Thursday, November 15, 2007

Albert Memmi: The Immobile Nomad - A Review

How often do you go see documentaries about living persons, and then sit and listen to an hour of talking heads and come out charged? Noam Chomsky did that for me. Susan Sontag. The Dalai Lama. This time it was Albert Memmi.

Albert Memmi?

French intellectual. Tunisian writer. Jew, all in one.

I knew his name. Had it up there in the brain in a little box with Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire (Fanon’s mentor), people who gave a passionate voice to the experience of colonization. But since I have spent my adult life in a postcolonial age, and came to believe early on that as an American the colonial experience was purely historical and not immediately relevant (except when you read British and French history), there is a huge gap in my knowledge of this body of literature.

Now I want to know this man. I just placed an order with Amazon for Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, for his first novel, Pillar of Salt, and his essay entitled Portrait of a Jew. Let me tell you why I find him so interesting.

I started life with a German-Scottish identity mix, lived out years as a New Englander in California, had an early American-in-Germany consciousness and followed it up with an American-in-Japan consciousness. Only now, in my 60s, am I seeing with my experience in Argentina that I have at long last succeeded in being comfortable as an outsider. I’m just passing through here. I don’t have to become Argentine to enjoy the place.

Most of my life I didn’t know that you didn’t have to blend with your environment. Didn’t have to become what everybody else was. I was taught there was something rude about being different, and even when I couldn’t help it – being gay in a straight world, for example – I chafed at the challenge. Identity dilemmas have been with me since I can remember.

Imagine you are a Tunisian living as a Jew among Muslims. You discover France and find it appealing because it enables you to escape the provincial outpost from which you came. You then discover that Tunisia has a hold over you that won’t let go. You join with your buddies in a protest against empty Jewish ritual and eat ham sandwiches outside the synagogue on shabbas. You then discover how deep your Jewish roots go.

Some people take this kind of thing as nothing more than the lay of the land. Others are torn apart psychologically. And still others, like Memmi, make a lifetime of explaining their way through it and out.

I remember once sitting at a table with a large family of Vietnamese in San José, California. I got into a conversation with a five-year-old about a “choo-choo train.” The adults didn’t understand what the kid was talking about. When I explained, there was an instant spontaneous smile on some twenty faces. They saw in this five-year-old the better future he would bring to them all.

Contrast that with a study done by John Ogbu in the inner city of Chicago. He wanted to learn why poor black kids were doing so poorly in school. As he went into the homes he found example after example of single mothers who would say things like, “I don’t like that white school. My kid thinks his teacher is prettier than I am.” Or “they’re teaching him to be white.”

Two different approaches to crossing cultures, one in which the original culture does not experience the other culture as the oppressor culture, and one in which it does. Americans discovered the limitations of assimilation some years ago when cultural distance became reconceived as political distance, “cultural other” (white) became “oppressor other,” and assimilation became redefined as cultural death.

Italians take two or three generations to become American, (or Canadian or Australian). Dutch or Swedes do it in one. Chinese historically have taken five or six. With Hispanics the situation is complex because of diversity of class and race. Blacks – well blacks have forced those who speak of assimilation to start from scratch.

The American immigrant experience gains perspective when located in a larger context. There are Japanese kids who grow up abroad who sometimes run into cultural nationalists when they get back to Japan who believe their foreign experience has polluted them. Kurds live an experience where state is one thing, but nation is another. Swedes in Finland, Armenians in Turkey, Russians in Latvia – there is no shortage of tales of ethnic struggle on both sides of the power lines.

And then there is always the special case of the Jews.

I am an American leftie. That means when Alistair Pennycook writes of English and the Discourses of Colonialism, I jump on the bandwagon and show my credentials as a liberal by talking the anti-orientalism talk – (orientalism is Edward Saïd’s theory that, in a nutshell, Westerners have created the concept of the “oriental” in order to have an “other” to feel superior to.) I dismiss theories like Robert Kaplan’s, big in the 60s, which suggest “those Chinese (Japanese, whatever)… they don’t think rationally, they plagiarize because they can’t understand (or value) originality, they sit silent in classrooms because they lack the ability to do anything but copy others and are waiting for instruction, etc. etc.) I’m in there with the current wisdom in the field of Applied Linguistics, in other words, that this is all cultural imperalist baggage that has to be tossed out. Politically correct as hell, I am.

The problem with political correctness (or ideological blindness, to give it a name that doesn’t make you sound like a neocon) is the absence of nuance. Polarization in American politics has made it hard as hell for lefties to go along with anything the Republicans come up with, so urgent is the need to disassociate from the Bush war and government by corporate power. If you are white, and you hear Bill Cosby tell blacks their biggest enemy is themselves and their ongoing desire to portray themselves as victims, you sit silent, hoping nobody sees you nod your head in assent.

Imagine what it feels like, then, to sit in a theater and hear a man with sterling leftist credentials tell you that after fifty years it’s time for the colonized to stop blaming the colonizers for the mess they are in. Get your act together, Arabo-Muslims, he says. Get up off your asses.

The documentary was made to stress Memmi’s independence of mind. My lockstep liberalism, my academic training as a sceptical analyst of discourse makes me say, “Whoa! This guy must be a conservative. A sellout.”

When you realize it is a Jew talking the thought crosses your mind that we are possibly working here with a man with survivalist blinders that make him think the only salient consideration is “What is good for the Jews?”

But is this indeed a ‘Jewish’ perspective? This begs the question of who it is making the documentary and why they are insistent that Albert Memmi is a man who has “transcended” religion, ethnicity and ideology.

This is where it gets interesting.

What speaks to me directly and personally is Memmi’s claim that culture is destructive. Or, more accurately (to stick with Memmi’s ideas and not project mine prematurely), that one needs to understand that culture, like religion or ethnic identity, despite its grounding force, can be (often is) dangerous to free thought.

Memmi found a home in France and in the French language. They gave him passage from the local to what he perceives as the universal. He found not only a personal freedom of movement and intellectual challenge in France he could not have found in Tunisia, but an opportunity to be Jewish and Tunisian in a way he could not be in a Jewish ghetto in Tunisia, ironic as that sounds.

I remember a conversation with a Haitian friend some years ago. He was struggling mightily with the sense that he had betrayed his home because he hated the idea of living there after living in Paris. He was a philosopher and Port-au-Prince was a prison. I suggested to him that maybe he could be a better Haitian in Paris than he could be in Haiti and he burst into tears. I had got it right.

I believe that is what Memmi is getting at. I have, remember, only just run across him. There is a place where the universal is possible and the universal, rather than standing in contrast to the particular, can actually enhance the particular. Memmi became a strong exponent of francophonie, the political-cultural union of French-speaking people, as the mechanism for meeting this universal goal of liberation from the constraints of culture. Somewhere in the documentary an Arab (I didn't catch his name) is credited with saying something like, “The French came and took us over. But we won our independence. And we escaped with booty. That booty was the French language.”

In Japan I spent many hours arguing with people (ironically, most of them Japanese teachers of French) who dismissed me as a purveyor of English cultural imperialism. My cynicism told me they were squawking about limited resources. I could never prove their true motivations. For every university position that goes to a teacher of English, one fewer goes to a teacher of French (or some other foreign language). They couldn’t make such a self-interest claim without sounding petty, of course, so they phrased it in terms of “linguistic imperialism.”

In one faculty meeting the head of the German language department suggested we split English into two departments, one to be taught by native speakers of English who would teach “the language and culture of the English-speaking peoples” and one to be taught by Japanese, who could relate to the learning experience of the Japanese student learners of English.

I protested that the field of applied linguistics taught native and non-native speakers of English alike how to teach the English language, and such an arbitrary division served no good purpose. It could only lead to the conclusion the two groups had little to say to each other. “Of course you feel that way,” he said to me, “you are a native speaker!” (Translation: You are a cultural imperialist!)

The discussion had to be halted. It was clear we were talking on one level but understanding each other on another and hostility was not much below the surface. I was faced with somebody who lived by the conviction that English was the language of imperialism. I never got to say how much of my life had been spent with non-native speakers of English who used the language to articulate anti-American thoughts, to express Muslim faith, Chinese philosophy, Greek resentment of Turks and Turkish resentment of Greeks. That English was a liberating force, not an imperial force. Those who confuse language with those who use language make a serious category error, and the destruction to the potential for liberation is a tragic squandering of resources.

Such discussions of language and culture and imperialism should have taken place in my workplace. The lines of power never permitted it, alas, so it only got touched upon in occasional brief moments, and never to my satisfaction. I wish I had been in possession of Memmi’s arguments of francophonie – that he, as a Tunisian, as a Jew, as a colonized man, had the gift of the French language with which to fight prejudice and the French analogue of orientalism and the reduction of third world peoples into row upon row of “others.”

But we are not done with the question of whether Memmi has succeeded in what he set out to do – escape the limitations of culture (religion, ethnicity, ideology). What if, as some (call them vulgar postmodernists) argue, Memmi is the classical product of a French enlightenment tradition and a French education. That is, what if he is simply putting on, in his claim to have found a universal good, the arrogance that comes with all universalist claims. Christians claim their religion is universal – and everybody needs to accept it. Ditto the Muslims. Ditto the Communists.

The French Enlightenment claim to universality, say its postmodernist critics, is just another of these phony tricks by adults playing king-of-the-mountain. My way is the universal way; you guys are stuck in a primitive yesteryear.

To advocates of enlightenment values, of course, this is a mistaken notion, since the difference is not between equal systems but between an attitude of openness to possibility on the one hand and closed systems of blind adherence to arbitrary authority, such as scripture, on the other. An open system is eternally self-correcting. Like the definition of truth in science (the sum total of all knowledge so far), enlightenment truth can be – is – modified constantly. Particularist systems depending on “eternal authority” are like the oak tree. They suggest permanence and strength, but in a tempest they crack faster than the more flexible willow.

I had an argument with a rabbi once who took issue with my claim that his orthodox religion was just another of many absolutist ideologies. What I was failing to understand, he told me, was that Jewish orthodoxy, by its very nature a program of endless reinterpretation, was in fact an open system. Who won that argument is not the point here; my point is that the (vulgar version of ) postmodernist thought suggests we are all limited by our positions, all blind men feeling the elephant and making unfounded claims to universal knowledge.

To make this assumption (and the reason I take issue with it) is to accept that one is doomed to work with blinders. Memmi is a Jew. When he tells Muslims that they need to get their act together, it’s the Jew in him speaking. Nonsense, I say. It’s the universalist in him speaking, the advocate of openness critiquing a false consciousness, a false ideology. Nonsense, say the postmodernists. I am simply taking sides with Memmi because I have bought into the same ideology (what is enlightenment but an ideology, they claim). There is no escape from the vicious circle.

Now what of the claim by so-called liberal progressives that any hesitancy in blaming the traditional power structures of Europe for the misery of the third world (today, as well as fifty years ago) is tantamount to toying with fascism. What of Jews, both in France and in the United States, who have expressed fears of Iran which often come out as a wish the U.S. had taken them out, rather than Saddam Hussein. They – Lieberman is only one of many – are quicker to see the Iraq war as a good idea badly managed. Memmi, despite his embrace of his Tunisian home and his Arabic language home, has not hesitated to criticize the Arab world for religious excess. Is this the Jew Memmi? The French Memmi? Or the independent Memmi? Are there no progressive Tunisian Arabs?

What is implied in Memmi’s philosophy is that the universalism he learned in France has made it easier for us to recognize that there is no reason to take any particular Jewish position too seriously, even if one exists, and even if it stems from a rationally arrived at survivalist mentality. We need to note, of course, that positions are arrived at that suit the majority of survivalist Jews by no small number of non-Jews as well. There are reasons outside of group survival for advocating positions. Memmi’s views do not necessarily need to strike fear among Jews, in other words, when he takes a position above and beyond any allegedly Jewish position.

It is reasonable to question the common practice of slapping a cultural category adjective (like Jewish) onto an ideological position. Memmi’s gift (or so say his fans) is the ability to turn on the categories when perhaps least expected. Memmi’s point is that the categories themselves are woefully inadequate and that they should serve us, and not the other way around.

Still, there is an irony in a Jew taking this allegedly independent position of defense against the charge of Jewish groupthink. I had been moved a few days before (See my November 9 review of Out of Faith on this website) by the story of a Slovakian survivor of Auschwitz who understood that the annhiliation of the Jews that Hitler started was being finished in places like the United States and France, where Jews were marrying out of the “faith” at a rate of 50%. For the first time I understood emotionally what I had only understood intellectually (and rejected totally) before – that Jews must go all out to assure their children marry in if they are to continue as a people.

Then along comes Albert Memmi who celebrates the fact that his children have married out. “These children of mixed identities,” he says, “are the hope of the future.”

Yes, that’s what he would he say as a Franco-Arab-Jew whose encounter with the ‘universalism’ of the first of these three identities has led him to argue embrace of all three should not allow any of the three to prevent independence of mind?

The words civilization and culture have an interesting history. Today they stand side by side, but they used to represent differing world views. Civilization is associated with the French, the statist folk who believe themselves to have inherited the Roman Empire with its universalizing impulses. Culture was the German Romantic analogue, a notion stemming from Herder and others who argued that each Volk has its own genius, and expressed that genius in its distinctive language. Surrender the language (and the cultural space in which it lives) and you surrender the culture with all its attending virtue and contribution to humankind.

The Germans saw the French as arrogant and decadent and themselves as living treasures. (Herder saw other language groups as parallel living treasures; Hitler took the notion into a hierarchy never intended by Herder.) The French, in contrast, saw the Germans as tribal and primitive people held in thrall to premodern religion, and themselves as the avant-garde of universalist philosophy. The words and the people who engendered them have evolved considerably since those days, but the division between the goals of universalists and particularists has not gone away.

Where does Memmi fit in? Is he just another francophonie advocating Frenchman? An advocate of the notion that civilization should be defined in contrast to barbarism, rather than an advocate of the notion that all cultures have their own justification for being and their own inherent values? Or is he truly one of a small number of thinkers who have moved beyond the no-longer productive dichotomy?

And is he right that mixed race, mixed religion, mixed ethnicity children are the hope of the future? I want to think so. What more exciting solution to the problem of endless prejudice and tribalism can there be but for us all to marry each other, love each other and have each other’s children together?

Should the 50% of Jews who marry out be faulted for their disloyalty to culture or praised for their participation in a universalizing civilization? Can one be a Frenchman and a Jew or is the “universalizing” principle and the “survivalist” principle in complete and perfect opposition?

I suppose anyone who knows Memmi well will find my questions foolish and premature. Read him! Then we’ll talk!

Fair enough. I will be reading Portrait of a Jew with great interest. And his novel, Pillar of Salt, on the dilemma of Tunisian identity. And his work on the colonial experience.

Now where do I find the name of the people who organized the Jewish film festival in Buenos Aires? Must tell them how impressed I am to have seen first Out of Faith and then Albert Memmi only a couple days apart.

That’s what I call a thinking person’s film festival!

ALBERT MEMMI, El Nómada Inmóvil

(Albert Memmi, Le Nomade Inmobile)
Francia, 2005
Dirigida por Soraya Elyes Ferchichi
Duración: 45 min.

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