Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 7: Torture

Waiting for the Barbarians by ‎J.M. Coetzee

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 7: Torture

Unread post by fireflydances » Mon Aug 05, 2019 5:26 pm

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Richard Sater, center, in Philip Glass’s 2007 opera - Waiting for the Barbarians NY Times, photo credit Ken Howard


TORTURE



“I was saying,” he says, “now we will show you another form of flying.”

“He can’t hear you,” someone says. “He can hear, “ says Mandel. He slips the noose from my neck and knots it around the cord that binds my wrists. “Pull him up.”

If I hold my arms stiff, if I am acrobat enough to swing a foot up and hook it around the rope, I will be able to hang upside down and not be hurt: that is my last thought before they begin to hoist me. But I am weak as a baby, my arms come up behind my back, and as my feet leave the ground I feel a terrible tearing in my shoulders as though whole sheets of muscle are giving way. From my throat comes the first mournful dry bellow, like the pouring of gravel. Two little boys drop out of the tree and, hand and hand, not looking back, trot off. I bellow again and again, there is nothing I can do to stop it, the noise comes out of a body that knows itself damaged perhaps beyond repair and roars its fright.
(Waiting for the Barbarians, p 139)



Because torture is central to the novel we are reading, I felt we needed a tidbit that helped us examine it from a certain distance. I wanted to avoid anything that minimized the events that take place in the novel. In other words, I did not want something that would turn torture into subject matter -- i.e. the history of torture. At the same time I wanted to understand the place Coetzee made for torture in this novel and something of Coetzee’s thoughts as he reached the decision to show us the scene above and well as earlier scenes.

Coetzee returns to South Africa in 1971. By 1977 he has published two novels: Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country and aborted work on a third, about censorship. On July 11, 1977 he begins writing Waiting for the Barbarians against a background of impending revolution. A year earlier the Soweto student uprising and the deaths of at least 176 protesters at the hands of South African police, had radicalized many young people while deepening the sense of paranoia at the heart of the South African government. Here is Attwell commenting on the climate in South Africa during this period: ‘From the time that P.W. Botha came to the premiership from the Ministry of Defense, the official line was that a ‘total onslaught’ was being waged against the country and against Western Christian civilization as well as military and political, and it was in this period that the censorship apparatus was extended.’ (Attwell)

Coetzee’s original plan was a novel about revolution. An early draft featured a ‘dark love story’ and was set in Cape Town - ‘a story about South Africa after apartheid in which Robben Island was no longer a prison for Nelson Mandela and his comrades but an embarkation station for white refugees who were fleeing the dying republic in UN-chartered ships.’ (Attwell) The frantic quality of such an end-time spills over into the relationship of the lovers which is fraught with obsessiveness, sadism, and even a hint of misogyny. For a variety of reasons, the draft proved unworkable, but provided Coetzee with a base in terms of ‘tone, mood and situation.’

Later drafts changed the setting to a borderland and the protagonist to a border guard. Coetzee also striped away the specificity of location of the earlier drafts, and moved to a setting that was intentionally vague -- it could be any border at any point in history. ‘The position is beleaguered. They are forgotten, nevertheless they do their duty.’ (Coetzee notes) The new protagonist has many of the qualities of the original, but Coetzee struggled with what he referred to as a ‘plan for You’ -- the You being the protagonist’s erotic partner. ‘Once this ‘you’ is known, he [wrote] the next problem is to find a ‘home’ for her, ‘in the flesh, in the word.’ Until the possible habituations of ‘you’ were found, the novel could not progress. She is Ariadne, focusing the guard’s desire; but in whose lair the story was to play was unclear. ‘ (Attwell)



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Solitary Confinement (Arunas Gabalis/shutterstock) Credit: Time Magazine


It is precisely when Coetzee is struggling with how to proceed -- two months into drafting the novel -- that the death of Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement occurs. ‘He had been arrested under the Terrorism Act of 1967. His crimes - distributing a pamphlet that criticized the South African government and ignoring a travel ban. ‘Biko was kept naked for most of the twenty-five days of his detention, allegedly to prevent suicide attempts. After sustaining blunt force injuries to his head, he was chained to a wall for forty-eight continuous hours. Lapsing into coma, no longer controlling his bodily functions, he was left lying on a mat soaked with his own urine. In this condition, he was driven in the back of a jeep over seven-hundred miles from the Cape Elizabeth prison to a Pretoria hospital. He died shortly after his arrival.’ (Eide)

‘Biko’s torture and death gave Coetzee the minotaur’s lair, the ‘habituation for desire’ that he was looking for, the situation in which his character’s obsession with ‘her’ could be explored: that situation was the transformation of a placid border town by a reign of terror run by police agents from the capital. The novel’s emergence took the form of a simultaneous, seemingly contradictory, two-way process: both a distancing -- into an unspecified empire at an unspecified moment in history -- and a homecoming into the violence of apartheid in the period of its climatic self-destruction.’ (Attwell)

Attwell provides us with another insight. From Coetzee’s notes: ‘This may not be entirely honest but I must make the relation of the story of the Biko affair, the inspiration of the story by the Biko affair, clear. End it with a massive trial scene in which the accusers get put in the dock.’ Attwell continues, ‘A trial scene was never written, but Colonel Joll and his henchmen do look beleaguered towards the end. The fictional translations of the political context are clear enough: the clampdown by the security detail (South Africa’s BOSS, the Bureau for State Security, renamed the Third Bureau after Tsarist Russia), the torture chamber, and the effects of these on people of liberal conscience, represented by the magistrate.’

But why not honest? Attwell explains. ‘The answer, no doubt, is that, in fact, he (Coetzee) absorbed these (later) developments into a structure the essential elements of which had already been worked out: it was important to the novel’s taking off that he should write about desire, or write desire into life, a project requiring an elusive, and female, ‘you.’ And also, ‘ In the relationship between the magistrate and the girl, Coetzee formed a vehicle for exploring desire, but the configuration introduced by Biko material changes the emphasis to an exploration of the effects of violence on intimacy.’ (Attwell)

There is also an underlying lesson here about the art and practice of writing a novel, and how things that arrive in one ordered sequence end up shinning more brilliantly when they are torn apart and re-assembled in a manner totally unimagined at the outset. You never know exactly where you are going until you get there.


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Torture Chamber, an illustration Credit: Raymond Ibrahim



At the beginning of this tidbit, I said I had two questions about the torture scenes in this novel. I believe I have adequately answered the first. My second question concerns how Coetzee went about the process of adding scenes of torture, as handling material that is this combustible requires a great deal of care. I did a lot of searching through academic articles but in the end I found the best qualified response I could ask for.

In 1986 Coetzee wrote a piece in the New York Times entitled ‘Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa’ that deals exactly with torture, and how it is most effectively represented by the novelist. It is four pages long and rather than copying and posting it here, I am providing a link at the bottom for those who wish to read it in its entirety. It is an excellent and thought-provoking piece that offers deep insight into how Coetzee went about the process of writing about torture in 'Waiting for the Barbarians.'


What follows are only highlights. I begin with the third paragraph:

Some years ago I wrote a novel, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscious. Torture has exerted a dark fascination on many other South African writers. Why should this be so? There are, it seems two reasons. The first is that relations in the torture room provide a metaphor, bare and extreme, for relations between authoritarianism and its victims. In the torture room, unlimited force is exerted upon the physical being of an individual in a twilight of legal illegality, with the purpose, if not of destroying him, then at least of destroying the kernel of resistance within him……..

….The fact that the torture room is a site of extreme human experience, accessible to no one save the participants, is the second reason why the novelist in particular should be fascinated by it. Of the character of the novelist, John T. Irwin writes in ‘Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner’: ‘It is precisely because [he] stands outside the dark door, wanting to enter the dark room but unable to, that he is a novelist, that he must imagine what takes place beyond the door. Indeed, it is just that tension toward the dark room that he cannot enter that makes that room the source of all his imaginings - the womb of art.’

To Mr. Irwin (following Freud but also Henry James), the novelist is a person who, camped before the closed door, facing an insufferable ban, creates, in the place of the scene he is forbidden to see, a representation of that scene and the story of the actors in it and how they come to be there……..

Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms…..
How is the writer to represent the torturer? If he intends to avoid the clichés of spy fiction -- to make the torturer neither a figure of satanic evil, nor an actor in a black comedy, nor a faceless functionary, nor a tragically divided man doing a job he does not believe in -- what openings are left?................

Although the work of Nadine Gordimer is never without a political dimension, it contains no direct treatment of the secret world of security. But there is one episode in particular that, in an indirect way, addresses the same moral problems I have been trying to put my finger on. I refer to the episode of the flogging in ‘Burger’s Daughter’ (1979), which harkens back to the flogging of the horse in Dostoyevsky’s 'Crime and Punishment'.

Rosa Burger is driving around, half lost, on the outskirts of the black townships of Johannesburg when she comes upon a family of three in a donkey cart, the man flogging the donkey in a drunken fury. In a frozen instant she beholds, ‘a force existing of itself, ravishment without the ravisher, torture without the torturer, rampage, pure cruelty gone beyond the control of the humans who have spent thousands of years devising it. The entire ingenuity from thumbscrew and rack to electric shock, the infinite variety and concentration, labor, resettlement, the Siberas of snow or sun, the lives of Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada, Kgosana, gull-pitted on the Island.’

…….The driver and the donkey do not respectively stand for torturer and tortured. ‘Torture without the torturer’ is a key phrase. Forever and ever in Rosa’s memory the blows will rain down and the beast will shudder in pain. The spectacle comes from the inner reaches of Dante’s hell, beyond the scope of morality. For morality is human, whereas the two figures locked to the cart belong to a damned, dehumanized world. They put Rosa Burger in her place: they define her as within the sphere of humanity. What she flees from in fleeing South Africa is the negative illumination that there exists another world parallel to hers, no further than a half-hour’s drive, a world of blind fore and mute suffering, debased beneath good and evil.

How to proceed beyond this dark moment of the soul is the question Miss Gordimer tackles in the second half of her novel. Rosa Burger returns to the land of her birth to join in its suffering and await the day of liberation. There is no false optimism, on her part or on Miss Gordimer’s. Revolution will put an end to neither cruelty or suffering, nor perhaps to torture. What Rosa suffers and wait for is a time when humanity will be restored across the face of society, and therefore when all human acts, including the flogging of an animal, will be returned to the ambit of moral judgement. In such a society it will once again be meaningful for the gaze of the author, the gaze of authority and authoritative judgement, to be turned upon scenes of torture. When the choice is no longer limited to either looking on in horrified fascination as the blows fall or turning one’s eyes away, then the novel can once again take on its province the whole of life, and even the torture chamber can be accorded a place in the design.


Link:




Sources:

Attwell, D. JM Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time, Penguin Books, 2015

Coetzee, JM (1986) ‘Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa’ New York Times, January 12, 1986


Eide, M. (2014). Stephen Biko and the Torture Aesthetic. Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 38(1). Retrieved from
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 7: Torture

Unread post by SnoopyDances » Sat Aug 10, 2019 5:02 pm

I found it interesting that Coetzee's torture scenes were "off-camera" so to speak. Both the reader and the magistrate knew what was happening or thought we knew, but it was never discussed in full detail...until later in the book.

That approach works best for me as the plot thickens. We are spoon-fed pieces of various activities that begin to describe an ideology but are left to guess what actually happens until suddenly all of us are swimming in the same stew. It's at that point the torture scenes become very vivid with each detail described in full.

That's how most regimes gain power and control the masses. One can guess or assume what is happening behind closed doors however, most go about their business as usual. It isn't until the atrocities start happening to them that they realize what was happening all along but was ignored. The masses are taught to fear an "enemy" that may or may not exist. In reality, what they should be fearing is the regime who uses oppression and torture to control others because sooner or later, that same regime will attempt to control you and your way of life.

Will it be too late?
Or is there still time to change?

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 7: Torture

Unread post by fireflydances » Tue Aug 13, 2019 12:19 pm

Thank you for your comment Snoopy!

Yes indeed Coetzee strove quite consciously strove to keep torture 'off screen.' In the article I attached Coetzee demonstrates via example what works in terms of using torture effectively as a writer and what misses the point. I am wondering how Guerra will handle this -- got to take the time to watch as many of his movies as I can.

In terms of oppressive regimes, this book in particular but I think in Dusklands too does a magnificent job of widening the reader's readers perceptions. Spending the entire summer working on this book and the tidbits has given me a new vantage point with which to understand the dynamics of state control -- wherever I see it. And the plight of 'others' in societies.

Once again, many many thanks.
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies