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.
History and Time ThemeTracker
History and Time Quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians
“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!”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“ . . . 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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?"
“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.”