting for the Barbarians, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
History and Time Theme Icon

The magistrate displays a belief in a register of time and history beyond that of mere human events—beyond the details of human history that get recorded on a linear timeline of past-to-present-to-future. He says that, when he really contemplates the history of his settlement, he thinks that its deeper meaning lies in a greater cycle of nature, of the recycling of the seasons, and not in historical recordings of its material growth and various conquests. In line with this higher perspective of cyclicality, the magistrate’s observation that every generation has its own “barbarian scare” implies that he sees history—at the level of human events—as fundamentally repetitive. And, if we put his belief in a higher cycle of history together with this observation, we can read the magistrate as believing that human history follows a self-repeating pattern that issues from the non-human cycle of nature itself.

With this belief in a pattern to history, the magistrate therefore seems to view his life and the world it encounters as not merely an isolated, free-floating phenomenon, but as connected to and flowing out of a time that preceded it. This grants the magistrate a perspective on human society that’s more nuanced and beyond the narrow view of soldiers at his settlement, who follow blindly, in the here-and-now, the orders of their military commanders, engaging uncritically in a campaign of fear, hatred, and persecution against the barbarians.

Coetzee’s work therefore seems to hint that this higher perspective of history is more ethical than a narrower view unconcerned with how the past relates to the present. The magistrate himself speaks against this latter view, which he attributes to the “new men of Empire” such as Joll and Mandel. Whereas they are concerned only with forging “fresh starts” and acting out what they see as the history of the (only) Empire, the magistrate feels compelled to tarry with the past wrongdoings of the Empire (and potential past Empires) and the suffering of its former victims. To try and forget or repress the memory of the Empire’s less-than-humane past is an act of censorship, and renews corruption by severing it from its consequences in the past. Further, this concern with fresh starts and new beginnings is characteristic of the linear time which the magistrate attributes to human history, and which he ultimately describes as the “submerged mind of Empire.” The Empire’s goal of expansion and self-preservation operates on a timeline heading from a beginning to an end, and this structure is so engrained in all of the Empire’s activities that it’s something of a submerged mind, or unconscious process undergirding its every act.

The magistrate therefore views perceiving time as cyclic to be superior to perceiving it as linear. And, at one point in the novel, he even implies that cyclical time is a more natural way of perceiving the world than through the linear lens of human history—which filters the ongoing process of life into discrete starts and finishes—by saying that children are born uncorrupted by such a lens (and indeed, this view of time seems to revolve around “nature” in general in the magistrate’s mind—the migrations of birds, the change of seasons, etc.). Further, he seems to think that it would be possible to, or he at least dreams of, engineer a society that’s organized in such a way as to facilitate a way of viewing time and its own history cyclically. The novel therefore explores the possibility of such a view as being fundamental to human nature, but corrupted by economies and national identities which only persist insofar as time is viewed as passing from a beginning to an end.

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History and Time ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of History and Time appears in each Chapter of Waiting for the Barbarians. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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History and Time Quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians

Below you will find the important quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians related to the theme of History and Time.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“The space about us here is merely space, no meaner or grander than the space above the shacks and tenements and temples and offices of the capital. Space is space, life is life, everywhere the same. But as for me, sustained by the toil of others, lacking civilized vices with which to fill my leisure, I pamper my melancholy and try to find in the vacuousness of the desert a special historical poignancy. Vain, idle, misguided! How fortunate that no one sees me!”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs while the magistrate lingers among some of the ruins he likes to excavate; Joll and his men have recently departed on their expedition at this point in the plot.

Here, the magistrate expresses embarrassment at the seriousness and intellectual severity with which he pursues his quest to discover a secretly profound, but hidden and not yet known, historical richness to the desert around him. Even going so far as to sacrifice his reason in order to wager the existence of ghosts in the ruins he explores, the magistrate seems deeply invested in uncovering a connection with the past that will give a surge of intrigue to the present in which he lives. Trying to find “a special historical poignancy” to the frontier, which lacks the metropolitan glamour of the capital, the magistrate ultimately seems to feel shameful and “vain” for trying to unearth and excavate, in the external, physical world, what’s only a product of his imagination—a product of his nostalgia for a non-existent past he’s invented just as a way to “pamper” his own “melancholy.” Unable to realize, or admit to himself with any satisfaction, that the space—the atmosphere of life on the frontier—is ultimately made of the same physical substance proliferating life in the capital, the magistrate sees his life at the settlement as somehow innately predisposed to being inferior and passive in comparison to the intrigue and activity of the Empire’s central urban hub.

Yet the magistrate is fully aware of this mental habit of his—he’s aware of why he busies himself with his excavation hobby even to the point of imaginary, delusional excess. The magistrate knows that space is just space, and that the life he lives in the settlement has just as equal a possibility of vivacity and intrigue as that of the capital. Later in the novel, he even displays a belief in a register of time and historical unfolding that transcends the order of human society, such as the way humans like himself break up space by conceiving of it as having different parts with fundamentally different qualities—the way humans define the boundaries of their identities and social worlds by perceiving differences between themselves and others. Ultimately, the Empire’s “othering” of the barbarians exemplifies this way of perceiving space and meaning.


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“It would be best if this obscure chapter in the history of the world were terminated at once, if these ugly people were obliterated from the face of the earth and we swore to make a new start, to run an empire in which there would be no more injustice, no more pain. It would cost little to march them out into the desert . . . to have them dig, with their last strength, a pit large enough for all of them to lie in (or even dig it for them!), and, leaving them buried there forever and forever, to come back to the walled town full of new intentions, new resolutions.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Colonel Joll has just ceased his interrogations of the barbarian prisoners he’d taken, and re-departed the settlement to continue his campaign.

Here, the magistrate’s characteristic empathy and compassion for the barbarians takes an unusually dark turn. However, instead of wishing to kill the barbarian prisoners out of sheer racist malice, the magistrate seems just to want to “put them out of their misery” and eliminate from the face of the earth the marks of torture indelibly etched on their bodies by the gruesome actions of Joll. For the prisoners’ suffering is a monument to, a reminder of, “this obscure chapter in the history of the world”—the obscure chapter when the evils of Joll and company proliferated and blossomed. But the absence of racism in the magistrate’s fantasy about burying the prisoners alive doesn’t make it any more virtuous. It’s seems (at least until the clarification he offers in the next quote) like a selfish dream motivated by his desire to restore normalcy and tranquility to the frontier—an ideal atmosphere which the “ugly” victims of torture taint through their sheer existence. To wipe them away would wipe away any physical markers of the Empire’s evils, and create a space where “a new start,” one rid of injustice and cruelty, could be forged.

“But that will not be my way. The new men of Empire are the ones who believe in fresh starts, new chapters, clean pages; I struggle on with the old story, hoping that before it is finished it will reveal to me why it was that 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 that 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.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs immediately after the last one; Joll has finished interrogating his prisoners and left the settlement to rejoin his expedition.

The magistrate is disavowing his recent fantasy about burying the barbarian prisoners in order to forge a fresh start—an Empire unmarked by any physical reminders of its past evils. For building new starts by erasing the past—by tidying and cleaning up the past through a repressive censorship—is not the magistrate’s style. The magistrate struggles on with the old story and tarries with the pain of the past in order to realize, whenever it ends and times change, and the evil behind such pain is rectified through justice, what made the struggle worthwhile in the first place. When society returns to being good and just, he hopes that the new life it affords him will make him realize—will make him palpably understand—what about life it was that made him keep going.

Chapter 2 Quotes

“But more often in the very act of caressing her I am overcome with sleep as if polelaxed, fall into oblivion sprawled upon her body, and wake an hour or two later dizzy, confused, thirsty. These dreamless spells are like death to me, or enchantment, black, outside time.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs during one of the magistrate’s massaging rituals with the barbarian girl; this takes place shortly after Joll has left the settlement to rejoin his expedition, after interrogating the barbarian prisoners.

Here we begin to see the conflicts arising around the magistrate’s relationship with the barbarian girl in a concrete form. Perhaps what’s most significant about this passage is the magistrate’s ambiguous association of death, and a simultaneous “enchantment” characterized by blackness and timelessness, to his experience of these sexualized spells. The magistrate’s entrance into these spells, these lulls of “oblivion” brought about by his sexualized massaging ritual with the girl, mark for him an exit from all ordinary experience. It’s as if the magistrate falls asleep while retaining the most minimal degree of consciousness necessary to have self-awareness, such that he goes into the deepest depths of his sleeping mind while still a tiny bit awake.

The magistrate therefore enters a mental state that is totally other to his ordinary experience. It’s significant that this state is triggered by his encounters with the barbarian girl. It speaks to the fact that the magistrate, through his sexualization of the barbarian girl—through his turning the caretaking of her injuries into a less than strictly medical enterprise—is beginning to enter a relationship with her where she’s somehow othered, or made into a figure that he finds himself unable or unwilling to identify with in a way that suggests the presence of empathy. Though this conflict is still in its initial stages at this point in the book, and its relation to the barbarian girl not yet explicit, this moment—where the magistrate notes this radically altered state of experience—signals that there’s something very peculiar about how his engagement with her affects him psychologically.

“I wish that these barbarians would rise up and teach us a lesson, so that we would learn to respect them. We think of the country here as ours, part of our Empire—our outpost, our settlement, our market centre. But these people, these barbarians don’t think of it like that at all. We have been here more than a hundred years, we have reclaimed land from the desert and built irrigation works and planted fields and built solid homes and put a wall around our town, but they still think of us as visitors, transients.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

The magistrate has invited the officer of a detachment of new conscripts to his settlement to dinner at the inn, and says this to him as they converse after their meal. The officer has just mentioned that there’s a rumor going around about the Empire launching a general offensive against the barbarians in the spring, and this perturbs the magistrate.

Here, the magistrate asserts his compassion for the barbarians as people who are as equally human as the Empire’s citizens, and who deserve the same possibilities for experiencing and preserving welfare and prosperity in their lives. But the magistrate does not just propose that the barbarians are equals—he goes a step further by condemning the Empire’s sense of superiority and entitlement, and insists that its people are mere outsiders in the desert, which, he emphasizes, is more truly the home and dominion of the barbarians. The willingness to so boldly profess his wish that the barbarians rise up and teach the Empire a lesson testifies to the devotion with which the magistrate upholds his moral convictions.

This passage also shows how the magistrate sees the barbarians as adhering to a more cyclical, “eternal” view of time than the Empire does—and this is partly why the magistrate idealizes and empathizes with the barbarians so much.

Chapter 3 Quotes

“ . . . it has not escaped me that in bed in the dark the marks her torturers have left upon her, the twisted feet, the half-blind eyes, are easily forgotten. Is it then the case that it is the woman I want, that my pleasure in her is spoiled until these marks on her are erased and she is restored to herself; or is it the case (I am not stupid, let me say these things) that it is the marks on her which drew me to her but which, to my disappointment, I find, do not go deep enough? Too much or too little: is it she I want or the traces of a history her body bears?”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Related Symbols: Blindness and Joll’s Sunglasses
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

The magistrate has embarked on his trip to return the barbarian girl to her people, and this quote occurs in the early morning of the eighth day. The magistrate sleeps in the same tent with the girl, and they’ve just had sexual intercourse.

Here, as the magistrate continues to grapple with his inability to dig beneath the surface the barbarian girl—his failure to discover a hidden vitality within her—he wonders whether he’s seeking a depth within her that’s concealed by the marks of her torture, or a depth within the marks of torture themselves. Was he truly attracted to her in the first place, or rather to her scars? The ultimate question, perhaps, is whether the magistrate has dehumanized the girl to the extent that he’s merely using her to uncover “the traces of a history her body bears.” If the latter is the case, then the magistrate’s earlier worries about becoming infected with Joll’s tendency to approach his victims as if they bore a “truth” he was looking for were legitimate.

In approaching the girl’s marks as if they bear a deeper history, the magistrate not only reflects Joll’s obsession with the truth, but also the magistrate’s own earlier claim to tarry with the pain of the past, and not merely sweep it under the rug of history in order to form a “new” Empire supposedly divorced from its past. In remaining fixated on the girl’s wounds, the magistrate reflects this prior vow to keep the past in the view of the presented, but in a perverted form. Whereas the magistrate’s philosophy about remembering the past is divested of personal interest, the magistrate’s desire to uncover the girl’s particular past marks his desire to possess her and assimilate her enigmatic nature to his own understanding.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“I stare all day at the empty walls, unable to believe that the imprint of all the pain and degradation they have enclosed will not materialize under an intent enough gaze; or shut my eyes, trying to attune my hearing to that infinitely faint level at which the cries of all who suffered here must still beat from wall to wall. I pray for the day when these walls will be levelled and the unquiet echoes can finally take wing; though it is hard to ignore the sound of brick being laid on brick so nearby.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs soon after the magistrate is arrested by Mandel after returning from his trip to return the barbarian girl to her people. The walls of his prison cell, he says, will not reveal the suffering they’ve contained in the past, no matter how hard he stares at them. Nor will the space around him emit the cries of past prisoners, however hard he tries to meditate. Here, therefore, we see another instance of the magistrate trying to connect to the tragedies of past histories, as well as read into the surface of external objects—like the walls around him—some profound meaning that remains as a trace of the past. Further, the magistrate’s prayer that the walls eventually be destroyed such that the “unquiet echoes” of the past will be freed and no longer contained reflects his fantasy, earlier in the novel, about burying Joll’s barbarian prisoners alive.

Whereas now, in his cell, the magistrate wants to let the suffering contained by the prison to be let into the boundless expanse of space outside, before, when he fantasized about burying the prisoners, he considered the possibility of erasing their pain from the face of the earth in order to grant the Empire a fresh start—a future unhindered by any reminders of its former evils. Though the two desires don’t exactly parallel one another, and though he attributes the latter to the likes of Joll, both nonetheless share the magistrate’s fixation with the idea of eliminating barriers so as to let dammed-up potentials be set free. Whereas the magistrate wants to let the pain and suffering of the past rush freely into the atmosphere, so that it’s no longer repressed by history and society, the Empire wants to eliminate the memory of the past entirely.

“For me, at this moment, striding away from the crowd, 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, therefore 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.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs as the magistrate, who’s escaped from his cell, looks upon the barbarian prisoners who Joll and his men have brought back from their expedition, and who are being lined up in front of the whole settlement to be publicly beaten.

Faced with the horrific possibility of witnessing the brutal mutilation of Joll’s prisoners, the magistrate, for once, decides that he should turn his face away from suffering: that he should resist being both traumatized by the violence itself and overwhelmed with hatred of its perpetrators. Whereas the magistrate has previously defended the virtues of facing suffering directly, he’s always referred to the suffering of the past, saying that one should struggle and tarry with its memory rather than try to erase it in order to forge a “fresh start.”

Here, however, the magistrate is faced with an imminent possibility of suffering, with a future pain—with the public display of anti-barbarian torture that is moments away. Though the magistrate ultimately stays and watches the violence unfold, the fact that he initially opts to turn from it suggests either that he’s become so unbearably dismayed by his imprisonment and the anti-barbarian society around him that he simply couldn’t stand the added distress of witnessing such an atrocity, or that he values struggling with and examining past suffering more than seeing it repeat itself in a future instance, or both.

Further, this passage also reveals the magistrate’s desire to go down in history with the reputation of being a good man among the otherwise evil populace of the Empire. Later, this desire intensifies into an aspiration for martyrdom.

Chapter 5 Quotes

“I am not unaware of what such daydreams signify, dreams of becoming an unthinking savage, of taking the cold road back to the capital, of groping my way out to the ruins in the desert, of returning to the confinement of my cell, of seeking out the barbarians and offering myself to them to use as they wish. Without exception they are dreams of ends: dreams not of how to live but of how to die. And everyone, I know, in that walled town . . . is similarly preoccupied.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

The magistrate has been released from imprisonment, and it’s been months since Joll’s expeditionary force has departed—yet there’s been no news of them at all. This quote occurs as the magistrate, after a leisurely stroll, wades into the lake near the village of the fisher-folk.

Once again, the magistrate’s preoccupation with the linear, beginning-to-end structure of time characteristic of the Empire’s society, and its conflict with the cyclical time of the seasons and natural world at large, comes to the fore here. This passage is significant because it shows how even though the magistrate is thinking about such possible escapes from life under the Empire as “groping [his] way out to the ruins in the desert” and “seeking out the barbarians” to offer himself to them, the linear patter of start-to-finish still plagues his way of thinking. The pattern has inscribed itself as such a deep level of his psychological processes that it’s become the very structure of his thought itself—it therefore seems inescapable. Even though he’s become an outsider to the Empire’s society, he still thinks like everyone “in that walled town,” who are “similarly preoccupied” with “dreams of ends.”

“What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the season but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 153-4
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs shortly after the last one. The magistrate has been released from imprisonment, and it’s been three months since Joll’s expeditionary force departed. After a leisurely walk, the magistrate is wading in the lake near the village of the fisher-folk.

Here, the magistrate distinguishes between two orders of time: the cyclical time of the season, and the linear time of human history, which rises and falls and is caught going from one pole to another—from beginning to end. Members of the Empire like the magistrate, he claims, are unable to experience the cyclical register of time, for the Empire’s way of plotting against history has tainted their perception of time. Instead of organizing itself according to cyclical structures which mirror the seasons, the Empire organizes its society according to survival: “how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.” Therefore, the Empire “dooms itself to live in history and plot against history,” since it lives in a linear mode of time that naturally proceeds from beginning to end, yet simultaneously endeavors to prevent that natural procession, and forever forestall the arrival of the end. This meditation by the magistrate gives a sense that the “submerged mind of Empire” is profoundly alienated from the natural order of the world.

“To the last we will have learned nothing. In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable. No one truly believes, despite the hysteria in the streets, that the world of tranquil certainties we were born into is about to be extinguished. No one can accept that an imperial army has been annihilated by men with bows and arrows and rusty old guns who live in tents and never wash and cannot read or write. And who am I to jeer at life-giving illusions? Is there any better way to pass these last days than in dreaming of a savior with a sword who will scatter the enemy hosts and forgive us the errors that have been committed by others in our name and grant us a second chance to build our earthly paradise?"

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

During what are thought to be the last days at the settlement in anticipation of a barbarian invasion, after having regained his leadership of the town, the magistrate notes that none of the remaining townspeople truly believe that the end is near. “The world of tranquil certainties” in which they have grown up, it appears, is too hard to give up; ultimately, the remaining settlers are incapable of being disillusioned about the supposedly insurmountable strength of their Empire and the safety they’ve always considered guaranteed. They cannot possibly accept that the primitive barbarians have defeated the military sophistication of the Empire’s army.

However, the magistrate says, how can one not endure these final days without such “life-giving illusions?” The belief in a savior who will defeat the barbarians and wash away the sins of the Empire’s army is almost a necessary delusion for survival. We might read this moment as the first time in the novel, therefore, that the magistrate forgoes his criticism of forging “fresh starts”—the mentality characteristic of the “new men of Empire,” and the Empire’s tendency to live in a linear register of time always proceeding from start to finish. Yet the magistrate asks for a savior who will forgive him and other dissenters like him for the misdeeds of people such as Joll—in this case, then, we might read the magistrate as not so much asking for a “fresh start,” but rather a chance to merely fix the wrongdoings of the past. In this way, the magistrate is still consistent with his previously stated beliefs.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“This is not the scene I dreamed of. Like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Magistrate’s Dream
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

These are the last two sentences of the book, which the magistrate speaks after noting that winter is on its way again. His settlement (over which he’s regained leadership) is mostly deserted, and those who remain fear an imminent barbarian invasion. The magistrate then passes a scene similar to that which he’s often dreamed about—children building a castle in the snow—but he cannot find any meaning in this encounter, and so leaves it feeling “stupid” and continues on his way.

That the magistrate continues to press on along a road that guarantees no destination—that he forges on surviving without any indication of what his future will look like—indicates that the linear, start-to-finish, historical time characteristic of life in the Empire is fading from his perception of the world. The cyclical time he once romanticized—the time of the seasons, of the natural world indifferent to the aims and ends of human affairs—is now sweeping him up in the uncertainty of utter aimlessness. Though the magistrate puts this way of viewing the world on a pedestal—as something superior to linearity, and which still flourishes in the untarnished, uncivilized minds of children (and perhaps barbarians), and is as natural, so he says, as the relationship which fish have with water—he seems to have always thought of this cyclical way of living as something which humans themselves should celebrate through the way they organize their society. This way of perceiving the world, he thinks, should be expressed through human action.

Now, however, with the society around him crumbling and the threat of an imminent barbarian invasion, the prospect of one day creating an ideal society uncorrupted by the Empire’s lust for expansion and self-preservation (the preservation of its identity’s rigid contours as cut-off from and separate the barbarians) and more attuned to the ambiguous fluidity of a heterogenous, cyclical world, has dimmed. Though he’s left with a sense of the cyclical time he once idolized, it’s now only a force of destruction. With no stable social world around him to cultivate and celebrate cyclicality through its culture and organization, the magistrate is left alone with the destructive shadows of what once was a wondrous force.