November 27, 2006

Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner

Writing about web page http://www.cddc.vt.edu/feminism/Kristeva.html

Kristeva begins by offering some different definitions of the foreigner:
• ‘a choked up rage down in my throat’;
• ‘a black angel clouding transparency’;
• ‘opaque, unfathomable spur’ (1).

Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself. (1)

Kristeva concludes: ‘The foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unamenable to binds and communities’ (1). Kristeva wonders whether the foreigner figured as an enemy in ‘primitive societies’ can ever disappear from modern life. She decides to ‘recall a few moments in Western history when foreigners were conceived, welcomed, or rejected, but when the possibility of a society without foreigners could have been imagined on the horizon of a religion or an ethics’ (1). Kristeva ponders whether one can live with the other on a global scale ‘without leveling’ (2). In terms of religion and ethics, the foreigner has become a figure to be assimilated and this was one ‘rampart against xenophobia’ (2). After the crises in ‘religious and ethical constructs’, Kristeva sees the rise of nationalism as emerging from ‘the bourgeois revolution’ (2).

But it is on the basis of that contemporary individualism’s subversion, beginning with the moment when the citizen-individual ceases to consider himself as unitary and glorious but discovers his incoherences and abysses, in short his “strangenesses”—that the question arises again: no longer that of welcoming the foreigner within a system that obliterates him but of promoting the togetherness of those foreigners that we all recognize ourselves to be. (2-3)

Kristeva suggests that one must not ‘solidify’ the otherness of the foreigner, but ‘merely touch it, brush by it, without giving it a permanent structure’ (3).

Let us escape its hatred, its burden, fleeing them not through levelling and forgetting, but through the harmonious repetition of the differences it implies and spreads. Toccatas and Fugues: Bach’s compositions evoke to my ears the meaning of an acknowledged and harrowing otherness that I should like to be contemporary, because it has been brought up, relieved, disseminated, inscribed in an original play being developed, without goal, without boundary, without end. An otherness barely touched upon and that already moves away. (3)

Scorched Happiness

In this section, Kristeva explores the way in which the other is viewed. Kristeva notes that the foreigner has a certain perceived ‘peculiarity’ about him or her and that the features are ‘unlike all others’(3). One’s relation to the face is both one of fascination and rejection. Kristeva believes that the face represents ‘a crossed threshold that irremediably imprints itself as peacefulness or anxiety’ (4). The foreigner is a ‘border’ and ‘a standing invitation to some accessible, irritating journey, whose code the foreigner does not have but whose mute, physical, viable memory he keeps’ (4). The observer sees a ‘special, somewhat insolent happiness’ in the foreigner, a happiness of ‘tearing away, of racing, the space of a promised infinite’ (4).

The foreigner calls forth a new idea of happiness. Between the fugue and the origin: a fragile limit, a temporary homeostasis [the maintenance of a stable equilibrium]. Posited, present, sometimes certain, that happiness knows nevertheless that it is passing by, like fire that shines only because it consumes. The strange happiness of the foreigner consists in maintaining that fleeting eternity or that perpetual transience. (4)

The Loss and the Challenge

Kristeva now considers what drives the foreigner to leave his or her homeland, describing it as a ‘secret wound’ (5). Kristeva now descends into some whimsical suppositions such as the assertion that the foreigner has been damaged by ‘a loved and yet absent-minded, discreet, or worried mother’ (5). The foreigner’s father is supposedly inaccessible and it is interesting to note that here and in the rest of the book Kristeva thinks of the foreigner as a man, never a woman. This is a limitation of the book I think. It seems that Kristeva has based her suppositions on Camus’ The Outsider which she now mentions.

Suffering, Ebullience and a Mask

Kristeva turns to the difficulties faced by the foreigner who is impeded by ‘one mouth too many [Does this refer to languages!?], incomprehensible speech, inappropriate behaviour’ (6). Kristeva sees the prospect of wandering as a painful but productive process gesturing towards the ‘out of reach’ (6). Kristeva adds: ‘The pleasure of suffering is a necessary lot in such a demented whirl’ (6). It is supposedly part masochism that reconciles foreigners such as immigrant workers to their lot, a comment lacking in insight or perception. However, Kristeva does suggest that ill-treatment of foreigners strengthens the masking of a ‘a second, impassive personality, an anaesthetized skin he wraps himself in, providing a hiding place where he enjoys scorning his tyrant’s hysterical weakness’ (6). Kristeva writes: ‘The foreigner feels strengthened by the distance that detached him from the others as it does from himself and gives him the lofty sense not so much of holding the truth but of making it and himself relative while others fall victim to the ruts of monovalency [having a valency of one (atoms)].

Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans Leon S. Roudiez. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1998.


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