Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

The Subversion of Enlightenment Rationality: On Two Vision-Blocking Metaphors in J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians

Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

The Subversion of Enlightenment Rationality: On Two Vision-Blocking Metaphors in J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians

Article excerpt


The present paper bases its arguments around two vision-blocking metaphors in Coetzee's novel Waiting for the Barbarians. Revelations of the rich metaphorical meanings of the sunglasses and the blind eyes of the barbarian girl through close readings serve to demonstrate Coetzee's reflections on and criticism of Enlightenment rationality. As a superb narrator well-versed in the antipathy of modern Western culture, Coetzee arranges in dichotomy the two metaphors similar in form but opposing in essence, so as to propel with their tension the narration forward and highlight the gist of the novel. With the operations of various irrational elements in the text, such as the purification rituals, the dreams, and allusions to myth, he manages to subvert Enlightenment rationality for the sake of getting control of the order of nature.

Key words: Sunglasses; Blind eyes; Empire; Barbarians; Enlightenment rationality; Dream; Ritual


J. M. Coetzee's 1980 novel Waiting for the Barbarians won him international critical acclaim.(2014, pp.326-374) Ever after its publication, it has been thrown under critical inspections from a wide range of perspectives. These critical reactions can be roughly put into two categories. In the first one, the criticism is based around colonial and postcolonial discourses, which comes natural to the study of Coetzee's works because Coetzee's life and career are inseparably intertwined with the colonial and postcolonial legacies of South Africa. His Dusklands juxtaposes 17th century colonial experience and postcolonial practice in the 1960's to illustrate the haunting ghost of Euro- centrism. In the Heart of the Country delineates the schizophrenia of the colonial psyche. Foe is a writing-back text and subversion of the canonical colonial narration Robinson Crusoe. Age of Iron, though pretty much Coetzeeian in its constant self-reflections, is his most explicit anti-apartheid text. In Waiting for the Barbarians, the opposition of Empire and Barbarians, as well as their ironical mutual transition, highlights the vintage critical tradition in the examination of the colonial experience, with Conrad's Heart of Darkness as its precursor. Critics represented by Bill Ashcroft (Ashcroft, 1998, pp.100-116) and Teresa Dovey (Dovey, 1996, pp138-151) take this story as an allegory of the apartheid South Africa. Susan Gallagher (Gallagher, 19688, pp.277-285) and Michael Valdez Moses(Moses, 1993, pp.115-127) approach it from the angle of torture and its traumatic effects. Dominic Head(Head, 2009,) views this book as an illustration of the old magistrate's moral awakening in the context of the Empire and the other.

The second category is characterized by the application of a wide range of other contemporary critical discourses, such as postmodernism, post-structuralism, body theories, trauma theories, narrative theories, and etc. These discourses, though some of them are more or less intertwined, respectively claim their distinctive critical rationale and methods, which together broadens the critical space of Coetzeeian studies and engenders more philosophical and cultural relevance and significance for Coetzee's works. Coetzee has been nurtured by the literary modernism and postmodernism, well-versed in various philosophical and cultural movements in the second half of the last century, which, together with his profound understanding of European and American cultures, results in his insights into the essential problematics of the Western colonial institutions. What he really focuses on is the underlying stratum of the colonial discourse, the inveteracy of Euro-centrism. His probe into the nature of history and the deconstruction of it, as well as his linkage to the modernist literary tradition are reflected in his Kafkaian novel Life and Time of Michael K.; his illustration of the contemporary moral predicaments in Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, in the disguise of meta- fictional poststructuralist construct, is indeed infused with moral force typical of the modernist heritage. …

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