Refugees, writing and rights

Lyndsey Stonebridge, Placeless People: writings, rights, and refugees, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2018, pp. xiv and 244.

Lyndsey Stonebridge’s sensitive and assertive book succeeds on a range of levels. Placeless People combines careful thinking on the situation of refugees, engaged moral philosophy, and purposeful literary criticism.

Her focus is on today’s victims of forced displacement, reframing ‘the refugee crisis’ as amounting to ‘a crisis of moral and political authority’ [p4], a symptom of our collective failures. Her optics draw from careful engagement with the work of a range of twentieth-century writers: novelists, poets and theorists.

The recurrent problems highlighted by masses of people becoming refugees are shallowed and reduced by continually being talked of as if their urgency makes them ‘new’, and ‘sudden’. Stonebridge illustrates that established social structures, systemic tendencies to conflict and war, and modern legal frameworks which regularly and continually generate ‘placeless people’ – and also that the intellectual concepts and questions we deploy around these issues have a history stretching back decades.

An introductory chapter sets out key themes, focussing on Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the plight of ‘stateless people’ at the time of the Second World War: Arendt was one such person herself, but her considerations went far beyond her personal plight, and helped set the agenda for discussion of major issues to do with modern governance, and in particular ‘the impossibility of legislating for human rights in a world of sovereign nations’ [p4].

Stonebridge highlights philosophical choices in thinking about the very nature of ‘human rights’, which occupy ‘a position between moral indignation and politics, and between ethics and history’ [p14]. Her deft account of key decisions made during the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights shows how this did not make us all ‘subject to international law’: at best, those fleeing danger can at best hope to become ‘objects of international compassion’ [p18].

‘You’re not from the village’

She notes shifts in the way that language and attitudes towards people who had left their homes changed during the mid-twentieth century, and links these to a discussion of outlooks formed and promoted through modernist literature. There was, of course, a total contrast between the wretched experience of being displaced against your will from a place to which you had belonged, and the ‘placeless’, ‘estranged’, ‘melancholy’ voice achieved in much avant-garde writing. The hero of James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical fiction could describe ‘silence, exile and cunning’ as creating a kind of ‘giddy freedom’ [p31]. But those forced from their homes in the mid-twentieth century, and since, have experienced ‘silence, exile and cunning’ as burdensome necessities.

Refugees could not expect to be held in awe as cultured individuals whose experience was mysterious, romantic and shaped by and shaping the most dynamic problems of the day. They were, rather, ‘suspicious’, ‘unfortunate’ victims, and somehow ‘disgraceful’. When Jewish writers and thinkers from central Europe, like Arendt, Arthur Koestler, and others, suddenly found themselves in the situation of having to move long distances to seek refuge and safety, they soon discovered that they were not often treated as cultured cosmopolitans but simply, in Koestler’s phrase, as ‘the scum of the earth’.

The bulk of Placeless People considers the work of writers who were not prepared to ‘concede the political experience of mass displacement to literary humanism’ [p12]. Some of these experienced exile themselves; others worked directly with refugees; all were ‘pressed up tight against the mass upheavals of Europe in the 1940s’ [p12].

There are two full chapters on Arendt, a most important writer on these themes. The first focusses on her reading of Franz Kafka: Stonebridge demonstrates that Arendt’s ‘[authoritative] critique of rights, [refuges and statelessness] was forged, at least in part, from her reading of fiction’ [p29]. In Arendt’s eyes, ‘Kafka’s genius was to have forged a fictional form that corresponded perfectly to the “end of the rights of man” in an age of nationalism’ [p34].

Arendt sees Josef K, the hero of Kafka’s The Trial, as a character who has to be ‘educated and transformed until he is fit to assume the role forced upon him, which is to play along as best he can in a world of necessity, injustice and lies’ [p36]. In another of Kafka’s great unfinished novels, when he is called to the castle for what he mistakenly believes is a job offer, K. is berated by his landlady in terms which have all too often been directed at ‘placeless people’: ‘You’re not from the Castle, you’re not from the village, you are nothing, you are one thing though, a stranger, one who is superfluous and gets in the way everywhere, one who is a constant source of trouble’.

‘Proles’ watch a film

An important part of the second chapter on Arendt touches on her discussion of the experience of Jews in the Second World War, and in the years around the establishment of the state of Israel. Arendt’s writings on Anti-Semitism are rich, complex, historically informed and multi-layered. They are never the simple assertion of a simple identity, or the promotion of a single narrative. Stonebridge draws out how Arendt’s saw the particular experiences of Jewish refugees as being at the same time specific and targeted, and also as anticipating the plight of others who would face forced exile in subsequent years.

The chapter on George Orwell also focusses on his portrayal of Jews. Stonebridge discusses the significance of an episode in 1984 which is usually passed over in the voluminous critical discussion of that novel, in which ‘proles’ watch a film portraying the bombing of a boat carrying Jewish refugees.

Stonebridge directly tackles Orwell’s Anti-Semitism, avoiding simplistic positions which are sometimes taken in current debates about writers, either seeing their work as discredited and useless as a result of their having held some obnoxious views, or insisting that such ‘problems’ ‘do not matter’ so long as the work is ‘good’. Instead, Stonebridge is interested in the psychological, political and contextual reasons for the attitudes embedded in Orwell’s writing, which ranged from ‘casual’, offensive racism about ‘the Jew’ to highly sensitive discussion of issues which other people either failed to see or chose to ignore. On this reading, Orwell is interesting and useful partly because of uncomfortable elements in his work, and in particular because of the quality which so many readers value in him: his honesty. ‘Put bluntly, Orwell had a problem with Jewish people, as he did with women, but – unlike some of the British left today – he knew he did’ [p84].

Simone Weil’s work is currently enjoying something of a revival of interest, and Stonebridge’s chapter on this distinctive and innovative thinker should further this. Weil ‘understood deracination as a historical and political process’ and on this basis was ‘critical of the new discourse of rights, particularly the doctrine of personalism which had steadily gained traction among intellectuals, legal scholars and legislators since the end of the 1930s’ [p106].

‘Anodyne’ humanism shaped by particular conceptions of the individual and respect for the power of sovereign states might be a ‘presentable’ and ‘acceptable’ ideological outlook to promote in the late 1940s in order to embed a conception of rights into post-war political settlements – but it was unlikely to actually ‘bring justice’ to those who found themselves dwelling in the ‘places on earth that [had become] off-limits to the juridical and political categories of personhood’ [p110].

The need for a landing point

Placeless People sets out a brilliant reading of Samuel Beckett. Often seen as part of the ‘theatre of the absurd’, Stonebridge demonstrates how his darkly comic plays, novels and short pieces were in fact entirely engaged with and descriptive of real life: what does that tell us about the nature of this world?

Stonebridge discusses Beckett’s humanitarian work with the Irish Red Cross in France in 1945, and the way that his critical, sceptical reactions to what he saw and heard in the organisation fed through into his work. She points out that the accounts of many of Beckett’s characters are a way of hearing ‘the testimony of any number of contemporary journeys through bureaucracies of care at mid-century’: they ‘tell us what it is like to live in a world with few rights and limited compassion’ [p122].

The book further includes a chapter on the American journalist Dorothy Thompson, focussing on the first-ever international documentary film on Palestinian refugee camps, made in 1950; pages on some of W H Auden’s poetry, written when he lived in New York and had become friends with Arendt; and notes on the contemporary Palestinian poet Yousif M Qasmiyeh, who was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon, and whose work explores and recasts the familiar ‘technical’ terms we use to describe the experiences of refugees in emotional, individual language.

Full of fascinating information, fresh perspectives, and important episodes recovered from history, Placeless People is a valuable read for those working on the injustices of forced displacement and statelessness today. If finishing the book leaves this reviewer still uncertain and daunted about responding to these challenges, that problem is not Stonebridge’s fault. There is much to do in order to connect and apply the kinds of sensitivity, depth and moral imagination held by the writers Stonebridge considers to a recasting of current policies and procedures. If Stonebridge has provided us with resources which amount to a call for a new ethics to resolve the issues raised by the victims of modern politics, the key question remains the one that she asks, suggested by her reading of Derek Attridge: ‘in a world of defensive nation states, uncontrolled ethno-nationalism, and barbaric bureaucracy – where can that ethics possibly land?’ [p14]


Review published December 2018