May 30th, 2002, Episode Four:  Strangers Among Us

The movie Chocolat was promoted as a comedic fable about life.  When we saw the movie, we found a beautiful example of Simmel's "stranger," the wandering nomadic trader going from town to town, who possesses both nearness and distance from the residents. Understanding the role the stranger plays in social life is becoming more important than ever in the post-911 world of fear of the other.  The European elections this year are filled with fear of strangers.  Read below to see the connections between the simple parable of Chocolat, European history and xenophobic politics through the sociological imagination of the stranger motif.

We first met 87-year old Amra Alan at her garage sale.  It was a bright sunny day and she was sitting on her walker.  She and her neighbors were having a fairly typical sale, except that Amra was also selling a book she wrote as an octogenarian.  The next time we met Amra Alan, we sat in her Victoria, British Columbia co-op and talked about how her life went from a young Canadian girl’s dreams of parties and suitors to a young mother’s nightmare of escaping the 1945 bombing of Berlin with her two children on a Displaced Person’s train; And how life has been since those dark days of war.  Her story is a great reminder that we never know when our world will change because of war.  

Amra shared a portion of her story with us by reading Chapter Three:  "The Girl Who Never Listened."  This is a pivotal chapter in her book because she shares all the chances she had to leave Germany in 1939.  She didn't leave and spent the next six years of her life dealing with Nazis and war, bombs and babies.  The name of the book is Torn: A True Story.  If you’d like to buy a copy of Amra Alan’s book, you can contact her directly in Victoria at (250)382-8168. 

Chocolat and Strangers

 A movie titled after my favourite treat was a must-see for me.  Of course, a chance to see Johnny Depp on the big screen didn’t hurt either.  So, I went to see Chocolat last year in Winnipeg mostly for the sheer pleasure.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the movie had substance as well as sensuality. 

[insert atheist sound clip]  Vianne, and her daughter Anouk, are travelers, descendants of Mayan women who are destined to follow the north wind from place to place, never settling down.  Vianne’s father married such a woman when he was in Mexico and against all advice brought her back to France.  After Vianne was born, her mother felt the north wind and left her husband, taking Vianne with her.  Vianne carried on the tradition, taking Anouk from town to town, opening up a Chocolateirie in each town, using ancient Mayan ingredients that not only satisfy the sweet tooth, but also cured the body and soul. But invariably, Vianne felt the north wind again and packed up and left, taking Anouk with her.

Roux is also a traveler, a “river-rat” who lives with a community of boat people who drift from town-to-town, selling what they can to stay alive.  [insert enemies sound clip]  Like Vianne, Roux finds it difficult to stay in one place.  And like Vianne, Roux enjoys a life filled with sensual pleasures.  The river-rats are gypsy-like in their expressions of freedom and mobility and their love of music and dance.

The town where Vianne and Roux meet is a small Catholic town under watchful, controlling eye of Comte Reynaud, who takes his family tradition of caring for the town extremely seriously.  The presence of strangers, especially non-Catholic strangers, during lent is disturbing to the Comte and what disturbs the Comte, disturbs the town.  [insert lent sound clip] 

The stage is set in this mix for everyone to learn a life lesson and the comedic love story is quite predictable, but enjoyable and beautiful to watch nonetheless. 

There are several other plots intertwined with the love story of Vianne and Roux and their problems with the Comte, but the interactions of these strangers with the town piqued my sociological imagination the most.

The advertisements for the movie declare it a comedic fable set in an old-fashioned-buttoned-up community in France in 1959; but the ads say, it might as well be 1859 because of the backward ways in which the town views those different from them.  After watching the European elections this Spring, I thought the fable could be set in 2002.  Fear of strangers is back in vogue and the implications of this fear are staggering and tragic.

Jorg Haider of Austria, Flimish Block of Belgium, Pia Kjaersgaard of Denmark, Jean-Marie Le Pen of France, Makis Voridis of Greece, Umerto Bossi and Gianfranco Fini of Italy, Carl Hagen of Norway, Paul Portas of Portugal, Christoph Blocher of Switzerland, Nick Griffin of the United Kingdom, and three key right wing parties in Germany have made varying, but significant gains into the governments of their respective countries over the past few years and their popularity seems to be growing.  One of the reasons for the growth in popularity of these extremists is that more Europeans are expressing fear of immigrants in general and Muslims, in particular.  Add to the list the recently assassinated Pim Fortuyn, whose pitting of gays against Muslims rocked the usually tolerant Netherlands. Fortuyn’s version of right-wing politics differed from most of the rest of Europe, but his party tapped into a fear of strangers with its anti-immigration stance winning 26 parliamentary seats even after Fortuyn was gunned down apparently by an animal’s rights extremist angered because of Fortuyn’s stance on furriers. 

Why bring up the dismal political scape of Europe in a review on Chocolat?  The culture of this tranquil French town has an historic context that set up the fear and suspicion and ultimate acts of hatred that drove the story line.  The theme is an old one in Europe and the Catholic Church was central to this fear. [insert laughing sound clip] 

Long before the Nazis killed 6 million Jews and asserted the supremacy of the Aryan race, the so-called “Jewish question” was debated in Europe.  The current anti-immigrant debates have much the same flavour.  During the Middle Ages, the official position of the Holy Roman Empire was that Jews were to blame for the crucifixion.  Jewish refusal to convert to Christianity was not only a sign of their sinfulness, but a sign of their antagonism to Christianity and their lack of political allegiance to Catholic rulers.  With the advent of the Crusades in 1006 (which is the first time Europe feared Muslims), the position of the Jews became extremely dangerous, forcing many Jewish communities into isolation and obscurity.  In addition, myths of Jewish terrorism aimed at Christians abounded, creating fear and prejudice.  This lack of an official position in society carried over into Protestant Europe as well.  In the early 19th century, things changed.  A belief in religious freedom and the separation of church and state, an acceptance of Judaism as a religion and not just as ethnic identity, and a desire to access Jewish resources into the greater economy led to their emancipation throughout Europe.  After emancipation, Jews did begin to assimilate into the greater culture, though very slowly and with great debate among themselves.  With that assimilation came a backlash of prejudice and resentment.  This tension between the desire to assimilate and the desire to protect ethnic identity led to a Jewish intellectual class in Europe with two faces – the assimilated Jew who played down his Jewishness in favour of his education and the Jewish scholar who reclaimed lost understandings of Jewish religious teachings. 

In addition, to an intellectual class, a Jewish bourgeoisie emerged, including shopkeepers and artisans.  Among this class were traveling merchants.  European communities in the 19th century were discovering each other.  Most Europeans had been tied to their land in some way.  Industrialisation led to the need to open up new markets.  Jews were not allowed to own land for most of European history and while they had ties to their communities, they seemed more willing to travel than many other Europeans.  Thus, they took jobs that sent them from town-to-town to open up markets for products produced in major industrial centres.  They were the classic “middle-men” who sold manufactured products to retail merchants for distribution to consumers. 

The study of strangers as a sociological phenomenon stems from the concepts such as Karl Marx’s alienation and Emile Durkheim’s social anomie.  But the first sociologist to directly discuss the archetypal "stranger" was Georg Simmel, who not coincidentally was a Jew who was never offered a position at university despite his obvious scholarship and popularity as a salon speaker among the intellectuals in Berlin.  Each of these concepts possesses economic roots.  Marx's alienation originated in the separation of the worker from the product of his labour.  Durkheim describes anomie in terms of "dysfunctional" methods of dividing labour.  Simmel's stranger moved from town to town working as a trader.

While Simmel did not invent the sociological archetype of the stranger, he expressed the meaning of the stranger profoundly.  Most important, he did not see the stranger as alienated and unsocial in the sense that Marx did.  Instead he asserted that the position of the stranger, someone who was both "distant" and "near," brought an important element to relationships with others by virtue of his unique position.

Both Vianne and Roux possess this “distance” and “nearness” in Chocolat.  It is their strangeness that divides the town and creates tensions as the season of lent progresses.  Lack of respect for the fasting season by selling the wonderful confections and dancing on the river demonstrate to the Comte how holy his quest to rid his town of these pagans was.  But Vianne and Roux were part of what helped the town figure out its own character.  The presence of a stranger drew the lines clearly and it is no accident that it is the town’s misfits that take to the strangers more easily than those who are vested in the town’s culture. 

Most notable among these misfits is Josephine, whose husband’s cruelty has led her to kleptomania and mannerisms bordering on schizophrenic.  But her strangeness is accepted as part of the town culture because she stays in her proper place, with her husband.  Vianne’s kindness to Josephine frees her to leave her husband and seek refuge from the town’s culture and her husband’s cruelty.  This act is the beginning of change in the whole culture and atmosphere of the town.  Black and white belief systems become grey as the Comte realizes that Josephine has suffered right under his nose.  The illusion of his control and the town’s tranquility begins to break down. 

At first, the Comte tries to regain control through reforming Josephine’s husband and driving out the strangers Vianne and Roux, but these efforts eventually backfire.  The position of the strangers offers an objectivity on the true nature of the town and having seen itself through the eyes of others, the town changes, questioning its foundations. [insert time sound clip] 

This “objective” position of the stranger and its usefulness in the social system of a culture is one of the positive social aspects of the stranger archetype according to Simmel.  Strangers are defined as strangers because they are different from “us” and when we define who a stranger is, we define who we are in the process.  The stranger is far from anti-social or non-social; it is a necessary concept in order to form a cohesive group.  We have to know who we are not in order to know who we are. [insert not welcomed sound clip] 

The problem is that these attempts of definitions of “us” and “them” can lead to a marginalisation of strangers.  The river people were not only “them” but they were regarded as a dangerous “them” and boycotted and excluded from commerce for being “them.”  [insert boycott immorality sound clip] 

Robert E. Park coined the term “marginalisation” in 1928 in his essay "Human Migration and the Marginal Man."  Concerned with the question of how races and cultures "evolve," Park looked to migration and not biological evolution as the key to the "processes by which new relationships have been established between men."  Park moved the narrow view of the stranger into a broader context which could include every person at some time in his or her life because "periods of transition and crisis in the lives of most of us that are comparable with those which the immigrant experiences when he leaves home to seek his fortunes in a strange country.”

In the 1970s, Everett C. Hughes continued Park's work by expanding the concept through analyzing marginality "from the angle of status.”  In status we find identity in our culture.  In a very real way, culture and society meet in an individual's status.  "Status is a term of society in that it refers specifically to a system of relations between people.  But the definition of the status lies in a culture."

By looking at marginality through the lens of status, Hughes expands the concept beyond the traveler or migrant who intrudes on a social situation.  In our own society the contact of cultures, races and religions, combines with social mobility, to produce an extraordinary number of people who are marginal in some degree, who have some conflict of identity in their own minds, and who find some parts of the social world which they would like to enter closed to them, or open only at the expense of some treason to things and people they hold dear.  This sets up a kind of inner conflict for strangers – how far must we go in changing our beliefs and identities in order to be accepted by others? [insert give a damn sound clip] 

Chocolat ends with both Vianne and Roux settling down in the town that they have changed.  Not only does the town change by expanding its definition of “us” to include people who are from different backgrounds, but the strangers change as well.  Roux leaves the river and his people to return to Vianne and Anouk.  Vianne scatters her mother’s ashes in the north wind as a symbol of her decision to no longer listen to her mother’s voice or follow her mother’s ways, something she believed was in her hereditary make-up at the beginning of the movie.  Both characters forsake a part of themselves in order to belong to each other and to the town.

These negotiations between strangers and friends take on great importance in the context of horrors like the Holocaust.  The extent to which we succumb to the fear of the other, we set up despots who will lead us to such horrors.  Since most of us have been the stranger as well as belonged to a group, I am reminded of Martin Niemoeller’s famous quote about the Nazis which he gave in response to a student’s question:  “How could it happen?”:

“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Chocolat offers a wonderful meditation on how strangers affect our lives and how the ways we define ourselves and others needs to be re-examined on a regular basis in order to not descend into xenophobic prejudices and hatred.  It is a timely fable and one that perhaps should be required viewing for us and our leaders in an increasingly fearful world.  What better than chocolate to bring the world together.


copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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