Empire, Definition, and Identity: Concepts in Waiting for the Barbarians and “Stranger in the Village”
History, empire, and the individual are all in a strained relationship. Empire functions by organizing, structuring, categorizing, and separating its peoples into different disciplines of the empire for the purpose of efficiency. This creates problems for the individuals under the Empire, individuals become cogs in a system like this. What effects does an empire have on the individuals that dwell under it? Even after an empire dissolves, what effects are left in the empire’s historical wake? It is empires categorization and defining of people that creates a cruel pathology in the bureaucracy of empire to shun its people. As Coetzee wrote in Waiting for the Barbarians, “The Empire does not require that its servants love each other, merely that they perform their duty” (6). Empire not only affects the individuals that support the Empire but the people Empire forcibly takes for the purpose of Empire, fall into a similar more devastating fate – slaves and their future kin meet this fate in America. Empire categorizes and defines what it takes to easily manage it and create a more efficient system, this allows for people to be defined one way. In war, this occurs. The enemy is defined one way, in Coetzee’s hypothetical world the enemy of the empire is marked as “Barbarian.” This is depicted in Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” as well: the oddity of Baldwin’s existence in a remote Swiss village brings to light the definitions that the ghost of Empire’s past has put on him, he will always be seen as a “neger” (Baldwin 165) by the kids and adults.
The history that an empire leaves behind entails the actions of the individuals that perpetuated empire’s agenda. In the American case, slavery ways meant to provide economic prosperity for a white minority, but at a deadly humanitarian cost. In Coetzee’s hypothetical world, empire’s history is “the jagged time of rise and fall” (Coetzee 133). The history empire creates for itself is self-destructive, at some point, the individuals of empire will be hurt enough by the detached agenda of empire and will begin to fight for themselves. Coetzee tells the story of the Magistrate. In the beginning, the Magistrate is dealt with the coldness of Empire when Colonel Joll is introduced to him. Joll’s dark glasses and uncompassionate talk of torturing the empire’s enemies to extract truth demonstrate the empires cruelty, “Looking at him I wonder how he felt the very first time: did he, invited as an apprentice to twist the pincers or turn the screw or whatever it is they do, shudder even a little to know that at that instant he was trespassing into the forbidden? I find myself wondering too whether he has a private ritual of purification, carried out behind closed doors, to enable him to return and break bread with other men” (Coetzee 12). This is empires problem with its individuals. Empire does not care if it’s people like each other or if the people hate each other based on their race, culture, or anything else. Empire only cares if the job is done to perpetuate empire. This can have disastrous effects on the individuals within an empire. The strain created when individuals hate each other can be war. Baldwin discusses this in “Stranger in the Village” when Baldwin mentions the catalyst behind the Civil War of America. Baldwin says, “the question of his humanity, and his rights therefore as a human being, became a burning one for several generations of Americans” (174); those “Americans” are whites and blacks fighting over the answer together of the black man’s humanity. The lines did blur; white people did fight for the humane solution while others fought for the inhumane. This fighting for an answer tore a nation apart and brought a nation together – for the first time. However, history bites back, the new fabric of American society is still fragile enough to this day to be torn by the same question, “its effects are so frequently disastrous and always so unpredictable, why it refuses until today to be entirely settled” (174). The American heart still murmurs with the hate of the past, occasionally fluttering, threatening a heart attack.
Justice, as described by Coetzee, is only a memory of what once was. Justice is no longer an attainable thing, justice now has become a goal that cannot be met. Empire could be the cause of this, preventing justice to people and impending tragedy. Coetzee says, “We are fallen creatures. All we can do is uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade” (Coetzee 139). How does this affect the individuals of Empire? When the magistrate said that quote he was speaking to a prisoner who was not dealt a fair trial or any sense of justice. The individual under Empire is not dealt a fair hand. Coetzee describes barbarians being arrested and treated unfairly, the empire defines the barbarians as savages that kill and need to be detained so empire can expand. This can be seen in American history as well, black Americans are defined as people that are inferior according to historical dogma. The definitions the American “empire” has put on its people has an effect on the present. Baldwin demonstrates how the history of oppression has coalesced within the current black American, Baldwin says, “History as a tool of influence is intrinsically planted within the person from birth, but how does that history affect them today? Baldwin says, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them” (167); for the black person, what is the history that is trapped within them? The history is that of Jim crow laws and the stigma the American past has put on the American black person. When empire marks a people as its enemy, the mark last with the stereotypes and prejudices of the empire. The definitions and labels empire puts on its people are long lasting and have devastating effects.
As empire finds enemies, it finds “justifications” in killing its enemies. Empire not always creates an enemy to perpetuate the empire’s agenda, sometimes creating an inferior class of people is enough; this can be seen again in the American scene. The tribesmen of Waiting for the Barbarians are labeled as “barbarians” by the empire, this word itself also carries rumors of violence, hatred, bloodlust, and savagery. Coetzee writes, “All night, it is said, the barbarians prowl about bent on murder and rapine” (122), Coetzee describes the fears that empire has of its enemies, a fear that is created because the empire does not know who the tribesman are and what their motives are because they are so contrary to the motives of an empire. The tribesmen have no want or need to grow and perpetuate itself over other peoples. The tribesmen are nomads with no set place, unlike empire which creates permanent structures.
The moment empire finds the discriminations between it and other is when the long-lasting stereotypes of the others are created. Stereotypes that can range from “these people are lazy and unmotivated” to “these people are savages that ruthlessly kill.” The tribesmen are imprisoned by the empire’s army and are beaten; as Coetzee writes, “Stooping over each prisoner in turn and rubs a handful of dust into his naked back and writes a word with a stick of charcoal. I read the words upside down: ENEMY…ENEMY…ENEMY…ENEMY” (105), if empire not only has to label the unknown with rumors and stereotypes of being an enemy, but empire also has to physically label its enemy. This is the history of empire, not wanting to fall, but always wanting to rise. Doing what it has to, so it can rise and survive. Baldwin describes this factor of being a stranger to a group of people and having the group assume you’re an enemy who is ready to do harm. Baldwin describes his experiences being a black man in an all-white Swiss village, “other children, having been taught that the devil is a black man, scream in genuine anguish as I approach… other women look down or look away or rather contemptuously smirk” (Baldwin 171). There is even a violence or potential for malevolent acts to be done out of this fear of not knowing a person’s humanity, Baldwin describes it as “paranoiac malevolence” (172). Baldwin brings to reality the issue of Coetzee’s empire stereotyping and dehumanizing a people – its effect being a hatred so deep it becomes evil and violent.
When the agenda of an inhumane empire become the agenda of all people under the empire, then injustice is the only product that can come from it. History is harmless, it is the acts of the past which live on today that is dangerous to a society. In Waiting for the Barbarians the history which lived on was empire’s need to destroy and conquer which perpetuated more hatred and war; in Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” it was the history of being a stain on the American white conscious which lives on, creating more hatred and violence towards the black man. It is the ability of an empire or nation to label and categorize people that create these issues in the first place. How far can a label go? Can it become the person it was put on? Or is the label only strong enough to change the imaginations that people have on others? However, that in itself is enough to kill. Wars with other peoples have been perpetuated over the labels that people have, civil strife within an empire also began out of the labels each side has for the other. It is empire’s doomed history to forever be stuck in a cycle of rising and falling; destroy and conquer; kill or be killed, and it is man’s doomed history to play a part in one or the other.
Baldwin, James, and Edward P. Jones. Notes of a native son. Beacon Press, 2012.
Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the barbarians. Penguin Books, 2010.
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