- Assimilation, Hospitality, and the Politics of Identity in Albert Memmi
Et tous ces problèmes d'identité, comme on dit si bêtement aujourd'hui.—Derrida, Le Monolinguisme de l'autre
In essays, novels, and poems Albert Memmi describes a world where boundaries are disappearing, assimilation is an incontrovertible fact, and hospitality is the question of the moment. More ambitiously, his work describes an endgame where the very notion of identity as a central organizing structure must be devalorized to make coexistence possible. Without dismissing the veritable appeal strong centers of consciousness enjoy in our culture, his work destabilizes singularity and demystifies the drama of personal history. Unquestionably, Memmi's work acknowledges that the personal dimension, that identity, that the sense of belonging to families of individuals, count in the lives of communities. However, his work allows us to contemplate what communities gain when they take the spotlight off of identity. Identities are built around perceived opposition and difference. Memmi's work problematizes the notion of a fixed identity and maps out a relational model to dethrone the self, to decenter it and neutralize it, as it were. I will argue here that both his polemic and novelistic works advance the notion that non-oppositional structures constitute the best terrain for promoting coexistence, mutuality, and nonviolent exchange, all of which comprise the principal focus of his work. Admittedly, there is a difference between what Memmi describes as social reality and what he imagines to be the best solutions for societies. His work focuses on both how things are and what is desirable. He acknowledges this in La Libération du Juif:
Ainsi tous mes textes sur les hommes dominés, colonisés, juifs, noirs, sont essentiellement des descriptions, dont le mérite à mes yeux réside surtout dans leur fidélité aux modèles, et dans leur cohérence, qui [End Page 205] révèle les mécanismes de l'oppression. Les solutions à ces différents malheurs, que je finis certes par suggérer, viennent toujours en plus; comme des chapitres supplémentaires, nécessaires pour moi il est vrai, mais que l'on peut refuser, me semble-t-il, sans que cela contredise à l'inventaire lui-même.1
Memmi's novelistic and autobiographical works push further and more productively than his essays in exposing the problems and unfortunate consequences of hardened identity. He writes tellingly in Ce que je crois:
Je sais depuis longtemps que l'identité n'est jamais identique, ni dans le temps ni dans l'espace, ni chez un individu ni dans un groupe, que toute cette affaire est largement imaginaire . . . . Allons, personne n'est jamais sûr de ses racines, personne ni moi.2
Roots are tangled and there is nothing we can do about it. We have no choice but to invent ways to deal with the fact of our multiple attachments. Assimilation and the notion of hospitality run through Memmi's work and challenge us to rethink society's fascination with identity. In his work, assimilation is both a plea and a fact. It is a plea to communities and individuals to recognize that assimilation is a fundamental fact of modern societies and that it is desirable. Memmi, like Jacques Derrida and Edmond Jabès, envisages hospitality as the moment when identities are set aside—if not nullified—in the encounter between host and guest.
Memmi's work encourages us to recognize, as Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips advance in Intimacies, that there are other satisfactions than the satisfactions of personal history.3 There are other and more salutary ways to be present to another person than through personal histories. Personal histories, they argue, are histories of difference, opposition, and violence. Memmi's essays and most strikingly his novels dramatize the misery that ensues when personal history overwhelms the fabric of everyday life. Novels like La Statue de sel, Agar, and Le Scorpion, suggest that nothing is more tediously commonplace than the fact of being born a Jew, a Tunisian, or a Frenchman, for example. Significant as these may be from a personal point of view and from a historical perspective, to be happy one needs to...