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Introduction. – Thresholds and Refuges: Hospitality as a Challenge

Introduction. – Du seuil au refuge, le défi de l’hospitalité
Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot et Marie Mianowski

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1In the context of transnational migrations of population, and as millions of people leave their homelands and their homes for reasons of war, economy, religion, politics or climate change, the question of hospitality is central in Europe but also across the world. The Covid-19 pandemic has further stiffened discussions and relationships around the issue of hospitality as populations have been summoned to keep to their homes while any outsider to the home became a potential contaminator. If everyone across the planet has therefore experienced the tension between hospitality and hostility, those who have had to flee their homes and find shelter elsewhere have had an acute and often dire experience of what it means to be homeless, to look for shelter and ask for hospitality in a world where new walls are being erected and where populations are asked to keep the doors of their houses shut as warding measures against Covid-19.

2The aim of this book is to examine the practices and the representations of hospitality, the generous and open-hearted welcomes, the open doors; but also the hostile reactions, the hermetic thresholds and the brutality that may ensue. The following chapters question the complex entanglements between hospitality and hostility and try to look beyond the binary opposition between welcoming and rejecting, in order to suggest new dynamics for the future. In an attempt to disentangle oppositions between brutal rejection and naïve openness, this book aims at proposing not only conceptual analyses, but above all ethical attitudes and possible actions. It is about ways of being in the world which concern human beings’ relations with one another, as well as with the world around them, the foreign other, but also the non-human world, the animal and vegetal world of the living, the mineral world and the sky and stars beyond our planet.

3As the following chapters will demonstrate, very often, initial generosity gradually morphs into forms of resentment, if not blatant animosity, between hosts and guests. In her book on the theme of resentment, Ci-gît l’amer : guérir du ressentiment, French philosopher Cynthia Fleury emphasizes the necessity for individuals and communities alike to heal from resentment. She underlines the urgency of solidarity, of building a common ground of responsibility, while in the meantime constructing real individual responsibility—real in the sense that individuals do not shy away from their own responsibilities while asking others to take full responsibility instead. Fleury insists on the idea that fulfilling this dual goal is highly demanding and requires not only efforts, but also humility, in order not to fall into resentment when faced with people who do not take responsibility (2020: 39). Referring to Max Scheler’s work, she points out that healing from resentment is not merely a matter of coming to terms with the incapacity of hostility. On the contrary, Fleury insists on the necessity of making deliberate decisions not to fall into resentment and to move beyond it (2020: 40). She insists that for hostility to be kept at bay, one needs to make a voluntary act of love, an act which involves the mind, and not merely emotions and affects. In other words, this requires a conscious decision, a sense both of duty and responsibility (2020: 41). The same ethics of conscious decision-making and individual efforts to overcome negative passions towards others and the world around is developed by Anne Dufourmantelle in her essay Power of Gentleness. Originally published in French under the title Puissance de la douceur (2013), the English version adds a subtitle: Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living (2018) which further tightens the paradoxical links between gentleness and a form of life-spurring courage. In this short book, Anne Dufourmantelle analyzes the concept of “douceur” (translated as “gentleness”) in all its aspects, stressing its enigmatic nature and, more importantly, its transformative potential. As the translators explain in their foreword, “puissance” can be translated as “power” but also in the Greek philosophers’ sense as “potentiality”, as opening to the future and opening ways of becoming:

Gentleness is an enigma. Taken up in a double movement of welcoming and giving, it appears on the threshold of passages signed off by birth and death. Because it has its degrees of intensity, because it is a symbolic force, and because it has a transformative ability over things and beings, it is a power. (2018: 1)

4Because gentleness has to do with thresholds and passages, it therefore has something to teach us as regards the passages from homelands to refuges in exile, from doorsteps into homes. And if hostility is quite often the opposite of hospitality, Dufourmantelle reminds us that

the opposite of gentleness is not brutality or violence itself, it is the counterfeit of gentleness: what perverts it by imitating it. All forms of compromise, diluted suavity, sentimental mush. (2018: 58)

5Just as Cynthia Fleury warned her readers against responsibility in disguise, Dufourmantelle warns hers against gentleness in disguise, which results in the opposite of gentleness—not violence, nor brutality, but corrupted gentleness and a counterfeit of harmony. In particular, Dufourmantelle insists on the transformative nature of gentleness and its revolutionary potential. Gentleness requires listening and discretion as it does not only involve only the mind but affects all the senses:

Gentleness is what turns the traumatic intrusion into creation. It is what, during the haunted night, offers light; during mourning, a beloved face; during the collapse of exile, the promise of a shore on which to stand […] Gentleness is one of the conditions of [this] reconstruction (2018: 85).

6Gentleness therefore appears as a key to hospitality on both sides of the doorstep. Etymologically, the word “hospitality” shares the same root as the word “host”, which refers as much to the hosting party as to the guests. The implicit semantic reciprocity ought therefore to be addressed in the light of dual practices, perceptions and representations: what does it mean to experience hospitality, as in “being hospitable” or as in “being hosted”? In many languages, both the word “hospitality” and the word “host” share a common root with “hostility”. This close parentage ought also to be questioned, with hostility as the seemingly inseparable shadow of hospitality.

7In Homer’s Odyssey and for the philosophers of Antiquity, as in the texts of the Bible, practising hospitality and welcoming the other as a guest in one’s home has an almost sacred dimension which has led several contemporary thinkers in the Western world to argue that hospitality ought to be unconditional. Immanuel Kant himself, in 1795, at some stage in his life, regarded hospitality as a means of fostering peace on earth (Minkkinen, 2007: 53). As a response to the problems of statelessness, Hannah Arendt also argued that any person on earth, regardless of their legal status as a national or resident or non-resident alien, could legitimately expect hospitality from the political community in which they reside (Weinman, 2018: 127). And yet, Jacques Derrida’s coining of the word “hostipitality” refers to the complex and often disappointing mission of hospitality, understood as unconditional. He points at the fact that it is always parasitized by its opposite “hostility”, thus emphasizing the closeness between guests and parasites (Derrida & Dufourmantelle, 2000). For Derrida, hospitality originates at the borders, in the initial surprise of contact with someone else, a stranger or a foreigner. Hospitality also requires the ability of opening up and making room for what happens, what literally “takes place”. Indeed Derrida’s conception of hospitality hinges around the paradoxical need for unconditional hospitality and the very impossibility of unconditional hospitality. In his famous dialogue with Anne Dufourmantelle, he also questioned the potential reversibility of unconditional hospitality into hostility: “How can we distinguish between a guest and a parasite? In principle, the difference is straightforward, but for that you need a law; hospitality, reception, the welcome offered, have to be submitted to a basic and limiting jurisdiction” (2000: 59). Interestingly, while guest and host stem indeed etymologically from the same root, interestingly, hostility derives from hostes (a direct derivative of ghasati, eating, gorging)—a hostile model of the guest who comes and eats and drains you of your resources (Minkkinen, 2007: 53). A parasitical image, hospitality comes from a compound word: hostis and potes. Hostis is the one who eats, the parasitical guest, but potes, which is connected to “podere” and power, means “one who is a master”. So “hostis/potes” means “the master of the guest.” This tension at the core of the word “hospitality”, as Saugata Bhaduri explains in an interview published in the present volume, exposes the transformative potential of hospitality practices. The balance between those two indissociable aspects of hospitality, openness and closedness, depends on specific circumstances which need to be examined and reflected upon in the relationships between hosts. Anne Dufourmantelle’s work on gentleness, decades after the famous text in which she invited Jacques Derrida to respond to questions of hospitality, offers a way beyond, a potential transformation of hostility into possible ways of becoming, and looking at a common future.

8The chapters in the present book are split into two sections. The first offers examples of hospitality and hostility by looking into case studies from a legal, sociological, anthropological or psychological viewpoint; while the second section presents the potential of stories and artistic and literary representations to open up onto transformative worlds, where a collectively constructed future can be imagined. The first section, “From the Doorstep to Invisibility” focuses on the international legal framework which prevails in international migration, questioning the application of international migration laws through the study of specific case studies, raising the question of the invisibility of refugee people. The second section, “Narratives of Hospitalities and Hostilities contains chapters based on literary representations of hospitality and hostility, sketching the complex tensions between hosts, but also the transformative potential of hospitality.

9The section “From the Doorstep to Invisibility opens with a first part entitled “The Doorstep in which Perla Serfaty-Garzon examines in two different chapters the specific functions of the doorstep and the threshold in contexts of hospitality, from the perspective of sociology, anthropology and psychology. Perla Serfaty-Garzon examines the struggles around hospitality in ancient traditions and concludes with a focus on the Jewish tradition and the intimate links between home, hospitality and journeying, through the exploration of the multiple emblematic meanings of the letter B (bet) and of the mezuzah, the piece of parchment enclosed in a case that is placed on the doorposts of Jewish homes.

10Kristen Boon, Etienne Ciapin and Clément Luccioni’s chapters then delve into the legal background in which issues of hospitality are raised and implemented, be they investment issues, questions relating to the refugee status or home arrangements for refugees. Kristen Boon begins by examining the ubiquity of the notion of “host-states” before exploring the duality between host as “guest” and host as “hosting party” and their related rights and duties under international investment law. Etienne Ciapin returns to the struggle for legitimacy around (in)hospitality through the analysis of contents forged by antagonisms, questioning the political imaginaries that they produce. He takes into account the current events linked to the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on border tensions. Clément Luccioni looks across theoretical debates and empirical analyses and questions the conceptual problematisation of migration as a matter of hospitality. Referring to Young’s definition of justice, he develops the idea that hospitality can challenge the current unequal and discriminatory order, provided it is related not only to an effective distribution of resources, but also to a struggle against domination.

11In the second part, the authors examine the often invisible status of refugees. This second part opens with a testimony written by Jean-Louis Edogue who spent, as a migrant, more than two years in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and is the author of a book on his experience (2021). Geneviève Guetemme’s chapter then focuses on children’s presence in an exhibition by photographer Marie Dorigny and questions their presence as a strategy to denounce the contemporary erosion of hospitality as a fundamental and sacred duty. In a chapter on food, Virginia Sherman considers the ways in which the dilemma of the excluded and invisible “other” is confronted in, and through, the intentions and exploration of transparency in food narratives. She shows how the nuances of this notion in contemporary American literature focus on oppositions between the ideas of openness and exclusion, of seeing and not-seeing. This examination of a form of narrative which stands in-between the travel-guide, the diary and forms of fictions affords an illuminating transition with the second section of the book aiming at discussing various examples of narratives while questioning representations of hospitality and hostility in literature.

12The second section, “Narratives of Hospitalities and Hostilities”, opens with an interview of Saugata Bhaduri on how to bridge the divide between theory and practice as far as hospitality is concerned. In this interview, Bhaduri aims at clarifying the concepts of hospitality and hostility, going back to their roots in Sanskrit and claiming that hospitality should be examined in a context of polycoloniality, and not only from the point of view of postcolonial Europe receiving migrants. Bhaduri discusses the role of literature in transforming dynamics of hospitality and hostility and coins the word “guestpitality”, a model of hospitality that is more guest-driven, based on the ethics that the guest also has to play an active role in the reciprocal act of hospitality. In a first part, “Of Guests and Parasites”, Natacha Lasorak explores a novel written by a Canadian author of Indian origin, Rohinton Mistry. She questions the extent to which hospitality is offered and yet measured, carefully offered and limited and therefore the potential threat on the home. Lasorak shows the role played by literature in nurturing hospitality when stories are shared in the space of the home. Anne-Sophie Letessier explains how in Crummey’s novel Galore (2010) the ramifications of each arrival are a reminder that place is never merely a location, and that hospitality is linked to meanings and values attached to it specifically. She questions the ways in which hospitality engenders a productive relationship between self and place and how the novel’s interweaving of hospitality and inhospitality contributes to a reassessment of the concept of place. In her study of Vermette’s novel The Break (2018), Claire Omhovère convenes Michel Serres’ analysis of the parasitic relation within hospitality to emphasize the potentiality of the relationship between hosts. Serres underlines the dependency of the foetus on its mother’s womb, illustrating the imbalance of the parasitic relation in which the guest feeds on the host without offering an exact compensation. This triangular relationship opposing the host and the guest morphs into a fruitful relationship that benefits an included third, the initial exchange deviating towards something entirely new and unpredictable.

13In the final chapters of the book, gathered under the banner of “Transformative Potentialities” the authors examine the linguistic and literary forms that imaginary landscapes can draw for the future of refugees. Jessica Small discusses the literary representations of EU asylum policy, comparing the legal and fictional texts, when analyzed through the prism of hosts and guests relationships. Thus doing, she demonstrates the capacity of fiction to give voice to the victims of policy failures, as well as to provide an affect-based accompaniment to legislation which, by nature, excludes the emotive language necessary to comprehensively capture human experience. Ultimately, Small examines how Nayeri’s novel calls into question the very relevance of the language of hospitality used in reference to contemporary European asylum policy. In a close reading of Derrida’s work on monolinguism, Léa Sinoimeri focuses on the linguistic depropriation at work in Irish writer Oona Frawley’s novel Flight. Ireland’s complex and disjointed relationship to language, its dual condition as both a host and a guest of language, provides a solid basis and hope for conceiving new, hospitable forms of identity in Ireland. Léa Sinoimeri highlights the links between language depropriation and the ethics and politics of hospitality and the ways in which they resonate in the Irish context of Frawley’s novel. In her chapter Marion Bourdeau questions the complexities of hospitality in Donal Ryan’s novel From a Low and Quiet Sea and their correlation with both ethical and aesthetic preoccupations. She shows how narrative choices are instrumental in creating the ambivalence of the dialectics of hospitality and hostility in the novel, examining how storytelling modes and intentions are actually at the core of the novel and fundamentally linked to inclusiveness.

14This book hopes to make clear that if literature and the arts do not actually change the world, they have the potential of showing the way towards transformative dynamics, in imagining worlds where characters engage ethically in reassessing power relationships with one another, and with the world at large. In Power of Gentleness, Meditations on the Risk of Living, Anne Dufourmantelle explains that from the beginning of humanity, care has always been related to gentleness (2018: 13). But the power of gentleness is elsewhere, and that is why it is endowed with a higher degree of compassion than simple care, as it means “embracing the other’s vulnerability”, which necessarily makes one acknowledge one’s own vulnerability. As opposed to care, gentleness is not a top-down, unbalanced relationship or service—it is a movement of opening up to others, to their grief or suffering, “and to contain that pain by carrying it elsewhere”:

[Gentleness] is not a principle of relation, regardless of the intensity behind it. It makes way for what is most singular in others. If the attention of gentleness […] beckons to our responsibility as human beings towards the world around us, towards the beings making up this world and even towards the thoughts we commit to it, then gentleness is part of an intimate connection to animality, to the mineral, the vegetal, the stellar. (2018: 13)

15Gentleness goes beyond a relation of care, it is a way-of-being-in-the-world and as such it should be like a beacon in the dark to try and make our world more hospitable.

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Bhaduri Saugata (2021), Polycoloniality: European Transactions with Bengal from the 13th to the 19th Century, London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Derrida Jacques & Dufourmantelle Anne (2000), Of Hospitality (R. Bowlby, trans.), Stanford: Stanford University Press. (First published in 1997 in French as De l’hospitalité, Paris: Calmann-Levy.)

Dufourmantelle Anne (2013), Puissance de la douceur, Paris: Éditions Payot & Rivages.

Dufourmantelle Anne (2018), Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living, Fordham: Fordham University Press.

Edogue Ntang Jean-Louis (2021), Vie des migrants dans la forêt de Belyounech : L’hospitalité des sangliers, Paris: L’Harmattan.

Fleury Cynthia (2020), Ci-gît l’amer, guérir du ressentiment, Paris: Éditions Gallimard.

Homer (2015), The Odyssey, London: Penguin.

Minkkinen Panu (2007), “Hostility and Hospitality”, No Foundations: Journal of Extreme Legal Positivism, 4, 53–60.

Weinman Michael D. (2018), Arendt and the legitimate expectation for hospitality and membership today”, Moral Philosophy and Politics, 5(1),127–149.

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Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot et Marie Mianowski, « Introduction. – Thresholds and Refuges: Hospitality as a Challenge »ILCEA [En ligne], 50 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 13 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot

PhD Candidate, Univ. Grenoble Alpes, ILCEA4, 38000 Grenoble, France.

Marie Mianowski

Professeure, Univ. Grenoble Alpes, ILCEA4, 38000 Grenoble, France.

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