The Communion of Clouds: Becoming-Woman in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians

Abstract

In her well-read work on contemporary feminist theory titled Nomadic Subjects (2011), Rosi Braidotti gets to grips with the Deleuzian notion of ‘becoming-woman’. Noting that the concept has experienced a good deal of criticism in feminist circles (and from some important feminists too, such as Luce Irigaray), Braidotti argues that there is still something of extreme importance in this concept for the feminist to recover. For Braidotti, ‘becoming-woman’ allows for ‘a nonunitary and multi-layered vision’ of the subject. That is to say, it allows for the description of ‘a dynamic and changing entity’ (5) – one that challenges the striated formulations of ‘woman’ found in phallo- and Euro-centric master codes. Importantly, however, it does so not by posing an essentialised subject position of ‘woman’ for others either to mimic or aspire to (often the grounds for the misreading of the concept), but rather by referencing ‘woman’ as an intensity of sorts, an intensity that is the pre-condition for both revolutionary thought and action (249-250).

This paper takes the Deleuzian concept of ‘becoming-woman’ and uses it as a way to understand the enigmatic relationship that develops between the Magistrate and the barbarian girl in Coetzee’s early novel, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). Beginning with a brief characterisation of the barbarian girl as an agent of transformation, this paper goes on to offer an explanation for why the encounter between the Magistrate and the barbarian girl necessarily results in the Magistrate’s turn away from the State.

There are, of course, many ways to read the enigmatic figure of the barbarian girl in Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians. Teresa Dovey’s early account of the barbarian girl is as ‘the figural embodiment of the Magistrate’s desire’ (224); George Steiner’s rendition posits her as a participant within the Hegelian parable of the master and slave; while Sue Kossew has written of her as the ‘archetypal Other’ that one is accustomed to meeting in postcolonial discourse (92) However, while each of these accounts may speak in some implicit way about the transformative or catalytic power of the barbarian girl over the Magistrate, I want in this essay to draw out this particular quality of her character. Like other critics, I think the barbarian girl is best understood as a horizon of transformative energies, but the way in which I arrive at such a reading is by bringing Coetzee’s…

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Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: Colonialism & imperialism, Gender - Literary portrayal, J.M. Coetzee.

Cite as: Hamilton, Grant. ‘The Communion of Clouds: Becoming-Woman in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.23561c8f3f.