Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is also, paradoxically, the drink.
On the one hand, you have the ancient traditions of hospitality. You are obligated, by universally agreed-upon human law, to invite a stranger into your tent and feed them. Allow them to rest. If they require it, to spend the night, maybe two, maybe more. After all, the desert can be a dangerous place. Those struggling through the unwelcoming wasteland must be offered respite, and you must give it to them in whatever measure you have the means to provide. They might be angels, so you should offer your virgin offspring to them, so they’ll remember to spare you when it’s time for fire and brimstone.
On the other hand, you have Greeks dumping refugees they view as a potentially unendurable burden into the Mediterranean to bob until they die of exposure or drowning or shark attack. The party Greeks had voted in to extricate their country from the crushing European Union debt turned out in the end not to be up to the task, hence the continued imposition of austerity, hence the feeling of poverty imposed from above, hence the fear of strangers and their needs. Poverty imposed from above always seems to be a good reason for those below to attack anyone perceived as being even lower than them.
You have the Beverly Hillbillies saying, y’all come back now, ya hear? And you have Oscar the Grouch, telling you to get away from his trash can.
The South African Nobel Prize-winning writer, J.M. Coetzee, published a novel about 40 years ago called, Waiting for the Barbarians. He’s written many books since then, and this one is probably not his best. But it may be his most famous, and easiest to read, because stylistically it resembles the outline of a Camus novel, although with an even more allegorical feel. I read his The Life and Times of Michael K, which was published three years later, and then Age of Iron when it came out in 1990. I appreciated those more than Barbarians.
He’s an excellent writer, J.M. Coetzee. The Booker Prize he also won. They don’t give them Nobels and Bookers to no slouches. Politically, he was against apartheid, though never committed to the left in an organizational sense. The perspectives it’s possible to glean from his work are complicated and humanistically moral, and even somewhat universalist. After apartheid he might’ve been called a centrist, if labeling him were ever necessary. He conveys an oddly depressing yet worthwhile flavor of the human experience, which is about the best thing I find myself able to commit to saying about him.
Waiting for the Barbarians takes place in a colonial outpost of the Empire. What outpost, where, when, and of what empire, isn’t specified. But it’s a non-western colony of a European-seeming empire. A far-flung colony. Sometime in the 17th to the mid-18th century.
I recently noticed they’d made a film of it. It came out in 2019, the year before the year that wouldn’t end. Coetzee himself wrote the screenplay, and, for a novelist, he did a damn good job. The big stars are Mark Rylance, who’s so hot right now. And Robert Pattinson, who’s so hot right now. And Johnny Depp. Who... well... he turns in a sober performance, looking severe and speaking with gravity and wearing an early version of stylish sunglasses.
Design-wise, wardrobe-wise, and casting-wise, I was curious how they were going to maintain the lack of specificity of setting. I’ll tell you this: there were no black people in the cast. The colonizers were white, and everyone else looked to run the ethnic spectrum, in dress and phenotype, from Afghani, to Pakistani, to Nepali, to Mongolian.
The story is a kind of parable. Mark Rylance is the Magistrate. He’s a nice ruler of his outpost. He tries to be kind by stopping his soldiers from treating the natives roughly or unjustly. He tries to adjudicate disagreements between natives fairly. He can’t read or speak the language, but he collects old native writings. They are in a script that predates the current native alphabet. I think. He stores them lovingly in cases in his library of documents.
The friendly outpost, the purpose of which is unclear, is paid a visit by Johnny Depp in his glasses. He’s an officious, taciturn officer of the police, Colonel Joll, who is anything but jolly.
Johnny Depp is sure the natives, whom he refers to as barbarians, are up to no good. Soon enough he captures a couple of them, tortures one to death, and tortures a confession out of the other one, a confession that the barbarians beyond the outpost are indeed up to no good.
Despite Rylance’s instance that the barbarians are just peaceful herdsfolk minding their own business, Depp takes it upon himself to capture more of them, torture and imprison them, until at last he’s created the very conflict he’d been predicting. He leaves for the Empire’s capital and returns with enough troops to achieve the battling and conquering his invented project requires. Meanwhile, Rylance is fumblingly trying to navigate an aimless relationship of pity and exotic fascination with a barbarian former prisoner.
Eventually, Robert Pattinson shows up to bully and humiliate Rylance. During trials and tortures, Rylance’s ineffectual humanism is shown up for the weakness and self-absorption that it is, while the natives he once extended awkward kindness toward have been twisted by Pattinson’s troops into a petty, cowardly, cruel rabble.
As a parable of imperialism and colonialism, it paints a template-like picture that can be imposed on many situations, such as the French and US involvement in Indochina; the British and Portuguese in India; the English, Dutch, and assorted white trash in Africa.
The aspect I felt myself focusing on most keenly wasn’t the complex ambiguity of Rylance, nor the methodical malice of Depp, nor the impatient cruelty of Pattinson. It was the self-fulfilling prophecy of “trouble with the natives.” It made me think about how many of the conflicts the US has been involved in that were either repercussions from earlier colonial crimes or invented or purposely stirred-up antagonisms.
And that led me to reflect on David Graeber, who passed away last year, and his concept of “bullshit jobs,” jobs that accomplish nothing practical but keeping the economy in apparent motion. And, of course this isn’t an original thought of mine, but it really sank in how much of a bullshit job being a soldier is. Even a general.
Some kind of realist takes it upon himself to “know” that a conflict with some other population is inevitable, and makes sure that inevitability comes to pass. This creates numerous jobs in the destruction industry, which is all war is. The shock doctrine is that disasters must be seized upon and capitalized on, and war is simply the creation of disaster. And everyone involved in that project is doing nothing more than destroying people, animals, the environment, structures artificial, natural, material, and conceptual. All that destruction requires destruction engines, weapons. So the making of weapons is part of the bullshit destruction industry, as is the use of weapons. And, naturally, after the destruction comes the rebuilding. But in our circle of BS, building is only done to create that which is to be destroyed at a later date.
I don’t know if this is still true, but on the back of some baking soda boxes were diagrams of the many uses of baking soda: one is to put it in the fridge to absorb food odors that wander around, invading the peaceful Tupperware; another is to brush your teeth with it; and still another use is to pour the entire box down the toilet. “Buy our product, flush the entire thing down the toilet, and buy more.” It’s a capitalist’s dream. A capitalist’s wet dream. And that’s our economic system, built around war. Make it, box it, sell it, buy it, flush it, and start all over again.
But, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, “The problem with capitalism is that eventually you run out of world to destroy.” There aren’t the vast number of fresh countries around to pull that imperialistic self-fulfilling destruction prophecy on anymore. Luckily, there’s always a way to stir up anger among one oppressed group to get them to do bullshit destruction on another, either migrating in as refugees or already within as minorities. It’s a very popular phase, nationalistic, xenophobic, astro-turf populism. It’s so hot right now. It’s even better than regular war, because you don’t have to pay the soldiers, they do their destruction for free! A nationalist movement is like and army of unpaid war internships. The troops even pay for their own uniforms and weapons with their own money! You can even sell them hats!
On the other hand, there’s hospitality. It’s the opposite of war and xenophobic violence. But that will have to wait till next week.
Till then this has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!