John Maxwell Coetzee’s Destabilisation of the Concept of Otherness in His Novel Waiting For The Barbarians

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

This essay examines how author J.M. Coetzee destabilises the concept of “otherness” in his novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. The examination is done through the lense of Emmmanual Levinas and Martin Heidegger’s philosophical ideas about otherness with particular focus on an extract (pages 60-61) from the novel.

Before looking at how Coetzee destabilises the idea of “otherness” we first need to understand what “otherness” is. Sociologists say that the concept of “otherness” is about the relationships of power. For example, “minority” groups do not refer to a small number of people but rather it is about the relationships of power. In this context, Colonialism shaped and perhaps still shapes who is considered “the other”. In this essay I will show how one particular character only referred to as the “the Magistrate” embarks on a journey of self discovery and realises that “the other” does not exist.

According to (2019) Emmmanual Levinas was a French Jewish philosopher who fought with the French Resistance against the Nazis During World War II. He was captured by the Nazis but because he spoke Russian he was able to hide the fact that he was Jewish. In other words he had to hide his “otherness”. Much like Coetzee, Levinas disliked that most Western philosophies took the self as the starting point of all understanding and that the perception of many philosophers acknowledged that this perspective leads us to think of other people as if they were reflections of the self or something to be known, a puzzle of sorts, to be figured out. ( 2019) Coetzee destabilised this idea of otherness in the extract:

“While I have not ceased to see her as a body maimed, scarred, harmed, she has perhaps by now grown into and become that new deficient body, feeling no more deformed than a cat feels deformed for having claws instead of fingers. I would do well to take these thoughts seriously. More ordinary than I like to think, she may have ways of finding me ordinary too.” (2004: 60-61)

In this extract the Magistrate realises that the Barbarian girl is not a puzzle but as ordinary as he is.

This egocentric relationship to other people has a certain cost associated with it though, namely a tendency to try and dominate others because they are different and that difference is usually a source of negative feelings or discomfort for us ranging from simple discomfort all the way up through anger and hatred. ( 2019) At first, in the novel the Magistrates’ discomfort and rebelion is evident while the Empire’s anger and hatred is made clear though Colonel Joll’s characteristic behaviors. Joll for instance can not tell the difference between local fishermen from his feared Barbarian. He captures and tortures these local fock in order to extract his version of the truth from them.

We, like the Magistrate, struggle to free ourselves from this discomfort, even in love we tend to try to control our beloved to make them more like ourselves or satisfy our own anxieties with their existence. We somehow try to overcome the discomfort of their otherness through controlling them. This discomfort and anxiety is acknowledged by the Magistrate in the extract:

“that the confused actions of an aging foreigner who picks her up of 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 evidence of impotence indecisiveness, alienation from his own desires.” (2004:61)

Levinas pointed out, that we can only develop a sense of self from encounters with others. He also asserted that if we think of the other as being entirely separate from ourselves that gives them not only the right to exist but invites us to act ethically towards them and even love them. ( 2019) At the start of the extract the narrator tells the reader that the girl is always asleep when he returns and the reader also comes to understand that her eyesight has been damaged by the torture inflicted upon her by Colonel Joll. The Barbarian girls lack of sight is symbolic of the Magistrates inability to see his reflection in her eyes which leads him to realise that she is entirely separate from him and results in him doing the ethical thing of taking her back to her people.

Dominating others or trying to make them more like ourselves leads to great suffering including war, colonialism, slavery, abuse and other social ills. ( 2019) Coetzee skillfully uses the Magistrates’ character as a way to acknowledge this discomfort but also to show that through suffering true freedom can be realised. This is seen in the novel by how the Magistrate notices that the Barbarians are not barbarian and he lives in peace with them. The empire refuses to see this in the same light and eventually turns on the Magistrate, who refuses dim his light by for instance continuing to uphold the ideas of the empire. Thus the magistrate refuses to be othered and endures great torture.

Levinas further postulates that we struggle with the responsibility of playing the good Samaritan as the Magistrate does in the novel. We sometimes even ignore it or rebel against it which strains our sense of self and leads to all forms of violence and abuse. This idea is portrayed in the novel when the Magistrate tries to ignore the fact that the Barbarian people were being tortured and when he returns after returning the girl he himself has to endure great torture. ( 2019) It is interesting that apart from Colonel Joll capturing some of the locals, the Barbarians never arrive to attack Rather the colonisers attack their own in the form of the Magistrate which ultimately results in their demise.

According to the Britannica Encyclopedia (2019) Martin Heidegger is a German philosopher who tells us some simple, even at times homespun truths about the meaning of our lives, the sicknesses of our time and the routes to freedom. He was born, and in many ways remained, a rural provincial German, he loved picking mushrooms, walking in the countryside and going to bed early. He hated television, aeroplanes, pop music and processed food. In the novel, the Magistrate, describes the Colonel as having sunglasses on and wonders if the Colonel is blind. The Colonel explains that dark glasses are a new technology used to `save one from squinting`. The sunglasses figuratively prevent the Colonel from seeing others as entirely separate as discussed earlier and thus he feels he has a right to dominate them.

Heidegger diagnosed modern humanity as suffering from a number of diseases of the soul. Firstly: We have forgotten to notice we’re alive. This notion is portrayed at the start of the novel when the all the Magistrate wants is a small existence. He is more interested in the past and fails to see that he has a future to look forward to. (Encyclopedia Britannica 2019)

The second problem is, we have forgotten that all Being is connected. (Encyclopedia Britannica 2019) Most of the time, our jobs and daily routines make us egoistic and focused. We treat others and nature as a means and not as ends. This idea is reflected in the extract from the novel:

“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 life with the clearest of means and the clearest of ends; “ (2004: 60-61)

The third problem is we forget to be free and to live for ourselves. Much about us isn’t of course very free. We are – in Heidegger’s unusual formulation- ‘thrown into the world’ at the start of our lives: thrown into a particular and narrow social milieu, surrounded by rigid attitudes, archaic prejudices and practical necessities not of our own making. This idea of thrownness is reflected in the extract:

“She adapts without complaint to the new pattern. I tell myself that she submits because of her barbarian upbringing. But what do I know of barbarian upbringings? What I call submission may be nothing but indifference. What does it matter to a beggar, a fatherless child, whether I sleep by myself or not as long as she has a roof over her head and food in her belly? 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.”

In summary, Coetzee in his novel destabilises the notion of otherness by showing us how trapped we are. Through the character of the Magistrate we watch how he wakes up and realises that he is alive, he realises that all beings are connected and finally we see how he sets himself free.


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