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"Dreams of ends" – J.M. Coetzee and modernism : Waiting For The Barbarians

frPublié en ligne le 28 mai 2013

Par Jean-Philippe Wade

1J.M. Coetzee's third novel, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), is clearly indebted to Kafka, not only stylistically, but in its form – a Modernist indeterminate allegory the opacity of whose signified foregrounds the very difficulty of making sense of its object. Coetzee's text is also, as we shall see, indebted to Walter Benjamin (himself a perceptive commentator on Kafka) who, in his The Origin of German Tragic Drama, a study of the 18 th century German Trauerspiel, would draw the lineaments of a properly Modernist theory of allegory.

2The novel is equally, as Teresa Dovey (1988a) has perceptively argued, a parody of the South African liberal realist novel. Here, Margaret A. Roses's study, Parody / / Meta-Fiction (1979), is helpful, because Barbarians can be seen an example of what she defines as “modern metafictional parody” (59), an “ambivalent, self-reflexive form of discourse analysis” (33) (the paradigmatic Modernist text is of course Joyce's Ulysses) which, in its critical “distortion of the target-text”, undermines the Romantic notion of the unique work of art (Benjamin's “aura”) by foregrounding its intertextual indebtedness, and becomes (in a tradition beginning with Cervantes) a “critique of unreflexive realism” (67) :

But the criticism of illusionistic art in modern meta-fictional parody also represents the development of a poetics of contradiction in which identity between the sign, its object, and meaning is put into doubt'. (186)

3Bakhtin differentiated between “parody” and “stylization” : parody disturbs the “orientation” of the target-text, while “stylization” remains faithful to its “orientation” while acknowledging its difference (McHale 1987 : 21). In this regard, we can affirm that Coetzee's novel is a “stylization” of the European Modernist novel (in particular the writings of Kafka) which is also a “parody” of the liberal South African novel (especially the novels of Alan Paton). It is therefore pertinent to ask why Coetzee, as a white South African writer, inheritor of a tradition of literary realism which begins with Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1883), and whose most prominent contemporary practitioner is the Nobel Prize-winning Nadine Gordimer, finds it necessary to draw upon the Modernist tradition in order to write novels about South Africa. To examine this question – crucial to an understanding of Coetzee's texts – requires an examination of the discursive context of that earlier Modernism, before comparing it to Coetzee's own historical emplacement.

4European Modernism of the early twentieth century developed as a response to a historical crisis – a crisis of the “project of Modernity” whose Enlightenment dreams had now turned into the “nightmare” (Joyce) of the totally “administered” world of a bureaucratized monopoly capitalism characterized by technological rationality and a predatory imperialism, and which led, in Adorno's phrase, to the “liquidation of the individual”. Eugene Lunn has argued that “all of the major (aesthetic) criteria of modernism… were influenced, in their origins, by the broad crisis of eighteenth – and nineteenth- century liberal thought” (1985 : 39) : the secular optimism of “faith in (historical) progress via scientific and liberal institutional development” was undermined by these adverse economic, political and cultural realities. Furthermore, the increasing commodification of culture into a “Culture Industry” reproducing ideological values in conformity with the interests of capitalism was undermining the social importance of the “critical” artist and led to “feelings of martyrdom… and rendered them impotent in a crass and hostile world” (41).

5For Lukacs, the realist novel of the nineteenth century was “dependent on the possibility of (the individual's) access to the forces of change in a given moment of history” (Jameson 1971 : 203) and therefore the perceived incongruity of these expectations in the early twentieth century produced a crisis of aesthetic representation, imposing upon artists the obligation self-consciously to embark upon a relentless “interrogation” of inherited processes of signification (hence the characteristic Modernist themes of epistemological doubt, the unreliable narrator, the suspicion of authorial authority, the chasm between subjective experience and objective reality, and so on). Eugene Lunn identifies four main criteria which together constitute a Modernist aesthetics developed in response to the above epistemic crisis : aesthetic self-consciousness and self-reflexiveness (revealed for example in the characteristic critique of realism) ; spacial montage (revealing a shift away from temporal considerations in favour of a static “synchronicity”) ; Paradox, Ambiguity and Uncertainty (a consequence of a loss fo faith in 19 th century epispemological, religious and scientific certainties) ; and the “demise of the individual subject” (Lunn : 34- 39). All of these elements are to be found in Coetzee's novels, and indeed it by the time Coetzee wrote Barbarians the South African liberal realist novel had all but self-destructed, then Coetzee's text is an “interrogation” of the causes of that historic failure, an “immanent critique” which “explodes from within” (Adorno) the target-text of his parody. It is therefore interesting to note the broadly analogous socio-political conditions existent in South Africa during which Coetzee has written his novels in order to appreciate fully the contextual pressures which necessitated his “interrogative” Modernist novels.

6The “project of Modernity” was not of course confined to the imperialist heartland. It is more properly seen, as Marx already recognized in The Communist Manifesto, as a necessary aspect of the global expansion of capitalism, “modernizing” subjected societies to become part of a world system. In his Modernist novella, The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad would expose the contradictions of Modernity in the African colonies, of how the discourse of the “civilizing mission” (the language the discourse of the Enlightenment used in the project of colonialism) was no more than an ideological camouflage justifying the rapacious exploitation of conquered territories.

7In twentieth century South Africa, however, such a portrait best fits the behaviour of Afrikaner nationalism, whose coercive oppression of the black majority has perpetually dressed itself in the noble garments of civilization and progress. However, the dominant bearer of a modernizing Enlightenment discourse in South Africa was liberalism, an ideology closely allied to the interests of British imperialism. Relying upon a politic of consent, liberalism argued for gradual constitutional reform “from above” within a developing industrial economy (racial segregationism was thus seen as an “irrational” notion which economic modernization would marginalize). The “civilizing” of black people through education would ensure the production of black subjects identifying with the values of “western civilization” (i.e. settler colonialism) who would increasingly be granted constitutional rights within an expanding democratic system.

8However, within the ranks of an African National Congress radicalized by the coming to power (1948) of the Afrikaner nationalist party intent upon constructing a totalitarian white- supremacist apartheid system, liberalism was increasingly rejected as a paternalist-colonialist ideology. Bereft of a popular support in either the black or white communities, a politically ineffectual liberalism defensively retreated to the confines of the white English-speaking universities, and as Stephen Clingman argues, by the 1970s it was “to all intents and purposes contained within the collusory structures and discourse of white power” (1986 : 146). A key novel demonstrating the failure of the colonial modernization process is Alan Paton's famous novel, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), where the industrialization and urbanization of South Africa, instead of producing the material and cultural development of blacks, is shown to have produced the economically and culturally devastated urban townships, whose inhabitants are increasingly being won over to radical ideas which threaten to undermine settler colonial hegemony. To these developments liberalism has no answer, a point no more clearly shown than in the final scene of the novel, which symbolically figures the collapse of the liberal project.

9If, as Chantal Mouffe has argued, ideological discourses have “no necessary class-belonging” (1979 : 195), then it can be seen that, as the liberal project collapsed under the weight of its colonial contradictions, the mantle of the Enlightenment was taken up by the African National Congress and its allies, a transformation revealed in that key ANC text of 1955, The Freedom Charter (it is in this light that we may read Jacques Derrida's essay, “In Admiration of Nelson Mandela or the Laws of Reflection”, where Derrida identifies Mandela as a figure of the Enlightenment). In this Charter, which to this day has broadly defined the character of ANC policies, and which amounted, as it were, to the de-colonization of Enlightenment discourse, a radical liberalism entered into counter-hegemonic alliance with the discourses of African nationalism and marxism (both impeccably Enlightenment movements) to articulate a national-democratic “project of Modernity” for South Africa focused on the interests of the dispossessed black majority.

10If the forces of historical progress were from the 1950s led by the ANC as it launched a decadelong series of increasingly militant campaigns in an attempt to undermine the construction of the apartheid system, then this phase of the struggle came to an end when, following the Sharpeville massacre, the ANC (and other militant organizations) was banned, the few leaders not arrested fleeing into exile, this defeat led to a lengthy period of political “silence” which was only properly broken in 1976, when an emerging generation of black youth took to the streets in what became known as the Soweto Uprising. The mood of those “granite” years is well captured by Wally Serote's novel, To Every Birth Its Blood (1981) with its “Crowds and crowds of footstepd, all of them in a hurry, all manacled by time” (111), of history having come to a complete stand-still, with the black community cowed by a “brutal defeat” (Part 1 of the novel can be profitably read as a “Modernist” novel). In a recent interview, Coetzee has spoken about this period :

Nevertheless, yes, time in South Africa has been extraordinarily static for most of my life. I think of a comment of Eric Auerbach's on the time-experience of Flaubert's generation [...] as an experience of a viscous, sluggish chronocity charged with eruptive potential. I was born in 1940 ; I was eight when the party of Afrikaner Christian nationalism came to power and set about stopping or even turning back the clock. Its programs involved a radically discontinuous intervention into time, in that it tried to stop dead or turn around a range of developments normal (in the sense of being the norm) in colonial societies. It also aimed at instituting a sluggish no-time in which an already anachronistic order of patriarchal clans and tribal despotisms would be frozen in place. This is the political order in which I grew up. And the culture in which I was educated – a culture looking, when it looked anywhere, nostalgically back to Little England – did nothing to quicken time.(Doubling the Point 1992 : 209)

11We can therefore see that in the period 1960 – 1976, with the ANC and its allies banned and driven into exile and liberalism politically marginalized (its “modernization” political strategy abandoned, its cultural wing lost in backward-looking dreams of “Little England”), leaving Afrikaner nationalism a free hand to “instituting a sluggish no-time”, Coetzee was faced with a situation analogous to that experienced by early twentieth-century Europe : a pervading sense of a totally “administered” society bereft of all social forces for historical progress.

12The early 1970s were, however, marked by the emergence of a radical intelligentsia : in the “black” universities, the discourse of Black Consciousness – a mixture of revolutionary Third World and Americain “Black Power” ideologies – became prominent, hostile to white liberals and encouraging black separatism in order to regain national dignity. Simultaneously, a new generation of mostly white intellectuals, radicalized by the discourses of 1968, launched a political of an academically hegemonic liberalism, condemning its apolitical complicity with colonialism. Both of these progressive intellectual currents, affirming the necessity of theorizing the “deep structures” of colonialism and capitalism, were acutely aware of the absence of any active mass progressive political force to which they could ally themselves. After the mass uprisings of 1976, progressive black intellectuals could forge such an alliance through the common discourse of “blackness” (all black people, whether workers or intellectuals, are equally racially oppressed), but it would also have the effect of further heightening the political isolation of white intellectuels. This atmosphere is registered in Barbarians, with its stark opposition of colonizer and colonized, with white dissidents (the Magistrate) trapped within a colonial space while the anti-colonial struggle takes place elsewhere. Coetzee's fictions therefore need to be seen as part of a broader radically counter-discursive decolonizing intellectual climate. While the black consciousness movement was “re-articulating” black intellectuals into self-confident African subjects in preparation for revolutionary struggle, white progressive intellectuals were engaged in the more 'negative critique' of undermining the ideological power of liberalism within the white (largely English- speaking) community.

13In such a racially divided society, it is difficult to identify Coetzee as a “South African writer”. He is more properly understood as a “white South African writer” whose immanent critiques of South African “while writing” (see J.M. Coetzee, White Writing 1988) in his first four novels are written from within an autonomous academic space still available to white intellectuals, despite decades of oppression. If the academic autonomy of, say, the University of Cape Town where Coetzee has taught since 1971, was a product of an earlier, now residual liberal tradition, then it continued to function in a manner which ironically served the interests of apartheid. For whatever the views of individual academics, Coetzee's university, with its “whites only” admission policy and, in comparison to black universities, its infinitely superior resources, “objectively” reproduced racial inequalities by training a white professional elite. Attention to its complicity with apartheid was, however, disguised by intermittent academic defenses of the “open university”, and indeed that autonomy was used by white liberals as a space, as we have seen, to preserve, rather than critique, liberal values. This zone of a limited intellectual freedom was not therefore a radical space won by revolutionary counter-hegemonic struggle (as was the oppositional cultural space won by black struggle in the 1980s), but a residual liberal terrain largely populated by a culture of conservative “traditional intellectuals” “looking, when it looked anywhere, nostalgically back to Little England”. It is part of Coetzee's achievement that he used this space, not to perpetuate this comatose tradition, but to undermine it. Indeed, we are here reminded of the liberal Magistrate in Barbarians, who, in his colonial backwater, has kept apart from the reality of colonial power, but who, through the course of the novel, confronts his own complicity with colonial oppression. In this respect Coetzee can be seen somewhat as Walter Benjamin saw Baudelaire :

It seems of little value to give his work a position on the most advanced ramparts of the human struggle for liberation. From the Beginning it appears much more promising to follow him in his machinations where he is without doubt at home : in the enemy camp [...] Baudelaire was a secret agent – an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule. (Quoted in Marcuse 1978 : 20)

14If structuralism – in its spatializing emphasis upon synchrony rather than diachrony ; its undermining of individual agency through the positing of structural determinations ; and in its attention to the material productivity of discursive representations – can be seen as a Modernist theory (with post-Structuralism its post- Modernist successor), then Coetzee's own well-known interest in it can be seen as the recourse to a theory which enables an analysis of the historical stasis of South African colonialism by identifying those 'deeper' discursive structures which both shape and limit the actions of individual subjects, and where any notion of a “common humanity” – of individuals freely communicating in relations of equality – is undermined by structured social divisions which perpetuate a binary opposition of privileged occidental self and denigrated colonized Other. In Coetzee's novels, to the Modernist commonplace of (as Lukacs put it in reference to Kafka) individual “total impotence, of paralysis in the of the unintelligible power of circumstances” (1963 : 36) is added a specifically colonial dimension. This can be analysed more schematically as a persistent narrative structure in all of his novels except The Life and Times of Michael K :


Western structure

Western Individual



USA military bureaucracy

Eugene Dawn


Heart of Country

Afrikaner patriarchal colonial




Militaried apartheid colonial




Metropolitan fictional writing

Susan Barton


Age of Iron

Militarized apartheid system

Mrs. Curren


16The “western individuals” of the model are caught within totalizing “western structures” which they are both complicit with and resistant to, or, to put it another way, their resistance is always limited by their inability properly to transcend a structure to which they are bound (for their survival, for their identity : the self is constituted by the Other). The resources upon which they draw to articulate their (doomed) resistance varies through the novels. For Eugene Dawn, it is an earlier “heroic individualism” of the American frontier ; for Magda it is a barely remembered Imaginary maternal plenitude (“And mother, soft scented loving mother who drugged me with milk and slumber in the featherbed” [7]) ; for the Magistrate it is liberal humanism ; for Susan Barton it is a certain liberal feminist discourse (she is a “free woman”) ; and for Elizabeth Curren it is the 'classics' and liberal humanism.

17If all these resistant discourses are disempowered by larger Symbolic structures, then these latter are in turn seen to be dependent – for their identity, for their survival – on the constitution and oppression of a colonized Other, which, as can be seen from the above model, varies in specific identity, but is always a Third World culture. This consequently doubly undermines any sense of human fraternity for Coetzee's protagonists, which it itself dependent for its existence upon alternative structures of human intercourse. It is, ultimately, a question of power. Coetzee's protagonists are caught within assymetrical relations of power, at once disempowered by 'Western' hierarchical structures, and finding themselves agents of the disempowerment of Others.

18I have deliberately omitted Life and Times of Michael K (1983) from the schema because, although we also find here a controlling structure, in the form of the apartheid system (now caught up in a full-scale war with its anti-colonial Other), and a liberal white protagonist in the figure of the Medical Officer, uniquely among Coetzee's corpus the focus of the novel is on Michael K, the black South African. In this “stylized” Kafkaesque narrative (the obvious Kafka story is “The Hunger Artist”) Coetzee writes “an allegory – speaking at the highest level – of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence within a system without becoming a term in it” (228). In other words, the emphasis here is not on the destructive effects of social and discursive structures (the “camps” of the novel), but on the attempt to transcend them. If the text refuses to produce a revolutionary hero, refuses that is to write a text comitted to political praxis, it does so in order to invoke a typical Modernist strategy of writing a text which, like Michael K, is deliberately autonomous of those political realities portrayed in the novel. If the archetypical autonomous text of Modernism id Kafka's hunger artist, who, by refusing to eat food ascetically preserves an individual (and textual) autonomy from a degraded present, and thereby, in his very “negation”, passively affirming (in Marcuse's words) “the need to create images of the possible 'other' (which) transcends any and every historical situation” (1978 : 56), then Michael K, in the portrayal of the “minimal self of its anti-hero”, similarly demonstrates “the commitment of art to Eros, the deep affirmation of the Life Instincts in their fight against instinctual and social oppression” (Marcuse 1978 : 10-11). Concerned less with the revolutionary struggle than with its telos, with those values which (in the dominant textual figure of gardening), if their seeds are now cared for, will later be planted in more hospitable soil, Coetzee's novel demonstrates Adorno's argument (in his defence of Kafka and Beckett against the engaged theatre of Brecht) that “It is to works of art that has fallen the burden of wordlessly asserting what is barred to politic.” ('On Commitment' 1977 : 194).


19In turning to a close examination of Barbarians, it is helpful to demonstrate in some detail the nature of Coetzee's “meta-fictional parody” of the South African liberal novel by pointing to an unusually clear example of what he is “interrogating” : the final novel by South Africa's most famous liberal writer, Alan Paton. In Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful (1981), Paton charts the construction of the apartheid system in the 1950s, and liberal responses to it. In one of the novel's many narratives, a funeral service for the white superintendent of a black township is cancelled “because black and coloured people are present” in contravention of a new racist law. The irony is that he was greatly respected by the black community because he “used to soften this harshness (of racist laws) whenever he was able”. With relations between blacks and whites threatening to deteriorate, a pastor of the (black) Holy Church of Zion approaches the Acting Chief Justice of South Africa (the highest judicial office in the land) and asks him to perform a “work of reconciliation” as “I want our people to see that their love (for the superintendent) is not rejected”. The pastor asks the judge – a noted white liberal – to attend the Maundy Thursday service and publicly to wash the feet of his black servant as “a work of healing”. The judge agrees – he not only washes but also kisses the feet of his faithful servant – and the event immediately provokes a massive public discussion. The judge's action is condemned by racists, ridiculed by communists and praised by liberals, and we eventually learn that his promotion to Chief Justice is rejected by an angry government.

20I draw attention to this central episode in Paton's novel because it contains remarkable similarities to the Magistrate's relationship to the tortured “barbarian” woman in Barbarians who is left behind at the outpost by Colonel Joll because of the severity of her wounds, and who the Magistrate takes into his rooms where he begins an obsessive 'ritual of the washing' of her broken feet. The Magistrate wants to 'restore' the woman to her previous wholeness, an attempt which culminates in his arduous journey to 'restore' her to her people, just as Paton's judge 'restores the social equilibrium (one, we cannot fail to recognize, based on unequal relations of power between colonizer and colonized, but an earlier more paternalistic and less crudely coercive period) disturbed by the act of racism.

21For Teresa Dovey, Coetzee's novel is a “deconstructive reading of the liberal humanist novelistic discourse” (1988a : 210) in South Afriva, where the Magistrate's actions and relationships should be read as “allegories of the attempts, the limitations and the failures of this discourses” (213). Pointing to the “quasi-religious dimensions” of these liberal novels, Dovey argues that the Christian references in Coetzee's text

direct us to the nature of the liberal writer's relationship to the protagonist as victim : bearing witness to suffering, the liberal writer takes this suffering upon him/herself, and thereby expiates his/her guilt. (222-223)

22By casting “himself in the role of the one who suffers”, the liberal writer, objectively located within the structures of colonial domination, seeks identity-recognition from the black oppressed that he is not oppressor, but a “friend of the natives”.

23The episode in Paton's novel is perhaps the clearest example of what Coetzee is critiquing in his meta-fictional parody of the South African liberal novel, and he enables the reader to re-read that tradition in a challenging and productive manner. It is somewhat ironical, incidentally, that Paton's novel was published a year after

24Coetzee's Barbarians (in 1981). At an overtly political level, we may question the intented consequences of this “redeeming act”. Paton's novel does nothing seriously to interrogate that substantial inequality of power between the wealthy white judge and his faithful black servant, whose subservience within the dialectic of master and servant is a direct consequence of an apartheid-colonial order. The black pastor is clearly a political “moderate” whose greatest fear is that the cancellation of the funeral service will lead to the increasing radicalization of the black youth. We may wonder too why the Bochebela community “loved” a man who, despite his personal kindness, was objectively an apartheid administrator. Furthermore, the “feet washing” episode is clearly designed to diffuse anti-white hostility, to “restore”, through this act of expiation, more harmonious black and white interaction, and since it wishes to do so without challenging any of the structures of domination, the act must be seen as an “imaginary” ideological resolution of social contradictions which places its hopes in political reform rather than radical social transformation. The judge sends a message to increasingly angry blacks that not all whites are oppressors, that some of those in positions of power will use that power wisely on behalf of blacks.

25Like Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciplines on a Thursday and was crucified on the following day, the Acting Chief Justice, whose name is Jan Christian Olivier (both his second name and his first two initials – JC – are allusions to Christ) is similarly “crucified” in that he was denied his expected promotion. (The Magistrate is also “crucified” in a mock execution). The powerful judge has now re- emerged as a “victim”. What Coetzee's text us to recognize is that the attention of Paton's narrative is not on the oppressed black community of Bochebela, but on the “suffering” of the judge whose career advancement has received a set-back. And this focus is necessary because what is important here is the desperate need of white liberals to elicit recognition from the colonized that (unlike the Afrikaner nationalists) they are not oppressors.


26I will examine, in the light of critical disputes over Coetzee's writing, the model the novel proposes for the fictional text's relationship to history, which is seen as a critique of both “classic-realist” fictional writing, and of “realist” literary theory ; and, secondly, an anallysis of Walter Benjamin's theory of allegory will see the novel's form as a way of writing within a historical crisis.

27It is not surprising that a South Africa Lukacsian-Realist school of criticism has been resolutely critical of Coetzee's writing. Behind comments such as the following by Michael Vaughan :

As a consequence of the prominence given to a state of agonized consciousness, material factors of oppression and struggle in comtemporary South Africa achieve a subordinate attention. (1982 : 126-127)

28lies Lukacs's attac upon Modernism as an anti-realist abandonment of History that wallows in a mystified universalization of the crisis of the late-bourgeois individual. Indeed, literary theory that has fetishized the literary form of the 19 th century realist novel can only have great difficulties with the writings of Coetzee, because “history” in the old sense has certainly disappeared.

29These Lukacsian criticisms can be helpfully connected to Coetzee's article, “The Novel Today” (Upstream 1988) where, in dealing with “the novel and history in South Africa today”, he argues against 'the colonization of the novel by the discourse of history' by pointing out that the novel “occupies an autonomous place” with its “own procedures” to the extent that the novel can be seen to be a “rival” to history. He furthermore points out that “history”, like the novel, is a discourse, whose “truths” can claim no higher authority than literature. In the light of this, it may be somewhat rash to argue, as I will, that Barbarians is very much concerned with “history”, in both common senses of the word : the notion of reality as changeable (it is not “natural” or immutable) and in the sense of accounts of what happened : historiography.

30However, I would argue that Coetzee's critique is aimed specifically at Lukacsian-realist accounts of his novel, and that these are not criticisms that can easily be aimed at post-Althusserian Marxist literary theory. Fundamentally, Althusser's concept of the “relative autonomy” of the various elements of a social formation, including that of Literature, enabled a break with “Hegelian” notions of a single historical essence of which literature is merely a passive “reflection”, and instead made possible a perception of literature as a space, with its own history and procedures, that does not so much 'reflect' reality as bear an active and complex relation to the terrain of hegemonic struggle in which the activities of ideological discourses are vital.

31Coetzee argues against those accounts of literature that see the novel as “imaginative investigations of real historical forces and real historical conditions” (2. My emphases), and here his criticism can be aimed as much at Althusserian as at Lukacsian methods, for both work within a notion of the science of historical materialism as the “truth”. However, more recent Marxist work – and here I am thinking of the work of Tony Bennett (1986) – has very much abandoned the notion of “absolute” truth (and here we can briefly allude to its Stalinist authoritarianism) and instead taken on board the discursive nature of historiographical writing, or, as Coetzee puts it, its status as “a certain construction put upon reality”1. Indeed, one task of this essay is to argue that Coetzee's notion of history as a signifying interpretation of reality, demonstrated in the allegoric form of his novel, is something that Marxist should welcome rather than dismiss because it enables them to have a far more sympathetic relationship to Coetzee's novels than has been apparent in the past.

32Teresa Dovey's (1988a) recent sophisticated analyses of Coetzee's novel are written from within a post-structuralist problematic hostile to the 'mimetic pretensions' of much Coetzee criticism :

Common to all these criticism is a view of language as a transparent medium for transmitting the realities of an empirical world, and a failure to see language itself as constitutive realities we are able to perceive. (53)

33For Dovey, Coetzee's novel does not even have any relation to South Africa liberal ideology in general, but is a “deconstructive reading of the liberal humanist novelistic discourse” (210).

34The debate in the Journal of Literary Studies2 over Coetzee's usage of the allegoric form in Barbarians focuses in part on the issue of that novel's relationship to history. While Teresa Dovey agrees with Lois Parkinson Zamora that the novel “uses the form of allegory to undo the traditional referentiality of allegory, undermining and ultimately dismissing interpretive determinancy within his own allegorical fable” (1986 : 7), Dovey criticizes Zamora for assuming that “allegory, in the work of a writer like Coetzee, can be translated by means of reference to an extratextual reality, such as the power relations between oppressor and oppressed” (1988b : 133).

35For Dovey, Coetzee's use of allegory is best understood in terms of post-structuralist interpretations of Walter Benjamin's anti-“Hegelian” study of 17 th century allegory in his The Origins of German Tragic Drama. Here 'allegory announces its connection, not to the world, but to other texts' (134), these other texts belonging to the tradition of liberal South African writing that Coetzee deconstructs, revealing them to have an “inauthentic” desire for a “symbolic” plenitude of meaning dependent upon a historicist notion of the “progressive amelioration of the human condition”.

36The value of Dovey's interventions is her affirmation of the textual presence of the novel as a signifying that actively resists any mimetic analysis, and of its intertextual parody of the liberal South African novel. Allegory is no longer a mystifying attempt to “capture the real”, but a form that foregrounds its discursive productivity.

37However, the weakness of Dovey's analysis lies in her inability to deal successfully with the notion of “history”, with, that is, the novel's conscious and complex relationship to the political events of the late 1970s, and the manner in which that specific historical conjuncture is seen as the determining space for that crisis of liberal discourse which the novel examines.

38An index of the problematic status of “history” in Dovey's account is her rejection of the novel's interest in the “extratextual reality’ of the power relations between oppressor and oppressed”. On the one hand, the text is correctly returned away from any simple “reflectionist” account to its autonomous practices, but it also then damagingly severed from any relationship at all to anything outside of itself, and moreover, the “textuality” of those very power relationship is ignored (surely it is the manner in which “power relations” are inscribed within discourses that has fascinated Coetzee : “The myths of a tribe are the fictions it coins to maintain its power's” he would write in Dusklands (1974 : 26). If the South African liberal novel has autonomously produced its own myths, it does not follow that they are wholly explicable on their own terms. Although there is no space to pursue this point at lenght, the South African liberal novel has altered considerably in the light of differing political-historical circumstrances, and has a complex but analyzable relationship to a broader South African liberal discourse, itself continually reconstructing itself as the “war of position” has shifted within those varying circumstances.

39Moreover, her argument is contradicted when she writes that the outpost of the novel “clearly represents a particular phase of South African colonial history” (1988a : 209), and that “the Magistrate's language performs the function of representing a historical situation” (1988a : 212. My emphases). While her earlier “textuality” is here abandoned in favour of the most mimetic of analyses, Dovey plays down the novel's relation to history as obvious and unimportant, and instead focuses on its “allegory” reading of the “liberal novel”.

40In what follows I will propose a way of reading Barbarians that seeked to overcome the limitations of the two schools so far examined, for if one has a disabling inability to come to terms with the text a signifying practice, the other is unable to articulate the text's complex relationship with history.

41Nadine Gordimer's novel, The Conservationist, published in 1974, contains the central metaphor of the buried Black body gradually rising to the surface through the progress of the narrative. What is allegorically prefigured is the ending of that long political “silence”, a “prophecy” based on the anti-colonialist struggles in the neighbouring States (Angola, Mocambique, Namibia), and on the development of a Black Consciousness ideology among Black intellectuals (the Black body rises to consciousness). These processes are alluded to in the novel, but in the absence of any internal political activism, the novel, as Stephen Clingman has argued (Clingman 1986 : ch.5), can only 'symbolically' articulate a similar demise of colonialism within the South African formation : in “reality”, the Black body largely remains politically dormant.

42Barbarians is however written after the mass insurrections which began in 1976, that is in the wake of the shattering of that earlier political “silence”. For the progressive forces, History was once again on the move. Despite the setting of the novel, South African readers recognize many allusions to comtemporary South Africa. The narrative of an imperial frontier suddenly becoming embroiled in military campaigns againsg an increasingly organized indigenous enemy has every relevance to South Africa in the late – 1970s where, in reaction to internal mass resistance and an advanced decolonization process in neighbouring states, the apartheid regime began developing its concept of “Total National Strategy” to withstand the “total onslaught”, as the author of The Apartheid War Machine (1980) argues :

Military force and control is now at the centre of the strategy to preserve apartheid, rather than being one aspect among several [...] What can be described as a 'war psychosis' is in the process of being created amongst the white civilian population, with other political and economic goals being subordinated to the needs and demands of the Defence Force.(4)

43The incessant torturing of the “barbarian” captives is a fictionalised account of well documented atrocities performed by the SADF and the SAP in the “operational areas” of Namibia and Angola 3, but the killing of the old man during interrogation by the security police at the beginning of the novel contains many (deliberate) allusions to the death in detention (in 1977) of the Black Consciousness leader, Stephen Biko. Colonel Joll hands the magistrate the report of the “cause” of the prisoner's death :

'During the course of the interrogation contradictions became apparent in the prisoner's testimony. Confronted with these contradictions, the prisoner became enraged and attacked the investigating officer. A scuffle ensued during which the prisoner fell heavily against the wall. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful. ' (6)

44In the Biko inquest, the security police put forward the theory that Biko had sustained his injuries that would lead to his death during a “violent struggle” in which he had “hit his head against a wall”. The scuffle had broken out, Major Snyman alleged, after the police had told Biko they had proof of his revolutionary activities : “I confronted him with these facts. He jumped up immediately like a man possessed. I ascribe that to the revelations that I made to him”.

45The doctor who “does not ask how the boy sustained his injuries” in the novel bears a similarity to the doctors who were called in to examine Biko after the police were “forced to overpower him”, particularly Dr Lang who, when asked, “Why didn't you ask any questions about (his injuries) ?”, replied, “I can't answer that.” (Woods, 1979 : 322). When the Magistrate is imprisoned and tortured he realizes that any appeal to the rule of law would be futile :

They will use the law against me as far as it serves them, then they will turn to other methods. That is the Bureau's way. To people who do not operate under statute, the legal process is simply one instrument among many. (84)

46During the inquest, Colonel Goosen was questioned about the legality of keeping Biko in chains in the police cell, to which he replied, “We don't work under statutory authority”.

47However, if Barbarians examines South African apartheid society at the moment of its transition from a “police state” to a “military state”, it nevertheless, in the indeterminate space and time of the novel's world, disrupts any easy, direct passage between itself and the social reality referred to above. This strategy is also for example evinced in a list of wild birds that the Magistrate watches arrive with the spring : none of them are found in South Africa (57).

48Instead of abandoning the referent, or the fictional presence of the text, I will argue that it is more helpful to examine Coetzee's usage of allegory as the affirmation of a complex relationship between the two that enables the novel to foreground its processes of interpretation of the real. Coetzee's usage of the allegorical form can thus be seen, in part, as an example of his continuing critique of Realist / Naturalist writing, for if the latter typically dissolves its status as fiction into its “real” referent (and here ironically the criticism of “disguise” is most apposite), Barbarians by contrast, by making explicit the distance between the fictional narrative and its referent, draws attention to itself as an active signifying presence.

49Coetzee's usage of allegory interestingly follows Saussure's (1974) definition of language closely, for, like language, allegory is an autonomous fictional order that declares, in its very difference from its referent, the “conventional” relation between itself and that referent (in this case, contemporary South Africa). The radical difference between the fictional world of the novel (the systems of signs) and present-day South Africa (the referent), the refusal that is to reduce the textual signifiers to those by which that real is traditionally signified, emphasizes that the novel does not “reflect” but signifies the real, and that if this is so then it must be granted its autonomous space as a fictional presence that constructs meanings. And allegory not only enables the reader to consider the meanings offered, but also, crucially, to observe the processes of their construction, thus preventing the possibility of the reader misrecognizing them as being “naturally” given by the real.

50Something of the novel's format strategy is suggested by the Magistrate's enthusiasm for archaeology. A few miles from the town he has discovered the ruins of an ancient settlement which he has spent many years excavating, including a collection of hieroglyphic wooden slips. Since all historic continuity with what are now merely ruins has been lost, none of the fragments can reveal anything of that culture of which they were once a part. Despite strenuous efforts, he makes no progress in deciphering the slips : all that is visible to him is a series of enigmatic signifiers. What is missing is what Saussure would call the “langue”, the rules that govern the language as a system, the relations of difference through which meaning is produced.

51If the history and meanings of this ancient community have disappeared, then what the Magistrate begins to do is to produce a reading of those fragments. When he is confronted with the wooden slips by the police, who allege that they contain coded messages to the enemy, he invents a narrative on the spot, claiming it to be a story written it to be a story written by the 'barbarians' concerning their growing opposition to their colonization.

52Allegory is seen by the Magistrate as a form of writing “open to many interpretations” (112) precisely because its meaning is neither transparent nor univocal. In allegories, signs, are used in unfamiliar ways : signifiers are detached from their customary signifieds, the multiplicity of meanings of particular signifiers are exploited, signifiers are arbitrarily joined to signifieds, the conventionality of the relation between sign and referent is flaunted by an unusually emphasized difference between the two. That for critical theory inspired by Saussurean linguistics the above serves equally well as a definition of language generally is of course part of Coetzee's point : allegory reveals the conventionality and instability of all writing.

53The magistrate and his interpretations of the slips therefore function as a model for the formal structuration of the novel as a whole. Coetzee is similarly drawing upon certain fragments of the past (the many colonial images) in order to construct a narrative that has reference to his situation in the present. Like the script, the colonial images have been extracted from their original context and have instead become portable signs reconstituted by the allegorist (Coetzee) into a fictional narrative of the “last years of the Empire”.

54Similarly (this point will be examined in more detail later), unfamiliar new events that have erupted into the life of the Magistrate (Colonel Joll his military campaigns, his torturing ; the mutilated woman) force him to devote a large part of the narrative to attempt to give significance to these “empty” signifiers. For Coetzee, events in reality (the killing of Biko, the militarization) are seen as “empty” signifiers (at the level of connotation) whose novel presence the text actively interprets and signifies. The meaning the novel offers is that the South African social formation is a colonial one, and that the militarization and brutality of the regime can be read as signs of a fundamental crisis pointing to the imminent and inevitable collapse of imperialist domination. This is not a case of the novel “reflecting” the “truth” of an already-given social reality : to see the South African formation in this way is to offer a particular explanation that does not exhaust the possibilities of interpretation that may exist.

55Dovey's anti-referential textuality therefore fails to see how Coetzee's interrogation of the “liberal novel” is performed at a specific historical conjuncture (Coetzee seeing his present as the final days of colonialism) which forms the necessary basis for the critique of that discourse. She fails to register the extent to which Coetzee's deconstructive writing is occasioned by the novel's identification of the post-1976 political conflicts as a systemic crisis of the colonial state, which throws the limitations of that ideology into stark relief.

56Liberalism's central political activities (as demonstrated by the Magistrate) –“restoring” social equilibrium, minimizing social conflicts through local reforms, directing a sympathetic philanthropy to the “disadvantaged” – are seen by Coetzee as hopelessly inadequate responses to this systemic crisis. Once the Magistrate recognizes this (the mutilated woman remains “unrestored” ; the act of reparation of returning her to her people does nothing to soften the polarized political struggle between the Empire and its Other), and begins his active opposition to Colonel Joll, that is itself shown to be doomed to failure. Unable to actually join the “barbarian” enemy (for all his sympathy for their suffering, they remain beyond the pale of civilization : when he given the chance to escape to their ranks, he decides instead to remain within the fortress), the Magistrate becomes a marginal dissident force within the settler society, fatally bereft of a sustaining popular base, his only consolation the martyrdom of the defeated.

57Thus Coetzee will also show how liberal discourse depends upon a naturalization of the colonial order, to whose “excesses” the liberal turns his or her reforming attention. Ronald Barthes (1972) wrote of the manner in which “myths” serve to “naturalize” political hegemony by de-historicising it, deflecting attention away from social dynamism in order to reify the status quo into an unquestioned immutability. It is the Magistrate who is located within such a “natutalizing” myth, the man who wanted to “live outside history”, and what more “naturalizing” a way is there of seeing the social system than in the “smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons” ?

58Indeed, the metaphor of the seasons occurs throughout the novel, its status as naturalizing myth increasingly undermined by the progression of the narrative. The novel opens with the ending of summer, for the magistrate a time to be concerned about the granary. But it is not only summer that is in decline : Colonel Joll, too, has arrived, signalling the decline of the years of peace on the frontier. As winter approaches, the episode with the tortured woman unfolds, a harsh time for him, whose rituals of purification also speaks of the desire for regeneration and restoration. As spring is on its way, the magistrate begins his “hard journey with an unsure guide in a treacherous season” to return the woman to her people.

59The act is clearly a regenerative one, an act of penance that will be followed by the hope and bounty of the spring. But at this point the metaphor begins to break down : he returns to be arrested, and as he ironically says, it is now “time for the black flower of civilization to bloom”, and he spends the subsequent summer in prison. The ideology the magistrate has lived within for so many years can no longer resolve the social contradictions inherent in the system, and the final winter of the novel promises no redeeming spring for the Empire, but is instead replaced by the linear time of the narrative, on “a road that may lead nowhere”. The settlers can only “turn their backs to the wind and endure”. Ironically, the historic process has here been re-naturalized, taking on, as far the settlers are concerned, all the inevitability of nature : in their defeat their fate becomes inexorable.

60Thus for Coetzee the systemic crisis of the period of the novel's production unearths the historicity of the colonial order, and equally reveals liberalism's own historicity : its status as a complicit colonial discourse that is dying along with its host.

61I agree with Dovey that Walter Benjamin's theory of allegory, found in his remarkable book, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1977), is most illuminating with regard to Coetzee's own usage of allegory in the novel, and indeed it is clear that Coetzee borrowed much from that study. Yet I would disagree with the way Dovey has interpreted Coetzee's reading of Benjamin, who has been unproblematically inserted into the school of deconstruction. Dovey also – and this is a general difficulty with her book – underestimates the extent to which Coetzee typically “manhandles” other theories for his own purposes.

62Benjamin, living within the “catastrophic” history of early twentieth century Germany, rejected all theories of historical progress (including the marxist version, which Dovey ignores) in favour of a painfully negative view of the past as a “single catastrophe which ceaselessly heaps rubble upon rubble”. In this regard, he established a “constellation” with the seventeenth century German Baroque dramatists of the “Trauerspiel” (“plays of mourning”), “this age drunk with acts of cruelty both lived and imagined'” (Benjamin, 1977 : 185) whose theatrical allegories mourned the “destructive effects of time, of inevitable transience” (92).

The word 'history' stands written on the countenance of nature in the character of transience. The allegorical physiognomy of the nature-history, which is put on stage in the Trauerspiel, is present in reality in the form of the ruin. In the ruin history has physically merged into the setting. And in this guise history does not assume the form of the process of an eternal life so much as that of irresistible decay. Allegory thereby declares itself to be beyond beauty. Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things. (Benjamin, 1977 : 177-178)

63This has, as Dovey also points out, every relevance to the Magistrate lurking amongst the ruins of a previous civilization, and also informs his awareness of the crisis through which he is living. Benjamin once wrote (“against the grain” of historicism) that to

articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way it really was' (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. (Benjamin, 1968 : 257)

64If this is precisely what the twentieth century Benjamin was doing with the Baroque Trauerspiel, then Coetzee (and the Magistrate) is similarly forging such a relation with the past in order to produce a “knowledge” of the present. In “seizing hold” of the “memory” of past collapsed empires in this “moment of danger”, Coetzee portrays South African colonialism by the end of the novel as being in ruins. As the war with the “barbarians” reaches a climax, a well is sunk within the parameter walls. Instead of water they dig up the bones of children : if water offers healing and restoration (the washing of the feet), here it has been replaced with death, the revelation of finality.

65Dovey argues that Coetzee aligns himself with the “Benjaminian” view of the “irresistible decay” of history, nature and art against the “liberal notion of the progressive amelioration of the human condition” that the Magistrate voices. But the view of time articulated by the Magistrate is of the “smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons”, which is of course at odds with linear progression, and indeed if a pre-1948 liberalism defended an optimistic view of historic development, Coetzee seems to argue that contemporary liberalism at best acts to prevent things from getting worse (the Magistrate's continual need to “restore” things to what they were before recent disruptions). I would therefore argue that the usage of Benjamin in the novel is not to make some general point about human history, but to articulate the collapse of a very specific history.

66It is often startling when reading Benjamin's work to see how Barbarians has in common with it. Benjamin describes the Baroque thus : “as an antithesis to the historical ideal of restoration it is haunted by the idea of catastrophe. And it is in response to this antithesis that the theory of the state of emergency is devised” (Benjamin, 1977 : 66). For the heroes of the plays, “the only response to the call of history is the physical pain of martyrdom” (91). The “restoration of the timelessness of paradise” is “opposed to the disconsolate chronicle of world-history” (92).

67Benjamin's theory of the allegorical sign is also helpful, if the differences between the two writers is recognized. For Benjamin, the rigid transcendentalism of an antinominian Lutheranism which informed the Trauerspiel, in combination with the devastating history of the period, led to a vision of an evacuated world from which all meaning had departed : “the hereafter is emptied of everything which contains the slightest breath of this world” (66). Allegory therefore arises as the attempt, in stoic contemplation, to give the world meaning :

Language functions for the baroque allegorist as a means of imposing significance upon a silent world bereft of its own language and thus of immanent meaning. (Jennings 1987 : 107)

68But because objects now “lack any natural, creative relationship” to people, “any person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else” (Benjamin, 1977 : 174). And it is here that the “conventional” relation between signs and their referents is flaunted in the 'obviously constructed quality' of the aesthetic form.

69For the Magistrate, the new situation he is confronted with is similarly devoid of meaning : it appears to him (much like the ancient scripts he unearths) as a collection of hieroglyphic marks that need to be “interpreted” : the hidden world of the torturer, the “blank” face of the mutilated woman, the impenetrable sun-glassed eyes of colonel Joll ; and it is a similarly “contemplative” attitude that the magistrate will assume : not so much action, but the “interrogation” of his actions, and all this in a world that is perceived to be in inevitable decline. To this extent, Coetzee is foregrounding the novel's own process of signification, that the novel is an “interpretation” of the signifiers of a political transition within the South African formation, but it equally refers to a political practice that presents itself to liberalism as an enigma to be deciphered, since it is fundamentally alien to the 'decent' values of that ideology.


70Luckacs once wrote of the “allegorical gap between meaning and existence” in Kafka's work (1963 : 78), and, as we have seen, this post-realist disjunction between the sign and its referent explains the “bewilderment” of the Magistrate at the political developments (the escalating war, the brutality of the Third Bureau) which have disrupted his quiet life on the frontier, and which he is obliged to understand. The “meanings” available to him through the discourse of a colonial liberalism are, the novel argues, inadequate to properly comprehend (or, indeed, to act within) the new circumstances of the systematic crisis of the colonial order. The allegoric form also foregrounds how, in his long withdrawal from the reality of his situation, the Magistrate – his “existence” – has not, until the narrative present, had to confront the deeper “meaning” of his situation – his complicity with colonialism. Furthermore, as a critical practice of writing, Coetzee's usage of allegory continues his “interrogation” of the ideological lineaments of a 'transparent' realist discourse.

71I have argued that Coetzee inherited a pervading political atmosphere of historical status, and, in that time when no social change was possible, when therefore a didactic interventionist writing (like the earlier liberal novel) was no longer meaningful, Coetzee instead turned his attention inward, to the traditions of South African narratives, in order to identify the grounds of their political failure. In so doing, he inaugurated a highly self-reflexive Modernist writing in South Africa.

72By the time of Barbarians, however, with mounting oppositional struggle and the consequent militarization of the apartheid apparatus – which Coetzee foresees as the final chapter of South African colonialism – he similarly writes the final chapter on the South African liberal realist novel.

What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children ? It is the fault of Empire ! Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire : how not to end, how to prolong its era.(134)

73The Magistrate has been living in the “sluggish no-time” of apartheid-colonialism, believed himself to be within a 'naturalized' social formation, and it is for this reason that he is so hostile to history, since it is precisely because historical progress was aimed against settler colonialism, bringing with it hopes for the new times of post-coloniality, that it was 'frozen' in the first place. Discarded by history, South African liberalism is finally discarded by the novel on a “road that may lead nowhere”.

74Aspects of this paper – much revised – initially appeared in the Journal of Literary Studies (UNISA, South Africa), Volume 6, Number 4, December 1990.



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1  For interesting analyses of the discursive status of historiography, see for example Ronald Barthes (1981), Hayden White (1973 / 1978) and Derek Attridge et al (1986).

2  See Lois Parkinson Zamora (1986) and Teresa Dovey (1988b).

3  See for example theGuardian newspaper (1976. 1981). Trevor Edwards, a SADF soldier, provided this account of the SADF in Angola which has a resemblance to the scene in the novel dealing with the boy and the old man who is tortured (is appeared after the publication of the novel) : 'Sometimes you have to do it the children to make the adults talk. There was a 12-year-old boy. We wanted to know what was going on. We wanted hid mother to talk so we tied him up like a chicken with his wrists up behind his back, strapped to his ankles. Then we played water-polo with him, put him in this kind of dam and pushed him about, let him sink. Every so often we took him out. He wouldn't cry. He just wet himself. The mother didn't tell us anything. In the end we just left him in the water and he drowned.'

Pour citer cet article

Jean-Philippe Wade (2013). ""Dreams of ends" – J.M. Coetzee and modernism : Waiting For The Barbarians". Cahiers Forell - Formes et Représentations en Linguistique et Littérature - Archives (1993-2001) | J. M. Coetzee.

[En ligne] Publié en ligne le 28 mai 2013.

URL : http://09.edel.univ-poitiers.fr/lescahiersforell/index.php?id=126

Consulté le 21/09/2017.

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