In Waiting for the Barbarians, the Empire is an abstract figurehead for imperial power at large. It is never even explicitly named, and therefore never associated with any nation in the real world, though we can infer that the Empire correlates in some ways to South Africa, Coetzee’s homeland. The nomadic peoples (“barbarians”), then, partly symbolize the victims of colonialism and apartheid—or more specifically, the black population during apartheid-era South Africa.
The inhabitants of the Empire’s frontier settlement (over which the magistrate presides) harbor an irrational fear and hatred of the barbarians, who inhabit the desert around them—a fear based not on any knowledge of or direct experience with the actual nomads themselves, but one that is fueled merely by superstition, ignorance, and military dogma. The novel shows how the soldiers and higher-ups (like Colonel Joll) of the Empire’s army follow unquestioningly—and therefore blindly—their military orders, as they are convinced that the barbarians, as a monolithic whole, are a fundamentally evil, debased people who clearly stand against the Empire. In the eyes of the soldiers, the barbarians have become so demonized that they appear to inherently deserve being tortured and murdered. And the civilians of the magistrate’s settlement share the soldiers’ hatred of the barbarians as well: though they will sometimes trade with nomads they deem to be peaceful, they consider them to be lazy, thoughtless, and unclean drunkards who, in comparison to the “civility” of the Empire’s people, occupy a subhuman status of existence.
The barbarians, therefore, are ‘othered’ by the Empire. The Empire associates the barbarians with all kinds of debasing qualities that ultimately render them and their culture as fundamentally alien, foreign and incomprehensibly different. The barbarians, cast as an Other—or a force which shares no common source of humanity or identity with the Empire’s citizens—become a scourge to be eradicated from the scope of the Empire’s expansion and existence.
During the South African apartheid, black citizens were expelled from the main, white-dominated region of the country to outlying provinces. Coetzee’s framing of the barbarians as having always been outsiders to the Empire, therefore, can be read as an ironic commentary on the South African government’s treatment of the black populace it expelled—treating its black citizens as if they never belonged. Dutch (and British) rule, the real “Empire,” implanted its white settlers in Africa, and the eventual apartheid-enforcing government of South Africa went on to usurp people of color—people with indigenous African roots—from their own native territory to specifically-black outlying districts. The novel therefore endeavors to show how the relationship between its foreign imperial power (the Empire) and indigenous community (the barbarians) plays out, from the point of view of someone within the world of the Empire—the magistrate, whose view is unique, since he opposes to the military policies of his nation and sympathizes with the nomads.
The sensibility and reason of the magistrate, however, prove to be no match for the Empire’s drive for imperial conquest—the drive to conquer the barbarians’ territory and eradicate or enslave them—since the civilians of the Empire have such an engrained, inbred hatred of the barbarians. The novel therefore shows how fear of the Other can breed in the minds of a whole nation’s citizens, and fuel their government’s entire military conquest in a way that blinds them from the atrocities it involves. Convinced that they are combatting a subhuman evil, the people of the Empire feel an entitlement to the violence they enact and the territory they try to claim with it (even if that territory is only the “protection” of the Empire’s present borders). Through exploring the dynamic between the barbarians and the Empire, the novel therefore explores a situation resembling the actual historical case of apartheid, whose white enforcers felt superior to the black populace, and therefore entitled to politically and economically regulate, dominate, and ultimately deteriorate the growth and welfare of the territories to which black citizens were expelled.
The Empire and Fear of the Other ThemeTracker
The Empire and Fear of the Other 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.”
“It always pained me in the old days to see these people fall victim to the guile of shopkeepers, exchanging their goods for trinkets, lying drunk in the gutter, and confirming thereby the settlers’ litany of prejudice: that barbarians are lazy, immoral, filthy, stupid. Where civilization entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of a dependent people, I decided, I was opposed to civilization; and upon this resolution I based the conduct of my administration. (I say this who now keeps a barbarian girl for my bed!)”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“Nevertheless, I should never have allowed the gates of the town to be opened to people who assert that there are higher considerations than those of decency. They exposed her father to her naked and made him quiver with pain; they hurt her and he could not stop them (on a day I spent occupied with the ledgers in my office). Thereafter she was no longer fully human, sister to all of us. Certain sympathies died, certain movements of the heart became no longer possible to her. I, too, if I live long enough in this cell with its ghosts not only of the father and the daughter but of the man who even by lamplight did not remove the black discs from his eyes and the subordinate whose work it was to keep the brazier fed, will be touched with the contagion and turned into a creature that believes in nothing.”
“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.”