Personal Identity, Reciprocity, and Hospitality Morality Lessons from Tracy McNulty

In The Hostess: Hospitality, Femininity, and the Expropriation of Identity, Tracy McNulty educates us that the word “hospitality” connotes both reciprocity* and “personal identity”** (ix). Doesn’t that present the essential dilemmas of hospitality? As a host, how can I be true to myself but authentically embrace true reciprocity in the spirit of Oden’s “readiness” (see Oden blog)? Beyond hospitality concerns, isn’t that the critical dilemma of literature, politics, education, relationships, and economics? That is, isn’t this hospitality dilemma between being an “I” and relating to a “you” the essential human struggle. McNulty agrees: “The problem of hospitality is coextensive with the development of Western civilization, occupying an essential place in virtually every religion and defining the most elementary of social relations: reciprocity, exogamy, potlatch, ‘brotherly love,’ nationhood. … “ (vii). Where once, hospitality was relegated to the decrees of the gods and hosts were forbidden to profit, today, hospitality is reduced to the “so-called hospitality industry (tourism) and a social and political discourse of parasitism, in which the stranger is construed as a hostile invader of the host nation or group” (viii). Has this exchange of divine order for economic exchange improved hospitality or has it, as McNulty insists, replaced authentic human interactions with “the irrational side of our relation to the stranger—fear, anxiety, and hatred—[which] seems to grow ever more virulent” (viii)?
Again, we are faced with ethic’s grasp on hospitality, which McNulty contends is even more controlling. All nostalgia for the “social harmony” of Philemon and Baucis aside, McNulty wonders, as does HospitalityMorality, if we realize that hospitality–as the most fundamental of ethical issues–can address and resolve the tensions “between unnamable alterity and legal identity, between infinite debt and economics, between ethics and ontology” (viii). This brings us back to our linguistic lesson of the double meaning of “hospitality.” First, although hospitality directs us out to another, it also calls us draws us in to our own self-estrangement. Often, this is uncomfortable—even, painful and frightening. McNulty explains why: “Hence it both allows for the constitution of identity and challenges it, by suggesting that the home can also become unhomely, unheimlich, estranged by the introduction of something foreign that threatens to contaminate or dissolve its identity” (vii).

I take McNulty’s point. I know that feeling when, as a host, the stranger entering my home threatens to belittle or devalue who I am. Like the guest who called me a liar at dinner. Like the guest who racialized female attractiveness. Like the guest who spews homophobia. I’ll stop because you get my point, and I’m straying from good thoughts of hospitality. Suffice to say that on these occassions, I was more than uncomfortable. I felt threatened. McNulty exemplifies simlilar threats when she retreats to the myths of Western literature: Agamemnon, Gloucester, and King Lear–all threatened sovereigns.  All nobility aside, I return to my threatening guests who challenge me to withdrawn and repose into that “right reason” state that Marcus Aurelius exhorts—that mental place where I reexamine who I am and how I will treat others. So beyond these guests’ contaminations, the real threat is a hard look in the mirror at my own participation in such rudeness and prejudice. This takes care of one criteria for hospitality: identity.

As for the other criteria—reciprocity—the dilemma that McNulty and HospitalityMorality see is how to “welcome the foreigner without denying his foreignness” (48). To accomplish this authenticity, the foreigner must feel at home and the host must feel displaces. HM addressed this very issue in its Oden blog. McNulty clarifies: “The ethics of hospitality…involves not only welcoming the familiar into the home, but calling the home into question: experiencing the dispossession of the chez soi, and through it the identity of the host” (xx). Think of that scene in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse when Mrs. Ramsey is serving dinner and one of her guests upsets the timing of her boeuf en daube entrance onto the table by asking for a second helping of soup. Of course, to someone who hasn’t hosted a tricky-timed meal, his request seems trivial and her agitation seems ridiculous. HM can easily argue that neither is the case.  However, for this discussion, let’s grant those two positions–he’s innocent and she’s overreacting. What’s important to HM’s investigations of hospitality morality is that Mrs. Ramsey abides his request—knowing that she risks ruining the entrée for all her guests.  Further, if you don’t think that she is no longer at home in her home (and for good reason), then HM suggests you squeamishly mistime the presentation of a piece of medium rare beef with a dozen critics at your table.

HM asks how, in such cases of demanding or demeaning guestshosts can establish harmony–not only between guest and host but also between reciprocity and identity.  If HM had that answer, its work would be concluded. At this point, all HM knows is that for such occasions, hosts and guests need etiquette rules, which serve as a kind of “potent symbolic structure to account for and valorize the risk the host assumes in welcoming a stranger” (52).  So for the time being, as HM wades through the morality of hospitality, it bows to etiquette guides.

*I have put on my research list the potlatch practices of native North Americans, “a system of ever-escalating gifts and counter-gifts that binds parties together in mutual ties of obligation and is the very foundation of social and religious life” (x-xi). McNulty explains further that in the Native American “potlatch” tradition “the giver gains in social prestige what he loses in material goods. The more the master gives, the more he has: because his prestations will eventually be reciprocated by others, but more importantly because his prestige accrues in the act of giving” (xx). Definitely something worth researching.

**McNulty reminds us that the Roman notion of personhood, “persona,” meant mask, specifically, the mask displayed in the house of an ancestor (xxx).

McNulty, Tracy. The Hostess: Hospitality, Femininity, and the Expropriation of Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

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