When things become too real, when they are immediately given and realised, when we are in short circuit which means that these things are brought closer and closer together, we are in obscenity. From this standpoint, Régis Debray made an interesting critique of the society of the spectacle: according to him, we are no longer in a society that distances us from things, in which we could be said to be alienated by our separation from them . . . Our curse is that we are brought up ultra-close against them, that everything is immediately realised, both things and ourselves. And this too-real world is obscene.
Today, life is fast. It vaporizes morals. Futility suits the postmodern, for words as well as things. Bur that doesn’t keep us from asking questions: how to live, and why? You’re not done living because you chalk it up to artifice.
Nihilism no longer wears the dark, Wagnerian, Spenglerian, fuliginous colours of the end of the century. It no longer comes from a weltanschauung of decadence nor from a metaphysical radically born of the death of God and of all the consequences that must be taken from this death. Today’s nihilism is one of transparency, and it is in some sense more radical, more crucial than in its prior and historical forms, because this transparency, this irresolution is indissolubly that of the system, and that of all the theory that still pretends to analyse it.
The dissolution of being is a tragic dissolution; and driven by a grievous nostalgia every person keeps asking the other to be something he can no longer be, and to find the weight of being, like a blinded phantom, that he himself can no longer find. The resistance, the permanence; the depth. In the end, we all come away empty-handed, and the loneliness is terrible.
To read Coetzee’s fiction is to undertake a journey, a passage, with the consequent necessity of recuperation when the passage is completed. Waiting for the Barbarians offers a passage to an undesignated time and place, a frontier town, one of many established to secure a heartland from barbarians. The mise-en-scène offers clues to both place and period (lances, fusils, desert and marshland) but these are unimportant. This is a novel that describes a number of binary oppositions, which turn out not to be genuine choices.
Sharing, at the beginning at least, a mood of detachment similar in texture to Kafka’s In The Penal Colony, the central protagonist is unnamed, referred to simply as The Magistrate. Just three of the novel’s many characters are named: the menacing Colonel Joll from the Third Bureau ( I am intrigued that ‘jol’ is South African slang meaning to have fun, to party, which Coetzee was probably aware of in choosing this surname), his vicious sidekick Mandel, and, singly, Mai, a mother that The Magistrate turns to, briefly, for intercourse. By naming just the opposite poles of violence and intimacy Coetzee foregrounds this as a didactic fable with its roots in Kafka.
It is of course essential to read Waiting for the Barbarians as a critique of two distinct forms of colonialism, the benign but amoral form identified with the Magistrate, the last just man, and the unreserved despotism of the Third Bureau and Empire as represented by Joll. Finally, as in Cavafy’s poem, the barbarians never come, thus leaving the reader to ask if they existed, and whether the truly barbaric were within the fortress all along. A Baudrillardian reading through a filter of American barbarism in the Middle East would be rewarding but perhaps for another time.
We live in a textual reality
Texts, I am suggesting give meaning even to the contingent and fleeting events of our lives, and that is one reason why we value them. But the conditions of our being come to us already scripted, textualised, shaped in patterns into which we fall, almost like actors given a script that they must follow. The human condition is a condition of textuality.
What we call realism, then, in literary works may be nothing more than a reading of those “scenes of language” that shape the actual world and turn its inhabitants into characters upon a textual stage. That is, literary realism may be most real when it represents events that are already “scenes of language.”
The Reading the World chapter in Robert Scholes’s The Crafty Reader is a reminder to read and reread Barthes and Baudrillard. Scholes’s book has acquired more substance during subsequent contemplation.