Strangers in the city.

Some psycho-social and ontological aspects of representing the otherness in literature


Nicoleta Popa Blanariu,

˝Vasile Alecsandri˝ University, Romania

In different cultures, traditional representations of the stranger (who could particularly be an “alien”, “outsider”, “outlander” or “new comer”) often highlight the difference, if not threat, and could induce a cautious reserve, even enmity among the people who are in such a situation. This is revealed by the vocabulary of certain Indo-European languages – with their specific expressions of negative alterity – and also, by a rich enough literature focusing on the various aspects of the otherness. In a way, a very ancient predisposition to xenophobic symptoms – which are etiologically based upon primary perceptions and tendencies, such as territorial instincts and those of preserving access to different kind of resources – advances the respective modern isms, ideologically codified.  Perhaps as ancient as this basic xenophobia, some hospitality practices, spread all over the world, have their origins in some symbolical strategies meant to diminish the potentially dangerous effect of the presence of the Other, and thus, to a better health of the intercultural relationship. Inviting someone – the Other – to his/ her own dinner is a very important and universal act of ancient hospitality, which is based on an identity principle: “we are what we eat”, and eating together the same food we’ll necessarily become similar; thus, finally we’ll be good friends, not enemies (Mesnil 1997: 203-204). This is why, in Eastern Europe, particularly in Romania, the strangers are traditionally welcomed giving them bread and salt. As a proof, the Russian verb hlebosolit – composed from hleb, “bread”, and sol, “salt” – is a reminiscence of this East-European greeting ceremony of “bread and salt” (Mesnil 1997: 204). Similarly, the Latin companio refers to the sharing of the same bread (Latin panis), which is the purest form of companionship (Mesnil 1997: 204), and  from this Latin etimology, derived some lexical families in Romance languages.

However, in the collective imaginary, the stranger is more than an accumulation of ethnic characteristics. This is what also concerns us further, as well as the recurrence – not without explanation – of a gnostic scenario in some modern representations of history and of individual or collective exile experience. The corpus we chose[1] is not exhaustive, but only (and possibly) illustrative, so that it may seize, from different angles, the figure of the Other: Euripides’s Medea and The Bacchae, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, The Stranger by Albert Camus, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, The Knight of Resignation by Vintila  Horia, Mircea Eliade’s “fantastic” prose, Emil Cioran’s The Evil Demiurge[MORE-PDF]

[1] The works respond to each other intertextually – in a wide sense, à la Riffaterre, or even in the more rigorous acceptance of Genette. Their approach is located at the interference of literary comparativism and mythology, the anthropology of the imaginary and the history of ideas.