by Claire Chambers
Towards the end of J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, his protagonist the Magistrate speculates about how much pain he, an ageing, out-of-shape man, will be able to withstand. In this elliptical novel, which owes a debt to Kafka's 'The Penal Colony', the Magistrate is about to be tortured at the hands of the Empire. Despite years of loyal service, his antagonist Colonel Joll believes that the Magistrate has betrayed the Empire because of his romantic entanglement with a girl from the enemy 'barbarian' community.
The passage encapsulates many of torture's most important features. While the Magistrate's anxieties revolve around what degree of pain he can tolerate, that is not the purpose of torture. Instead, the Magistrate's tormentors reduce him to a body or a thing that is incapable of thought or political ideals. Coetzee conveys this in part through the use of the third person singular gender neutral pronoun 'it':
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.
The diction here also exposes the elaborate, quasi-medical, inventive methods that torturers use on their victims. Finally, Coetzee emphasizes that the central event of torture, the interrogation of the prisoner, is in fact a cover story: a huge lie. The Magistrate has prepared 'high-sounding words' with which to answer the interrogator's questions about his dealings with the barbarians. But there is no conversation, no questions, and no single interrogator; instead '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'. What 'they' demonstrate to the Magistrate is that when his body is in severe pain, he is incapable of thought, language, or ethics. As Coetzee puts it, he learns 'what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well'.
Five years after the publication of Coetzee's novel, in 1985, the literary critic Elaine Scarry published The Body in Pain. At the risk of stating the obvious, in this seminal book she explores what happens to people when their bodies are in pain. And in the most important chapter for our purposes, 'The Structure of Torture', Scarry examines what the consequences are of inflicting pain on others – both for the inflictor and the afflicted. She argues that torture pivots on a display of agency, which often involves the victim being confronted with or 'being made to stare at' an outlandish and often outsized weapon.