Once you know, you can never ‘un-know.’ Once you see, you can’t simply shut your eyes without having to live with the knowledge of what you saw. This is what Coetzee seems to be reminding us of: the burden of responsibility that knowledge brings. The magistrate is well aware of this burden, lamenting how easily he could have lived out the rest of his life in relative peace if he had avoided getting involved with the prisoners, as Coetzee expresses in this passage: “… if I resolved to ride out the bad times, keeping my own counsel, I might cease to feel like a man who, in the grip of the undertow, gives up the fight, stops swimming, and turns his face towards the open sea and death… I know somewhat too much; and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to be no recovering” (23). His understanding of what is going on, rather than empowering him, makes him feel as though he is being pulled along by a current helplessly. Furthermore, knowledge is depicted as something that he has to give in to rather than something he has to discover, suggesting that he has been vaguely aware for some time that the Empire is corrupt but that he has finally stopped closing his eyes to this knowledge and has surrendered to the acceptance of it. And, now that he has been dragged in, he can only struggle along with the current.
Coetzee symbolizes the magistrate’s acceptance of knowledge through the familiar literary trope of light. Significantly, the beginning of his involvement with the prisoners is defined by his action of picking up the lantern: “I ought never to have taken my lantern to see what was going on in the hut by the granary. On the other hand, there was no way, once I had picked up the lantern, for me to put it down again” (23). Although he bemoans his reluctant involvement, at the same time, he realizes that once he saw what was happening, he had little choice in whether to get involved or not. The motif of light begins in the opening paragraph with the puzzling introduction of the investigator and his sunglasses. Initially, I couldn’t see why Coetzee began the novel like this. Yet, I think the sunglasses serve as an analogy for shutting your eyes to things you don’t want to see. He makes the obvious statement that the investigator is not blind (1), yet refuses to remove the glasses even when indoors (2). He can see clearly if he wants to, but he prefers to dull the brightness of the light because it hurts his eyes to squint all the time. Similarly, he could recognize the corruption of the Empire and the fellow humanity of the barbarians, but he chooses not to remove the barrier he has created between himself and them because it allows him to live in peace with what he does. The magistrate notices that this ignorance has not harmed the investigator, but has actually helped him to live stressfully with, “the skin of a younger man” (1), further emphasizing the weight of knowledge.
The barbarian girl in chapter two deepens the connection between knowledge and vision. She plays two roles for the magistrate: she helps him to forget, yet she also opens his eyes. Initially, she serves as a means of escape for him. When he is with her and washing her feet, he forgets everything else and loses himself in the moment: “I lose myself in the rhythm of what I am doing. I lose awareness of the girl herself. There is a space of time which is blank to me: perhaps I am not even present” (32). With her, he discovers the joy of oblivion. He finds release in losing himself, which Coetzee brings back to the motif of vision as his forgetting is accompanied by closing his eyes and deep sleep: “My eyes close. It becomes an intense pleasure to keep them closed, to savour the blissful giddiness” (33). His forgetting is bliss.
Yet, he cannot forget completely. He realizes that he cannot live in this oblivious state, recognizing that, “these dreamless spells are like death to [him], or enchantment, blank, outside time” (35). Outside these “spells,” he must still deal with the responsibility of what he knows. The barbarian girl serves also as a daily reminder of the prisoners’ torture. He cannot continue to lose himself through her without guiltily noticing her scars: “It has become more and more clear to me that until the marks on this girl’s body are deciphered and understood I cannot let go of her” (35-36). He realizes that he cannot continue without knowing what happened to her, even though this knowledge will be painful. Significant also is the fact that she is not completely blind; she still has some potential to see and her sight improves, reflecting the improving moral awareness of the magistrate. Like her, he has the potential to see more clearly. The question is whether he will accept the burden of knowledge or turn a blind eye (pun intended).