Blog Post

On the Roots of Strangeness

God knows, exile and wandering is as old as the hills, and some of the world's greatest stories are about this Odyssey or another.   What's new in this picture, and what I sense in Mr. Cohen's voice (Roger Cohen, "Modern Odysseys," New York Times, 7/29/2010) and some of the comments posted on the NYT site, is that the frame has now expanded to encompass the whole world. The picture has become global.  Emigration used to be bound up with a story of a particular war, as in the Odyssey, or persecution, as with the Biblical Israelites, or economic opportunity, often all three, and it still is. But it has never been as much of a universal condition as it is now, notwithstanding all of the poetic intimations from Homer to Ovid, to the Bible, and Robert Frost, cited by Mr. Cohen. At the turn of the 20th century, Georg Simmel offered to explain modernity by dividing society into the "owners of soil" and the proliferation of the new type of "strangers, who came yesterday and stayed tomorrow." Now, a century later, the order is reversed, and it is the owners of soil who are fighting the rearguard battles. Serbians are a good example. Along with their Yugoslavia cousins, all proverbial "owners of soil" and warriors par excellence, they are angling to becomes “strangers” by joining the European Union, where they would like “to stay tomorrow.” In Russia, both Putin and Medvedev, not to mention the country's educated elite, dream of Mother Russia becoming "normal European." And this is why, perhaps, Zionism, born out the the nineteenth-century nationalism and the catastrophes of the past century, appears so tragically mistimed today. The French legislation to ban the full-face veil, too, seems doubly ironic: the French, as owners of soil, pass a law to disallow the "strangers" in their midst to  maintain the appearance of the owners of some tribal soil elsewhere. And while the French legislate universal  strangeness, the US soldiers fight the Taliban, the Afghan "owners of soil," thus making Afghanistan safe for modernity and "strangers," while defending their own soil half a world away - the land whose citizens venerate their own ancestral migration. Will those who are not “strangers” or feel like exiles please stand up?

Gregory Freidin's picture
Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
Gregory Freidin has written and taught extensively on Russian culture, literature, politics and society. His long-standing project on the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel includes a series of essays, the Norton Critical Edition of Babel's writings, letters, reminiscences and critical reception Isaac Babel's Selected Writings, W.W. Norton, 2009); a collection of essays on Babel's works and days, The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Stanford UP, 2009); his own critical biography of the writer, A Jew on Horseback: The Worlds of Isaac Babel, is forthcoming.  Freidin’s first critical biography, Coat of Many Colors (1987), a study of the life and oeuvre of the poet Osip Mandelstam, was reissued in paperback in 2010.  In 2004, Freidin organized an International Isaac Babel Conference and Workshop at Stanford, producing the U.S. premiere of Isaac Babel's play "Maria" (directed by Carl Weber) and curating an exhibition on Babel at the Hoover Libraries and Archives. These Babel-related events have received a permanent lease on life in “Babel in California,” by Elif Batuman, the events’ participant observer, who opens with it her critically acclaimed collection Possessed (FSG, 2010). Freidin's interest in contemporary Russian politics and culture found its venue in the US and Russian Press, as well as in the major conference held at Stanford University in 1998 - Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century - that brought together scholars, journalists, editors, and government officials from Russia and the US, including the Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott, with who he translated the second volume of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (1974). The First Russian edition of The Federalist Papers came out in Freidin's translation and with his introduction in 1990. Freidin grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the US in 1971. He attended Brandeis University in 1972 and University of California at Berkeley in 1972-78 (M.A. and Ph.D.). Freidin career at Sanford spans 1985-2014. Professor Emeritus, he now resides in Berkeley, California, where he continues his writings and research. A contributor to Arcade, Freidin maintains a personal blog on culture and politics The Noise of Time.