History Repeats Itself: Repetition in Empires in Waiting for the Barbarians by John Maxwell Coetzee

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

A famous philosopher once said, ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” (Santayana). Overtime, mankind has seen dramatic changes to the world and society in which they live in. Although we experience these changes the past seems to always find a way to sneak its traditions into present lifestyles. The phrase ‘history repeats itself’ comes from the decades of repetition shown throughout mankind, but why does “history” repeat itself? Stated by Frans van Oostveen, on the website Quora, “When we are forced to deal with social, political, or economic problems, we always try for the simple way out, ignoring long term consequences and choosing quick and dirty ‘solutions. ” In a sense, it seems that it is human nature to follow the footsteps of past traditions that seem to work, even if it is not always morally right. Mankind has always sought out for power and control over others and one primary example would be Colonization and Imperialism.

Bringing to focus the topic of Colonization and Imperialism, J. M Coetzee’s, Waiting for the Barbarians shows the effects these two subjects have on society, and most importantly, empires and their treatment of not only their own people, but of “Others” as well. Coetzee was inspired by the ways of life in which he was, and currently still is, surrounded by in Southern Africa which is full of historical culture. Much like past publications, which comes to show repetition in history even through literature or film, is the movie Avatar directed by James Cameron. This movie shows not only the fall of not one but two “Empires” but provides primary examples of the aftermath caused by colonization and imperialism. Another piece of literature which contains similar aspects of the Romans and of previously mentioned authors would be “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell whom is writing about his personal experiences which self-consciously many can relate to. Throughout society humans go through a series of changes but there are a few things that never seize to change, especially in empires.

Whether that is our use of the land, the roles females play in everyday life, the treatment of those considered outsiders, and let not forget, man’s need to obtain power. For centuries the earth we live on has shaped human beings way of life, through ice-ages, droughts, etc. In many ways the earth can change people and their cultures, but on the contrary, there are many ways human beings can change the earth. During the Roman period the people learned to live off the land and took what they could from nature and applied it to their everyday life in order to survive. For example, in The Rise of the Roman Empire it is stated that, “Much of the personality of the early Romans and their fant city-state was shaped by the nature and setting in which they and it grew… ” (Nardo 29). The Romans thrived off natural resources and respected the aspects of “Nature and God for the seat of the worlds’ empire. ”(Nardo 29).

The respect the Romans uphold towards the aspects of nature and keeping it sacred to their personal religious beliefs helped them thrive. However, in Waiting for the Barbarians the citizens of the empire did not necessarily cherish or protect the land in which was shaping their personalities, they shaped it into what fit their needs or wants. When the magistrate begins to realize the changes that have occurred since the empire began manipulating the frontier on which they live on, and how it has changed in a negative aspect compared to when the “barbarians” were the sole occupants of the land, he states, “ 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… They do not doubt that one of these days we will pack our carts and depart to wherever it was we came from, that or buildings will become homes for mice and lizards, that their beast will graze on these rich fields we have planted. ” (Coetzee 51). The Magistrate knows his people are the problem and although he is aware, he contradicts if he should actually try and take action. The citizens are blind to the fact that the “barbarians” could actually help their ways of life.

Very similarly is George Orwell’s experience with the Burmese people and how they viewed the geography around them. George describes the Burmese feelings towards him killing the elephant as, “faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. ” (Orwell 599-600). The Burmese had no sympathy for creatures or nature and took joy in the violence and death of a living thing. This was similar to the ways of life of the citizens of the empire in Coetzee’s novel and how they treated the land on which they lived. The ways of the barbarians were similar to those of the Romans, but the empire they are forced to neighbor with do not have this same respect for mother nature, or the role they take in its unnatural changes.

The Romans recognized the land as a gift from the Gods, which they were granted to live and build on. Meanwhile, the empire in Waiting for the Barbarians, as stated by the magistrate, “We think of the country here as ours, part of our Empire—our outpost, our settlement” (Coetzee 51). They did not have the same spiritual respect as the Romans because in their eyes, this land was now theirs and they did not have to share it with anyone else. Overall this shows that the way the geography was used by both empires ultimately impacted the personalities, morals, and cultures of its people. This is important in the representation of history repeating itself because in current society we solely depend on the natural resources and geography to function in everyday activities. “We use nature to support our own well-being, yet most people tend to feel disconnected from nature” (WordPress). Although we need the resources provided by earth humans can have an inconsiderate way of showing it. Between pollution, littering, and burning of fossil fuels our environment on earth has changed drastically over time. This goes to show that although we put many of the natural resources given to us to use like the Romans did, we also have many bad habits that do not shape the earth in a positive way, much like the Empire in Waiting for the Barbarians. The use of Geography, however, isn’t the only thing mankind has the tendency to repeat throughout the decades.

Overtime, mankind and the repetition of the role Women play in it has continued to evolve in many different aspects. To some, A women and her body is sacred, and to be cherished, while to others it is but a trophy to be won, or a tool to be used to satisfy self-entitled needs.

The role women played in the Roman Empire is controversial because although women were praised, they were held to high standards and failure to meet these meant rejection and resentment. As mentioned in “The Makeup of Rome. ”, “The Romans set high standards in terms of female beauty: Flawless skin, a pale complexion with just a hint of pink, and large bright eyes. ” (Stewart 6). The Romans admired women, but only to a certain standard or preference. To be compared to the role of women in Waiting for the Barbarians, where no matter how beautiful, women were to cook, clean, and tend to a man’s needs. For instance, “’What is the last thing the Magistrate does when he leaves in the morning? –He shuts his latest girl in the oven. ’” (Coetzee 32). The men of the empire, including the Magistrate use the women for their satisfaction then throw them back to their slavery like jobs to cook in the kitchen, or be a maid in the inn etc. Although the Romans glorified women for their beauty they also shunned those who lacked in appearance. Both Empires seem to use women for entertainment or satisfaction but in neither Empires were women as a whole respected.

To compare this aspect in today’s society is mind-blowingly similar. Although many women today can uphold powerful positions and have a life outside a “house wife” so to say, many men still consider women to be an “object for their personal entertainment, or a cleaning and cooking service” (Stewart 6). Women are still praised for their beauty and some “kill themselves” in a sense to keep their looks up to date with whatever is trendy to the public eye at the time. Many women take pride in their looks and have no problem jumping at the request given to them by men, many because they solely believe that is what they are here for. For example, written in the article, “ Women, Stop Submitting to men”, “Too often in our culture, women and girls are pressured to submit to men, as a category. This is the reason so many women, even feminist women, are consumed with what men, in general, think of them. ” (Moore). Luckily over time women have began realizing their capabilities and putting them to greater uses than in the past but are still not quite out of the grip of the stereotypical “gender roles”. Truly, with time women can stop this repetition in which they have played a part in for decades.

Repetition isn’t always a bad thing, but in empires it is hard to find examples in which are positive. Empire life was a complicated one and the mindsets of those who were loyal to it was corrupted and caused them to treat people immorally. When it came to treatment of their own people they could even be cruel, so imagine the treatment they gave to those considered “others”, or outcast. For example, in “Shooting an Elephant” George thinks to himself, “And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. ” (Orwell 602).

George does not care about the death of the man because his death benefited him, not to mention his reference to the man as the name of his culture, nothing more. One example of mistreatment also lies in Waiting for the Barbarians, and ironically the mistreatment is towards one of their own, the Magistrate, whom they have considered a traitor. What makes the Magistrate different from the empire and its followers is his ability to empathize others, “ I think about him a great deal in the solitude of my cell, trying to understand his animosity, trying to see myself as he sees me” (Coetzee 84). The people of the empire do not attempt to see life through the barbarians eyes like the magistrate, which is why they take his empathy towards them as betrayal.

The Roman empire, however similar, differed in some ways to the empire in the novel when it came to treatment of their own people and of “others”. Although the Romans enslaved those of other cultures, which was not the case in Waiting for the Barbarians, they did give these slaves some freedoms in their society. For instance, “in Rome Slaves served a variety of functions. They were farmers, miners, domestic servants, entertainers and even teachers.

However, unlike the slaves of Greece, a Roman slave lived in a unique society: he could earn or buy his freedom or liberty and enjoy the benefits of citizenship, gaining wealth and power; his children could even hold public office. ”(“Roman Citizenship”). Thus shows that although the Romans abused the power they had over outside cultures, they did have gray areas in their treatment of good or bad. Rome became very diverse and many did not view “others” as outcast, just foreign. For instance, “Many of the foreigners residing in Rome were slaves or of slave origin. ”(“Life of a Foreigner in Ancient Rome”). They were all able to live among each other no matter what wealth class, or culture, but in Waiting for the Barbarians, the different cultures were hardly welcomed among the citizens of the empire and we can still see people with this mindset present in today’s society.

Much like the outsiders, or “Barbarians” in the novel, Cameron’s film, Avatar, shows the treatment of the “Na’vi” people by the Americans trespassing on THEIR land. Life on Pandora is full of spiritual and sacred connections, for example, “The Na’vi say, that every person is born twice. The second time, is when you earn your place among the people. . . forever” (Avatar). Beliefs like this meant everything to the Na’vi people, but the American military did not understand their way of life, nor did they care to try. The “Na’vi people opposed the Americans residing on their land they saw them as careless and violent. America itself could represent an empire trying to colonize and imperialize the Na’vi clan in this film. An example would be the scene in which colonel Quaritch, much like colonel Joll, is yelling to his soldiers, “We will fight terror with terror. The hostiles believe that this mountain territory is protected by their…deity.

And when we destroy it, we will blast a crater in their racial memory so deep, that they won’t come within 1, 000 klicks of this place ever again. ” (Avatar). The irony in this statement is the fact that the Na’vi people just wanted to be left at peace on their homeland and continue to protect all that is sacred to them. This repetition of violence toward other cultures can be seen throughout history time and time again but why does this keep happening if so many know it is immoral? The Romans believed they had to colonize to survive and stay strong. As stated on the webpage “Oxford Bibliographies”, “They made it possible for Rome to keep control over its defeated enemies” (Roselaar). They did not know any other way of life but to get rid of the enemy, and colonize their land. Mankind has a history of violence and destruction when it comes to testing their abilities to gain control of something or someone.

This brings about the topic of the men of today and the past, and how their power hungry minds have changed society. In Waiting for the Barbarians, the magistrate enlightens the Third Bearu, “We are at peace here, i say, we have no enemies” (Coetzee 77). Although this is stated, the members of the bureau refuse to leave things at peace and insert themselves into a long gone conflict instigating a war. Much like the Third Bearu in the novel, the Romans were always war hungry when and took pride in obtaining power of others. Stated in the article “Roman Warfare” “In Roman culture. . . war was a source of prestige for the ruling class where career progression came from successful military endeavour”(Cartwright).

Successfully conquering land and winning wars with their enemies drove the Romans to keep the violence alive in order to feel prideful. Another example of men and their self-conscious need to gain respect, control, and power is George Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant”. George goes through a series of self conflict when choosing the moral decision, or the one that puts him in power and gains him respect. After shooting the elephant he thinks to himself, “ “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool. ” (Orwell 602). Much like this moment with George, men since the beginning have felt pressured to do things outside of their personal jurisdiction if it meant gaining control and power in the eyes of others. Overall, the repetition of mankind fiending for the need of power whether it is moral, violent, or dirty, they have continued to repeat this behavior since the beginning and from the looks of it, it may not be going anywhere.

The use of the geography that surrounds us, the roles of women in society, the treatment of others and mankind’s power hungry intuitions are just a FEW of the many repetitions throughout history. These topics have not only affected mindsets but have shaped the world and way of life in which we live more than we can imagine. Whether we see it or not our tendency to repeat those of the past blindly, or in faith, have brought to light the truth in the phrase “History repeats itself” and most importantly its appearance in empires of the past and in present day societal behavior.

Overall, it is up to us to decide whether we will continue to do the things we have been taught to believe are right or if we will be the new change in history and start more positive trends. Empires not only have showed us the rights and wrong in building a strong community but have made us self reflect our decisions. So the question is, will we learn the lessons of our past mistakes, or will we fall into the same iteration of generations before us?


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