On paradoxes – Adam Shatz in LRB:
“In 1957, Albert Memmi published a slender but explosive book, Portrait du colonisé précédé de Portrait du colonisateur, later translated as The Coloniser and the Colonised. Memmi was a Jew from Tunisia; he was in his late thirties and firmly on the left. At the time of publication, France had entered the fourth year of an undeclared war against nationalist insurgents in Algeria; it had lost its imperial foothold in Indochina in 1954 and was now determined to hang on to its possessions in Africa. Most French critics of colonial rule focused on land expropriation, the exploitation of indigenous labour and violent repression. To Memmi, however, these were symptoms of a broader, structural malaise. He depicted colonialism in North Africa – and elsewhere – as ‘a pyramid of privilege’ in which European settlers stood at the top, and the Arab Muslim majority at the absolute bottom. Even the poorest of Europeans – the so-called petits blancs or little whites – had an advantage over the wealthiest of Arabs, as members of the colonising population. As for Jews like himself, they too were colonised, yet they were a notch above the Arabs, and looked to France and the French language as potential sources of emancipation.
As a young man, he had defied his own community by allying himself with Arab nationalists fighting against French rule, but once Tunisia was liberated in 1956, he settled in France. While he believed that Tunisian Muslims had every right to expel the French who’d ruled their country as a protectorate since 1881, he had no wish to live under a government that he expected to be strongly influenced by Islam. Memmi, who died in late May, spent the rest of his life in Paris, in an apartment in the Marais, but he remained preoccupied with the question of the ‘lived experience’ of colonial domination, racism and other forms of oppression. He was especially concerned with the disfiguring effects of oppression on the minds of the oppressed: as he wrote in his preface to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, ‘injustice, injury, humiliation and insecurity can be as unbearable as hunger.’ While he insisted on the specificity of each form of oppression – analysis had to begin with ‘le vécu’, the concrete, unique experience of the dominated, rather than abstractions – he captured what they have in common: the humiliating denial of dignity, the compulsion to assimilate the norms of one’s oppressors. Nurtured ‘in institutions and ideologies, in education and in culture’, racism was driven less by hatred than by what he called ‘heterophobia’, the fear of difference. When the dominant society ‘integrated’ members of racially oppressed groups who assimilated, this wasn’t a victory against racism so much as a capitulation to its heterophobic logic. He believed that the victims of racism should proclaim their rights to be accepted as they are, ‘with their differences’, rather than to prove their ability to be honorary whites. Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Négritude poet and independent Senegal’s first president, praised him as ‘the African who most lucidly analysed our situation as colonised, and who has offered the most fruitful solutions’.
In recent years, however, Memmi has become an unfashionable figure. Although he wrote one of the greatest French-language novels about colonisation, La Statue de sel (The Pillar of Salt), a bildungsroman published in 1953, he isn’t read in Tunisian classrooms, or much remembered in Tunisian intellectual circles, except among Tunisian Jews in the diaspora. In a sense, he’s been reduced to his status as a ‘minority’ North African Jewish writer. Memmi’s attachment to Israel is partly to blame: his failure, or refusal, to see the colonial nature of Zionism did little to raise his standing among anti-colonial intellectuals.”
“Writing was Memmi’s way of freeing himself from the long shadow of colonisation. Like Gide, an early model, he was an intensely confessional writer, both in his fiction and his essays. While he considered autobiography ‘a false genre: a life cannot be recounted’, he admitted that he had ‘devoted my entire work to writing my life’. One of 13 children, only eight of whom survived, he grew up on the edges of El Hara, the Jewish ghetto in Tunis. The Jews of Tunisia were comprised of two communities: the ‘Grana’, prosperous Jews of Italian origin, mostly from Livorno; and the ‘Touansa’ (‘Tunisians’ in Judeo-Arabic dialect), poor artisans who had migrated from Palestine in the first and second centuries. Although some of his ancestors may have come from Italy, the Memmis belonged to the latter group. ‘Memmi’ means ‘little man’, and the Memmis were little people who seldom strayed from the ghetto, which both confined them and provided sanctuary.
Albert Memmi, however, showed signs of academic excellence that exposed him to the world outside. Aged seven, he received a scholarship to the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a French-language school for Jews established by European philanthropists. While learning French, his third language after Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew, Memmi began to see what life might be like beyond the ghetto. But this emancipation came with a growing alienation. In The Pillar of Salt, Memmi’s young hero Alexandre Mordechai Benillouche realises he’s ‘trying to pronounce a language that wasn’t mine’ and ‘would perhaps never be completely mine, and that was, at the same time, indispensable to the conquest of all my dimensions’. His struggle to create a coherent identity ‘out of so many disparities’ is symbolised by his name, an unwieldy composite of French, Hebrew and Arabic. Colonialism, Memmi wrote, creates a ‘linguistic drama’ for the colonised – not least for writers for whom the coloniser’s language is a passport to a wider world.
At the prestigious Lycée Carnot, Memmi studied with the poet Jean Amrouche, a Berber Christian from Algeria, and the French philosopher Aimé Patri. In The Pillar of Salt, the teacher Professor Marrou, based on Amrouche, at first strikes Benillouche as ‘an image of salvation’, proof that ‘it was possible to be born poor and African and to transform oneself into a cultivated and well-dressed man’ and that one could ‘master a language that wasn’t one’s mother tongue’. Benillouche admires Marrou’s eloquence, and his long and elegant fingers, yellowed at their tips by the Oriental tobacco he smokes as he lectures on Racine and Pascal. But he fears becoming like Marrou, a man who, for all the praise he’s received in Parisian literary circles, can’t extricate himself from North Africa. Desperate to remake himself as a Westerner, Benillouche embraces another model: Poinsot, the philosophical rationalist inspired by Patri, who represents France and an escape from the ‘Eastern’ world of his father.
That model began to crumble after the fall of France, when Memmi, by then a student in philosophy at the University of Algiers, was expelled from school under Vichy’s antisemitic laws. As his alter ego reflects: ‘I wanted to reject with all my indignation this new image of France, but, after all, the gendarmes were as French as Descartes and Racine.’ Memmi was thrown into a labour camp, along with other poor Jews from the ghetto (the Grana escaped). In The Pillar of Salt, Benillouche tries to ingratiate himself with his fellow inmates, but they refuse to welcome him as one of their own. French is now his language, and his pitiful attempts to address them in Judeo-Arabic only remind him ‘how much more intimate our conversations would have been if I had spoken their language’. (As Jacques Derrida, a Jew from Algeria, put it: ‘I have only one language, and it is not my own.’)”
“In June 1956, a few months after Tunisia won its independence, Memmi and his family moved to Paris. That winter, against the backdrop of the Battle of Algiers, he met with Sartre, and gave him a copy of an essay, ‘Portrait du colonisateur de bonne volonté’, a ‘portrait of the good-willed coloniser’. The essay, a scathing critique of the European liberal who doesn’t see himself as a coloniser yet refuses to embrace the revolt of the colonised, struck a chord with Sartre, who published it in Les Temps Modernes. It’s not hard to see why. Memmi echoed Sartre’s own writings on ‘bad faith’ and vindicated his deepening conviction that the left would have to move beyond protesting against French repression and torture in Algeria, and give its full backing to the rebels of the Front de Libération Nationale, however bloody their tactics. Sartre may also have read it as a swipe against Camus, who – out of loyalty to his mother and the petits blancs of Algeria, and revulsion at the FLN’s killings of civilians – refused to endorse independence, holding out for a ‘federal’ solution that would leave the country attached to France. Camus evidently interpreted it that way, identifying a veiled portrait of himself in the liberal coloniser who ‘participates in and benefits from those privileges which he half-heartedly denounces’. Their relationship never recovered.”
“‘He represents no one,’ Sartre wrote of Memmi in his preface to Portrait du colonisé, ‘but since he is everyone at once, he will prove to be the best of witnesses.’ Anticipating some of the themes of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, published four years later, Memmi described colonialism as a ‘diseased’ situation that ‘manufactures colonialists, just as it manufactures the colonised’, its ‘century hardened face ... nothing more than a mask under which it slowly smothers and dies’. Coloniser and colonised, he argued, were locked in an ‘implacable dependence’ that ‘fashioned their respective traits and dictated their behaviours’. Their conduct was contradictory to the point of being pathological. Drawing on his own ‘lived experience’ in Tunisia, he noted that a coloniser could attend to his workers’ needs while also periodically machine-gunning a crowd of the colonised. And the colonised could ‘at the same time detest the coloniser and admire him passionately (an admiration that I felt, in spite of everything, in myself)’.
At the heart of the colonial relationship was privilege, which he insisted ‘is not solely economic.’ Privilege was a reflection of one’s personhood, not just one’s property or location in the class structure. The essential horror of colonial subjugation was not being deprived of land, but being deprived of humanity, reduced to objecthood (‘a fundamental and complete immobility’), and subjected to a foreign system of values, that of ‘the white man, the non-Jew, the coloniser’. Contrary to Camus, who claimed poor whites like his own family in Algiers were no better off than their Muslim neighbours, Memmi wrote that ‘all Europeans in the colonies are privileged’, and that ‘even the poorest coloniser thought himself to be – and actually was – superior to the colonised’. The pyramid could not be destroyed so long as France remained in North Africa: ‘only the complete liquidation of colonisation permits the colonised to be free.’ In France in 1957, these were fighting words. Morocco and Tunisia had become independent, but Algeria remained part of France and the entire French establishment opposed independence. When Memmi requested French citizenship, he was told he’d never get it because Portrait du colonisé was ‘damaging to France’. (Thanks to interventions by a ‘few well-placed friends in Paris’, he became a citizen in 1973.) He taught in the department of sociology in Nanterre, but remained a loner, and felt little sympathy for the soixante-huitards, whom he dismissed as the coddled children of the liberal bourgeoisie, play-acting at revolution.”
“For Memmi, this vision rested, again, on a denial of the concrete: the ‘self-hatred’ and ‘mutilation’ of the colonised, and their desire to reclaim and assert their identities, religious and national, rather than initiate a socialist revolution. When he revisited Fanon’s work on the tenth anniversary of his death in 1971, Memmi argued that Fanon should have gone back to Martinique, rather than try to reinvent himself as an Algerian. He was a black man, after all, not a white African; he ought to have known his limits and respected them. Instead of making common cause with North African Muslims who would never accept him as one of their own, he could have helped ‘his’ people, as Aimé Césaire had done.
The irony of this indictment was that Memmi himself had chosen to live in France, not in Israel, among ‘his’ people. Still, his critique of Fanon was coloured by his Zionism, which he described as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. The struggle over Palestine, he said, was ‘a minor drama in a small corner of the world.’ Although he supported the creation of a Palestinian state, he didn’t raise his voice against practices of repression that he had condemned in colonial North Africa – or against the exclusionary system of ethnic privilege and domination on both sides of the ‘green line’ between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Memmi might have replied, in his defence, that the face of the oppressed is seldom pretty; he knew that victims could become perpetrators. He was also bitter at the exodus of North Africa’s Jews after independence. Still, a writer so attuned to paradox, ambiguity and historical contingency – and to the bad faith of the left-wing coloniser who refuses to support the liberation struggle – might have made something of the fact that, at the very moment the colonial empires of Europe were falling, the victims of Western antisemitism had driven another semitic people into exile and established a highly militarised colonial settler society permeated by racial discrimination. But he refused to apply his own analysis of colonial privilege and heterophobia to the question of Palestine. In one of his last television appearances he remarked that while the two thousand Palestinian civilians whom Israel had killed during the Second Intifada were ‘two thousand too many’, the number hardly compared to the million killed in Rwanda, a country that had never previously elicited his concern.”
Read the article here.
Who is without blind spots? And loyalty, born out of necessity, out of oppression might weigh heavier than your own moral convictions.
And yes, oppressor and oppressed are often bound together in mutual dependency. Where is Hegel when you need him? But this article underlines, as far as I’m concerned, the overall disappointment in revolutionary and liberation movements.
It’s either “liberal-bourgeoisie” play-acting revolution, well sometimes the play-acting becomes very real, or the revolutionaries turn out to be as bloodthirsty and unforgiving as their former oppressors.
Perhaps understandable, but still disappointing.