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.
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation ThemeTracker
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians
“. . . [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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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!”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?"