At the risk of falling into review-speak, James Heffernan’s
Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature is an “ambitious” work—with all the mixed connotations such a word carries with it. This study manages to break new ground even while digging away at the oldest of texts and issues, but it also struggles to make the best use of its own insights, weighed down by the sheer (con)textual range it attempts to cover. Beginning with Homer and ending with Omnium Gatherum (a play first performed in 1996), the temporal scope of this work is not far short of three thousand years. Moreover, this study of thirty or so texts and authors—separated into nine chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue—sensibly does not claim to be an exhaustive account of a phenomenon that Heffernan rightly singles out [End Page 1044] for its “ubiquity and pervasiveness . . . in literature” (2). It is scarcely possible to disagree with this point, since a quick survey of literature (whether defined, problematically, as “Western,” Eastern, or otherwise) shows that hospitality is everywhere in one form or another. It is perhaps more difficult to accept Heffernan’s slightly exaggerated lament that “hospitality has long been slighted by literary theorists and critics” (2). The author is clearly aware that other scholars have very directly addressed the issues of hospitality, party-giving, and the treachery of hosts and in relation to many of the works he cites. Indeed, at crucial points in his own readings and sometimes at length, he references excellent examples of such criticism. Notable examples include the work of Paul Kottman (136–37),1 Julia Lupton (142),2 Paul K. Saint-Amour (287),3 and Morris Philipson (317–18),4 who provide some of the critical (read: theoretical) focus this study occasionally lacks. Furthermore, as Heffernan begrudgingly accepts, “in his final years Jacques Derrida began to write and talk about” hospitality (2). Derrida proves to be an important, albeit ambivalent, voice in this book, as Heffernan both relies on and complicates the former’s grand, theoretical conception of hospitality, while constantly restoring Derrida’s utopic vision to a literature tied to moments of dystopic, taboo-breaking, and restorative justice.
Heffernan’s complaint is that no critic has as yet provided a synthetic account of the workings of hospitality across the Western canon. Here, Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature finds its great purpose. The absence of such a study until now might be like a hole that only becomes obvious once it has been filled (or, perhaps, once one has fallen through it). At any rate, it certainly seems strange that, until Heffernan bravely took up his pen, there had been no Anglophone critic perceptive and/or daring enough to take on this daunting challenge.
In an attempt to fill this particular hole, Heffernan constructs Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature chronologically. The book is built on a series of directed readings of hospitality as it operates in a range of texts from The Iliad and The Odyssey through to, for example, the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—Beowulf and Gawain; Shakespeare; the English Romantic poets; Rousseau and Stendhal; the Henrys Fielding and James; Proust, Joyce, Woolf; and Albert Camus. As is so often the case, the “classics” are particularly important in Heffernan’s account as it is with the help of these texts that he develops the key terminological and structural distinctions on which his conception of hospitality in literature relies. So, we are introduced to the “three kinds of peril” in “classical hospitality”: the conversion of “benign reciprocity” into “its dark double, retaliation”; the “seductive hospitality” of a Circe or Dido; and, less convincingly as a term, the potential for the act of eating together to be “riven by violence, debased by cannibalism, or . . . haunted by the specter of mortality” (14). It is through these basic ideas, along with the problems and possibilities of conditional and unconditional (or absolute) hospitality (distinctions sourced primarily from Derrida), that hospitality is discussed throughout the book. This framework, rather...