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The Problem with Exile (after Ange Mlinko)

By Martin Earl

Irony heaped on irony: I was exiled from my home in the U.S. in the midst of the economic meltdown, so went to live, against my will, in Beirut; I needed to do some April readings for my new book so I came to stay in my parents’ home for a few days; now I can’t leave my parents’ home, though my children are waiting for me in our not-real-home, in Beirut, which is essentially the only place on earth I want to be right now. (From Ange Mlinko’s “Gated Community III)

Reading Ange Mlinko’s account of getting stuck in the United States by a volcano and her anxiousness to return to Beruit, where she never wanted to go in the first place, got me thinking of my own state of affairs, the result of living, so far, half of my life in Europe. What I’ve previously written on the subject of voluntary exile has been mostly positive. But I am slowly coming to feel that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages and that there is something nearly pathological about leaving one’s homeland voluntarily.

Drifting and homelessness have always been a part of American life. The cowboy, the hobo, Ishmael. Leaving town, as Henry David Thoreau did, was a rite of passage. Walden was a place to think about essentials. For those who didn’t actually leave America the process of exile (internal exile, or simply “hitting the road”) was an attempt, on the one hand, to de-Americanize oneself, most often in the wilderness, and on the other, to reform what they were leaving. Looking in from the outside provided the critical distance. Simplification, solitude, self-reliance became tools of vision. Later it was carried further: to the metropoles of a still colonial, pre-war Europe. If it were not for those poets, painters, novelists and journalists who went to Europe, the mid-East, Asia and Africa and reported back, modernism in America would have suffered something like the hundred year lag of the Northern Renaissance.

And yet, after having lived so long abroad I am beginning to see that the disadvantages for the life of the individual artist outweigh the advantages to his or her work and how it contributes to that lost community. If this sounds like the old Yeatsian formula, then that could be because poetry in itself is a form of exile.

Long-term exile not only causes you to lose the sense of a culture that was your birthright (you are still of it, but of a version frozen somewhere in a past that no longer exists except in memory); likewise, you never fully gain a sense of belonging to your adopted country. In the end you become twice the foreigner. American seems more foreign to me now, nearly exotic at times, than Portugal and Europe, my home, where I am comfortable and safe, though in a rather sad and incomplete way; even in an illusionary way. Mine is a comfort based on feeling permanently uncomfortable. It is, in a metaphysical sense, a problem of weight loss. Long term exiles fake belonging; they thrive on an idea of themselves as living a kind of permanent estrangement, beyond the pale, in the literal and historical sense. Mlinko gets to the pith of the matter: “A successful Polis makes life more livable for its inhabitants, who in turn sustain the life of the polis. Scattering and exile constitute failure.”

Then there is the question of the language. The work of many poets and fiction writers has thrived outside their own language community. Stein, James, Eliot, Bishop, Laura Riding. For others it is hard to imagine. Frost, Lowell, Capote, Pasternak, the later Ashbery.

I think exile is perhaps more gracefully embraced by European writers, since their cultures are more polyglot to begin with. The émigré tradition includes dozens of major 20th century European writers who seemed hardly to blink an eye at changed circumstances. In fact these circumstances that more often than not forced their exile and were often tragic in character became an integral part of their works. (Here is the difference between exile and voluntary exile). Exile strengthens resolve, while the voluntary version weakens it. It is hard to imagine that Kundera, Brodsky or Milosz would have gained the stature that they did had they not been forced into exile. Writers like Conrad, Beckett, Nabokov, who actually go so far as to write in the language of their adopted country are the distinguished anomalies, the royalty of exile. But there are degrees and differences. Both Nabakov and Brodsky flourished in English prose, the former in fiction and the latter in the essay, but neither ever mastered English versification.

On the other hand, Joyce’s pursuit of his mother tongue, of the essence of Irish English, seems to have been stimulated through deprivation, deprival at the source. Peter Handke falls in next to Joyce. Stein is a kind of precedent. She is one of the great curators of a distinctly American literary idiolect – which never would have happened had she stayed in America. How interesting that she thought it less distracting to write English surrounded by people who did not understand it; she also refused to read French, though it was technically her first language. Elizabeth Bishop suffered and even after nearly 15 years in Brazil she remained timid about her Portuguese. In a 1958 letter to May Swenson talking about a dinner she would attend in “Rio” she says: “Since the intellectuals are mostly pretty anti-American and since I still can’t carry on a descent conversation in Portuguese…” This is probably an exaggeration, or a bit of modesty, but it does point to the difficulties of trying to inhabit another language, especially when, as a writer, you so deeply inhabit your own.

For our generation, the long grind of linguistic exile presents a much different set conditions. For one thing, English, starting in the immediate postwar period, has, over half a century, gradually become the dominant language of transnational exchange. Euro-English, with its fish farm vocabulary and clipped grammar, all the intrinsic functionality of the language pushed to he forefront, is certainly not stimulating. If anything, it is an aggravation, especially for poets, since it lacks heart. It is cold and utilitarian. It tops out right at that point where poetry begins. It hurts the ears to hear it spoken, even when it is spoken well. It is the language of geopolitics, multi-nationals, high-finance and new-agers. It is the language of the enemy. I refuse to speak it unless it is absolutely necessary. I rush to the comfort of my adopted language, Portuguese; I stumble through French, buy bread in German, or tweak my Portuguese to make it sound like Spanish; or I just keep my mouth shut.

Besides the language problems and the sense of irrevocable displacement, to which we might add the immensely frustrating complexities of trying to gain a readership from a distance, there is that species of nostalgia, which English doesn’t even have a word for (in Portuguese the it is called saudade); it is a longing directed at intangibles, perhaps the life you never had, or once had but lost. It’s a forward-looking nostalgia that absorbs the present and even includes the future. Thomas Jefferson came very close to capturing the elements of this feeling in a letter he wrote home from France to his nephew, Peter Carr. “Travelling. This makes men wiser, but less happy. When men of sober age travel, they gather knowledge, which they may apply usefully for their country; but they are subject ever after to recollections mixed with regret; their affections are weakened by being extended over more objects; & they learn new habits which cannot be gratified when they return home.” Edith Wharton would speak of that same lack of gratification. The disappointment of returning to a home that is no longer home. Late in life Henry James concluded that “[i]f I were to live my life over again, I would be an American. I would steep myself in America, I would know no other land.” Unfortunately we only have one life and there is nothing more immutable than the one we didn’t have.

“Still,” as Ange Mlinko tells us, “some of the most exciting poetry in world history was written by people who were essentially homeless. This homelessness augmented the value of poetry for them—a poem was a “thing” they could essentially carry around in their heads, weighing nothing, and unable to be stolen or lost in transit. Conversely, even a temporary campsite has the heaviness of “home” if what took place there burned itself into the brain forever.” She is speaking about pre-Islamic, Arabic poetry, a poetry of wandering, tents and sand, of the nomadic Bedouin. And yet her statement contains something universal about it, about poetry written under the varying often tragic pressures of exile; it put me immediately in mind of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope against Hope, the extraordinary account of her an her husband’s life of exile under Stalin. Nadezhda literally did carry the body of her husbands poetry around in her head.

In the end, poetry really does survive in the valley of its own making, and it does so in a special way if that valley is, as Ange says, our not-real-home.


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, April 19th, 2010 by Martin Earl.