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Journal 1

April 24, 2008

Waiting for the Barbarians

In class, April 17th the whole group began the second discussion of J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. However, before we began direct discussion on that, everyone had an opportunity to express their impressions of the article about some of the military personnel assigned to an Iraqi prison. After a few comments about the requests of Sadam Hussein that seemed peculiar to the students, Yun noted the class that the class must remember that this is a “game of power? and that we must be conscious of “who has the power? in these situations. The class discussion then transitioned to the photographs of what the soldiers had done to the Iraqi prisoners. The behavior of posing for a camera that is capturing one’s indecent activity is something that was quickly pointed out as seeming nonsensical to most of the class. Why would you smile and stand for a picture if it was going to be evidence of what you did?

The environment was the key to this discussion. What the soldiers were told to do and how they were instructed to conduct themselves was something that many of us had not paid as close of attention to. It seems that they were left with fairly loose guidelines on proper behavior and the environment of the dilapidated prison was probably not one for which they had been specifically instructed on how to maintain order. There instructions were guard the prisoners and in certain instances attempt to gain information but how to do this was not laid out as clearly. The photographer herself admitted to feeling quite out of place in the environment and felt less patriotic since she was not able to cope as well with the orders and conditions she was given to deal with. Yun then redirected the class again reminding everyone that if an environment can make a person feel out of place as the soldier had, then what does that say about the environment? Before breaking into our smaller groups Yun added that, the way we feel about things has to do with the environment of those things.

With that comment left open ended, we broke into groups to discuss specifically how the main character starts off as someone who just looks at the things going on around him and shifts to someone who feels he must take part and rebel against the3rd bureau. What actually makes that transformation possible and what does it have to do with his relationship with this girl? In addition to discussing those ideas pertaining to the book, we were asked to relate them to the poem.

In at least partial opposition to the class, my own group saw the main characters transformation as beginning sometime before the novel begins. We believed that he was already partially conscious of his true feelings on what was going on around him, but he chose to suppress those emotions and ideas. The class majority believes moreso that the transition is sparked and occurs a bit further into the story. After seeing so many of the barbarian prisoners brought before him in near death conditions, he eventually realizes that he cannot support such brutality that takes place on the premise of speculation. Specifically his relationship with the barbarian girl forces him to acknowledge the human aspect of this fight that is taking place and that the people that he is supposed to fight against for their oppositional nature are in fact quite similar to him.

As he began to care for the girl, his eyes became more open to the fact that she is not just cold and vacant, but she has been beaten shut in a culture and society that is not hers. Even though at first he saw her as being blind to the truth of what is going on, he later realizes that he is the one who is blind and it is because he can only see the situation from one direction. But still, at this point his transformation is still very much in progress. It is when he takes her back to her people that he sees her ability to interact with them and understand them as he is the one who is an outsider. The reversal of roles allows him to see her as even more human in the way she is able to move back into her society and play a part there. When he returns home, he realizes more so yet what it is like to be the outsider when his own people begin to label him as the ‘other’ and a criminal for helping the girl. He is no longer a strong part of that circle of people. Until that point, he has maintained a mental block disallowing him from seeing the reality of the situation and seeing the barbarians as people. Through his cultural upbringing, he had developed an idea of the ‘others’ as being either not human, or in a way that makes them less human than himself. The ‘otherness’ of the barbarians, he realizes, was created by the people around him and represented a fictitious creation of the government used to control their own people.

The poem represents this story as well as the main character’s transformation in an interesting way. It ends with the concluding line of, “They were, these people, a kind of solution.? The government in the story was able to group and control the people of the town by uniting them in direct opposition of the people outside the town. They needed to label the barbarians as a threat in order to do this, but it was the barbarians’ simple existence that was largely a mystery to the people of the town that made this possible. The government was able to attribute a number of crimes, real and fabricated, to the barbarians and thus the people believed that the barbarians were force to be fought. Having an oppositional force gave the government reason to use all of its instruments of control not just on the barbarians, but the people of the city as well.

Word count: 1,025