Saturday, December 3, 2011

Georg Simmel's "The Stranger"

Hilary Philips has pointed out to me the similarities between my last post and some ideas in Georg Simmel's 1908 essay "The Stranger," which I had not read before. Simmel writes of a stranger who does not come and leave, but rather one who comes and stays. He continues:

"He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it,which do not and cannot stem from the group itself..."
Further, "The stranger, like the poor and like sundry "inner enemies," is an element of the group itself. His position as a full-fledged member involves both being outside it and confronting it". 

Speaking of  the nature of trade, which involves contact with the outside from a fixed point inside a society, Simmel notes that, "the classical example is the history of European Jews. The stranger is by nature no 'owner of soil'--soil not only in the physical, but also in the figurative sense of a life-substance which is fixed, if not in a point in space, at least in an ideal point of the social environment. Although in more intimate relations, he may develop all kinds ofcharm and significance, as long as he is considered a stranger in the eyes of the other, he is not an owner of soil."

But, it is just this strangeness which determines his power in the society, the stranger's "objectivity" and freedom:  “Another expression of this constellation lies in the objectivity of the stranger. He is not radically committed to the unique ingredients and peculiar tendencies of the group, and therefore approaches them with the specific attitude of "objectivity." But objectivity does not simply involve passivity and detachment; it is a particular structure composed of distance and nearness, indifference and involvement...Objectivity may also be defined as freedom: the objective individual is bound by no commitments which could prejudice his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given. The freedom, however, which allows the stranger to experience and treat even his close relationships as though from a bird's-eye view, contains many dangerous possibilities. In uprisings of all sorts, the party attacked has claimed, from the beginning of things, that provocation has come from the outside, through emissaries and instigators. Insofar as this is true, it is an exaggeration of the specific roleof the stranger: he is freer practically and theoretically; he surveys conditions with less prejudice; his criteria for them are more general and more objective ideals; he is not tied down in his action by habit, piety, and precedent.”

From Kurt Wolff (Trans.) The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press, 1950, pp. 402 - 408.


  1. Complicating the discussion, or--in fact--making the discussion that much more unresolvable is, of course, Luke 9:58:

    And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.

    When Jesus, the Jew, becomes the Christ of the New Testament, to what degree do Christians carry the burden--or freedom--of being "the stranger"? Entangled, too, with the emphasis on Christian community, it seems a schizophrenic pickle.

  2. Or: Christianity has come to stay.

  3. And I was just thinking the other day that the Jew, ironically, is banished from the community of Heaven announced by Jesus himself. Although they may have been citizens of Jerusalem, they become outcast from the home on high; unless of course they join into the community of true believers. But Jesus himself (like Dostoevsky's Idiot) is an outsider, a stranger, on earth at least. Being a stranger on earth, a fool in the eyes of the world, means not ascribing to the worldly values, seeing everything topsy turvy, and bringing a message (the good news!) to the people suffering in "this vale of tears". What, you know how to be happy?

  4. Perhaps, but only happy in another world (imaginary, transcendental, after-life, utopian)? Happy elsewhere..."anywhere, anywhere out of this world" Baudelaire put it. Anywhere out of THIS world, in other words..bound always for another, better, different, impossible possible...Yet, in the moment when Myshkin is happy with a species of worldly happiness (romantic love), the dying Ippolit asks him how he might die nobly, to gain his respect..and Myshkin replies, "Pass by us, and forgive us our happiness" as if to say, you are excluded, you may not share in this meal of life and love and hope. We may see that you are suffering outside, but we cannot help but eat with some pleasure just the same. And yet, is romantic love really worldly? Elsewhere when Aglaia asks him how he will make her happy, it turns out she means how will he support her...He says something like...What do you as if it were the farthest thing from a source of happiness possible. And then, further, Myshkin, although he is able to implore Ippolit to pass by, he cannot enjoy his feast under the gaze of Nastasya Fillipovna, he cannot bear that she is in hell while they are in heaven, so sacrifices both his and Aglaia's happiness for her suffering. What it all means I don't know. But somehow happiness has crept into the question...a surprising development amid all the darkness and piety...a sun-dappled dream.

  5. From Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents:

    "The commandment, 'Love thy neighbour as thyself', is the strongest defence against human aggressiveness and an excellent example of the unpsychological [expectations] of the cultural super-ego. The commandment is impossible to fulfil; such an enormous inflation of love can only lower its value, not get rid of the difficulty. Civilization pays no attention to all this; it merely admonishes us that the harder it is to obey the precept the more meritorious it is to do so. But anyone who follows such a precept in present-day civilization only puts himself at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the person who disregards it. What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defence against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself! 'Natural' ethics, as it is called, has nothing to offer here except the narcissistic satisfaction of being able to think oneself better than others. At this point the ethics based on religion introduces its promises of a better after-life. But so long as virtue is not rewarded here on earth, ethics will, I fancy, preach in vain. I too think it quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions would be of more help in this direction than any ethical commands; but the recognition of this fact among socialists has been obscured and made useless for practical purposes by a fresh idealistic misconception of human nature."

  6. I'd hoped to have something of value to add by bringing Freud's discussion of the golden rule into this discussion, and it may be true that Myshkin feels a certain guilt when his happiness excludes others, thereby bringing, eventually, unhappiness because of his happiness. Dostoevsky's answer may lie in the character Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov; that is, in simplistic terms, to continue to (Christian) soldier on, but it seems an unsatisfactory answer albeit, for Dostoevsky, perhaps the only viable one.

    How does the Christian (or, indeed, the stranger) bear to live in a world of so much suffering? It could be the promise of that other world, anywhere but here, that keeps the Christian going--but for the atheist stranger? Even the stranger appears subject to the dominant super-ego civilization presses upon him, but he is more alive in the temporal, transitory nature of existence. This brings me to Nietzsche, that existence is only justified as an "aesthetic phenomenon" (Freud says this, too--art as sublimation).

    It could be, too, that Myshkin makes unhappiness to be a virtue, much more virtuous than happiness could ever be.

  7. Indeed, I believe that Musil's answer is Nietzsche's answer of justification through aesthetic experience. In Steiner's Grammars of Creation he notes a cryptic comment of Nietzsche's in his posthumous notes: "Art affirms. Job affirms"....and suggests that even the voice of God can only justify his actions to Job as aesthetic wonders...look at what I made, look at what I can do, what strange monsters I have imagined and created...

    But, for Musil (and for Nietzsche I believe) aesthetics and ethics are one. Thus, the experience of wonder at being alive, at time and timelessness, at the opportunity to be able to participate in creating the world, moment to moment, is the "answer" answer that is always asking more questions...
    Musil would agree, I think, that aesthetic experience, not morality, is the true ethical activity, because to be aware of our agency in perceiving, seeing, and creating reality is to be aware of our responsibility too. So art is not sublimation, necessarily, but actually a heightened call to life! Is not escapism but ethical engagement.
    You are right that Myshkin chooses suffering like a good Christian; he even chooses forgiveness over accountability, as if cruelty, chaos, and tragic choices were inevitable. As if the world of sunlight and beauty were somehow less real than the dark hell of Rogozhin's den of murder. Why should the dark be more real than the light,afterall, Just because we all die? We also all are born.

  8. I would agree, too, with Musil and Nietzsche that aesthetics and ethics are one and, going back to the Socratic imperative, "the unexamined life is not worth living." However, because I am an artist, it is in my interest to believe so. Where does that leave the non-artist? Is the "Art" answer, to quote Freud "nothing to offer...except the narcissistic satisfaction of being able to think oneself better than others"? Humans seem to have an infinite capacity to rationalize--to even unconsciously rationalize--their choices, just as much as as humans can wallow in self-lacerating guilt.

    It could be, though, that I'm fighting here against the golden rule (impossible to fulfill?), and also that my thought is tethered to modern industrial society; that is, the technological miracle of endless distraction seems designed to keep the majority of us away from questioning. To some degree, happiness is only attainable when we are out of our heads, when we are otherwise engaged away from questioning, from the ego, when time is suspended--art fulfills this function, as does love, but so does prime time television. (But I'm thinking aloud, so forgive me.)

  9. But for Proust happiness was most often found when finding two things that were similar, making metaphors! I am happy when I get an idea, when I express something well. When I escape, yes, from the demands and measurements of normal everyday reality (listening to music, for example, or, making love). But is it escape from or escape to? This is the transcendental 6 million dollar questions, right? When we experience ecstasy in art, in the face of life's beauty of horror or even wild reality (paradoxically)we experience a relief from other measurements of success. It no longer matters how much money we have or whether we are admired by people or, arguably, even how long we have to live, because we are feeling something stronger than time, than matter, than practical matters. And I don't see this as an elitist position. I think anyone (who turns off the tv for a few hours) is capable of experiencing this sort of happiness...a sort of joy of man's desiring?

  10. I was thinking, too, after posting my last comment, that I do find happiness in questioning and in dialogue. I suppose, though, that we are burdened in our discussion about what happiness is. Is happiness, as modern industrial society would have it, the accumulation of things? The temporary satisfaction of desiring, then having? (And, as Lacan understood, once something is attained, it is no longer desirable.)

    But I imagine it's difficult to define "happiness," "satisfaction," and "desire"--as well as the ways these intertwine. And it could be we are limited as products of our society. Adam Phillips, the writer and psychoanalyst, has pointed out that it's monogamy that we don't know (the notion that multiple experiences with different people is actually repeating the same behavior), which leads me, somehow, to ask when we are ever really happy. Is happiness a forgetting or a remembering? Do we seek to replay past experiences of when we felt happy? Is happiness something we almost always see as waiting for us in the future or as having already happened in the past?

    John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) sings in one song or other, "What makes you happy?/ Your misery"--and for Carl Sandburg, at least in one poem, happiness is losing oneself in the moment.

    But, yes, there is a distinction to be made between happiness in escapism and happiness in transcendental experience and ecstasy.

    How this all relates back to Myshkin or even the stranger, I'm not sure. But I'm happy to be filled with unanswerable questions. (For Rilke it is to love life's unanswerable questions.)