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The Condition We Call Exile

The following was written for a conference on exiles held by the Wheatland Foundation in Vienna in December.

As we gather here, in this attractive and well-lit room, on this cold December evening, to discuss the plight of the writer in exile, let us pause for a minute and imagine some of those who, quite naturally, didn’t make it to this room. Let us imagine, for instance, Turkish gast-arbeiters prowling the streets of West Germany, uncomprehending or envious of the surrounding reality. Or let us imagine Vietnamese boat people bobbing on high seas or already settled somewhere in the Australian outback. Let us imagine Mexican wetbacks crawling the ravines of southern California, past the border patrols into the territory of the United States. Or let us imagine shiploads of Pakistanis disembarking somewhere in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, hungry for menial jobs the oil-rich locals won’t do. Let us imagine multitudes of Ethiopians trekking some desert on foot into Somalia—or is it the other way around?—escaping the famine. Well, we may stop here because that minute of imagining has already passed, although a great many could be added to this list. Nobody ever counted these people and nobody, including the UN relief organizations, ever will: coming in the millions, they elude computation and constitute what is called—for want of a better term or a higher degree of compassion—migration.

Whatever the proper name for these people, whatever their motives, origins, and destinations, whatever their impact on the societies which they abandon and to which they come may amount to—one thing is absolutely clear: they make it very difficult to talk about the plight of the writer in exile with a straight face.

Yet talk we must; and not only because literature, like poverty, is known for taking care of its own kind, but more because of the ancient and perhaps as yet unfounded belief that should the masters of this world be better read, the mismanagement and grief that make millions take to the road could be somewhat reduced. Since there is not much on which to rest our hopes for a better world, since everything else seems to fail one way or another, we must somehow maintain that literature is the only form of moral insurance a society has; that it is the permanent antidote to the dog-eat-dog principle; that it provides the best argument against any sort of bulldozer-type mass solution—if only because human diversity is literature’s lock and stock, as well as its raison d’être.

We must talk because we must insist that literature is the greatest—surely greater than any creed—teacher of human subtlety, and that by interfering with literature’s natural existence and with people’s ability to learn literature’s lessons, a society reduces its own potential, slows down the pace of its evolution, ultimately, perhaps, puts its own fabric in peril. If this means that we must talk about ourselves, so much the better: not for ourselves but perhaps for literature.

Whether he likes it or not, Gastarbeiters and refugees of any stripe effectively pluck the carnation out of an exiled writer’s lapel. Displacement and misplacement are this century’s commonplace. And what our exiled writer has in common with a Gastarbeiter or a political refugee is that in either case a man is running away from the worse toward the better. The truth of the matter is that from a tyranny one can be exiled only to a democracy. For the old gray mare of exile ain’t what it used to be. It isn’t leaving civilized Rome for savage Sarmatia anymore, nor is it sending a man from, say, Bulgaria to China. No, as a rule what takes place is a transition from a political and economic backwater to an industrially advanced society with the last word on individual liberty on its lips. And it must be added that perhaps taking this route is for an exiled writer, in many ways, like going home—because he gets closer to the seat of the ideals that inspired him all along.

If one would assign the life of an exiled writer a genre, it would have to be tragicomedy. Because of his previous incarnation, he is capable of appreciating the social and material advantages of democracy far more intensely than its natives are. Yet for precisely the same reason (whose main byproduct is the linguistic barrier) he finds himself totally unable to play any meaningful role in his new society. The democracy into which he has arrived provides him with physical safety but renders him socially insignificant. And the lack of significance is what no writer, exile or not, can take.

For it is the quest for significance that very often constitutes the rest of his career. To say the least, it is very often a literary career’s consequence. In the case of an exiled writer, it is almost invariably the cause of his exile. And one is terribly tempted to add here that the existence of this desire in a writer is the conditioned response on his part to the vertical structure of his original society. (On the part of a writer living in a free society, the presence of this desire bespeaks the atavistic memory every democracy has of its unconstitutional past.)

In this respect, the plight of an exiled writer is indeed much worse than that of a Gastarbeiter or the average refugee. His appetite for recognition makes him restless and oblivious to the superiority of his income as a college teacher, lecturer, little magazine editor, or just a contributor—for these are the most frequent occupations of exiled authors nowadays—over the wages of somebody doing menial work. That is, our man is a little bit corrupt, almost by definition. But then the sight of a writer rejoicing in insignificance, in being left alone, in anonymity is about as rare as that of a cockatoo at the Polar Circle, even under the best possible circumstances. Among exiled writers, this attitude is almost totally absent. At least it is absent in this room. Understandably so, of course, but saddening nonetheless.

It is saddening because if there is anything good about exile, it is that it teaches humility. One can even take it a step further and suggest that the exile’s is the ultimate lesson in that virtue. And that it is especially priceless for a writer because it puts him into the longest possible perspective. “And thou art far in humanity,” as Keats said. To be lost in mankind, in the crowd—crowd?—among billions; to become a needle in that proverbial haystack—but a needle somebody is searching for—that’s what exile is all about. Pull down your vanity, it says, you are but a grain of sand in the desert. Measure yourself not against your fellow penmen but against human infinity: it is about as bad as the inhuman one. Out of that you should speak, not out of your envy or your ambition.

Needless to say, this call goes unheeded. Somehow a commentator on life prefers his position to his subject and, when in exile, he considers that position grim enough not to aggravate it any further, and such calls inappropriate. He may be right, although calls for humility are always timely. For the other truth of the matter is that exile is a metaphysical condition. At least, it has a very strong, very clear metaphysical dimension, and to ignore or to dodge it is to cheat yourself out of the meaning of what has happened to you, to doom yourself to remaining forever at the receiving end of things, to ossify into an uncomprehending victim.

It is because of the absence of good examples that one cannot describe an alternative mode of conduct (although Milosz or Musil come to mind). Maybe this is just as well, because we are here evidently to talk about the reality of exile, not about its potential. And the reality of it consists of an exiled writer constantly fighting and conspiring to restore his significance, his poignant role, his authority. His main consideration, of course, is the folks back home; but he also wants to rule the roost in the malicious village of his fellow émigrés.

Playing ostrich to the metaphysics of his situation, he concentrates on the immediate and tangible. This means besmirching colleagues in a similar predicament; bilious polemics with rival publications; innumerable interviews for the BBC, Deutsche Viele, ORTF, and the Voice of America; open letters; statements for the press; going to conferences—you name it. The energy previously spent in food lines or petty officials’ musty anterooms is now released and gone rampant. Unchecked by anyone, let alone by his kin (for he is himself now a Caesar’s wife, as it were, and beyond suspicion—how could his maybe-even-literate-but-aging spouse correct or contradict her certified martyr?), his ego grows rapidly in diameter and eventually, filled with CO2, lifts him from reality—especially if he resides in Paris, where the Mongolfiere brothers set up the precedent.

Traveling by balloon is always precipitous and, above all, unpredictable: too easily one becomes a plaything of winds, in this case, of political winds, which are anything but Passete.* Small wonder then that our navigator keenly listens to all the forecasts, and on occasion ventures to predict the weather himself. That is, not the weather of wherever he starts or finds himself en route, but the weather at his destination, for our balloonist is invariably homebound. And perhaps the third truth of the matter is that a writer in exile is by and large a retrospective and retroactive being. In other words, retrospection plays an excessive role—compared with other people’s lives—in his existence, overshadowing his reality and dimming the future into something thicker than its usual pea soup. Like the false prophets of Dante’s Inferno, his head is forever turned backward and his tears, or saliva, are running down between his shoulder blades. Whether or not he is of elegiac disposition by nature is beside the point: doomed to a limited audience abroad, he cannot help pining for the multitudes, real or imagined, left behind. The way the former fills him with venom, the latter fuels his fantasy. Even having gained the freedom to travel, even having actually done some traveling, he will stick in his writing to the familiar material of his past, producing, as it were, sequels to his previous works. Approached on this subject, an exiled writer will most likely evoke Ovid’s Rome, Dante’s Florence, and—after a small pause—Joyce’s Dublin.

Indeed, we’ve got a pedigree, and a much longer one than that. If one wants, one can trace it all the way back to Adam. And yet we should be careful about the place it tends to occupy in the public’s and our own minds. We all know what happens to many a noble family over generations or in the course of a revolution. Family trees never make or obscure the forest; and the wood is now advancing. I am mixing metaphors here, but perhaps I can justify my doing this by remarking that to expect for ourselves the kind of future that we associate with the above-mentioned few is imprudent rather than immodest. Of course a writer always takes himself posthumously: and an exiled writer especially so, inspired not so much by the artificial oblivion to which he is subjected by his former state as by the way the critical profession in the free marketplace enthuses about his contemporaries. Yet one should go carefully about this type of self-estrangement, not for any other reason than the realization that, with the population explosion, literature, too, took on the dimensions of a demographic phenomenon.

  1. *

    Tradewinds.

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