Zoë Wicomb at Scottish PEN event, 2014

2014 Naomi Mitchison Lecture: Zoë Wicomb

Zoë Wicomb presents “Writing and the Stranger” Transcript of talk These days the foreigner is much discussed in political discourse, but I am going to say a few words on the foreigner in relation to writing and, in doing so, revisit a lecture I gave at the University of Rome some 10 years ago. At the risk of sounding […]

November 24, 2014

Zoë Wicomb presents “Writing and the Stranger”

Transcript of talk

These days the foreigner is much discussed in political discourse, but I am going to say a few words on the foreigner in relation to writing and, in doing so, revisit a lecture I gave at the University of Rome some 10 years ago. At the risk of sounding pious, I do, however, want to note how fortunate I am to speak of writing, when foreigners at the tip of Africa are subjected to xenophobic violence, and the foreign bodies of desperate migrants wash up daily on the shores of Lampedusa, usually after a gruelling trek across the Sahara desert. Giorgio Agamben refers to ‘bare life’, life that is exposed to death, the kind of life also exemplified in the modern phenomenon of refugee camps. Bare life reminds us that writing itself is a privileged position; it puts into perspective the problems that we might perceive for the foreigner as writer. My topic is not unrelated to Naomi Mitchison whom we are celebrating here tonight. Now, it is the case that the foreigner is not threatening to those with economic, social and cultural capital, but Mitchison could nevertheless be singled out for actively engaging with the Other. Not only in her writing about Africa, but also in her personal engagement with, for instance, a Botswanan student in Edinburgh. When the young man became chief of the Bakgatla people, he regularly sought her advice, and conferred on Mitchison the title of Mmarona (mother of the Bakgatla). Mitchison also fearlessly confronted the ’bare life’ inflicted by apartheid; her works condemning white supremacism were banned in South Africa and Rhodesia, and in the bad old days she was prohibited from travelling to those countries. It is Mitchison’s internationalism, her hands-on engagement with strangers, that brings me to my topic.

Back to Rome ­­– there I addressed the question of why I continue to set my fictions in South Africa rather than in Scotland where I live. I came up with a grandiose theoretical explanation. It goes like this: the narratologist, Mieke Bal, sees setting as crucial to the presentation of story because of its function of turning mere space into the sociality of place. It is, she says, through proprioceptivity that abstract space becomes concrete place into which the subject, delimited by her skin, is keyed. The concept of proprioceptivity is described as follows by the film critic, Kaja Silverman, from whom the concept is borrowed:

the understanding of the subject of her ownness!  best understood as that component to which concepts like “here,” “there,” and “my” ,’your’ are keyed[! ] The sensation includes both physical feeling and the subject’s simultaneous mental registration, on the basis of that feeling, of a “hereness” and “ownness.”

In other words, a sense of self as physically belonging. Proprioceptivity deals with the body’s sensation of occupying space, and subjectness then, is connected to the postural, the way in which the body fits smoothly within an imagined spatial envelope.

What does this mean in terms of narrative fiction? The subjectivity of characters is bound up with how they fit in imagined spatial envelopes, and that in turn is connected to the physical settings they occupy. For the author too: it is from her proprioceptivity that fictional settings are imagined. If the foreigner is marked by her visual salience and by the host culture’s focus on her difference, the imagined envelope of space will not be a comfortable fit; she will necessarily have difficulty in setting her fictions in that space. And pressing her characters into ill-fitting envelopes would render them posturally disfigured. Proprioceptivity, then, prevents the author from presuming to set her fictions in the foreign culture. Thus, I explained, the phenomenon of postcolonial writers continuing to write out of/about places where they no longer live, places that nevertheless are still marked for them by homeliness.

Homeliness is usually what the foreigner lacks. Henry James figures fiction itself in terms of a house, a figure we are reminded of in Toni Morrison’s essay entitled ’Home’ a place described as one where she could

imagine safety without walls, can iterate difference that is prized but unprivileged, and can conceive of a world already made for me, both snug and wide open, with a doorway never needing to be closed. Home.

It is the contradictions and ambiguities in Morrison’s utopian formulation of home that made me rethink my position on the stranger, proprioceptivity, and writing. (I use the words stranger and foreigner interchangeably, not only because it is the strangeness of the foreigner that signifies within a culture, but also in deference to the French thinkers for whom the word ‘étranger’ signifies both stranger and foreigner. As does the word ’fremde’ in German, although ‘auslander’ meaning only foreigner, does exist. And Derrida, writing on the foreigner and hospitality, notes that the Greek ‘xenos’ and the French ‘hôte’ mean both host or guest.)

Foreignness/unhomeliness must, of course, be  conceptualized in terms of its opposite, belonging/homeliness. But how, I wonder, could we continue to valorize belonging and rootedness when the world is all in a spin with migrations? The critic, Aijaz Ahmad, sneers at metropolitan postcolonials, at what he calls ‘the myth of ontological unbelonging that is linked to diasporic cultures’. The idea of belonging, he says, ‘is itself seen now as bad faith, a mere myth of origins, a truth effect produced by the Enlightenment’s “metaphysic of presence”‘. But, as I argue elsewhere, such bad faith may well serve as antidote for the equally mythical excess of belonging, or exorbitance of identity, which we see in nationalisms that thrive on exclusion.

The position of the stranger in literary culture is worth looking at for its multi-valency. For instance, the condition of exile is one of deprivation, yes, but for the writer, also seen as enabling. Dante wrote the entire Divine Comedy in exile; we have the example of Joyce; and the critic Eric Auerbach wrote his path-breaking work on Western literature (from Homer to Woolf) in the East. As a Jew he escaped to Istanbul from Germany, Mimesis being his attempt to save his culture from Nazism. As Edward Said, himself a Palestinian exile, notes, Mimesis is built upon distance and alienation from the West, from the culture it describes with such extraordinary insight and brilliance. Auerbach himself cited Hugo of St. Victor, a monk from Saxony. I quote:

The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.

In other words, belonging, for Auerbach, is not all it is cracked up to be; foreignness itself is a condition to aspire to, for offering distance and escape from stultifying habit, as it allows you to see the world fresh and new. The postcolonial question of racial difference may not accommodate otherness in such an amiable manner, but I nevertheless want to abandon the idea of proprioceptivity, and pursue instead a notion of foreignness that is enabling for the writer.

In the period of Romanticism, which coincides with further colonial expansion, popularisation of travel writing, and unprecedented contact with foreigners, the stranger surfaces as an enigmatic figure. David Simpson in his Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger looks at a range of literary representations of the stranger – from the known unknowns to the unknown unknowns; he points out how the Enlightenment tried to subject our notions of the unknown to some form of knowledge. (And as we postmodernists know, false knowledge that comes to a sorry fall in German national socialism.)

Citing Coleridge’s poem ‘Frost at Midnight’, Simpson draws our attention to the twice italicised word ‘stranger’ whom the poet longingly evokes. The situation is as follows: the speaker in the poem (identified as the poet himself) is looking at the glow of a low-burning fire, at its fluttering flame, and meditates upon his youth, his inchoate dreams, his yearning for what he calls ‘that fluttering stranger’. Now the demonstrative pronoun ‘that’ indicates specificity, a deictic pointing to something, usually in relation to ‘this’, but that stranger in the poem remains unexplained, although we infer his relation to this poet. I’ll read an extract from the poem.

The thin blue flame

Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;

Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,

Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.

Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature

Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,

Making it a companionable form,

Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit

By its own mood interprets, everywhere

Echo or mirror seeking of itself,

And makes a toy of Thought.

But O! how oft,

How oft at school, with most believing mind,

Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,

To watch that fluttering stranger!

That ethereal stranger, then, exists beyond the confinement (‘the bars’) experienced by the quotidian self. We see this poet in relation to that stranger who is never specified; he remains an enigma in the poem, something of a spirit, a function of the imagination which like a mirror produces/reproduces an image -something that is called the creative spirit. Later in the poem the speaker hopes ‘to see the stranger’s face’; it is (like writing) an act of faith (‘with most believing mind’) that will produce him. The contemporary reader is reminded of Levinas identifying the source of the ethical as looking into the face of the Other.

What I think is also significant about Coleridge’s poem is the fact that it celebrates his child who sleeps by the fireside. ‘Frost at Midnight’ is an occasional poem, and the poet goes on to address the infant, expressing the hope that the child will ‘learn far other lore,/And in far other scenes!’ So a connection is forged between the stranger, the creative spirit that yearns for something other, something beyond the known, and –paternity, and here I allude to a longstanding convention of referring to the text itself as being fathered.

If the Stranger is an avatar for the Romantic poets, the modernist equivalent is perhaps Ted Hughes’ self-reflexive poem, ‘The Thought-Fox’, who is imagined limping out of ‘this midnight moment’s forest’ so that at the end ‘it enters the dark hole of the head! The page is printed’. In other words, creativity is assigned to something mysterious, corporeal yes, but something strange and other that enters the writing self. And it is through faith, through opening the self to, and embracing this stranger that a text is produced.

Writing is, of course, reproduction; we represent and reproduce the world. You may remember that early feminist critics, Gilbert and Gubar, lament the fact that women have difficulty writing precisely because of reproduction being seen as fathering a text. I can’t resist quoting them: ‘The text’s author is a father, a progenitor, a procreator, whose pen is an instrument of generative power like his penis’. To write is to reproduce the world in novel ways, and in doing so the writer is rendered stranger to herself. Let’s think of the act of sitting down to write, equipped with only an inchoate idea. How we surprise ourselves with what is produced on our screens. And the act of writing is itself generative – in the process, further fictions are engendered; the strange, unexpected detail that emerged yesterday will the following day produce yet something else, something equally surprising from the pen of that stranger, the writing self. My model then is not that of the writer who plans out in minute detail a plot and then starts filling it in chapter by chapter. No, I refer to writing as discovery, of embracing the foreign self, so that imbued with all the discomfort of the strange and unknown we see the world afresh – a model of producing a story in the painstaking act of writing. In his Preface to Portrait of a Lady , Henry James describes the difficulty of writing, the sense of the unknown on which he waits ­­to infiltrate the mind, the ship that will bring the foreigner:

the ceaseless human chatter of Venice came in at my windows, to which I seem to myself to have been constantly driven, in the fruitless fidget of composition, as if to see whether, out in the blue channel, the ship of some right suggestion, of some better phrase, of the next happy twist of my subject, the next true touch for my canvas, mightn’t come into sight.

Or as J.M.Coetzee puts it :

It is naive to think that writing is a simple two-stage process: first you decide what you want to say, then you say it. On the contrary, as all of us know, you write because you do not know what you want to say. Writing reveals to you what you wanted to say in the first place.

Proprioceptivity, then, has no place in this scheme where writing is an encounter with the foreign self you don’t know. Like the foreigner you step gingerly, reticently, since you in any case do not belong, cautiously, in order to establish a foothold, holding on for dear life to the few words that arrive, slowly gaining purchase in the unhomely house of fiction with its million windows, as Henry James has it, through which who knows what will be seen.

The critic Julia Kristeva, herself a foreigner in Paris, discusses strangers in literary texts in a book entitled Strangers to Ourselves. She starts with brief observations about real live foreigners and their relationship to the host culture. I’ve always found comforting her comment on the language of the foreigner. ‘Your speech,’ she says, ‘will be of no consequence! if it does not founder into silence, it becomes absolute in its formalism, excessive in its sophistication –rhetoric is dominant, the foreigner is a baroque person.’ Kristeva goes on to discuss the psychoanalytic stranger within the self. Her plea, in the absence of a utopian society without nations, is for ‘human rights!  an ethics ! that espouses a concept of human dignity which includes strangeness’. Kristeva appeals to the Freudian unconscious which locates the uncanny, a necessary foreignness, within the self. Freud’s concept of heimlich/ unheimlich starts with the semantic study of the word ‘heimlich’ that translates as ‘friendly/comfortable’ yes, but at the time means ‘concealed/ kept from sight’. In other words, its opposite meaning of unheimlich (uncanny/strange) is already present within the heimlich. Interestingly, Freud resorts to aesthetic works in order to explain the notion of uncanny strangeness. The foreigner then is within the self, and in aesthetic reproduction the self embraces the foreigner within; the stranger as we have seen in Coleridge’s poem becomes a vehicle for the uncanny, which is to say for the ‘creative spirit’ as some call it. It is often the postcolonial writer who self-reflexively dramatises the act of writing, who trades in its very foreignness. I want to look briefly at J.M.Coetzee’s Foe, a strange response to the founding text of western imperialism, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Coetzee’s novel is about writing itself; it addresses the absences of woman and native other within Robinson Crusoe. In Coetzee’s narrative, Crusoe the slaver is dead, but another castaway, Susan, who shared the island with Crusoe is rescued and comes to London bringing along with her Man Friday, Crusoe’s slave. She pursues the fictional author Daniel Defoe or Foe, urging him to write her story of being on the island. We already have a fragment of her narrative, the story she tells Foe, but Susan Barton cannot presume to write her own story, ‘The Female Castaway’; she relies on the celebrated author Foe to write her experience and so to ‘give her substance’. As readers who know the Robinson Crusoe novel, we infer that the woman as well as the slave have been excluded from that founding text of English narrative fiction. Whilst waiting in London for the elusive Foe to write her story, Susan tries to teach the foreign slave Friday to write. Friday dresses up in Foe’s robes and wig, sits at the writer’s desk with pen and ink – but produces only rows and rows of the letter O. We hear retrospectively that Friday had on a previous occasion donned the writer’s clothes and had set to dancing, spinning wildly so that his nakedness under the robe was displayed. Susan explains that Friday is mute; Crusoe had told her of slaves’ tongues being cut out, and she says: ‘I wondered whether ! for the sake of delicacy the lost tongue might stand not only for itself but for a more atrocious mutilation; whether by a dumb slave I was to understand a slave unmanned’. When she sees Friday spinning in the writer’s cloak, she says: ‘What had been hidden from me was revealed ! I saw and believed what I had seen’. Susan is unable to spell it out; it remains indeterminate, but castration, the inability to reproduce, is linked with the inability to write. Friday the foreign slave cannot father a text; Friday’s story cannot be told. But what Friday signifies is the necessary link between writing and impersonation. Impersonating Foe, literally donning a mantle that transforms him into yet an other, Friday must become foreign to himself before he attempts to write.

’When we flee from or struggle against the foreigner, we are fighting our unconscious’, says Kristeva. I do not want to underplay the material conditions necessary for writing, but linguistic and cultural capital, as well as a room of one’s own and so many guineas per year, cannot do the trick. What matter your comfortable spatial envelope, when you have to don robes, the foreign mantle of the writer, and succumb to the stranger within? That seems reason enough to deconstruct the oppositions of native and stranger, indigene & foreigner, and embrace instead cosmopolitanism. Postcolonials and feminists alike have valorised writing and the claiming of subjectivity, but to be a subject is after all without value unless you are able to interact with other subjects. And crucially, with strangers. We need not abandon the notions of identity, subjectivity and belonging, even nationalism and internationalism; rather, following contemporary cosmopolitan theory, all these have to be subjected to critical and ethical scrutiny.

The postcolonial theorist, Kwame Appiah, insists that identity should be related to the ethical. Cultural membership according to Appiah, need not be fetishised. It is a primary good, he says ‘only in the same uninteresting sense as say, oxygen!  It’s like form: you can’t not have it’. Instead, he argues for a cosmopolitanism based on conversation with others, one that values human variety ‘for what it makes possible for human agency and for human dignity’. It is not only the writer who embraces the stranger; it is, according to Appiah, the reader/viewer too who has to engage with strangeness: ‘Conversations across boundaries of identity – whether national, religious, or something else – begin with the sort of imaginative engagement you get when you read a novel or watch a movie or attend to a work of art that speaks from some place other than your own’.

The short reading with which I’ll wind up this talk does not ‘illustrate’ in any obvious sense my scattering of observations on the foreigner. It is from my novel, October, published this year. The novel is set in Cape Town and Glasgow, and had the original title of Home, referring to both Marilyn Robinson’s and Toni Morrison’s novels of that title. But my publisher would not have it, hence October. One of the epigraphs for October is from Toni Morrison’s poem that prefaces her novel Home, one marked by a series of questions.


TAGS: exile Naomi Mitchison Naomi Mitchison Lecture stranger Writing Zoë Wicomb