Monday, December 7, 2009

AP--Waiting for the Barbarians

What does the magistrate learn from his experiences?

1. He is wrong when he tells the barbarian girl, "Don't make a mystery of it, pain is only pain" (31) He cannot understand the meaning of what happened to her by having her tell him what Colonel Joll did to her. Doing so is compassionate but misguided. Pain cannot be understood second hand; it must be experienced to appreciate its power.
2. In the face of pain, nothing else matters any longer. "My torturers are interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself. . . They came to my cell to show me the meaning of humanity, and in the space of an hour they showed me a great deal" (113). The truth learned by every brutal regime, by every political prisoner, by every torturer and their victims, is that pain is more powerful than dignity, than humanity, than justice, than truth. Where there is pain, there can be nothing else. It is the only reality.
3. If one difference between the civilized and the barbaric is the existence of law, The Empire forfeits the right to consider itself civilized. The Magistrate, who represents and administers and believes in law and the force of law, who wants from the Empire nothing more than his day in court, his moment before the law, discovers that the law no longer has any meaning in a corrupt Empire run by its secret police. "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, legal process is simply one instrument among many" (82).
4. Nothing, not even the Empire, is more powerful than History: "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 not to die, how to prolong its era" (131). Prolonging its era is the mission of agencies like the Bureau, but eventually their methods backfire, they doom themselves to defeat, and the forces of history, as they did long ago with the civilization the Magistrate has studied for the last twenty years, once again prevail.
5. No matter how painful the knowledge, the Magistrate must accept his own complicity in the nature of Empire. The events of the novel shatter his naive belief that the outpost under his rule was a benign, harmonious environment where Empire and Barbarian co-existed peacefully, where neither harmed the other. He is not, as he wished to be, the opposite of the Colonel, merely the other side of the coin: "I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow. Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less" (133).