Totalitarian politics and individual responsibility: Revising Hannah Arendt’s inner dialogue through the notion of confession in J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians
AuthorNiemi, Minna Johanna
Hannah Arendt’s writings concerning individual responsibility create an important – and under-examined – context for reading J. M. Coetzee’s oeuvre, particularly his novel Waiting for the Barbarians. For Arendt, when a society fails to offer ethical codes of conduct to follow, people should determine those codes by themselves, since morality concerns people in their individuality during totalitarian times. Arendt’s ideas bear important similarities to Coetzee’s representation of the magistrate in the novel, as this character struggles to live with his conscience in a totalitarian regime. In Arendt’s world, introspection is only needed when the world around us fails to guarantee moral laws, and even then one should not focus on oneself only, but instead try to focus on the world around us. Coetzee, however, shows through the character of the magistrate how this internal dialogue easily becomes torturous in its nature. If political action is the most important aspect of Arendt’s thinking, then Coetzee shows through the character of the magistrate how modern, conscientious humans cannot just act politically; instead, their action is always marked by their personal weaknesses, including their feelings of inadequacy. Nevertheless, even if Arendt emphasises political action more than Coetzee, who shows that such action is necessarily marked by individual doubt, self-questioning and other personal inadequacies, the reliance on radical thinking, which is at odds with conformism, is a concern they share.
Accepted manuscript version. Published version available in South African Journal of Philosophy, 2017;36(2):223-238