The course theme for this year’s cycle of humanities core was “Empire and its ruins” and although my expectations of what would be defined as empire and ruins were not far off I also learned that there were other meaningful definitions it could embody. Ultimately at the beginning of the year I came in thinking that empire was an ancient civilization like the Roman empire and that ruins were archaeological ruins like Machu Picchu but as the end of the course has come those two words in my mind have evolved to be both physical and also a figurative concept. Empire and its ruins for me has been a way of bringing a discourse about humanity through seeing not only the physical empire and ruins but also the imagined and metaphorical forms of it.
Two literary pieces that embody the idea of empire and ruins being much more than the physical presence of an empire and its ruins are J. M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians and Marjane Satrapi’s film Persepolis. Both of these works discuss the importance of understanding the effects of empire and ultimately the consequences of being part it, leading to the ruins of the identity and agency of the Magistrate and Marjane.
Together and separately both of these main figures come together to help the audience and the scholar understand the magnifying effect empire has over its people and who they are on an individual level. Empire might embody many people but ultimately empire also comes to represent the individual in many ways.
In Waiting for the Barbarians we live the experience along with the Magistrate in discovering the unscrupulous and ignorant ways an imaginary empire treats and labels others. Although the Magistrate was not physically in what could be called the empire he was influenced by it, tortured and manipulated to become like them and see “others” as they wanted him to look at them; savages. He struggled with finding his identity and although it could be argued, he was left both in the physical and emotional ruins at the end of the novel.
Persepolis also shows Marjane’s story as an individual conflicted with the empire of societal standards and oriental notions that segregated her and made her struggle with her Iranian familial and personal identity. Being consumed by the harsh realities and impositions of other’s actions and beliefs transformed her from being a very lively young girl to being a completely disturbed and hindered women who did not know how to feel or act according to what society expected her to be. She had to battle with stereotypes and count the cost of things she often did which could symbolically represent her being ruined by empire. The Satrapi herself discusses much of her personal experience as an Iranian adding the discourse of ruins of empire in an interview.
It is quite enlightening to see the ruins that empires have left behind so that we can learn from them and analyze them to be able to understand the mindsets and cultures of those who experienced them, either personally and or historically like Satrapi did or fictitiously like the Magistrate did. Ultimately this course with the analysis of works like these made me think critically and go way beyond looking at the superficial aspect of the presence of an empire. I leave this course understanding the symbolism of seeing and applying the concepts of even modern day life through the idea of empire and its ruins.
Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the Barbarians. 21st ed., London, Penguin Books, 1993.
Machu Picchu. Peru for Less, http://www.machupicchu.org/machu_picchu_facts.htm. Accessed 8 June 2017.
“Persepolis – Exclusive: Marjane Satrapi.” YouTube, uploaded by Movieweb, 19 Sept. 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9onZpQix_w. Accessed 8 June 2017.
Persepolis Movie Advertisement. Pinterest, http://www.pinterest.com/explore/persepolis-film/. Accessed 8 June 2017.
Satrapi, Marjane, director. Persepolis. 2007.
“A Stark Political Fable of South Africa.” The New York Times, 18 Apr. 1982. The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/11/02/home/coetzee-barbarians.html. Accessed 8 June 2017.