meditations on exile

Here I sit, blank screen, books lying about, borrowed phrases and images whirling in my head. How am I going to juggle all these fragments? How to get them all into a single post? These different essays and excerpts that have been haunting me, in so consoling a way ….

Well, I could start by listing some names & titles (1) :

  • John Armstrong: “Why Beauty Moves Us to Tears”

  • Hannah Arendt: “Jews and Society – between Pariah and Parvenu” ; “Stateless Persons – Jewess and Shlemihl”

  • Edward Said: “Intellectual Exile : Expatriates and Marginals”

  • Marc Chagall: paintings with people floating in the air

So what could they have in common: the settled British Philosopher of Aesthetics (still alive), the combative Palestinian Intellectual & Professor of Literature (died in 2003) and the Jewish Political Philosopher (died in 1975)?

Well, they seem to share a common sensibility to the condition of exile and marginality.

Now you can take exile in an actual political or geographical sense, indicating the dislocation of whole communities and the flows of migration. There’s also exile as a literal individual banishment from one’s home or community . And then you can take exile as a metaphor, indicating a state of un-at-homeness in a personal or even poetical sense.

But whether it be the fate of a community or an individual, an actual or a metaphorical state, exile always means “existing in a median state […] beset with half-involvements and half-detachments, an adept mimic or a secret outcast". It is “the state of never being fully adjusted, always feeling outside the chatty, familiar world inhabited by natives”.

Said’s "secret outcast or adept mimic" seems like a variation then on Arendt’s account of the choice faced by those who live on the fringes of mainstream society: either remain a Pariah or become a Parvenu.

Said sees exile as a potentially fertile ground for a critical intellectual because of the “double perspective” exile offers: the exile’s ambivalent position means that for him or her “an idea or experience is always counterposed with another”, he or she incorporates multiple points of view. Arendt then sees as the “privileges of pariah’s : “ humanity, kindness, freedom from prejudice, sensitiveness to injustice”.

Being an exile, marginal, pariah, …. might almost seem a highly romantic fate, rewarded with a heightened sensibility and a unique outside glimpse of the world. And perhaps exile is an opportunity indeed …. well, for a few lucky individuals that is. For those lucky enough to be endowed with innate self-confidence and talents so as to be able to reconcile their own inner contradictions and at the same time take on an indifferent or hostile world.

But more often exile, whether coped with as a pariah or as a conformist parvenu, is alas a condition of utter solitude and isolation. And it is striking that both Said and Arendt (1) , when getting into personal instances of exile, mention the demand that “ one harden oneself against self-pity”, that one should not fall into the trap of “envying those around one who have always been at home”.

And what on earth could the settled professor of aesthetics have to tell about exile? Ah, he knows about exile too, as we all do. He gently reminds us of all those moments when we are moved to tears by beauty – be it in the serenity of an evening sky, in the sweet welcoming smile of a medieval Madonna, or in the wisdom of some lines of poetry.

Does not this beauty hurt, because it reminds us of those better (wiser, more serene, more warm and welcoming) parts of us we all too often neglect while getting on with the strenuous business of life? Does it not feel then as if these moments of beauty are intimations of a home we have been forced to relinquish? And aren’t we all exiles from this home, exiles from our better soul , only every once in a while reminded by beauty that our aimless wanderings are (2)

Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,

Or take the Russian-Jewish expatriate painter Marc Chagall, what he had to show about exile, with his dreamy anguished paintings of violinists floating in the air above cozy houses and gardens. He wrote (3) :

“the houses have been demolished since childhood. Their inhabitants rove about in the air, in search for a home. They dwell in my soul.”

As always, there’s truth to be found in bulky footnotes
(1) this is no name-dropping! Allow me to quote from a previous post: I don’t drop names, I recite them , reverently & lovingly. Somehow those names serve like talismans – “reminding me of what I value”, evoking a world of wisdom & wit & beauty where I alas cannot often dwell.

(2) There is for instance Hannah Arendt’s book on Rahel Varnhagen (a Jewish woman having lived in Berlin from 1771 to 1833, looking for “recognition and a morsel of happiness” in a society that valued very lowly indeed a sensitive Jewish woman without particular beauty or wealth). This curious book (so uncharacteristic for Arendt’s oeuvre) is a “meditation on human marginality”, showing the inner consequences of it, how it makes a person vulnerable to alienation, how it may drive one inward. How a person may seek refuge in the realm of abstract ideas and art, so as not to confront a concrete personal reality of unhappiness. “Objective and impersonal thought was able to minimize the purely human, purely accidental quality of unhappiness - thus the power and the autonomy of the soul are secured” – but at a high price …

(3) And here’s more of the Wordsworth verse – I put it in the notes, because I feel awkward about its religiosity. I’m not a religious person, but of course I dote on the metaphor of a glorious home we would have left behind.
"Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home. "

(4) Chagall, extracts from “Ma Vie”:
« Les maisons ont été détruites dès l’enfance,
Les habitants vagabondent dans l’air
A la recherche d’un logis.
Ils habitent dans mon âme. »


Phoenix said...

fascinating! I return, enriched again. :-)

despite all the geographical, racial, cultural and aesthetic differences and the cliques thereof, the human species, in my humble opinion, is a straggly bunch of misfits, a majority of whom are in denial and are trying to fit in desperately, somewhere. then there are the ones who know and celebrate the unbelongingness. the pariahs, the self-exiled, the trippers.

ffflaneur said...

well, that is the human species neatly summed up in one sweeping statement! :-) So we have misfits-in-denial and self-exiled --- and what about the observers? those just passing through? :)

(am of course not speculating at all where you would position yourself on the human misfit-spectrum)

Phoenix said...

hahaha, I know, I'm slightly prone, now and then, to over-simplify and sweep... :-P

interesting you should bring it up, still havent quite figuredwhat my exact role in this soap opera is...hmm. ;-)

ffflaneur said...

& the thing with this soap opera - there's not even a director to enlighten us on our role! maybe we should just sit back and watch, and chuckle (or cry, as the case may be). & every once in a while, venture a scathing review. :)

Phoenix said...

that sounds just about right. as far as the performance goes, the mantra's to ad-lib, isnt it, regardless of the script? :-)