Book review: Vamik Volkan’s Immigrants and Refugees – a look at the rising fear of ‘strangers’

Psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan examines fears of unchecked immigration and the 'other', against collective identity, while refugees are left in mourning, in his book Immigrants and Refugees.
A demonstrator in Berlin shows solidarity with refugees, in protest at German populist party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), two days after the Christmas market terrorist attack in the capital on December 19. John MacDougall / AFP.
A demonstrator in Berlin shows solidarity with refugees, in protest at German populist party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), two days after the Christmas market terrorist attack in the capital on December 19. John MacDougall / AFP.

As liberals in the West piece through the rubble made of their politics, societies and traditions over the past year, two fundamental questions are repeated like mantras: where do we go from here? And how did we get here?

The former remains unknowable in the United States at least, held captive, in large part, by the whims of a temperamental political neophyte with a propensity for Twitter. The latter similarly offers a myriad of potential avenues of inquiry, but one persistent motif is that of ballooning western fears of unchecked immigration.

This year, with elections due in France and Germany, and the post-Trump, post-Brexit West beginning to take shape, the question of how societies conceive of themselves is no longer an afterthought in a world once thought to be on an irreversible glide path to globalisation.

In Vamik Volkan’s versatile metaphor, every person is assigned two layers of identity. The first, being personal, is tight-fitting; the second, shared with a collective group, is far looser. As Volkan, a psychoanalyst, argues in Immigrants and Refugees, collective identity is like a circus tent, capacious enough to include thousands or millions of people under its folds.

To occupy a tent is, by definition, to not reside in another tent. And sometimes, members of one collective will sling mud at another’s tent in a fit of rage or resentment: “The stain left from the mud, excrement, and refuse is absorbed into the identity of the large group that receives it.”

We form identities in opposition to those of others, our allegiance to a particular group in large part a rejection of competing philosophies or models.

Psychoanalysis finds its answers in childhood, for better and for worse, and Volkan’s thesis centres on the infant’s need to compartmentalize its divergent impressions of its mother. The “good” mother is embraced, while the “bad” mother is externalized, transplanting those actions or emotions into aspects of a despised other.

For those of us who have not encountered Freudian thought since Intro to Psych, there is something faintly ludicrous in all this talk of infant behaviour. How, exactly, do Freudian analysts know precisely what stage of mental development children progress through from 24 to 36 months?

Volkan’s theories of the oral and anal fixations of refugee communities feel like studying the 21st century with the most up-to-date scientific tools available from Freud’s Vienna couch, and yet Volkan has latched onto something crucial to our understanding of the moment of xenophobic backlash we are living through. Essential to Volkan’s argument is that xenophobia is not a foreign body, or an artificial construct, but critical to the formation of the human personality. We become who we are by identifying and singling out those whom we are not.

And sometimes, we might extend Volkan’s argument, we shore up our flagging sense of our own identities by insisting on excluding that which we perceive ourselves to oppose. We fear in others those parts of ourselves, or the people we love, that shame or unsettle us.

“Enemies are real when they are shooting and killing us,” Volkan argues, but “they are also fantasized because they are reservoirs of our unwanted externalizations and projections.”

What is true in babies is also true of countries, whose identities are formed in opposition to others. Citizens form a sense of collective identity, and the arrival of new strangers threatens that cohesive identity.

The fabric of the group’s tent is endangered and the fear of its being frayed or sullied leads those already seeking shelter under its flaps to lash out. This is true even in countries like the US where everyone other than Native Americans and the descendants of slaves had an ancestor who arrived as an immigrant, but it is especially pertinent to Europe, where an unending diaspora of Syrian refugees complicates the question of national identity.

“We can imagine the unprecedented surge of migrants and refugees currently flooding into Europe as representing the Other which is threatening the stability of host countries’ psychological borders,” argues Volkan. “Psychologically speaking, the main fear is the contamination of their large-group identity by the identity of the Other.”

What does it mean to be German, say, if being German can now also mean being Syrian-German, or Turkish-German, or Afghan-German? The US has historically been more humane in its treatment of new arrivals, and in its self-awareness as a nation of immigrants, but the Trump-fuelled backlash has prompted a reevaluation. America, it now appears, is rocked by the same fear of unchecked immigration as Europe.

Volkan’s book is not just about native populations and their response to immigrants, but about the immigrants themselves, and their experience of absorption into a new country. He finds unexpectedly fertile ground in his comparison of refugees with mourners. Like mourners, refugees find themselves somewhere they never planned to be, with unforeseen mental and emotional complications.

They have lost much of what they hold dear: “A mourner, in a sense, keeps hitting her head against a wall, a wall that never opens up to allow the dead person (or lost thing) to come back.”

Sometimes this loss is literal: many of today’s refugees arrive in their new homes bearing the burden of relatives and friends who died in Syria and Afghanistan and Iraq. For others, it is the loss of homes, of familiar streets, of the comfort of friendly faces. Volkan writes of one refugee family, the Abkhazians exiled to Georgia, whose belated mourning for all that had been left behind came after the death of a beloved dog.

By all accounts, a citizen of Berlin is likely to be safer and more prosperous than a citizen of Aleppo, and yet the absence of those familiar signposts may trigger deep feelings of grief for an unlived life. The immigrant-mourner is trapped in familiar thought patterns, returning to images of the lost past. Volkan is particularly interested in the linking object, the small remnant of the lost world that the immigrant or refugee lugs along with them as an aide mémoire.

Sometimes, it is a physical possession, like the house keys kept by Palestinian refugees as remembrances of their lost homes. At other times, it is a sky just like the one glimpsed at sunset on summer evenings at home, or a voice that conjures up memories of life in the old country.

Volkan hauntingly analyzes the efforts of some parents to transform their children into “living statues”, walking emblems of the horrors of the past. The children are asked to serve as repositories of the tragedies their families have had to endure.

Volkan discusses a patient whose parents, Holocaust survivors, had unintentionally immobilised him by making him serve as evidence of their survival. One’s heart breaks, extrapolating from this example, to think of the Syrian children who survived the civil war but who will be asked to carry the scars of the conflict for the rest of their lives. To never forget is a virtue of societies, but often a crippling burden for individuals.

With the ascent of Trump, the West has entered a murky future in which one of the few observable signposts is a disabling fear of strangers, and of Muslims in particular. Extremist terrorists, responsible, according to Volkan, for 45 murders in the United States since September 11 (as compared with 400,000 killed by guns), have become the visible face, for many Americans, of a global faith with more than one billion adherents. And the refugees of a brutal civil war, in which many were targeted by extremist fundamentalist zealots, are accused of the same zealotry from which they fled.

The total effect is wildly disheartening, the epic panic attack of people grown bored with order and civility, and only too inclined to slash away at the ethos of tolerance that their very societies were built on.

Immigrants and Refugees asks essential questions about the motivations of not only the new arrivals, but of those who welcome them – or choose to shun them.

Saul Austerlitz’s work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Slate, the Boston Globe, and other publications.

Published: January 25, 2017 04:00 AM


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