Heroes October 2, 2003

J.M. Coetzee has been awarded the Nobel prize for literature.

I'm afraid I've only ever read one book by Coetzee, and it was a short one — the novella Waiting for the Barbarians. My one encounter with Coetzee, however, was a case of the right book at the right time. If his other works have had a similar impact on his other readers, then Coetzee's Nobel honors are well deserved.

Barbarians is an extended parable about guilt and responsibility, knowledge and innocence. It describes — in the word's of President Bush's favorite devotional writer, Oswald Chambers — how we are responsible "for what we refuse to look at."

Coetzee's protagonist is a middle class magistrate in a frontier town of an unnamed Empire. He is not particularly wealthy or powerful, and he has had little reason or inclination to wonder about the source of the Empire's wealth and power. "I have not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times," he says.

Then one night, "I took a lantern and went to see for myself." He sees a man — an old man, a foreigner, a "barbarian" and an innocent — who has been killed by an interrogator representing the power of the Empire. Until that night, the magistrate had been half ignorant, half in denial. But now he knows. And knowing, he must act.

I ought never to have taken my lantern to see what was going on in the hut by the granary. On the other hand, there is no way, once I had picked up the lantern, for me to put it down again.

Coetzee's story had obvious implications for the author's specific context — Coetzee is a white South African born in Cape Town. But it is also a universal story.

My favorite version of this universal story in recent years involves a guy named Xander Harris. Like Coetzee's magistrate, Xander is an unremarkable fellow — a schlemazel and a bit of a coward with no particular talents. He is an unlikely hero. But like the magistrate, Xander takes up a lantern one night (a flashlight, actually) and gained a knowledge that entailed a responsibility. He learns that there are powerful evils in the world, forces that prey on the weak and the vulnerable.

Once you learn this, what do you do about it?

"There are some [people] in the world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us," Miss Maudie Atkinson says in To Kill a Mockingbird. But most of us aren't born heroes, like Atticus Finch, or like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "born with the strength and skill to fight the vampires, to stop the spread of evil."

We're more like Coetzee's magistrate, or poor, overwhelmed Xander, with no special powers, no superhuman "strength and skill."

Yet here we are, lantern in hand. And the monsters and the Empire are real. "A quiet life in quiet times" is no longer an option.

So what do we do?

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  • selise

    So what do we do?
    i hope you will write more on this…
    after september 11, 2001 i didn’t get the epidemic of raging bloodlust for revenge, the desire to kill as many of “them” as possible – including children. so, i went looking for answers. what i’ve found has turned my (pyschic) world upside down.
    “the culture of make believe” by derrick jensen has helped some, and now i’m looking forward to reading “Waiting for the Barbarians”. thanks.

  • lisajulie

    “What do you do?”
    I don’t think there is a “we” about it . I think this is something that each person faces and deals with on an individual level. Jacob wrestling with the angel individual level.
    Some people deny (and have bad dreams), some people make excuses, and some people step up to the plate and tackle the situation/issues head on. (They are mostly derided as “crazy” by those who haven’t seen or refuse to see.)
    Thank you for this thoughtful/thought-provoking post. I’m ashamed to admit where I am in the spectrum I’ve just delineated.

  • selise

    wow, you’ve made me think….
    maybe there is BOTH a “we” and a “me”. what do i do? what do we do?
    yes, we have to listen to our own conscience to discern how we want to respond…. but to ACT, especially in the face our community, work companions and families telling us we’re crazy. i guess saints can do it, but i am no saint. i doubt myself, wonder if maybe i’m crazy… the only people i know who really seem to be able to “step up to the plate and tackle the situation/issues head on” are those who are part of a supportive community – the catholic worker communities are an example that comes to mind.
    an example from my personal experience… during my vacation last year i volunteered with ism in palestine (google rachel corrie, brian avery and tom hurndall if you don’t know ism). i had a weird experience…. in the midst of gun fire, tear gas, cruelty and incredible fear i found it easier to listen to my conscience than i do know, sitting in my safe comfortable home. i think it was because of some of the people that i worked and lived with – other volunteers who genuinely cared about the well being of both the palestinians and israelis, were willing to tell the truth, take some personal responsibility for the current situation and were willing to take some personal risk for the hope of a better future.
    i don’t think i am alone in being strongly influenced by the people around me. of course, the people around me are mostly the results of choices i’ve made. so, i’m back to the “what do i do?”… maybe the answer is try to build a more supportive community… which of course is something done with others… which brings me back to “what do we do?”

  • Jesurgislac

    A cartoon I saw once: a little person under a tree looking up at the sky. First picture: “Sometimes I want to ask God, ‘God, why do you allow so much evil and suffering and misery to continue in this world?'” Second picture. “But I’m afraid God would ask me the same question.”

  • Chris

    A quiet life is no longer an option. But what am I to do instead?
    That’s the best question I’ve been asked for a long time. Beautifully written, and welcome to my bookmarks :).

  • A new favourite

    I’ve found a new site for my daily reading list… slacktivist. Here’s a taste of why… “There are some [people] in the world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us,” Miss Maudie Atkinson says in To Kill…