The cell and the torture room as metaphor for marginalised relations

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This reading got me wondering about violence in literature… and metaphors for violence and how the space of the fictional setting might be used to represent violence on a deeper level…

[in fact, the essay focuses its point elsewhere, but] Trevor James writes: “Post-colonial literary theory addresses the margins, showing how in the act of writing the marginalised writer begins the task of asserting, reappropriating and reclaiming power and identity against the established power of a post-colonial system which continues to exert its influence even after political independence has been achieved. In the South African situation, the novels of J.M. Coetzee exemplify how a post-colonial literature can develop postmodernist texts which have ethical and political relevance. …

Waiting for the Barbarians presents various ways in which post-colonial and religious perspectives combine. Its focus upon torture and imprisonment is in itself a focus upon extreme points of marginalisation, and contributes to a consistent aspect of South African writing. Coetzee shows the South African writer’s fascination with torture.

In 1980 I published a novel [Waiting for the Barbarians] about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience. Torture has exerted a dark fascination on many other South African writers. Why should this be so? […] relations in the torture room provide a metaphor, bare and extreme, for relations between authoritarianism and its victims. (Coetzee 1992: 363)

Yet not only do the cell and the torture room offer a cogent metaphor for the most marginalised of brutal relations, they also offer an indication of what is most irreducibly a truth. There are the place of pain, and as such also the place of truth. As places of truth, the cell and the torture room are places where the sacred must [-p142] be located. To put this another way, it is on the most extreme margin that the sacred may be fixed. This notion develops from Coetzee’s insistence that pain is an irreducible truth, an irreducible truth bearing authority and power.

If I look back over my own fiction, I see a simple (simple-minded?) standard erected. That standard is the body. Whatever else, the body is not ‘that which is not,’ and the proof is that it is is the pain it feels […] in South Africa it is not possible to deny the authority of suffering and therefore of the body. It is not possible, not for logical reasons, not for ethical reasons […] but for political reasons, for reasons of power […] it is not that one grants the authority of the suffering body: the suffering body takes this authority: that is its power […] its power is undeniable (Coetzee 1992: 248).” (pp.141-142)

Ref: Trevor James (c1996) Locating the Sacred: J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians pp.141-149 in Ed. Jamie S. Scott ‘And the Birds Began to Sing” Religion and Literature in Post-colonial Cultures. Amsterdam: Rodopi

The reference in the text is to Coetzee, JM 1992 Doubling the Point, ed. David Atwell. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP

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