Combes, The American University of Paris

6, rue du Colonel Combes
75007 Paris

Seminar series
Politics of Translation - Translation of Cultures

Hannah Arendt’s Message or Ill-Tidings: Weltliteratur v. ‘Refugee Writing’ with Lyndsey Stonebridge

Hannah Arendt first evoked her now famous concept of ‘the right to have rights’ in a 1949 article for the Modern Review, just a few years after her own experience as a refugee. At once slim and bold, this one defining right – a right above all others – has lately attracted thinkers keen to forge new ideas about rightlessness for an age of mass displacement. This paper discusses both the historical and the literary origins of Arendt’s right to have rights.

Notions of ‘deep time’ and the longue dureé have recently been evoked by critics eager to understand the kinds of human agency existing beyond the space-time of the nation state. By contrast, to rehearse the obvious, refugee experience of extra-national space is more likely to mean abject rightlessness than cosmopolitan adventure. But despite existing -- all too literally -- worlds apart, modern literary history and refugeedom or statelessness are not separate categories of the extra or transnational, but connected products of the same geopolitical history.  I will argue that the work on rights, nations and political community Arendt began on the refugee rat runs of the late 1930s and 1940s was, in part at least, inspired by her thinking about and, indeed, her own experience of literature. The right to have rights had its own poetry.

Lyndsey Stonebridge is professor of Modern Literature and History at the University of East Anglia. She writes on twentieth-century literature and history, Human Rights and Refugee Studies, and teaches courses on the History of Human Rights and Literature and Human Rights. She is the lead for the Humanities in Human Rights network (

This session is open to all but participants should contact Geoff Gilbert in advance on