Be my guest
Isn’t it considered one of the greatest acts of charity to welcome the stranger into one’s own home, and by extension into one’s community and into our own land? Our religious traditions, Christian, Jewish and Muslim alike, extol us to be hospitable. Leviticus expresses a commonly shared moral maxim when it says, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” Similar expectations are made in other religious traditions; we seem to be universally admonished to acts of hospitality when the demand arises.
What is it to be a host? What is it to be a guest? Although these are simple questions the easy response they invite belies a complexity in the relationship that I’d like to reflect on briefly.
Now, it is obvious enough that if you are to be hospitable you have to be in a position to play the host, and this, of course, means being the “master”, in some sense, of the house or home (or community, or land). Equally obvious is the fact that there needs to be a recipient. Thus, hospitality, like all other forms of charity, implies a relationship of giver and receiver, and there are expectations placed upon both parties. Some of these are incumbent on one or other party, some on both, some are reciprocal, others are not, and there is diversity in the forms that all of this can take. One underlying feature, though, that does seem very widespread if not universal is that the host is required to be generous, while the recipient is expected to be grateful.
In actual fact, generosity and gratitude do not always sit together comfortably. Generosity on the part of the host is a delicate matter in part because it is easy for the host’s generosity to be experienced as demeaning. It can provoke hostility. Generosity can spill over into charity where charity is, or can be, both an act of generosity and also a more or less overt statement of the social, financial, even moral superiority of the giver over the receiver. After all, the host, to be a host, ultimately retains and maintains control over his or her domain and in some way or another effectively asserts control over the guest qua guest.
Generous people are aware of this and, consequently, the greatest, truest generosity is always generosity that conceals itself. The truly generous are generous without being ostentatious; they find a way to offer without offending sensibilities, encroaching on the dignity of the recipient. This is their secret: to give without giving offence. It is not just a question of “breeding” or manners but of finding a way to avoid provoking the other’s resentment in a context in which a generous act can so often be an act of aggression – consider, for example, those occasions where a recipient is deemed “ungrateful” or “unworthy” of the generous gesture. It is I think reasonable to surmise that when generosity provokes aggression in the other it is typically a case of like begetting like; the aggressive response comes to be a response to the aggression bound up with the generosity of the giver.
Note how different generosity between equals is. The generosity of friends or lovers towards one another is precisely generosity that is shared and thereby serves as a sign of that friendship or that love. It is, to elaborate further something Aristotle once said about friendship, reciprocal in its essence.
In contrast, the generosity of hospitality is essentially asymmetrical, which is why it is no accident that injunctions to be hospitable are expressed as acts of hospitality to strangers, the unknown other to whom one has no debt or obligation, to whom one owes nothing. Curious it is, then, that the very act of giving can solicit hostility in the other. This view of hospitality as asymmetrical and as covertly expressing hostility from both parties is confirmed in many ways.
Think about the relationship between hospitality and magnanimity, where magnanimity has always and essentially been associated with power. If it is not thought that magnanimity essentially involves a relationship of power, it will at least be granted that the greatest gestures and the most vivid examples of magnanimity occur when one person has another in his power. Its archetypes are the pardoning of criminals, mercy towards a defeated enemy, or the forgiveness of another for his wrongs against you or your people. In non-egalitarian societies, from Aristotle to Madame de Scudéry, magnanimity was considered an important virtue to be cultivated in superior men or women. There is an emphasis on an ethics of obligation towards the less fortunate. In Aristotle, magnanimity, which in English comes from the Latin for “greatness of soul”, is the crowning virtue of a great man. Madame de Scudéry considers magnanimity, along with politeness and discretion, an essential sign of nobility that necessitates a degree of culture, wealth and social rank. Egalitarian ethics, by contrast, stress the dignity of a society based on equal rights for all citizens in which what any man or woman has due to him does not depend on the caprice or character of any person or persons. Thus, as I say, central to magnanimity is that the magnanimous act depends on the whim or will of the magnanimous and is best exemplified by scenarios in which the other is in one’s power or at least one’s dependency, which is why the captured soldier, the prisoner released from detention are such classic examples.
If we turn to hospitality, we find a practice that is quite complex ethically and psychologically. It shares with magnanimity the gratuitous nature of an act that the host performs without asking what is in it for him, and thus in that sense, like magnanimity, it is an act that is purely ethical. On the other
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hand, and very importantly, hospitality differs fundamentally from magnanimity in that it is not an act of grace that depends upon the whim of the agent. It is because grace is essential to displaying greatness of the soul that the power of the magnanimous is portrayed as absolute. The truly magnanimous act must not just lie totally within the agent’s power; the agent must be under no obligation to be magnanimous. His magnanimity is totally and utterly gratuitous.
Hospitality, unlike magnanimity, is a duty and is experienced as an obligation. It follows from this that the host’s power and control over his or her guest is not total. Though this is not essential, an act of hospitality may be an act performed, not for the sake of one’s guest, but for God’s sake. Thus, for instance, the Qur’an tells us that hospitality towards a visitor is not a duty to him as my guest, but a duty to God. As an obligation it goes well beyond the mere question of “politeness”; it is something that we owe the other as such, irrespective of who the other is or whether we are in any way in their debt. Or, to make the same point in a more radical way, our relationship to the other is marked by the presence of an unconditional debt towards him or her. Hospitality marks the fact that we always have this debt to our fellow. And the religious reference to it as a duty to God merely emphasises its categorical nature.
By definition, the magnanimous act is an act that the agent has desired and chosen to do; there is no such thing as an unwilling act of magnanimity, for to the extent that it is not what the agent truly desires, it is to that extent diminished in its magnanimity. Not so with hospitality. Hospitality is an obligation. Because hospitality is an obligation towards the other, one is not necessarily a willing host and hospitality can be an imposition or a burden. Obligations are like that, they can sometimes be a burden that we know we should do but would rather not. We sometimes honour them contre-coeur and, at least in the case of hospitality, are often enjoined to display the best of good grace in doing so.
This is a situation that easily lends itself to comedy. Take the long-suffering host and the “guests from hell”, a common theme of literature and above all of cinema and television. The guests in question may be the in-laws, parents, old friends, family, anyone. A popular scenario is that up till the time of the “visit” everyone has got along very well, relations are cordial, they may even love one another; but the harmony of the relationship depends upon a certain distance which when no longer maintained produces a breakdown that can turn vicious, thereby revealing the ambiguity of feeling that is there always present, somehow, in every relationship that we have with one another. The genre is typically comedy, even if black and uncomfortable comedy, as in Meet the Fockers, but comedy nevertheless, indicating that, yes, we can all relate to the experience.
Cinema and television also show another and more sinister side of the duty of hospitality, which is that the other, the guest, may not be just underserving, ungracious, boorish and ungrateful but positively dangerous. The guest brings danger into the home. First, he destroys the relationship he has with his host by no longer taking what is offered as a gift, an act of generosity, and taking it, not merely as his or her right, but, ultimately, by force, against the host’s will. There are many real-life examples where generosity extended to another encounters force and violence in response. But it is undoubtedly much more common as a scenario that fascinates and is endlessly played out in film, especially film. Of the countless films in which the theme features, one brilliant portrayal of the delicate interplay between generosity and the abuse of generosity that turns to murderous violence is Peter Haneke’s Funny Games. A pair of sadistic killers whose interactions with a wealthy and well-bred family at their country home begin, innocently enough, with a display of courtesy and hospitality by the family. But then the family gradually realises, only too late, the danger their attitude of hospitality places them in, as the menace and violence of the recipients of their hospitality emerge.
The theme is so common that we must wonder what underlies it. The fact that the guest so readily becomes an intruder is, surely, an indication that it involves some deep fantasy about the other as a threat to our wellbeing. It is worth mentioning that psychoanalysis has pointed out the significance of certain curiously excessive demands of morality, such as the maxim to love one’s neighbour. Freud has brilliantly argued that the injunction not just to respect my neighbour but to love him diminishes my love for those deserving of my love. Indeed, the maxim entreats me to love someone who may intend me no good and in all likelihood will not only rob me if he gets the chance but also enjoy doing so and laugh at me for being such a fool. Same goes for the injunction to treat a stranger as your guest: doesn’t cinema show us that the real fear is that he will rape your daughters, murder your sons and steal your laptop to boot?The other side to the host-guest relationship, the place of the guest, is also an interesting one. As I said earlier, the ethical response to hospitality is gratitude. However, not only do people find gratitude a difficult thing to feel let alone express, but also hospitality, like other forms of generosity, is liable to produce hostility and resentment. As proof, let me go to what some will think is an unlikely place; I mean the world of jokes.
Why Jokes? Jokes and wit give expression to thoughts that might otherwise go unsaid. Freud, who spoke of jokes as a way of bypassing not only the censorship of public propriety but also our own private censorship as well, gives myriad examples of the aggressive protest of the downtrodden against the generosity of their superiors. There is the struggling lottery-agent who declares that the great Baron von Rothschild greeted him with the disarming condescension of the very wealthy, treating him in a manner that, as he said, was quite “famillionaire”. Then there’s the wonderful tramp joke that goes like this:
An impoverished individual borrowed 25 florins from a prosperous acquaintance, with many asseverations of his necessitous circumstances. The very same day his benefactor met him again in a restaurant with a plate of salmon mayonnaise in front of him. The benefactor reproached him: “What? You borrow money from me and then order yourself salmon mayonnaise? Is that what you’ve used my money for?” “I don’t understand you”, replied the object of the attack; “if I haven’t any money I can’t eat salmon mayonnaise, and if I have some money I mustn’t eat salmon mayonnaise. Well, then, when am I to eat salmon mayonnaise?”
The benefactor’s reproach is that the beneficiary of his generosity has no right to spend the money he has been lent on such an extravagance. He is thinking, not at all unreasonably, that his beneficiary really needs to be more careful with the money he has lent him. The man who is lending the money may allow himself such an indulgence, but he has a right to do so because he can afford to be extravagant. And thus we laugh because the impoverished individual refuses to acknowledge the obligation towards his friend that the loan has placed him under. Our laughter exposes at one and the same time our own unease over the dependent relation that the loan places the beneficiary in, our identification with his situation and his audacity at refusing to accept these consequences. Charity and generosity follow the same logic, and the humble and grateful demeanour of the suppliant is crucial to the success of the transaction.
Hospitality as an obligation, even as a duty to God, inscribes the host-guest relationship in a formal relationship. When it is viewed as a formal relationship hospitality no longer manifests itself as an act of generosity that comes from the heart of the host. Of course, when I invite my friends it is a gesture of the love and affection I have for them. There is reciprocity not only in that what goes around comes around but also in the fact that, for me, where friends are concerned, it is always a pleasure for me to have them in my home and to do something for them that gives them pleasure. But hospitality as an obligation is hospitality that is sanctioned by a higher law or code and, in that sense, the obligation is impersonal; I owe it to you not because I love you but because I am bound by duty. The mistake would be to think that hospitality towards a stranger is better based on love for them than on duty.
A stranger, then, always brings something unsettling; he is someone who brings the unhomely (back) into the homely. A guest is the marker of the difference between private and personal, and this difference elicits a familiar, quasi-universal ethical response of hospitality towards the other that never quite resolves the uncanniness of the guest’s presence in one’s midst. There is a gap in our ability to control this presence, a gap in which humour and fantasy are located.
During her time in the My House is Too Small residency Jessie Bullivant sought to examine the ways in which the hosts and the guest might affect each other. Daily routines were altered, not only for the hosts who were asked to watch the TV Reality show Big Brother with Jessie each night, but also for the guest, who adopted a number of new daily rituals: listening to the radio, walking the dog, collecting objects/remnants from outside and bringing them into the apartment in order to alter, imperceptibly the host's understanding of their home and it's belongings. Throughout the duration of the residency all participants, both hosts and guest placed the same image as a screen saver on their laptops, an action that served as a gentle reminder of disruption. At the conclusion of he residency a series of rolling credits ran on the home television, a humorous, playful summation of all that had happened during the week.