Oliver Parker: Othello (1995) | poster
Laurence Fishburne and Irène Jacob in Othello (1995)

Alien or Alienated? The Monstrous, the Normal, and the Tragic in Our Borders

Shakespeare, Knut Hamsun, Flannery O’Connor, and the Medieval Icelandic Göngu-Hrolfs saga each explore who is the alien, and who is alienated, within our borders.

It could seem that in a heavily globalized world with unprecedented availability of air travel, internet connection, and sophisticated means of language at little or no cost, borders would sooner or later become rudimental or even redundant. And yet their significance keeps reasserting itself with violent urgency, again and again. Borders are not, we are reminded, all about people seeking novel experiences, business opportunities, or a new home and a better life. 

All too often, borders and their guards have to stand in the way of organized crime, drugs and human trafficking, international terrorism, deadly epidemics, blights that deal staggering damage to agriculture, and invading armies. Sometimes people seek refuge across a border from disasters at home, but their mass influx creates a crisis of its own. Within national bounds, racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural divides run deep, often aggravated by anxieties over the common, external borders. It would be all too convenient to relegate this whole border-centric discourse to the realm of pure xenophobia – if xenophobia itself was not an increasingly imported ware. [Moody]

Of course, a geographical border is only the most tangible manifestation of a problem rooted in human nature itself. Walls, checkpoints, and barbed wire only cement and mark, not create, divides. Borders, after all, are set by people, enforced by people, and follow human dynamics in their shifting.

On an intellectual level, it seems unfair that people from another group must be treated differently, while we all share so much in common. Yet hardly anything comes more naturally than noticing that someone is not like us and changing our own behavior accordingly. It is not always a case of mere strangeness, of not understanding the unfamiliar or the distant. At times proximity and prolonged contact often exacerbate differences. We can observe this in the outbursts of ethnic violence at the breakdown of vertically multinational countries, like the former Yugoslavia; or in the racial self-segregation practiced by prison inmates in the USA. But what makes one different, and to what extent can this difference be bridged? The very complexity of the question seems to prompt simplistic answers.

One of them, of course, is to deny any difference whatsoever or dismiss it as an artificial invention. At the other end of the spectrum, by far the most uncompromising approach to this human dimension of borders is exemplified by the notion of a barbarian prevalent in the Classical period of Ancient Greece and Rome. Pretty much forced by virtue of its clear-cut strictness, it postulates a material, qualitative difference between outsiders and Greeks or Romans at a fundamental level. Whether some destitute foreigners settle down in Athens, or a band of Spartan mercenaries hires themselves out to an Egyptian pharaoh, it is always a matter of Greeks on the one side and barbarians on the other. Barbarians can be rich or poor, mighty or reduced to slavery, primitive or urbane, crude or astute, friendly or hostile, even allies against another polis or in a Roman civil war – but the distinction is supposed to remain immutable.

In Classical thought, this difference (unlike with more recent prejudice) is placed not as much in the level of civilization or in political form as in a set of very basic cultural features and values, of the sort where nature meets nurture. They are hardly inherited biologically but one can only imbibe them as one matures, not learn or consciously adopt them. Unsurprisingly, a precise list of these features never existed. Yet the Roman (but ethnically and linguistically Greek) pre-Christian priest, biographer, and moral philosopher Plutarch, particularly finely attuned to such nuances of culture and character, makes a few descriptive mentions of barbarism in his book Parallel Lives

Among them are “barbaric pride and boastful extravagance, which wastes its superfluity on vain and useless objects”, “the violent and rapacious temper which barbarians are apt to think highly of”, “cruel and barbarous”, “barbarous and illegal”, “insolent barbaric way”, “a barbarous and impious oblation” (about a human sacrifice). [Plutarch] All of these are remarkable because they refer to the actions of fellow Greeks and Romans, not barbarians proper, thus implying the identifying characteristics and not mere circumstantial instances of barbarism.

These features convey an idea of superficiality underlain by instability, of show which has to compensate for lack of substance with an overdriven, often destructive intensity of behavior. When the Athenian philosopher Plato, as quoted by Plutarch, says “a Greek, neither a barbarian nor an irrational animal”, [Plutarch] it is not an outright denial of humanity to barbarians but rather a reference to that lack of some crucial element to ground their humanity. They are neither beasts nor necessarily savages, and they can behave in an approvable way – but have no inner anchor to gravitate them towards the humane in a sustainable manner. In the bottom line, a barbaric individual cannot be relied upon and neither can a barbaric society, whether tribal or tyrannical.

Yet, as much as people might be inclined to view “aliens” with suspicion, it is just as natural to seek acquaintance with and enjoy discovering good things about them. Romans and Greeks borrowed cults and deities, technological knowledge and philosophical tenets, and even their respective alphabets from other peoples. Plutarch himself, who uses the slur “barbarian” and its derivatives more than 300 times in Parallel Lives, still includes in it a biography of the Persian king Artaxerxes. In another work (addressed as a letter to a female student), he discourses at length on the Egyptian religion. Finally, the soldier turned historian Ammianus Marcellinus, describing the tumultuous decline of the Classical world he witnessed, speaks of emigrants seeking among barbarians the humanity they could no more find with the Romans. [Marcellinus]

This hopeful and joyful aspect of embracing a stranger reaches its peak with alien figures of exceptional merit, which is manifested at its clearest in a critical situation. When we can offer refuge to a very deserving outsider, or when he or she comes in an hour of our own need and saves the day, we may well feel closer to such a stranger than to many a neighbor. This sentiment is too intense in its optimism to find representation in the reserved, skeptically-inclined Classical culture. Yet the Western (European and American) literature of later periods does provide a few stories of such characters, the type of whom I would call prodigious aliens. Sharing some features with the Classical barbarian, the prodigious alien is approached much more empathetically – but what we see in the end, is far from a triumph over borders.

The most famous and culturally significant example of a prodigious alien is Othello, the title character of a (putatively) 1603 tragedy by William Shakespeare. His story takes place during the War of Cyprus, 1570-73, fought between the small Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire, which at that time reached its maximal extent. Othello is a Moor, a dark-skinned native of North Africa or Asia, and probably comes from territory under Ottoman control or influence. However, he fights on the Venetian side and demonstrates courage and skill great enough to be appointed a general for the defense of the island of Cyprus.

Shortly before his departure on this assignment, Othello marries (not without opposition from her family and peers) a Venetian noblewoman who, although much younger, is genuinely in love with him. But Iago, a disloyal subordinate, provokes his jealousy through a series of subterfuges. Growing more and more resentful and paranoid over the course of events, Othello ends up murdering his wife and committing suicide immediately after.

This plot, approached from various standpoints, has been subject to countless interpretations. It is often viewed as a story of a noble character brought down by extrinsic factors, be it a racial conflict that marks Othello for persecution, or the deviousness of Iago, who seems to plot against him for the mere malicious joy of manipulation. But such “extrinsic” approaches fall short of completely explaining the tragedy of Othello.

The racial one is by far the weaker. Although Othello’s skin shade is mocked by his non-sympathizers in a couple of scenes, it rather serves as a visual marker of his general foreignness than indicates an actual mindset attributing certain features to his racial group. In other words, Othello’s ethnically distinct appearance is the most obvious thing to pin one’s dislike for him to. But this dislike itself does hardly proceed from a consciousness of him as a member of a different race.

As to Iago, it is precisely his “ambiguously demonized personhood” [Morris] that makes him an unlikely cause of the tragedy. Or rather, if we look at it as a story of an absolute villain destroying a spotlessly noble character, the greater part of its tragic edge is taken off. Figures of absolute magnitudes work well either in myths or in the less serious, entertaining genres. Tragedy, however, owes its seriousness and its power, first and foremost, to the degree of relatable humanity it invests in its characters. It is remarkable that the Shakespearean actor Ian McDiarmid, who stepped out of his usual répertoire to play a fantasy arch-villain in George Lukas’ Star Wars film series, would explain his character by reference to Iago, of all the Shakespeare’s dramatis personae. [McDiarmid]

When such absolutely evil figure appears in a tragedy, it should be viewed rather as a plot device than an actor. It serves to occasion and to represent through action the working of some force already there in other characters. In the words of the literary critic and professor F. R. Leavis, “Iago’s power, in fact … is that he represents something that is in Othello … the essential traitor is within the gates”. [Leavis] What he represents, is Othello’s incapacity for trust: of all that Iago tells him, Othello believes only the worst suggestions. It is not exactly that he trusts Iago so much, as he claims a few times over the plot. Rather, he gives in to doubt (which Iago represents) too readily. The secret of Iago’s success lies not as much in the sophistication of his manipulative tactics as in Othello’s eager susceptiveness even to the crudest of them.

Given how little ground for suspicion Desdemona, his wife, actually provides, this susceptiveness is all the weirder. Her marriage to Othello is not only a happy and stable relationship but also a validation of the latter in his new country. In fact, there is something perverse in how easily he devalues it over his suspicion, initially prompted by nothing but Iago’s words. It may even seem like Othello, having barely found some space for a peaceful life, is looking for conflict again, marital if not military.

At some point in his jealous brooding, Othello expressly compares marriage to war, and this is in favor of the latter. Counterintuitively to most readers, he associates military life with a “tranquil mind” and “content”. Othello can manage a life-and-death situation of utter unpredictability well enough, to the astonishment and admiration of his Venetian hosts. But the casual, day-to-day life of their society proves too much for this prodigious alien. Paradoxically, he prefers war to the very thing for the sake of which all wars are fought (or at least rationalized with reference to), and from which they all are but temporary deviations.

We do, in fact, come across apparently similar attitudes expressed by actual historical figures. The militant king Pyrrhus of the Greek Epirus, discussing his plans with the orator Cineas, stated the purpose of each his campaign of conquest as securing the ground to launch the next one. Apparently perplexed, the orator inquired what he was going to do after there is nothing left to conquer. “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation,” Pyrrhus replied. But when Cineas asked him why they could not do just that right then, without fighting anyone and risking their own lives, the king failed to give an answer. [Plutarch] Adolf Hitler, who spent the whole length of the First World War at the frontline and was wounded several times, would later call it “the greatest and most unforgettable time” in his life. [Hitler]

However, the similarity with Othello is only superficial. Pyrrhus is trying (in a quite shallow manner) to normalize his extraordinary ambition by reducing it to hedonism, a more easily relatable attitude. Hitler is speaking (in a somewhat odd turn of phrase) rather of that peculiar sense of meaningfulness to life that comes with the danger of death, and probably of taking part in a major historical event. In both cases, there is a consistent, explainable, and reasonably detectable attitude. Othello’s longing for hostility, in contrast, is bound up with striking impermanence of attitude and character, an uncanny sort of ambivalence dissolving in ambiguity.

There is no use looking for a direct and clear expression of it. But we can get a general sense of this self-contradiction from two scenes where Othello speaks with reference to Desdemona. After she safely passes through a storm on her way to Cyprus, he meets her with the words, “O my fair warrior!” [Shakespeare] This term of endearment, coming from a soldierly figure like him, is all the more genuine for its slight clumsiness, and conveys a strong sense of both cherishing protectiveness and peer-to-peer respect. But then further down the road, comes this sort of thoroughly distasteful remark, as creepy as it is abusive:

I had been happy, if the general camp,

Prisoners and all, had tasted her sweet body,

So I had nothing known.

Othello, Shakespeare

The difference between these two utterances is not a sentiment or a mood, but a distinct U-turn of mindset. They give off completely different vibes, and could just as well be said by two different persons. These two sides exist in Othello simultaneously, in a conflict where no clear lines are drawn and which he has no control over. It is this lack of control over his own character that makes Othello inscrutable – and thus alien to us, the audience, perhaps even more than to the Venetians of the play. He has not been feigning his love for Desdemona or his other nobler sentiments. But these are so easily translated to nearly malicious suspicion and brutal violence, that we are left to wonder if they are not worse than patent baseness. When Iago’s plot is revealed but it is already too late, Othello is terrified of his own, not Iago’s actions.

We find a different type of prodigious alien in Johann Nilsen Nagel, the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s 1892 novel Mysteries. Having come to a small town somewhere on the coast of Norway for no apparent reason, he erratically pursues a few unrelated, at times contradictory activities. Nagel becomes a patron and protector to Minute, a poor, timid, and physically challenged man bullied by the locals. He falls in love with a young woman who he knows is about to get married, and ends up stalking her. All the while, Nagel assertively seeks marriage to an older and indigent townswoman he has never even had a proper conversation with. He lies to the locals about his occupation and devises a plot to fool them into thinking he is much better off than he actually is.

Ridiculed at first, Nagel becomes a sort of local celebrity after a concert at a fair gives him an opportunity to demonstrate his outstanding talent for music (which he has all the way denied). It might seem like Nagel ties some far-reaching plans to the town and its populace. In the end, however, the point of his coming there was apparently only to commit suicide.

Taken each on its own, his pursuits too are riddled with contradictions. Nagel does help the downtrodden Minute – but only because he thinks the man is hiding a criminal character beneath his long-suffering appearance. Yet this, again, is not any straightforward sympathy for a perceived villain. Nagel actually wants to uncover Minute’s true colors, and in attempting to do so becomes no less a tormentor to him than his usual harassers. To his unrequited love, he tells slanderous lies about himself; but only to repudiate them the very next moment. This weird sort of honesty, Nagel proceeds to plainly tell her, is a subterfuge to make her think of him better than he deserves. He outspokenly subscribes to the sort of views on alternative medicine that would appeal to many modern anti-vaxxers and may come across as populist-minded in general. Yet, spotting a random farmer on a stroll, Nagel dedicates a few pages of scornful monologue to the average rural Norwegian.

Unlike Othello, Nagel’s foreignness is not strikingly conspicuous. He is a Finn and can be visually identified as such, but grew up in Norway and speaks Norwegian apparently as his mother tongue. The first impression he makes on the local middle-class people, too, is that of a relatable person. Nagel’s alien quality is rather of an individual, subjective sort. He does not need to belong to an external group because he is already one of his own kind, and uses the word “foreigner” when speaking of himself on a couple of occasions. Much of the book is made up of his inner, stream-of-consciousness monologues. But the more we see what is going on in Nagel’s head, the harder it becomes to characterize him.