Waiting for the Barbarians

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Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Analysis

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.
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon

Two of the magistrate’s highest priorities in the novel are to write the true history of his settlement and to have his own history, his own recorded reputation, written truthfully. He wants to go down in history with the integrity of his action—as a defender of the barbarians against Colonel Joll’s corruption—preserved, and not erased with a narrative which, complicit in that corruption, would cast the magistrate as evil. The magistrate’s sense of truth is therefore at war with that of Joll and company in upholding his reputation, since his reputation depends on which of these “truths” is told. In this sense, the novel exposes how contingent something like “truth” is on those who have the power to tell it. Though, in terms of the actual truth, the magistrate seems to be a real force of good in the history of the Empire as opposed to Joll, being in a position stripped of official power means that the magistrate’s reputation is at stake. What might end up as the “true” history of the settlement could be written with a hand sympathetic to the likes of Joll and those who were complicit with the Empire’s corruption during the magistrate’s life. Eventually, during his captivity, the magistrate views martyrdom as the only way of counteracting the power around him; if he is willing to die for his principles, then perhaps he will be viewed in history as virtuous and ultimately the true upholder of the good.

The novel’s consideration of truth also figures into Joll’s philosophy about interrogation. Joll claims to be capable of perceiving the “tone of truth” in his victims—he believes the truth is extracted when a victim is brought to a breaking point caused by an intolerable level of pain, and they have no choice but to divulge whatever secrets they may be withholding. This sense of “truth,” however, is flawed. Joll presupposes that such “truth” is always there in his victims—that they might have some secret information they’re withholding about any invasion plans being engineered by barbarian leaders. He demonstrates that he cares more about whether a victim’s admissions conform to his own ideas about the truth than finding the real truth, which would involve keeping his own preconceptions open and not closing his hypotheses off from contradicting evidence. The kind of truth which Joll believes in is what leads him to harm his victims. Convinced of the surety of his cause despite lacking any empirical evidence for it, he feels entitled to mutilate his victims in pursuit of a truth that’s entirely in his head. Joll’s philosophy of truth gives him a sense of power that justifies his violence.

Joll’s sense of entitlement to a “truth” inside his victims, and his belief in an ability to perceive it in its purity despite his own biases, slowly become a fixation of the magistrate’s own way of thinking. The magistrate, in grappling with his desire to excavate the untold history of the barbarian girl—to recover a sense of life that was seemingly lost after she suffered Joll’s interrogation tactics—starts to feel infected by Joll’s philosophy of truth. The magistrate, trying to see something deeper behind the surface of the girl, feels as if he’s begun to read the objects and people in his environment as if they were “tea leaves,” as if they held, deep down, some secret prophetic truth to which he was entitled. Starting to see things as having a hidden depth behind their surface, the magistrate displays Joll’s own belief in having unadulterated access to an absolute truth.

However, whereas Joll seems obsessed with bending his victim’s minds to his own will—to only accessing a truth which he anticipates and has hypothesized—the magistrate’s curiosity around ancient ruins and relics shows that he has a deep desire to get to know something beyond him. Whereas the army-men around him demonstrate a fundamental hostility towards people (the barbarians) they do not know, the magistrate wants to uncover the history of something unfamiliar. This isn’t to say such a desire is always virtuous—it’s precisely this desire which complicated the magistrate’s relationship with the barbarian girl, who ultimately proves to be not nearly as exotic and unfamiliar as the magistrate initially thought. It’s the magistrate’s very assessment of her as an Other which drives him to possess her in a way that mirrors Joll’s sense of entitlement.

The novel therefore seems to complicate conventional conceptions of “truth.” It shows that truth is largely in the hands of the powerful, and that it might be manufactured by the powerful in order to justify their own crimes and acts of evil. Further, Coetzee shows how the desire to uncover the truth of other people is actually a violent process—that, in seeking the truth of the barbarian girl, the magistrate has already othered her in an alienating way that drives him to possess her. The magistrate does not preserve her status as an Other in order to show her empathy and respect for her differences, but rather to preserve the possibility that she hides a fundamentally stable, absolute truth that will explain his ambivalent attraction to her.

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Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians related to the theme of Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“. . . [I]t is the knowledge of how contingent my unease is, how dependent on a baby that wails beneath my window one day and does not wail the next, that brings the worst shame to me, the greatest indifference to annihilation. I know somewhat too much; and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to be no recovering. I ought never to have taken my lantern to see what was going on in the hut by the granary. On the other hand, there was no way, once I had picked up the lantern, for me to put it down again. The knot loops in upon itself; I cannot find the end.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Colonel Joll has just made his first return to the settlement since departing on his military campaign, and the magistrate, irritated by Joll’s presence, begins to think about how much his life has changed since the colonel’s first arrival in town.

Here, the magistrate shows the unavoidable vulnerability he feels to the emotions taking over his mind—his overwhelming feelings in response to the brutality behind Joll’s interrogation tactics. The magistrate, unable to put his sense of horror and repulsion at the actions of Joll and his assistants in the background of his mind, cannot recover from the emotional instability and severe sensitivity it entails. Durably installed in his daily life, this “infection” of knowledge about Joll’s evils renders even the mere cries of a captured barbarian baby traumatic enough to sink his temperament into total “indifference to annihilation.” Though the magistrate says that he regrets having ever ventured forth to investigate the torture scene at the granary, he seems to imply that, deep down in his mind, he felt irrevocably compelled to discover the truth of Joll’s actions. Therefore, “the knot loops upon itself”—the knot of the magistrate’s own self-knowledge is endlessly undone and reformed. Infected by a knowledge of Joll’s techniques, the magistrate cannot definitively determine whether he’d rather be blissfully ignorant or woefully informed like he’s become. This new knowledge of the terrors of torture, therefore, has made his own self-knowledge—his old, more complete sense of self—loop endlessly upon itself in utter indecision.


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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

“Is this how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought it was? For the first time I feel a dry pity for them: how natural a mistake to believe that you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other. 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—but I might equally well tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after the magistrate, having just paid a visit to the girl at the inn, returns to his apartment to rejoin the sleeping barbarian girl.

Here, the magistrate unearths a parallel between how he treats the barbarian girl and the way he thinks her torturers viewed her. It’s as if, through applying various techniques of torture to gain entry “into the secret body of the other”—into some hidden truth the girl was withholding about potential barbarian invasion plans—that the torturers were engaging in a process no less intimate than the magistrate’s own way of relating to and sexualizing the girl. Frustrated and disappointed by the girl’s constant elusiveness, by her enigmatic nature which refuses to yield to his sexual expectations, the magistrate feels a “dry pity” for the torturers’ belief that they could enter the girl’s mind absolutely. For he, like the torturers, engages in a similarly futile quest to enter and unravel the mind of the girl—to achieve a state of perfect understanding where the girl’s strange nature can be explained, and even manipulated in a way to conform with his desires.

In this way, the magistrate displays a violence analogous to that of the girl’s torturers. Though disguised as the proceedings of romantic and sexual desire, the magistrate’s relationship with the girl is one characterized by a violent, narcissistic drive to break open her lackluster outer personality and unveil a more desirable cluster of animate passions within. As such, the magistrate thinks that beating the girl would be no less intimate than wooing her, since both are essentially brutal.

“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 dark cellars. How can I believe that a bed is anything but a bed, a woman’s body anything but a site of joy? I must assert my distance from Colonel Joll! I will not suffer for his crimes!”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl, Colonel Joll
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs shortly after the last one; the magistrate has returned to his apartment from a visit to the girl at the inn, rejoining the barbarian girl in bed.

The magistrate is beginning to feel like Joll’s merciless sense of entitlement and belief in having unadulterated access to the minds of his torture victims has infected his own mind. This brutish way of approaching the world—of standing before the world as if its people held hidden truths and secrets which one was owed and could ascertain with the right method and rigor—is the “depravity” the magistrate is wary has befallen him. For the magistrate now finds himself reading into the external world as if it were a “tea-leaf” possessing a secret, prophetic truth. But how, the magistrate questions here, could he possibly believe there to be some hidden, self-involved meaning behind the surface of things—how could a bed be something more profound than itself, or the body of the barbarian girl a haven of concealed, deeper truths, and not merely a zone of sexual pleasure? Thus, the magistrate feels compelled to assert his distance from Joll in order to “not suffer for his crimes”—to not suffer from the criminal, evil ways he views his relationship to things external to and different from him.

“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.

“I have hitherto liked to think that she cannot fail to see me as a man in the grip of a passion, however perverted and obscure that passion may be, that in the bated silences which make up so much of our intercourse she cannot but feel my gaze pressing in upon her with the weight of a body. I prefer not to dwell on the possibility that what a barbarian upbringing teaches a girl may be not to accommodate a man’s every whim, including the whim of neglect, but to see sexual passion, whether in horse or goat or man or woman, as a simple fact of life with the clearest of means and the clearest of ends; so that the confused actions of an aging foreigner who picks her up off the streets and installs her in his apartment so that he can now kiss her feet, now browbeat her, now anoint her with exotic oils, now ignore her, now sleep in her arms all night, now moodily sleep apart, may seem nothing but evidences of impotence, indecisiveness, alienation from his own desires.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Related Symbols: Blindness and Joll’s Sunglasses
Page Number: 63-4
Explanation and Analysis:

The magistrate has recently persuaded the officer he dined with not long ago to send out a party of men to retrieve the corpses of two soldiers who deserted his party. After saying that he wrote home to the soldier’s families informing them of their loss, the magistrate’s narration shifts to another massaging ritual with the girl.

The tension ushered into the magistrate’s sexuality by the barbarian girl’s enigmatic personality comes to a pinnacle here. The magistrate has liked to think that the tumult and confusion of his passion for the girl was hidden from her injured eyes; he’s considered her to be fully visible, susceptible to his every investigation, and therefore capable of being fully comprehended and understood, despite her ongoing elusiveness. At the same time, while he’s considered himself as looking upon her from this privileged view, he’s thought her to have no such special access to his own body and mind—he’s thought of her as a body which is only looked upon, but doesn’t look back. This habit of viewing the barbarian girl’s blindness, however, is buckling under a new doubt: that the girl, in fact, can see the confusion and weakness of the magistrate—that she can sense, through his actions, his “impotence” and “alienation.”

This doubt, therefore, marks a pivotal moment in the magistrate’s psychology. Instead of viewing himself as something completely whole, distinct from, and inaccessible to the girl, yet still capable of accessing the hidden depths of her personality for his own enjoyment and intellection, the magistrate at this moment finds what once was his sense of wholeness fractured and de-completed in a new way, by a troubling prospect: that the girl has more access to his mind, more wit to observe his motivations, than he previously thought.

At this moment, the girl ceases to have the status of a frustrating Other who ceaselessly resists what the magistrate thinks to be his piercing power of comprehension. Instead, she becomes something even more frustrating: an Other who still cannot be comprehended, but who herself comprehends the magistrate almost entirely, and has much more access into his psychology than he has heretofore liked to imagine.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“I am aware of the source of my 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? As for this liberty which I am in the process of throwing away, what value does it have to me? Have I truly enjoyed the unbounded freedom of this past year in which more than ever before my life has been mine to make up as I go along?”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs shortly after the magistrate, having returned to the settlement from delivering the barbarian girl to her people, is arrested by Mandel on the charge of consorting with the barbarians.

Freed from his allegiance with the “guardians of the Empire,” the magistrate is overwhelmed with glee. Finally, the pressure to conform his own moral outlook to the anti-barbarian perspective fueling the Empire’s military campaign has been lifted. An extraordinary weight taken off his shoulders, the magistrate can now express himself freely; and even though the magistrate’s daring dissent towards the Empire has landed him in prison, the sheer freedom of being openly defiant and not coerced into social conformity is enough to outweigh the freedom lost with imprisonment. For, as the magistrate says, the liberty he possessed as a “free man” brought him no distinct joy.

That the magistrate calls Mandel a “new barbarian” is significant—it shows how, in the magistrate’s mind, the Empire’s military officials (such as Mandel) have usurped the position of the barbarians in his old worldview, in his mind prior to his arrest. Now that his allegiance with the Empire’s military officials has been severed, the magistrate is able to view them as a real foe—he can view the military as they view the barbarians.

“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

“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.