- Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees by Lyndsey Stonebridge
In her stateless exile, Hannah Arendt read Franz Kafka. He was “rather uncannily adequate to the reality” of statelessness, she wrote (quoted in Stonebridge, 29). In 1933 Arendt had fled Germany through a house that sat on the border with Czechoslovakia (24). She ate dinner and left by the back door, into a legal void that exists on the fringes of the accepted world order of sovereign states and citizenship (24). Reading Kafka helped Arendt, Lyndsey Stonebridge argues, turn her own experience into a “thought experiment” about rights and the modern state (30). She would publish Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, the same year she finally became a naturalized citizen in the United States (30).
Arendt is one of seven authors who are each the subject of a chapter in Stonebridge’s Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees. “Arendt was one of the first,” Stonebridge writes, “to understand that what looked like a refugee crisis in reality was a crisis for the political and moral authority of the European nation state” (4). Through Stonebridge’s elegant and compelling literary and historical analysis, the writers whom she brings together diagnose the failures of the modern world from the symptom of mass displacement. Arendt, George Orwell, Simone Weil, Samuel Beckett, Dorothy Thompson, and W. H. Auden each reflected on the mid-twentieth century refugee crisis as it occurred. Each struggled to avoid historical inevitability by imagining “how it could be”—a skill that Stonebridge finds Arendt learned in part through Kafka’s literary style (42). Literature, Stonebridge argues, offers escape routes from deterministic descriptions of the modern political community. “Kafka,” she explains, “offers Arendt a means of thinking about freedom at a moment when it seemed almost impossible to think outside of nation-state politics” (44). In her conclusion, Stonebridge introduces a contemporary Palestinian poet, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, establishing a continuity of thought from past to present displacement.
Placeless People gives hope for a response to the refugee crises of our own world both with lessons from earlier writers and with the possibility that literature itself contains political redemption—for those of us reading today as much as for the subjects of Stonebridge’s book.
For Arendt, from her stateless condition, language and literature offered images from which to construct the world anew, for reimaging a political community from a literary community (21). Theodor Adorno wrote that poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric.1 The response that Stonebridge finds in these authors is that there must be poetry after Auschwitz or there will be no future, no possibility to break the cycle that made Auschwitz possible.
Crucially, she argues we will find the images of literature and language to address the political failures that produce displacement specifically among the displaced (19). We look to refugees for pathos, Stonebridge argues, and fail to recognize the abundant and ever-expanding archive of displacement as a space for creative thought (25). Refugees—and placelessness more generally—open an opportunity for thinking about rights beyond the state, beyond sovereignty and citizenship.
The Jewish and Palestinian refugee crises of the mid-twentieth century are together the archive of displacement from which Stonebridge and the writers in Placeless People draw their sources. As they grapple with the consequences both of Jewish statelessness and of Zionism, Israel/Palestine emerges as the quintessential failure of nation-based sovereignty. At the same time, unexpectedly, Stonebridge raises the Palestine/Israel of 1948 as a brief moment of hope for a different future, suggesting that it presented the opportunity of “a rights-based citizenship without nationalism” (24). She finds this construction in Arendt, who advocated a Jewish home-land rather than a Jewish nation-state, believing it might become an extension of a European [End Page 856] federalism that represented “sovereignty without nationalism” (43). Starkly, Weil’s alternative to nationalism posited a common pain, rather than common values or common identity, as the foundation for community (100–101).
Stonebridge suggests the mid-century failure to resolve Israeli/Palestinian sovereignty and citizenship has...