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Mind of Winter Reflection on Life in Exile 1984 Edward Said

Mind of Winter Reflection on Life in Exile 1984 Edward Said

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THE MINDOF WINTER
Reflections on life in exile
 B y
E dw ard 
W
S aid 
There
is no
sense of ease like the ease we felt 
in
those scenes where we were born,where objects became dear 
to
us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the Outer world seemed only an extension of our personaU(y.
-George Eliot,
The Millon the Floss
E x , , , , ,
theunhealable
r i f t
forced
between a human being and a native place, between the self and its truehome. The essential sadness of the break can never
be
surmounted. It istrue that there are stories portraying exile as a condition that produces he-role, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in a person's life. Butthese are no more than stories, efforts to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of any exile are permanently under-mined by his or her sense of loss.
I f 
true exile is a condition of terminal loss, why has that loss so easilybeen transformed into a potent, even enriching, motif of modem culture?One reason is that wehave become accustomed to thinking of the modemperiod itseif as spiritually orphaned and alienated. This is supposedly theage of anxiety and of the lonely crowd. Nietzsche taught us to feel uncom-fortable with tradition, and Freud to regard domestic intimacy as the politeface painted on patricidal and incestuous rage.The canon of modem Western culture is in large part the work of exiles,emigres, refugees. American academic, intellectual, and aesthetic thoughtiswhat it is today because of refugees from fascism, communism; and otherregimes given over to the. oppression and expulsion of dissidents. Onethinks ofEinstein, and his impact on his century. There have been politi-cal thinkers, such as Herbert Marcuse. The critic George Steiner once pro-posed that a whole genre of twentieth-century Western literature, aliterature by and about exiles-among them Beckett, Nabokov, Pound-reflects "the age of the refugee."
In
the introduction to his book 
Extraterri-torial,
Steiner wrote:
It seems proper that those who create art in a civilization of quasi-barbarism,which has made so many homeless, should themselves be poets unhoused andwanderers across language. Eccentric, aloof, nostalgic, deliberately untimely ...
In
other places and times, exiles had similar cross-cultural and trans-national visions, suffered the same frustrations and miseries, performed the
Edward 
w :
Said is Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature
at
ColumbiaUniversity. His
most recent
book is
The World, the Text, and the Critic.
ESSAY 49
 
Set aside Joyce and 
N
abokov and evenConrad. Think instead of theuncountable masses for whom UN agencies have beencreated 
50 HARPER'S
SEPTEMBER
same elucidating and critical tasks. The difference, of course, between ear-lier exiles and those of our own time isscale. Modem warfare, imperialism,and the quasi-theological ambitions of totalitarian rulers have seen to that.Ours is indeed the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass im-migration.Against this larger and more impersonal setting exile cannot function asa tonic. To think of exile asbeneficial, as a spur to humanism or to creativ-ity, is to belittle its mutilations. Modem exile is irremediably secular andunbearably historical. It isproduced by human beings for other human be-ings; it has tom millions of people from the nourishment of tradition, fam-ily, and geography.To see a poet in exiie-as opposed to reading the poetry of exile-is tosee exile's antinomies embodied and endured. Several years ago I spentsome time with FaizAhmad Faiz,the greatest of contemporary Urdu poets.He had been exiled from his native Pakistan by Zia ul-Haq's military re-gime and had found a welcome of sorts in the ruins of Beirut. His closestfriends were Palestinian, but I sensed that although there was an affinity of spirit between them, nothing quite matched-language, poetic conven-tion, life history. Only once, when Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani friend andfellow exile, came to Beirut, did Faizseem to overcome the estrangementwritten all over his face. The three ofus sat in a dingy restaurant late onenight, and Faiz recited poems to us. After a time he and Eqbal stoppedtranslating his verses for my benefit, but it did not matter. For what Iwatched required no translation: an enactment of homecoming steeped indefiance and loss,as if to sayexultantly to Zia, "We are here." Of course,Zia was the one who was at home.Exiled poets objectify and lend dignity to a condition designed to denydignity. To understand exile as a contemporary political punishment it isnecessary to map territories of experience beyond those mapped by litera-ture. It isnecessary to set aside Joyce and Nabokov and even Conrad, whowrote of exile with such pathos, but of exile without cause or rationale.Think instead of the uncountable massesfor whom UN agencies have beericreated, of refugees without urbanity, with only ration cards and agencynumbers. Paris is famous for attracting cosmopolitan exiles, but it is also aplace where men and women we have never heard of have spent years of miserable loneliness: Vietnamese, Algerians, Cambodians, Lebanese, Sen-egalese, Peruvians. Think also of Cairo, Beirut, Bangkok, Mexico City. Asthe distance from the Atlantic world increases, so too do the hopelesslylarge numbers, the forlorn waste, the compounded misery of "undocu-mented" people without a tellable history. To reflect on exiled Haitiansin America, Bikinians in Oceania, or Palestinians throughout the Arabworld wemust leave the modest refuge provided by subjectivity, by art, andresort to the arithmetic abstractions of mass politics. Negotiations, wars of national liberation, people bundled out of their homes and prodded,bused, or walked to camps in other states: What do these
W
experiences add up to? Are they not designed by the forcesthat brought them about to be denied, avoided, forgotten?e come to nationalism and its essential association with exile.Nationalism is an assertion of belonging to a place, a people, a heritage. Itaffirms the home created by a community of language, culture, and cus-toms; and by so doing, it fends off the ravages of exile. Indeed, it is not toomuch to say that the interplay between nationalism and exile is like He-gel's dialectic of servant and master, opposites informing and constitutingeach other. All nationalisms in their early stages posit as their goal theovercoming of some estrangement-from soil, from roots, from unity.:from destiny. The struggles to win American independence, to unify Ger-many, to liberate Algeria were those of national groups separated-ex-iled-from what wasconstrued to be their rightful wayof life. Triumphantnationalism can be used retrospectively as well as prospectively to justify a
lllustrations
by
David Suter
 
heroic narrative. Thus all nationalisms have their founding fathers, theirbasic, quasi-religious texts, their rhetoric of belonging, their historical andgeographical landmarks, their official enemies and heroes. This collectiveethos forms what Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, calls the
habitus,
the coherent amalgam of practices linking habit with inhabitance. In time,successful nationalisms arrogate truth exclusively to themselves and assignfalsehood and inferiority to outsiders.Just beyond the perimeter of what nationalism constructs as the nation,at the frontier separating "us" from what isalien, is the perilous territory of not-belonging. This is where, in primitive times, people were banished,and where, in the modern era, immense aggregates of humanity loiter asrefugees and displaced persons.One enormous difficulty in describing this no man's land is that nation-alisms are about groups, whereas exile is about the absence of an organicgroup situated in a native place. How does one surmount the loneliness of exile without falling into the encompassing and thumping language of na-tional pride, collective sentiments, group passions? What is there worthsaving and holding on to betweeri.tht; dtremes of exile on the one handand the often bloody-minded affirmations ofnationalism on the other? Arenationalism and exile reactive phenomena? Do they have any intrinsic at-tributes? Are they simply two conflicting expressions of paranoia?These questions cannot be fully answered because each of them assumesthat exile and nationalism can be discussed neutrally, without reference toeach other. Because both terms include everything from the most collec-tive of collective sentiments to the most private of private emotions, thereis no language adequate for both, and certainly there isnothing about na-tionalism's public and all-inclusive ambitions that touches the truth of theexile's predicament.For exile is fundamentally a discontinuous state of being. Exiles are cutoff from their roots, their land, their past. They generally do not have ar-mies, or states, though they are often in search of these institutions. Thissearch can lead exiles to reconstitute their broken lives in narrative form,usually by choosing to see themselves as part of a trium-
A
phant ideology or a restored people. Such a story isdesignedto reassemble an exile's broken history into a new whole.t bottom, exile is a jealous state. With very little to possess,you hold on to what you have with aggressive defensiveness. What youachieve in exile isprecisely what you have no wish to share, and it isin thedrawing of lines around you and your compatriots that the least attractiveaspects of being an exile emerge: an exaggerated sense ofgroup solidarity aswell as a passionate hostility toward outsiders, even those who may in factbe in the same predicament as you. What could be more intransigent thanthe conflict between Zionist Jews and Arab Palestinians? The Palestiniansfeel that they have been turned into exiles by the proverbial people of ex-ile, the Jews. But the Palestinians also know that their sense of nationalidentity has been nourished in the exile milieu, where everyone not ablood brother or sister is an enemy, where every sympathizer is really anagent of some unfriendly power, and where the slightest deviation from theaccepted line is an act of rankest treachery.Perhaps this is the only wayto comprehend the most poignant of exile'sfates, which is to be exiled by exiles, and to be condemned, seeminglywithout respite, to continue to be exiled by exiles. All Palestinians duringthe summer of 1982 asked themselves what inarticulate urge drove Israel,which had displaced them in
J
948, to expel them from the refugee campsin Lebanon. It was as if the reconstructed Jewish collective experience, asrepresented by Israel and modern Zionism, could not tolerate the existenceof another experience of dispossession and loss alongside it and so had todispossess again-avoiding, denying, repressing this other story, in strangeconcert with some of its neighboring Arab countries. Exile begets exile.
Exile
is
a jealousstate. W hat youachieve
in
exile is precisely what youhave 'no wish toshare
ESSAY 51

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