Friday, August 24, 2007
Of the many insights found in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, the most poignant, I think, is the following:
“However you seem to have a new ambition,” he goes, “You seem to want to make a name for yourself as the One Just Man, the man who is prepared to sacrifice his freedom to his principle.”
This address to the Magistrate as he languished in prison as a result of his “betrayal” of the Empire manifests a messianic theme that people in the majority diagnose in the “enlightened” few. Various historical accounts attest to attempts by some to change prevailing ideologies in order to reduce social injustice, and the very conditions these trials breed are branded bizarre and their doers, lunatic. That the world becomes increasingly riddled with oppressions of sort does not help the situation, but every so often, Magistrate-like characters from Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela come to rescue, ready to sacrifice even their lives if only to assert a place in the sun for the oppressed.
While it is true that the Magistrate in the novel had the courage to break the general muffling of the tortured screams made by those labeled barbarians, he stood up only to be punished with the very system he repelled being used against prisoners. What is worse, however, is that he was deemed too messianic to be taken seriously. Instead of being an imperial enemy openly regarded as “One Just Man,” he was disdainfully alluded to as an opportunist out “to make a name for [him]self.” This imbalance, I believe, is at the very core of several historical instances wherein the dominant forces propagate the notion that those subversive of their hegemony are merely fishing out of troubled waters. In effect, they, like the Magistrate, are subjected to various harassments that often get translated as their rightful castigation in the onlookers’ clouded perspective. Unless sympathizers begin to rectify the blunder by showing “an interrogator” that wears a “harsh” mask and that speaks in a “harsh” voice and “a free man” who “attain[s] salvation” with his enlightenment, the barbarians remain the oppressed and not the oppressor.
The word “ambition” as used in the passage’s context is already devoid of its inherent lofty aspirations at-large; it has been associated with the Magistrate’s seemingly futile disagreement of the Empire’s horrific flagellation of the barbarians. He is considered too ambitious as to try to go against the grain of the very entity that fuels his political life. He has turned too ambitious to be one with the “pitiable prisoners” and to cease to embrace the Empire he belongs to. He has become too ambitious as to wait for the barbarians’ “black flower of civilization to bloom”—the time the oppressed take up arms and fight the bullying imperialists.
By the sheer fact that the Magistrate is “prepared to sacrifice his freedom to his principles” makes for the ethical extent a man is willing to reach in order to question a system that protects only the interests of the majority at the expense of the minority. Even as he got imprisoned for the rebellion he started to sow against his Empire in compassion of “the pitch of human pain” being heard in the granary, he could smile because “the bond is broken:” he no longer considers himself chained to the barbarism being wrought by his Empire. However, the stinging comment that he did this feat to feed his self-serving ambition of becoming a man of justice is a general overview of barbarians around the world who want to wield retribution over those critical of their rule. In the long run, the Empire seems to succeed in presenting the Magistrate as an opportunist only, not as a justice defender, as were the cases of “messianic people” presented in an unfavorable light by the criticized majority.
The issue of whose claim is valid comes in the offing—that of the system, or that of the enlightened. The prevailing consciousness wishes to secure its position as the true, the good, and the beautiful standard of social justice. On the other hand, a chink in time lets out periodic heroes who “should neither be contaminated by the atrocity that is about to be committed nor poison [themselves] with impotent hatred of its perpetrators.” The society remains the serum in which to prove what holds out justice for everyone, and while the dominant can maneuver the world into thinking that it is the fountainhead of equity and equality, there in the periphery stay the few with ambition, ready to be fettered for their beliefs if this elicits the ultimate liberation.