- The Specter of Ahasver
Georg Simmel's "The Stranger" (1908)1 opens not by formulating the concept of strangeness itself but with the conditional phrase "If wandering"—initially anchoring strangeness in wandering so naturally that an incidental mention suffices. Indeed, in the next sentence, Simmel predicates the definition of the stranger on the poetically expressed dynamic between coming today and leaving tomorrow, on one hand, and on coming today and staying tomorrow, on the other hand. Apropos, he also states that this is not the standard use of the term "stranger."
The opening with a conditional is illuminating. It proposes a mode of experimental thinking rather than systematic argumentation. It leaves the thought open to other "ifs" and "if nots." But true to Simmel's dialectical rhetoric, the conditional sentence is also the very basis of logical reasoning, and it is the basis for universal statements and generalizations. Generalizations are necessary for creating types, such as the stranger, that animate much of Simmel's work, inspired by Weberian sociology, yet with a typically continental flavor of early phenomenology, as in this concrete case: the stranger as experienced by others is set in correlation with the stranger experiencing her- or himself.
Simmel's essay on the stranger perplexes many because of its noticeable lack of philosophical rigor or systematic sociological method. This in itself should not be perplexing. Simmel often reaches the most poignant insights by employing metaphorical and symbolic discourse, such as the excursus "Bridge and Door" attached to his "Sociology of Space" essay.2 It is bridge [End Page 318] and door as "thought images"—Denkbild, to use a term coined by Walter Benjamin—that heightens the intellectual perception promoted by the essay at large to a veritable "aha" effect, a phenomenon that is gaining the attention of some cognitive psychologists today.3 The double face of Janus, lurking behind both bridge and door as objects dividing space and connecting bodies moving in space at the same time, is akin to the enigmatic double face of the stranger in Simmel's essay discussed here. A perspective from poetics will thus not be out of place. I suggest encountering Simmel's stranger as a figure of cultural imagination, woven into the discursive practices and literary memories of early twentieth-century Europeans, allowing him to think about an urgently pressing sociocultural phenomenon, being a stranger, in ways that anticipate later developments in cultural studies, such as symbolic interaction and semiotics.
Simmel curiously introduces the "Jewish question" into this short essay with two anecdotal mentions. First, as he elaborates on the association between traders and strangers, he formulates a bold generalization: "The classic example for this is the history of European Jews." This statement is simple only at first sight, because it tilts toward the question of the exemplarity of Jewish history as well as of Jews in history that other essays in the present forum systematically address. On the one hand, the Jews are the exemplar of the nexus between trade and strangeness; on the other hand, they are the "classic example," thus nowhere the only example. Simmel's wording thus leaves room for historical considerations and even relativity. Other groups may share the status of exemplar and may even historically surpass it.4 It also spells out the contextualization and localization of the particular history of the Jews of Europe.
The particularity is even clearer in the second mention of Jews, toward the end of the essay, when the case of the taxes paid by medieval inhabitants of Frankfurt am Main is brought up to show the singling out of Jews who paid a uniform tax qua Jews, not according to their wealth, as did everyone else. Although Simmel was a Berliner by birth, the Jews of Frankfurt conveniently slip in to his essay, following a passage describing the dialectic between near and strange, so crucial for this text. The intimacy toward those medieval Jews harmonizes with the intimate sense that Simmel projects into strangeness, pre-echoing the ambiguity of the uncanny, which [End Page 319] emerges in Freud's "Unheimliche" (1919) through an unexpected nexus of the familiar and the utterly, yes...