Exile and the Writer's Psyche

“I am in permanent exile,” Roberto Bolaño wrote. At age fifteen, he moved from Chili to Mexico City with his family; then, by his account, returned to Chili five years later to take part in setting up the socialist democratic government. Pinochet staged a military coup and Bolaño described being thrown in jail. He was rescued by old friends, he said, and after that visit, never returned to his homeland. Since his death, however, this account was acknowledged to be contrived by those who knew him. Like Genet, Bolaño may have felt the need to fabricate details of his past; and why not? His writing, his brilliance, was enmeshed with an ability to fictionalize life in the service of literature; and to that end, he pushed all his chips into the middle of the table. By living all-in where ever he ended up, Bolaño's notion of being in exile may diverge a tad from other's perceptions.

Exile in its original sense implied a punishment: Expulsion from one’s home place. This form of justice is levied still in the modern world; and in extreme cases exile might be considered a gift; as under certain regimes, many of the accused are imprisoned or executed before they can flee. The disturbing reality of forced exile differs from a writer’s perception of the voluntary kind.

It may be worth reviewing associated concepts here as well as acknowledging a few authors who have been (literally) banished. Not that they would have anticipated or wished the burden upon themselves, but many later viewed the circumstances as being pivotal in the development of their writing during or following these trying periods: The exiled authors often produced work considered to be their best.

Victor Hugo was elected to the French Parliament after the Revolution of 1848 and creation of the Second Republic. Napoleon III seized power in 1851, establishing an anti-parliamentary constitution; Hugo called him a traitor and was exiled. He ultimately settled in Guernsey, living there until 1870. During this time, he finished Les Misérables.

Dante (Durante degli Aligheri) was sentenced to two years of exile when Charles of Valois and the Black Guelphs assumed control of Florence. He was ordered to pay a fine. He refused. In Rome at the time at behest of Pope Boniface VIII, Dante was viewed as an absconder. His sentence was amended to permanent exile. Had he returned to his beloved Florence, he would have faced being burned at the stake. Yet, in exile, Dante conceived of the Divine Comedy:

. . .You will leave everything you love most – this is the arrow that the bow of exile – shoots first. You will know how salty – another’s bread tastes and how hard it – is to ascend and descend – another’s stairs . . . (Paradiso XVII: 55-60)

In 2008, seven centuries after his death, the city of Florence passed a motion rescinding Dante's sentence.

Ovid, one of the three canonical poets of Latin literature, was banished by Emperor Augustus to Tomis on the Black Sea, as he implied, for an indiscretion not a crime. Augustus' granddaughter, Julia, coincidentally, was banished at the same time for adultery.

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (by Novy Mir in 1962), and The Gulag Archipelago, was the literary voice of political exile in the Twentieth century.

A worthy resource for those interested in modern exiled writers, NPR recently interviewed three politically oppressed authors who speak to the power of imagination as a means to transform their world: Azar Nafisi, Iranian author, Zimbabwean Chenjerai Hove and Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat. (NPR November 15, 2010; Writing in Exile Helps Authors Connect to Home)

The Judeo-Christian Bible gave exiles their first good bit of publicity: Recall Adam and Eve had been cast from the garden of Eden by God. Then Abraham was sent away for teaching monotheistic faith. Mohammed similarly, by the way: He denounced Meccan idols, was threatened with death and forced, along with his followers, out of his home city. Moses lived his whole life in exile. I wonder if he recognized that he was?

The law of exile was codified with Ostracism, a term familiar to us, under Athenian democracy, enabling a citizen to be expelled from the city-state of Athens for ten years.

Attendant with the process of exile is diaspora, a word which found wider usage after the Bible was translated into Greek with its references made of the Northern Kingdom being exiled from Israel by Assyrians, as well as expulsion and enslavement of Judea by the conquering Romans to the South. Colonizing migrations within Europe thereafter are too numerous to list; but world examples abound. The African diaspora, driven by slave trade, dispersed twenty three million individuals throughout territories controlled by the manufacturing empires. The Chinese exile, involving large populations of poorly educated peasants working as indentured laborers, was driven by the British Empire's need to find a replacement labor force once it moved to abolish the above slave trade in early nineteenth century. Likewise, Albanians, Basques, Hindu Indians, Irish, Japanese, Kashmiri, Koreans, Kurds, Palestinians, and Tamils were all carried by currents of exile. Locally, in the U.S., when auto factories closed in Detroit, workers dispersed in their own regional diaspora, exiling them effectively to other American cities such as Seattle, where work was available.

Exiled identity becomes precarious, and is of particular concern to the writer, whose occupation, partially at least, involves taking stock of the society in which they find themselves. Displacement affects a delicate sensibility like a slap in the face with a wet fish. A natural tendency in finding oneself in a far from equilibrium state is to seek to restore that equilibrium. The modern writer, with a little luck, does not normally have to fight with their fists to survive, excluding their keeping a day job. Ironically, the pressures of maintaining house and home in the present economic habitat transforms time, the time to write, into a commodity, a luxury item, at that. Given these pressures, it's possible a writer can be exiled into their own work place.

A state of psychic exile can arise out of both forced and self-imposed banishment. Forced exile includes not only imprisonment but the necessary escape from the environment which is either life threatening or has impressed such strict censorship upon the author that living there becomes intolerable. The oppression perceived within any given environment is to a degree subjective and value laden and can therefore be interpreted broadly, more often imposing a psychological as opposed to physical burden.

Odd question: Is it prerequisite to have an exiled mindset, to feel displacement, in order to participate in literature, as Bolaño had? Writing served him as a mediating activity, synonymous with a drive to express individuality. The literature of exile in his case is tautology: Literature is psychic exile for those who champion individuality above all else. Bolaño internalized his impressions of what took place around him like others eat soup. Individuals of this ilk, those all in with respect to whatever endeavor they pursue, flagellate themselves with single minded devotion, like eleventh century Benedictine monk Peter Damiana had; or James Joyce, in taking seventeen years to compose his magnum opus Finnegan's Wake, a book generally regarded as inaccessible to anyone not intellectually saavy and having a lot of time on their hands; it didn't make the New York Times bestseller list. So in the case of that writer imagining themselves in self imposed exile, there still has been described an urge to find a home in the imagination, to become part of the human race; at very least, to identify with their imagined tribe, say, the nomadic writers of the Kalahari.

Pixar movies have been said to be formula driven comedies of exile, describing a journey, somewhat mythological, which entails leaving familiar surroundings behind and journeying into scary expanses. The characters always return at the end having acquired new wisdom. Exile stories are embedded within collective consciousness. Exiled characters react to their alienated status, and attempt to connect or reconnect. Modern literature is rife with these journeys of anti-heroes, describing loss of identity along the way in a seemingly inhuman world. The heroes become estranged, encroached upon by technology, the status quo, and provincialism. This estrangement often resides within their own minds and it directly or indirectly reflects a similar condition within their creator’s mind. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, provides one of the greatest opening paragraphs in literature:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and  methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

The Biblical Ishmael was the son of Abraham, sent into exile with his mother. The sailing vessel and taking to the sea is a state of mind as well as a cure for an affliction; that is, for feeling alienated. Writers seek a berth on their own private Pequod. Artists and musician similarly; everybody really, boxers, mountain climbers, no matter what the passion. Writers tend to find more to say about psychic exile; and maybe take things a bit too seriously in viewing themselves as exiled in the first place, as opposed to living life on life’s sometimes unpredictable terms. To give these same self imposed psychically exiled writers the benefit of the doubt though; their vocation is particularly solitary and inward turning. It's also downright hard these days to find peace and quiet to go about any of it, to find a Room of One’s Own as Virginia Woolf described. The issue of autonomy, for these writers, is a sensitive if not desperate one.

And from a practical standpoint, perhaps it’s just better to embrace this inner exile and make it as mythical as one can, like Bolaño did; each and every morning, to arise and imagine oneself confined within one's own little Gulag; to set out on the arduous return journey home and continue returning, day after day, week after week; to always be continually returning.

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