What the Great Books Teach Us About People Fleeing from Persecution

Robert Barsky is a Guggenheim Fellow 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 takeaways from his new book, Call for 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.

Calling for Legal Protection: What the Great Books Teach Us About People Fleeing Persecution By Robert Barsky

1. Even people who view undocumented migration most negatively can have exceptions.

Usually these are people they know well, for example their roofer or the people who look after their lawn or take care of their children. If we meet someone who falls into a category that we reject, such as undocumented migrants, we may be willing to make an exception for them.

Likewise, we already know Dracula. We already know Dante and Alice in Wonderland. What if we imagine them living a life similar to the life of today’s refugees? When we empathize with a character like Alice, we say, “Wow! What an amazing adventure,” and then think, “This is not unlike an adventure that awaits an undocumented migrant or a refugee. Perhaps these refugees are not here just to steal our country’s vast resources. Maybe they’re not unlike these characters that I like.”

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

We love Alice. We admire Dracula. Well, maybe “admire” is a tough word for someone like Dracula, but we certainly think he’s kind of a gentleman with some terribly odd habits. What if we look at him as someone particularly intriguing? When he’s put in a coffin and swims across the Channel to England, he’s a migrant migrating from France to England – but he actually does in Transylvanian soil. He can only travel by sleeping on his own ground. What is written there? What does that mean? If we imagine him as a migrant, there is something fascinating about it.

“He can only travel if he sleeps on his own ground. What is written there?”

Let’s also think of Milton’s paradise lost. At the beginning of the story, Satan is a friend of God, but he is thrown out of heaven after a war caused by his rebellion against God’s rule. Heaven is kind of a perfect place, so we can imagine it leaving a perfect place and now having to navigate a very imperfect place called hell. Will that make us think differently about people coming to our country, whatever our country is? You wake up in a whole new environment, you look around and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is unfamiliar. This is a place without my language, without my culture, without my friends.” Is that really that different from someone who was expelled from Ukraine by Russian soldiers, for example?

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3. The canon plays an ongoing role in our world.

Sure, we’re inundated by TikTok and Facebook and Instagram. Yes, people are more likely to watch snippets of stories in YouTube videos than delve into hundreds of rhyming verses in Virgil’s writings. And yet, I believe, these texts retain their value and meaning. They keep a kind of credibility alive in our imagination. Don’t we all remember when we read canonical works? Of course, canonical works may be included Peter Pan, Hansel and Greteland much more recent texts, such as Lover by Tony Morrison. These texts retain their meaning because they are known currency.

Even if we haven’t read all of Dante – let’s say we just read infernoor we just heard about it inferno– we know that this Dante the Pilgrim descends into the underworld where he meets people who are being punished. And maybe we’ve never read that before Odyssey, but we know this ancient Greek story of this heroic warrior returning home after seven years of fighting in Troy. And we might draw a certain amount of sympathy from that. Maybe we are interested. We reflect on what it means to leave a war-torn area to return home. Well, that’s often the story of a modern day refugee. So maybe we’re learning something about contemporary refugees even if we haven’t read the book ourselves.

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

We always hear this phrase: “We are all migrants, so we should feel sympathy for migrants.” Well, that doesn’t seem to go very far. It also doesn’t go very far to hear that single story of this person you’ve never heard of in a discussion about someone who fled Yemen, for example. It takes so much commitment, so much effort to get to know this person.

“[Canonical works] keep a kind of credibility alive in our imagination.”

We actually already know a lot of migrants. In fact, we may know these fictional characters better than we know ourselves. Not only do we know their challenges and the obstacles they face as they travel from place to place, we also know what they think.

Consider, for example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster, which ranks as the best-selling novel in world history (or certainly among them). We know of the incredible challenges the monster faces due to its creation, due to its well-known and much-described ugliness that Dr. Frankenstein stitched together from many different body parts. But he is also a fugitive; He flees after committing a murder. He escapes from Geneva and climbs the Alps in France. There he is a refugee himself, but also takes care of a refugee family. And he has to do this in secret because he looks so scary that he will scare the people he is trying to help.

5. Many of the authors writing about the challenges faced by vulnerable migrants such as refugees or undocumented people have been refugees themselves.

Take Lord Byron for example. Lord Byron fled England for his precocious habits after being convicted of being homosexual. So he flees. As he crosses Europe, he writes The Pilgrimage of Childe Haroldand then he writes the great masterpiece Don Juan. And don Juan is very much like Byron, he flees because of his precocity, because of his wanton disregard for authority. Lord Byron travels as he describes his traveler and his traveler keeps getting into trouble for not respecting local customs. (And because he’s exceptionally good-looking – people just can’t seem to resist him, which of course gets him into even more trouble.)

“How do we get into the minds of people suffering the pain of displacement? Maybe it’s because we’re going back to the big books.”

In 1816 Lord Byron met Percy Shelley and then, in the summer of that year, Mary Shelley. Both Percy and Mary had fled England as they could not stand the customs, morals and laws. And 1816 was an interesting year; it was unusually cold in Europe because of a massive eruption that had taken place near Java the year before. Dust was thrown into the atmosphere, bringing temperatures down as far as Europe. So this wasn’t just a story about migration as we think Frankenstein or Don Juan. It is also a story written by writers who are migrants themselves. Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron trek across Europe during an exceptionally cold summer. In other words, climate change has made them move.

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How can we better understand the crises we hear about today in Afghanistan, Yemen and Ukraine? How do we get into the minds of those suffering the pain of displacement? Perhaps by going back to the great books, full of characters who, while not always lovable – as in the case of Dracula – are nonetheless endearing and beloved to us. When we think of these great characters, we might think differently about the real people, displaced by violence, suffering, hardship, hardship, or even wanderlust, who are in our midst now.

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