Goetschel on Judaken and Lejman, 'The Albert Memmi Reader'

Jonathan Judaken, Michael Lejman, eds.
Willi Goetschel

Jonathan Judaken, Michael Lejman, eds. The Albert Memmi Reader. France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020. 390 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-0323-6.

Reviewed by Willi Goetschel (University of Toronto) Published on H-Nationalism (August, 2021) Commissioned by Ignat Ayzenberg

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56484

With the publication of The Albert Memmi Reader, Albert Memmi’s official arrival in the Anglophone world can no longer be ignored. While some of Memmi’s works have been translated into English, Memmi has not enjoyed the reception he undoubtedly deserves. A novelist and essayist on the one hand and sociologist on the other, Memmi had a distinguished career as an early literary voice from postcolonial Tunisia whose contributions to the postcolonial discourse, such as The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957, English 1967), Dominated Man (1968, English 1968), and Decolonization and the Decolonized (2004, English 2006), stand out as pioneering works. It was, in particular, his literary writing that prepared the ground for his distinct postcolonial critique. Memmi’s first and pathbreaking novel, The Pillar of Salt (1953, English 1955), gained critical acclaim as it registered the concerns of a generation born under French colonial rule by engaging the colonizers in the idiom of the French ruling class: the French novel.

This approach of parsing his own experience in a literary, self-reflective way gave Memmi the bearings to advance a critical trajectory whose distinct originality is based on his consistent comparative approach with regard to both the oppressed groups and the oppressors, and their fatal intermixing of colonization, domination, racism, and economic or gender exploitation. Reflecting on these two simultaneous tracks in Memmi’s prose—his fictional, often autobiographical part on the one hand and his critical, essayistic part on the other—the editors, Jonathan Judaken and Michael Lejman, organized this reader into sections around two of Memmi’s chief novels and critical books. In his informative introduction, a succinct survey of Memmi’s life and works, Judaken makes a compelling case for Memmi’s enduring significance. In addition, all sections are prefaced with brief introductions contextualizing the selected texts within Memmi’s own biography. The opening section of the volume, "Biographical Reflections," nicely complements Judaken’s introduction with Memmi’s own voice describing in first person the author’s key contributions to the critical discourse on colonialism and its decolonial aftermath and to the understanding of racism, gender, domination, Jewish identity, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Reflecting intersectionality long before the word and concept existed, Memmi’s work offers thoughtful explorations of its phenomenology on a comparative scope driven by the sociologically critical impulse of his thought. Born in Tunis to a Jewish family (father a saddler and mother a Bedouin Berber), Memmi found himself as an insider and outsider early in his life, an experience that was deepened by his French education in an Arab-speaking world, his studies abroad in Paris, and his success as a French writer and intellectual. Memmi’s multiple backgrounds of an Arab Jew from North Africa in Paris offered an opportunity for him not only to critically reflect on the dynamic of inclusion and exclusion as a continuous challenge but also to comprehend how deeply the need to negotiate this distinction would entangle both the included and excluded in the course of an ultimately intimate relationship both disavowed, a relationship in which their differences and distinctions turned out to be more complicated, intricate, and entangled, and as a result also more insidious than anticipated.

Remarkably, it might have been Memmi’s interest in Martin Buber’s thought, arguably Memmi’s decisive encounter with a kindred approach to philosophy whose impact is reflected in the particular way Memmi examines the conflict of the oppressor and oppressed within the relationship between domination and liberation, which can only be adequately understood when this conflicted relationship is fully analyzed. Rather than conciliatory, his point in doing so is phenomenologically critical and distinctively non-Hegelian: for the problem with various forms of domination and oppression is that they are no less relational than other relationships albeit noxiously so. However, unless the complexly intricate dynamic of such abusive relationships is considered the full extent of these insidious forms of relational entanglements must remain unrecognized. At the bottom of this dialogical approach resides the insight that we are never reducible to just one or the other side of such relations. Rather, it is the entanglement that continues to hold a grip on the conflict, and the more it is so, the less the relational intertwinement is recognized. Memmi’s point is not to conceptually resolve the situation but to fully grasp its dynamic by upping the ante. Rather than an excuse for universal culpability, such increased critical attention to the complexity of the relational dynamic of oppressive arrangements raises the stakes and urgency to respond to the need for an ethics of agency and responsibility, a move that does not allow to address oppression as an isolated phenomenon but highlights the systemic aspect of the problem. This shows why Memmi’s comparative approach to the study of oppression is more promising than any compartmentalized response.

Celebrated by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Memmi enriched not only French contemporary thought but also contemporary discourse on domination and oppression beyond the Francophone culture. Speaking the idiom of French intellectual discourse, he challenged it on its own terms. His position at the interface between being an insider and outsider, which his writing so insistently articulates, serves as a critical reminder how deep the problem of inclusion and exclusion runs as that resilient challenge that haunts even the most advanced forms of critique. The Albert Memmi Reader offers a valuable survey of the key stages in Memmi’s writings and illustrates how the author’s various interventions present an intellectual trajectory that continues to command critical attention.

A “pioneer of the intersectional analysis of oppression,” as the editors' brief introduction to one of the sections of the book notes, Memmi draws the strength of his analysis from the continuous recourse to his own experience that gives his writing the critical thrust that makes it so powerful and compelling (p. 133). If his criticism might be met by rejection, his disarming frankness still rules supreme. Memmi’s ultimate strength consists in his unwavering resistance to simplify complex situations. The virtue of his writings is to complicate matters to ensure that each difference is given its due attention to the particular situation and context that ultimately defines it. Remarkably, Memmi’s resistance to the lure of simplicity and his insistence on attending to the specificity of each individual case as its constitutive factor imparts a lucidity on his writing that is the hallmark of his thought. If the mature Buber’s style of transparency never seems far, Memmi’s affinity to Buber’s dialogical thinking allows for a voice that is distinctly his own.

In a signature passage from the Portrait of a Jew (1962), partly reprinted in the reader, Memmi notes: “to be different is neither good nor bad in itself. True justice, true tolerance, universal brotherhood do not demand negation of difference between men but a recognition and perhaps an appreciation of them.” And he continues: “Difference is the condition requisite to all dignity and to all liberation. To be aware of oneself is to be aware of oneself as different. To be is to be different” (p. 87). This inspiring advocacy for difference—be it of class, race, gender, religion, and nationality to which each form of lived difference remains ultimately irreducible—drives Memmi’s agenda to comprehend what in the final analysis all these forms of rejections amount to, that is, “heterophobia,” a term he introduced to underline the relational aspect that all forms of oppression have in common, be it xenophobia, racism, colonialism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, nationalism, and ethnocentrism. While all these and other forms of oppression share a profound family resemblance, the paths to recovery from each must each time be different and context-dependent as each instance of oppression is defined by its own particular specificity. A thoroughly engaging thinker of difference, Memmi resists a one-size-fits-all liberation theory; his resistance is matched with his insistence to attend to the irrevocable particularity of each instance of oppression and the very different response each demands.

Given the significance of this volume some unfortunate aspects need to be mentioned. The reader who is looking for the reference to the original sources in French is occasionally left hanging and easy identification of the original sources is made awkward. In some cases it seemed to me that my search remained inconclusive but I am ready to give the editors the benefit of the doubt that somewhere the source is identified and I just was not able to locate it. However, in some cases there was no explanation why one text version was preferred over another. I was surprised that in the instances he sought to compare texts the source text seemed to vary from the English in content. While the editors rely in some cases on Guy Degas’s magisterially curated edition of Memmi’s critical edition of Portraits (2015), the translations are culled from existent translations without apparent modification (with the exception of a few texts translated by Lejman). This leads to a curiously unfortunate repetition of a translation error. While Memmi is intent to scrutinize the problem of what he calls the Jewish condition (condition juive), the reader occasionally but luckily inconsistently has “Jewish fate.” For a pointedly anti-fatalistic thinker like Memmi such an error is infelicitous because it jeopardizes the very point he makes by sapping the force of Memmi’s pointed diction. On pages 88-89, for instance, the stunning selection from the chapter “The Difference” from Portrait of a Jew the butchering of the concluding sentence of the selection turns Memmi’s argument in a bizarre turn on its head: “The Jewish fate goes far beyond the relation between the Jew and the non-Jew,” we read here, “the Jewish fate is the views of other men and the incarnation of those views; it is accusation and response to the accusation.... It is at once viewpoints and concrete situations; in a word, there is a Jewish fate.” One might wonder how a resolutely secular critic like Memmi would embrace such wording. Well, he did not. Instead, he wrote in strikingly pointed manner: “La condition juive dépasse largement la relation Juif-non-Juif.... La condition juive est regard et incarnation du regard, accusation et réponse à l’accusation.... Elle est à la fois regards et situations concrètes; en un mot, nous le verrons, le Juif existe.”[1] In other words, it is the pure fact of the existence of Jews rather than any sort of fate, a fact that rejects any form of othering, such “fateful thinking” included. Against the unfortunate claim “there is a Jewish fate,” Memmi simply states and with disarming aplomb: “there are Jews.”

The index is erratically inconsistent in listing, for instance, Salman Rushdie but passing over Buber, Sigmund Freud, and Baruch Spinoza, among others, all central figures to Memmi’s thought. Despite these weaknesses, this reader is a most welcome addition to the slowly growing English-speaking archive of non-English postcolonial critics and thinkers and an especially welcome addition to the archive of non-English modern Jewish thinkers now more readily available in English. Memmi represents a fresh and inspiringly challenging voice that should no longer be ignored.


[1]. Albert Memmi, Portraits (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2015), 500.

Citation: Willi Goetschel. Review of Judaken, Jonathan; Lejman, Michael, eds., The Albert Memmi Reader. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. August, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56484

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