Response to “Waiting for the Barbarians”
“The imaginary is not a self-activating potential but has to be brought into play from outside itself, be it by the subject (Coleridge), by consciousness (Satre), or by the psyche or the socio-historical (Castoriadis), a list that by no means exhausts the potential stimulants. It follows that the imaginary has no intentionality of its own but has intentions imposed on it by the demands of its activator. And precisely because it is without intentionality, it appears to be open to all intentions that will always be tied to what they trigger, so that something will ‘happen’ to the activator” (Iser, 1993, p. 223).
I traced the Magistrate’s colonizing act over the Barbarian girl with complete disgust and abhorrence. Initially, as a reader I thought of the magistrate’s acts as being kind but later, as his own consciousness reveals itself, did I question his morality. The slow seduction of caring acts from washing her broken feet, giving her work to bathing, oiling and caressing her naked body are representations of paternalistic colonizers’ attitude towards the oppressed. Having been tortured, blinded, left behind and separated from her community, she yields her physical body but not her soul to her deluded savior because she had no where else to go. The magistrate’s fleeting fluctuating emotions about the girl are revealing to me, an ambivalent desire for the young body and yet his limp degenerated manhood shows his inability to transcend the image he holds of her as a barbarian and I would like to also think can be attributed to her refusal to be completely dominated. At times, he performed these paternalistic acts with great care but at other times he was repelled by them. He wondered why he had taken them on to begin with and as a reader I wondered that myself. Would I have been satisfied had he given her some work while allowing her to heal her wounds before sending her back to her people or perhaps if he had fallen in love with her? But his transgressing the boundaries while mediating between these two roles of a paternal figure and lover made me question his true intention. His imagination of her is brought into play “by the subject (Coleridge), by consciousness (Satre), or by the psyche or the socio-historical (Castoriadis)” in which he concludes “with this woman it is as if there is no interior, only a surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry” (p. 49). He becomes more self aware of how his seductive acts are no more different than those torturers who belief they could “burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other” (p. 49). As Iser proposes, something indeed did “happen to the activator”. It led him to return her to her people. However, when he brought her to them he changed his mind and asked her to return with him out of her own free will and she was wise not to because, as she rejected his offer, he thought “What a waste she could have spent those long empty evenings teaching me her tongue”! (p. 81). Again, he saw her as an object to be used to satisfy his whims and fancy. I think we use the imaginary to bring forth a consciousness or psyche that directs our actions and by the very act of making the absent present we may scrutinize our intentions and choose to continue or redirect our course of actions. Sometimes an act may seem kind but the intention is not and so it is necessary for us as humans to question it as we play with the real, the fictive and the imaginary.