What the Great Books Teach Us About People Fleeing Persecution

Robert Barsky is a Guggenheim Scholar and Professor at Vanderbilt University. His multidisciplinary research combines social justice, human rights, border and refugee studies with literary and artistic insights into the plight of vulnerable migrants.

Below, Robert shares 5 key insights from his new book, Claiming Legal Protection: What the Great Books Teach Us About People Fleeing Persecution. Listen to the audio version – read by Robert himself – in the Next Big Idea app.

1. Even those who resent undocumented migration most negatively may have exceptions.

Usually these are people they know well, like their roofer or the people who take care of their lawn or babysit. If we get to know someone who falls into a category we have negative feelings about, like the undocumented category, we may be willing to make an exception for them.

Similarly, we already know Dracula. We already know Dante and Alice in Wonderland. What if we imagine that they live lives that resemble those of contemporary refugees? If we sympathize with a character like Alice, we say, “Wow! What an incredible adventure,” then think, “It’s not unlike an adventure an undocumented migrant or refugee might face. Maybe these refugees are not just here to steal our country’s great resources. Maybe they’re no different from those characters I love.

2. We have a special feeling in our hearts for canonical literary characters.

We love Alice. We admire Dracula. Well, maybe “admiring” is a heavy word for someone like Dracula, but we certainly think of him as some kind of gentleman with some terribly odd habits. And if we considered him as someone particularly fascinating? When placed in a coffin and floated across the channel to England, it is a migrant, migrating from France to England, but it actually does in the soil of Transylvania. He can only travel when sleeping on his own ground. What does it say? What does that mean? If you imagine him migrating, there is something fascinating there.

“He can only travel when he sleeps on his own soil. What does it say?”

Let’s also think of Milton’s lost paradise. At the beginning of the story, Satan is a friend of God, but he is expelled from paradise after a war caused by his uprising against the rule of God. Heaven is kind of a perfect place, so we can think that he left a perfect place and now he has to find his way to a very imperfect place known as Hell. Is this going to make us think differently about people who come to our country, whatever our country is? They wake up in a whole new setting, look around and say, “Oh my God, this is unfamiliar. It’s a place without my language, without my culture, without my friends. Is it really that different from someone who was, say, driven out of Ukraine by Russian soldiers?

3. The canon has an ongoing and ongoing role in our world.

Of course, we are inundated by TikTok and Facebook and Instagram. Yes, people are more likely to see snippets of stories in YouTube videos than to delve into hundreds of rhyming verses in Virgil’s writings. And yet these texts, I think, keep their value and their importance. They maintain a sort of awakened credibility in our imaginations. Don’t we all remember when we read the standard works? Of course, canonical works may include Peter Pan, Hansel and Greteland much more recent texts, such as Beloved by Toni Morrison. These texts keep their importance because they are a known currency.

Even if we haven’t read all of Dante – let’s say we’ve only read Hellor we have only heard Hell— we know that this Dante the Pilgrim descends into hell, where he encounters punished characters. And maybe we never read the Odyssey, but we know this ancient Greek story of this heroic warrior who returns home after seven years of battle at Troy. And from there, maybe we have some degree of sympathy. Maybe we are interested. We reflect on what it means to leave a war-torn area to return home. Well, it’s often the story of a contemporary refugee. So maybe we learn something, even if we haven’t read the book itself, about contemporary refugees.

4. The idea that “we are all migrants” has not really changed the landscape of political thought.

We always hear this sentence: “We are all migrants, so we should be sympathetic towards migrants”. Well, that doesn’t seem to go very far. It also doesn’t go very far to hear that one story from that person that you’ve never heard of in a discussion about someone fleeing, say, Yemen. It takes so much commitment, so much effort to know this person.

“[Canonical works] keep a kind of credibility awake in our imaginations.

When in fact we already know many migrants. In fact, we might know these fictional characters better than we know ourselves. We not only know their challenges and the obstacles they face when traveling from place to place, we also know what they are thinking.

Imagine Frankenstein’s Monster, for example, from the work of Mary Shelley which is considered the best-selling novel in the history of the world (or certainly among them). We know the incredible challenges the monster faces due to its creation, due to its well-known and well-described ugliness, having been stitched together by Dr. Frankenstein from many different body parts. But he is also a refugee; he flees after committing a murder. He flees Geneva and goes up to the Alps in France. There, he himself is a refugee, but he also takes care of a family of refugees. And he has to do it in secret because he looks so terrifying that he’ll scare the people he’s trying to help.

5. Many of the authors who write about the challenges faced by vulnerable migrants, such as refugees or undocumented migrants, are refugees themselves.

Take, for example, Lord Byron. Lord Byron fled England because of his early habits, as he was convicted for his homosexuality. So he runs away. Crossing Europe, he writes Childe Harold’s Pilgrimagethen he writes the great masterpiece Don Juan. And Don Juan is a lot like Byron, fleeing because of his precocity, because of his blind disregard for authority. Lord Byron travels as he describes his traveler, and his traveler continues to get into trouble for not respecting local customs. (And because he’s extraordinarily handsome, people can’t seem to resist him, which, of course, gets him into more trouble.)

“How do you get into the minds of people who suffer from the pain of displacement? Maybe it’s going back to the big books.

In 1816 Lord Byron met Percy Shelley, then Mary Shelley in the summer of the same year. Percy and Mary had fled England because they couldn’t stand the customs, morals and laws. And 1816 was an interesting year; it was abnormally cold in Europe due to a massive eruption the previous year near Java. Dust was sent into the atmosphere, bringing temperatures down as far as Europe. So it wasn’t just a migration story as we think of it Frankenstein Where Don Juan. It is also the story of authors who are themselves migrants. Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron were traveling through Europe during an exceptionally cold summer. In other words, climate change has caused them to move.

How can we better understand the crises we hear about today in Afghanistan, Yemen and Ukraine? How do you get into the minds of people who suffer from the pain of displacement? Perhaps it’s by returning to the great books, which are filled with characters who, while not always lovable – as in the case of, say, Dracula – are nonetheless endearing and dear to us. Perhaps thinking about these great characters will make us think differently about the real people who have been displaced by violence, suffering, want, need or even wanderlust, and who are now among us.

To listen to the audio version read by author Robert Barsky, download the Next Big Idea app today:

Hear key information in the next big idea app

About Herbert L. Leonard

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