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  • Becomings in J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and José Saramago's Blindness
  • Hania A. M. Nashef (bio)

A bestial life is turning me into a beast.

Há muitas maneiras de tornar-se animal.

[There are many ways of becoming an animal.]


In the first epigraph, the magistrate from J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians is describing his condition following his arrest and fall from grace, and in the second, the blind doctor from José Saramago's novel Blindness is commenting on the state to which he has deteriorated. Coetzee's novel portrays an official's fall from power, while Saramago's illustrates how, once blind, the eye doctor cannot live up to his profession or status in society and slides along with the other blind inmates at the asylum into a form that is closer to an animal than a human being. Fall from power or a change in status paves the way to the process of "becoming-animal" in both novels. This term is employed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. The reader may wonder what the link between both epigraphs is and how they can be interpreted by the Deleuzian and Guattarian concept of "becoming-animal." In a Deleuzian and Guattarian becoming, an association with an anomalous entity compels an individual to leave their "pack." In both novels, the barbarian girl and the thief can be considered the anomalous entities that force the magistrate [End Page 21] and blind doctor out. Customarily, following a becoming, a threshold is irrevocably crossed, resulting in undefined boundaries. Moreover, as a "becoming" challenges an existing order, the individual is ostracized. Unable to return to the pack, the becoming prompts a fall to a minoritarian.

Examples of becomings abound in literature of the twentieth century, Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis being one of the most prominent. In this novella, the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, awakens to find himself transformed into a giant insect; at first his metamorphosis arouses his family's curiosity, but he becomes a burden, and then he is neglected. This kind of transformation, which is incomprehensible, places the person on the fringes of a culture he or she was once a part of, puts him or her in a position akin to that of the subaltern. In Waiting for the Barbarians and Blindness, the magistrate and the doctor cross the threshold after a fall from grace: the magistrate has lost his role as a once-powerful official of the empire, while the doctor has been deprived of his profession and status in society and is only allowed to exist, along with the other inmates, as a blind person. Deleuze and Guattari, however, suggest that at times, a becoming can function as a source of creativity, a possibility for a new beginning. In this paper, I propose to show that although becoming in both novels serves as a source of creativity, it also has negative connotations. This is particularly true in Blindness, in which the becoming results in a fall to a degraded existence usually relegated to animals by humans. In Waiting for the Barbarians, this process is likewise invariably one of degradation, an irreversible flow of movement in which one is transformed from a majoritarian into a minoritarian.

Becoming-animal, Becoming-woman: Waiting for the Barbarians

Coetzee, the South African-born 2003 Nobel Laureate and two-time Booker Prize winner, published Waiting for the Barbarians in 1980. The novel is set in an undefined time in an outpost of an unidentifiable empire that is controlled by a magistrate who aspires to spend the rest of his days without any confrontation. The magistrate reflects on his situation: "I am a country magistrate, a responsible official in the service of the empire, serving out my days on this lazy frontier, waiting to retire."1 He "did not mean to get embroiled" in the events that transpire in the novel; the empire, however, had other plans (8). The arrival of Colonel Joll forces the magistrate to get engrossed in an alleged barbarian insurgency, which leads to his involvement with one of the barbarian girls. The opening page of the novel...