Exile: Is it Still Cool?
by Richard Collins
Letters of Transit: Five Authors Reflect on Exile,
Identity, Language, and Loss.
Edited by André Aciman.
The New Press & The New York Public Library, NY.
These essays were first presented as part of the lecture series of the same name sponsored by the New York Public Library, September 1997 to February 1998. Some of the essays have been published before in the Yale Review, the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. The title comes from the central conceit of the movie Casablanca, the letters of transit stolen by Peter Lorre, hidden in Sam's piano, kept by Rick to give to Victor and Ilsa, and lusted after by all of the European refugees who are trapped in the no man's land of Casablanca on their way to the promised land of America. These essayists suggest that nothing has changed, except the names on the letters of transit.
André Aciman's personable essay "Shadow Cities" takes off when one of his favorite parks in New York, Straus Park, named for one of the passengers on the Titanic, is fenced off and (he fears) about to be torn down. As it turns out, it is merely being renovated, the art nouveau statue who formerly looked so forlorn in the decrepit park among the drunks, addicts and homeless is later polished up and refurbished, back on her pedestal good as new. Realizing that the statue is not some anonymous nymph but the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, Aciman reflects on how memory causes the exile to invest his new "home" with the shadows of cities he has lived in previously. "Does a place become one's home," he asks, "because this is where one read the greatest number of books about other places?" More importantly, he discovers that being lost is another way of locating oneself: "Sometimes finding that you are lost where you were lost last year can be oddly reassuring, almost familiar. You may never find yourself; but you do remember looking for yourself."
My favorite of the five essays is Eva Hoffman's "The New Nomads." She notes that while true dislocation is painful, exile has taken on the romantic status of being "cool," especially among Americans abroad in Prague. But she makes fine and necessary distinctions of class, volition and reversability between subcategories of exiles: refugees, immigrants, émigrés and expatriates. "Real dislocation, the loss of all familiar external and internal parameters, is not glamorous, and it is not cool." This is not to say that "biculturalism" does not have its "bracing pleasures," nor that exile is not, in some ways, a universal condition of postmodern existence. But there are risks in making exile appear cool: "The chief risk of privileging the exilic narrative is a psychic split -- living in a story in which one's past becomes radically different from the present and in which the lost homeland becomes sequestered in the imagination as a mythic, static realm." Another risk is that one becomes nomadic, allowing "people to conceive of themselves as perpetually Other, and therefore unimplicated in the mundane, compromised, conflict-ridden locality they inhabit; it allows them to imagine the sources and causes of predicaments as located outside, in a hostile or oppressive environment, rather than within." Perhaps we all know of people living abroad, especially expatriates, who have fled their failures at home and console themselves by finding a circle of like-minded people who can find all manner of faults with where they came from and who find it difficult to "repatriate" themselves because the people back home just don't understand their alienation. Hoffman's warning to would-be glamorizers of exile serves a useful purpose, if they would listen.
In "Refugees" Charles Simic explains why he too can't identify with the chronically displaced and why "the role of the professional exile, forever homeless, forever misunderstood" has never attracted him. As a poet, Simic understands the opportunity disguised as tragedy when one loses one's "collective sentiments": "It's terrible when collective sentiments one is born with begin to seem artificial, when one starts to suspect that one's exile is a great misfortune but also a terrific opportunity to get away from everything one has always secretly disliked about the people one grew up with."
Simic focuses less on nationality or "identity" (whatever that is) than on the expressions of that identity. What we wear and say, in spite of ourselves, say exactly who and what we are. At sixteen, newly arrived in New York he tries on cowboy duds that turn him into a "country hick," and also tries out his schoolboy English which has him asking how many "corners" to the Empire State Building, instead of how many blocks. After a year in Romania, when I knew just enough of the language to let my guard down, I recall saying to someone as I shook his hand for the first time: "Im pare rau" instead of "Im pare bine" -- "I'm sorry" instead of "I'm pleased [to meet you]." Simic trains himself not to let such things happen twice by throwing himself into the American idiom, brainwashing himself with weird mantras: "Hey, smart aleck! Crackerjack. Okeydokey. Chase butterflies. Hogwash. Hold the phone. Go to the dogs." The immigrant poet hears the language the rest of us merely understand. Not because he is superior, but because he doesn't want to appear a fool, out of the loop, clueless, up shit creek.
Simic's sixteen-year-old enthusiasm for merging with American culture is refreshing after hearing Bharati Mukherjee's dour pronouncement in "Imagining Homelands" that we'll all just have to get used to the "bitter, exiled discourse" of immigrants with "their tight defensiveness, their aggressiveness, their blinkered vision." Since such is the usual discourse of multiculturalism, it is also refreshing to hear Edward Said, in "No Reconciliation Allowed," criticize most multicultural discourse: "Nothing seems less interesting than the narcissistic self-study that today passes in many places for identity politics, or ethnic studies, or affirmations of roots, cultural pride, drum-beating nationalism, and so on. We have to defend peoples and identities threatened with extinction or subordinated because they are considered inferior, but that is very different from aggrandizing a past invented for present reasons."
Each of the book's essays -- whether written by a poet, a novelist, or a critic -- comes to the same conclusion: "In his text the writer sets up house....For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live" -- but "in the end the writer is not even allowed to live in his writing." Ironically, this conclusion is stated by Theodor Adorno, who is invited in as an honored squatter (i.e. cited), by Edward Said. To invoke another heavyweight name, Heidegger made this feeling of "not-at-homeness" one of the keystones of his brand of existentialism, which he in turn recognized was not really a modern condition but was presaged by the heavyweight of Soto Zen thought, Dogen (1200-1253). There is good reason why Zen monks don't have a monastery-entering ceremony, but rather a "home-leaving" ceremony. This occurs even if they are homeless. Why? To signify their recognition that they have no identity to write on letters of transit, no attachment to family, home, nation or self.
Simic comes to a similar conclusion through his practice as a lyric poet, saying that he distrusts all theories, preaching and moralizing. He prefers the lyric poem as the voice of "a single human being taking stock of his or her own existence." Simic suggests that the lyric poet is capable of living in exile, rather in the way Keats's poet was capable of living in uncertainties, mysteries, doubt: "A poet," says Simic, "is a member of that minority that refuses to be part of any official minority, because a poet knows what it is to belong among those walking in broad daylight, as well as among those hiding behind closed shutters." So does the exile. Or as Keats said, the Poet (like the exile) has no Identity. And neither do we.
This slim book makes a fine traveling companion for refugee, immigrant, émigré or expatriate. Slip it into your suitcase, or better yet memorize it. That's always cool.
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