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Fear of the Other and the Unknown: Some Thematic Notes

The fear of the other and the unknown did not begin with the discovery of America

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The fear of the other and the unknown did not begin with the discovery of America at the end of the Fifteenth Century. Classical writers had already begun to exhibit such feelings of misgiving and doubt.

This holds true with Tacitus and his most famous ethnographical account, Germania (98 CE). The Roman writer does not refrain from uttering racist and ethnocentric considerations towards the diverse Germanic peoples. However, at the same, he is well-aware of their being morally and physically stronger than his fellow citizens, who are morally degraded and have given way to debauchery.


At the dawn of the Renaissance, when America was discovered in 1492, European voyagers and travellers were frightened and alarmed at the new human beings who populated the new Continent. The French scholar and critic Tzvetan Todorov duly reported on their encountering with the other and the ensuing massacre of such populations by the Spanish conquerors on supposed religious grounds (The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, 1984).

The French philosopher Michel De Montaigne, in his Essays, pursued a similar epistemic enquiry. Montaigne is the first who endeavoured to rationalise and take a more comprehensive approach towards the whole issue. In his famous essay touching upon the topic of the cannibals, he asks himself who us Europeans should regard as cannibals, the Brazilians man-eaters or the Protestants and the Roman Catholics, who have been engaged in bloody and cruel religious wars and in endless witch-hunts.


Sea voyages soon gave way to colonialism, based on the so-called attempts to enlighten and civilise such outlying and backward populations, at least according to European standards.
Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, the Polish-born English novelist Joseph Conrad criticised this European demeanour in his famous novel Heart of Darkness (1890). Conrad does not explicitly voice any direct criticism towards the Europeans, but he manages to put his point across using his technique of make you see. He alludes to non-standard or immoral codes of conducts on the part of the Europeans, making the overall effect on readers more terrible and upsetting.


To conclude, 2016 has witnessed a similar situation: xenophobic, populist and homophobic political movements have been on the increase, all with the aim to find a stopgap scapegoat for all the problems around the world. It is essential to reflect upon these writers (and others, of course) to try to establish a better world.

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