[While gathering material for one of my posts-in-progress, I dug up an essay by one of my favorite travel writers, Ian Buruma, first published in 2001. As I have learned, exile is something that many intellectuals do as a matter of course - the act of alienating ourselves from the world is a necessary function of the intellect. Separating ourselves from others is, in fact, what learning does. It is the ultimate exile, presuming above our stations, making ourselves more than what others are satisfied to remain. But there is always a pull in the opposite direction. The lure that left-wing politics has for too many intellectuals is one of rediscovering the importance of belonging - to a family, to a tribe, to a race. I realized in my military service that I was replaceable, that the notion of service "above and beyond the call of duty" was nonsense because it destroyed the very uniformity that the military breaks men's backs (and hearts) to achieve every day. Some people found such a faceless, nameless life eminently inviting. There must have been something to it for me, since I endured more than ten years of it. Somewhere (I can no longer find the source), the Irish writer Sean O'Faolain wrote that "the heart is always exiling itself". Then there was Kipling, who wrote (glibly as usual): "Breathes there a man with soul so dead/Who to himself hath never said/This is my own, my native land?" Kipling's "native land" was India.]
The Romance of Exile
by Ian Buruma
Exile is in fashion. Once it was consumption--pale, sunken cheeks, spatters of blood on a white linen handkerchief, and so on--that suggested an artistic sensibility and a poetic soul. Now it is exile that evokes the sensitive intellectual, the critical spirit operating alone on the margins of society, a traveler, rootless and yet at home in every metropolis, a tireless wanderer from academic conference to academic conference, a thinker in several languages, an eloquent advocate for ethnic and sexual minorities--in short, a romantic outsider living on the edge of the bourgeois world. This may sound frivolous. For exile is surely no fun. There is nothing glamorous about the poor, shivering Tamil, sleeping on a cold plastic bench at the Frankfurt railway station; or the Iraqi, fleeing from Saddam's butchers, afraid of walking the streets of Dover, lest he be attacked by British skinheads; or the young woman from Eritrea, standing along a minor road to Milan, picking up truck drivers so that she can feed her baby. These are not fashionable figures, they are genuine outcasts; and they have nothing in common with the multicultural intellectuals whom we honor as the poets of postcolonial discourse.
I have in front of me an interesting little book called Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language and Loss. It is a collection of lectures given at the New York Public Library by five well-known writers "in exile." Edward Said is introduced as a Palestinian in exile, Eva Hoffman as a Pole in exile, Bharati Mukherjee as a Bengali in exile, Charles Simic as a Yugoslav in exile, and Andre Aciman, the editor of the book, as an exile from Alexandria. The lectures are, on the whole, unexceptionable. The curious thing is that, of the five witnesses to exile, only two were forced to leave their country of origin: Aciman, whose family was kicked out of Egypt, and Simic, whose parents could not live under communism. Said, who grew up in Cairo, was sent to a private boarding school in the United States, not as a consequence of any force majeure, but because his father, an American citizen, believed that an American education offered better prospects for a bright young man. He was quite right, of course; and Said repaid his father's confidence by having a very successful American career. Bharati Mukherjee, born into a wealthy Calcutta family, married a Canadian writer, moved to North America, and has no desire to return to India, except, as she puts it, for "relaxed vacations."
Why, then, this invocation of "exile"? Why the conscious identification with banishment, with the outcasts of the world? In her measured contribution, Eva Hoffman comes up with a plausible explanation. Exile, in her view, "involves dislocation, disorientation, self-division. But today, at least within the framework of postmodern theory, we have come to value exactly those qualities of experience that exile demands--uncertainty, displacement, the fragmented identity. Within this conceptual framework, exile becomes, well, sexy, glamorous, interesting." In literary and academic circles, then, exile has acquired a theoretical quality, something far removed from those cold plastic benches at Frankfurt station, the skinheads of Dover, or the truck drivers stopping for quick relief along the b-routes to Milan.
What we have here, in other words, is exile as metaphor, to use Said's phrase: exile as the typical condition of the modern intellectual--indeed, as the only condition that should command our respect. This is not an original thesis. Said's hero, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, who was for a time a real exile, claimed that a sense of alienation, of not feeling at home even in your own home, was the only correct moral attitude for an intellectual to adopt. Adorno was in this respect heir to a German romantic tradition, according to which intellectuals form a secular clerisy guarding the moral and intellectual health of the nation. (Gunter Grass is an example of a modern writer who still takes this line.)
Exile as metaphor is not a new idea, either. In the Jewish tradition, for example, a symbolic meaning has been attached to exile for a very long time. The last words of the Passover seder, "Next year in Jerusalem," express a pious wish that is, for most of those who voice it, an abstraction. For Orthodox Jews, it is only time to return to Jerusalem once the Messiah has come and the temple has been restored to its former glory. Jerusalem, in this sense, is less a real place than a religious vision. It would indeed be a form of blasphemy, for most of the Orthodox tradition, to turn the vision into a political reality. Thus the idea of doing just that--of returning the Jews to their ancient land and making Israel again into the homeland of the Jews--had to be a secular enterprise, started by non-Orthodox, often socialist Jews. Theodor Herzl was a Viennese intellectual who had no time for religious metaphors. He had purely practical reasons for liberating Jews from exile: millions lived under the constant threat of poverty and violence.
The Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua calls Jewish exile, the golah, a "neurotic condition." It is neurotic to express a longing for something without actually wishing to attain it. In Yehoshua's view, the longing to return to Jerusalem is no more than a neurotic form of nostalgia--a not uncommon condition, by the way, among certain literary exiles, too. But Yehoshua goes further, and touches on the contemporary romance of exile: he thinks that Jews are victims of their own delusion of having been chosen by God. For the idea of Jewish exceptionalism is hard to maintain at home, in a largely Jewish nation, with its own government, army, political parties, showbiz celebrities, scandals, gangsters, movie stars, and the rest. The self-flattering as well as fatal notion of being chosen, of being different from the others, is easier to maintain in exile, where one's special status can be confirmed almost daily by instances, imagined or real, of discrimination. The Holocaust came as the final proof that this was not a sensible recipe for a quiet life. Yehoshua is a Zionist, in the secular tradition of Herzl, because he wants Jews to live as a normal people, neither exiled nor persecuted nor privileged by God.
The choice to live in a metaphorical exile is in fact already a form of privilege, something only people who face no real danger can afford. Herzl, who felt at ease with the higher goyim of Europe, understood this perfectly well. The return to the holy land was not to help himself, but to help other Jews who were not in a position to enjoy their special status as the chosen ones. But Herzl, so far as I know, had the honesty never to use the word "exile" to describe his own condition.
Exile as a metaphor did not begin with the Jewish diaspora. The first story of exile in our tradition is the story of Adam and Eve. No matter how we interpret the story of their expulsion from the Garden of Eden--original sin or not--we may be certain of one thing: there is no way back to paradise. After that fatal bite of the apple, the return to pure innocence was cut off forever. The exile of Adam and Eve is the mark of maturity, the consequence of growing up. An adult can only recall the state of childlike innocence in his imagination; and from this kind of exile a great deal of literature has emerged. The sign of this literature is the melancholy knowledge that we can never return to Eden, however much we stuff ourselves with our particular madeleines.
The landscape of Eden, shown in countless paintings and prints, is a luxuriant, watery place crawling with life, like a tropical jungle, filled with lakes and green forests, insects, birds, and other animals. Places of exile in literature, from the Bible to Ovid's Tristia and the Chinese poets, are empty, barren, lifeless, hot and dry, or swept by icy winds: exile as a kind of death. Banished by his emperor to a backwater on the Black Sea, Ovid writes about his "lonely exile, stretching out in time as bleak as the terrain itself, as vast, as empty..." And Tomis, his place of exile, is described as "that huddle of mean hovels in the chill wind that blows off the dark Euxine..." The Roman hedonist, banished for writing his erotic poems (this, at any rate, was the official explanation), dies "of thirst for the liquid flow of good talk and laughter." Liquidity is clearly important (and a common symbol of matriarchy).
There is a rich literature of empire written by people, often English or Dutch, who were born in tropical colonies and later sent to homelands that they had never seen. Their earliest memories evoke a tropical landscape, full of lakes, rivers, and lush gardens, where they roam as nature's children, nurtured by local nannies. To be banished from this paradise and sent to school "back home" was a great shock, but there is no way back to the tropical Eden of a colonial childhood. For that place no longer exists, metaphorically or in actual fact. The colonies must indeed have been like paradise for many northern European children. Innocence was given an Arcadian landscape and climate. Malay, or Urdu, spoken by the local nannies, was the language of childhood purity. The landscape of the adult world of good and evil, by contrast, was northern, cold and bleak; and English or Dutch were the harsh languages of fathers and tyrannical boarding schools.
This is a caricature, to be sure. And it is one that leaves out all the dark aspects of colonialism. But it is a caricature that, through peculiar historical circumstances, gives shape to something that all of us can feel, even if we never left home. The transition from childhood innocence, and the security of the maternal embrace, to the hard world of maturity, can indeed seem like a form of exile for most of us. In his memoir Out of Time, Edward Said describes his arrival from Cairo in 1951, to go to school in America. The worst wrench was to leave his mother, who never ceased to remind her son how "unnatural" it was to be living apart. He can still feel the loss today, "the sense that I'd rather be somewhere else--defined as closer to her, authorized by her, enveloped in her special maternal love, infinitely forgiving, sacrificing, giving---because being here was not being where I/we had wanted to be, here being defined as a place of exile..."
We all know the feeling, the Wordsworthian feeling, even though we may not express it quite so tearfully. Ovid certainly felt it, but he recognized also the need to overcome it: "There's no end to the business of learning how not to be a child, tired, hungry, cold, and calling for his mama. Not to call ... that is the beginning of courage." Exile from Eden is simply a part of life. In this sense, it is common to all of us, and so it cannot be adequately described as an experience of victimization. Some exiles from the bliss of childhood never look back; some never get over it, and look for the maternal embrace in the beds of many women; some turn it into art. This explains the universal fascination with exile in literature. The voice of Ovid, Li Po, and Joseph Roth appeal to us not least because their banishments, which were not imaginary, also contained a deeper, metaphorical meaning.
There are different circumstances in which the childhood Edens cease to exist. A society, a culture, even a people can disappear. Czeslaw Milosz, born as a Pole in Lithuania, has described what it is like to look back now, as an American in California, to his youth in Vilna. He still writes in Polish about people and ways of life that are no longer there. All things change everywhere, of course; but some places are more stable than others. In the case of Milosz, and also of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the worlds that they describe exist only in their books.
The same was true for Joseph Roth, one of my favorite writers. He lived in exile twice over, for he grew up in the Austro-Hungarian empire of Franz-Joseph, which ceased to exist in 1918, and died as an exile in Paris in 1939, one year after Austria was swallowed up by Hitler's Third Reich. His most gripping novels, The Radetzky March (1932) and its sequel The Emperor's Tomb (1938), are together a requiem for the Hapsburg empire, which wrapped the minorities in its royal embrace. Both novels trace the fortunes of the Trotta family, whose original home was in the border regions, where Roth himself was born. At the Battle of Solferino in 1859, grandfather Trotta saved his emperor's life by shielding him from a bullet. He received a fine title for his heroism. But after that things begin to slide for the Trottas, and for the empire too. Carl Joseph, the grandson of the hero of Solferino, dies amidst the general slaughter of World War I. The emperor dies in that same year, and two years later so does the empire.
Roth, who spent much of the 1930s in exile, working and drinking in cafes and hotels, wrote that his "strongest experience was the war and the fall of my fatherland, the only one I ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy." He was banished from an empire that continued to exist only in his imagination. But there is another form of banishment, which snuffs out the possibility of return to the old country, but not because the place of origin has ceased to exist. Perhaps this is the hardest kind to bear. After a life in exile, it is often too late to go back. Too much has happened while you were away. You have become a stranger. The country that you remember is no longer the country that you left.
This feeling of loss, the sense that it is too late, that you have lost your place, was beautifully expressed more than two thousand years ago by Chinese poets. One example should be enough to show that emotions of this kind have no borders. It was written by Li Ling, who lived in exile in the bleak desert north of the Great Wall. His only Chinese companion in the land of the Huns was a friend samed Su Wu. After nineteen years, Su was told he could return to the hearth of Chinese civilization. Li Ling decided not to go with him. Instead he began to dance in the wilderness and to sing a song:
I came ten thousand leagues
Across sandy deserts
In the service of my Prince
To break the Hun tribes.
My way was blocked and barred,
My arrows and sword broken.
My armies had faded away,
My reputation had gone.
My old mother is long dead. Although I
want to requite my Prince
How can I return?
Ulysses, one of the most remarkable exiles in Western literature, was not really banished, in the sense that he was driven from his home; but his return from Troy was blocked for ten years, and so he was an exile after all. Ulysses pined for Ithaca, the land of his ancestors, where his house was, and his family, and his wife Penelope. He was lord of Ithaca: that was his place in the order of things. A man who has lost his house, his wife, or his position is not a proper man, but a beggar, a vagabond, half dead in the land of the living. A vagabond is sterile; he does not produce a family; he leaves nothing behind; his life has no meaning. Only at home, with a solid reputation, can a man lead an honorable life. The Odyssey is the story of a man who must regain his position in the order of things. Some gods, especially Athena, are of help to him; others, notably Poseidon, the god of the oceans, try to hinder him in his task.
Like those Teutonic knights in search of some holy grail or other, Ulysses is tested before he can return to his family. It is as though time is arrested during his trials, as if the natural life cycle of the hero is frozen. In the land of Circe, where Ulysses sleeps with the dangerous and seductive goddess, and his men spend their time feasting, it is hard to measure time in days and nights. It feels like a timeless existence, and like a baby in the mother's womb, the hero is in the power of his woman--a power that he has to overcome in order to live.
Yet the Odyssey is not only about the trials of Ulysses. Equally important is the story of Penelope, who has to protect the status quo in Ithaca, and fend off the advances of her husband's rivals. Without her fidelity, the hero's attempts to regain his honor and position would come to nothing. Homer, in other words, was as sensitive as the ancient Chinese poet to the problems of living abroad for too long. Things change in your absence. How do you find your way back? How do you find yourself again?
When Ulysses finally wakes up on the beach of his native Ithaca, he does not recognize where he is at first. "Man of misery, whose land have I lit on now? What are they here--violent, savage, lawless? Or friendly to strangers, god-fearing men?" Nor can the hero simply turn up at his old house. He must disguise himself as a beggar. Now it is the turn of others to be tested, to show whether they will still serve him loyally. The shrewd Ulysses always was a bit of a practical joker. There is something sinister about the trickster, who manipulates the fate of others for the godlike pleasure of watching their helplessness. The joker is omniscient, his victims are blind, like those hapless people in candid-camera programs. What the gods did to him, Ulysses now does to his old servants, to his wife, and, of course, to his rivals.
It is impossible to know precisely what Homer meant to convey in his epic story; but he was certainly dealing with the tension between human autonomy and fate. A grown person has to feel responsible for his or her life. This is to assume that we have some degree of control over life. But the Odyssey shows that man is also a plaything of the gods--and this has something to do with exile, too. Anyone who has wandered alone in foreign countries, often without knowing the local language or customs, knows how helpless--indeed, how childlike--this can can make you feel. Your fate really does appear to be in the hands of others, government officials, hotel managers, policemen, or even (who knows) the gods. And if a privileged European such as myself can feel this way, how about that poor Tamil sleeping rough at the Frankfurt railway station? Only after his return to Ithaca can Ulysses wake up as a grown man who knows his way around.
There are many ways to interpret the Odyssey. Dante, himself an exile from Florence, believed that the hero never really wanted to remain at home. Dante's Ulysses was a kind of eternal student who loathed the idea of domesticity, with a wife and children and a nice little dog. Who needed that kind of responsibility? It was all too boring. First he would "win experience of the world"--hitchhike to India, as it were--and have many women and, above all, gather knowledge. Just as Eve could not resist that bite of the apple in Eden, Dante's hero thirsts for knowledge, with the risk of getting burnt, like Icarus. Ulysses returns to Ithaca, just as he does in Homer's tale, but then he takes off again, and ends up entering the infernal gates.
Dante lived in the late Middle Ages, but he was touched already by the spirit of Renaissance curiosity. He admired the hero's wish for knowledge: it cannot be a coincidence that Ulysses's patroness was the goddess of knowledge and wisdom. Yet Dante's Ulysses dies as a result of his quest. Bernard Knox denies that Homer had anything like this in mind; but that does not make Dante's reading of the hero-exile any less interesting. His Ulysses is really the harbinger of the intellectual as a romantic exile. Banishment is his fate by choice. He was almost a man of our time.
And this tradition leads straight to Heinrich Heine, who was already a man of our time. A romantic, a poet, a revolutionary, and an intellectual outsider, Heine felt deep nostalgia for his native land, but he preferred to live in Paris. Germany, he said, kept him awake at night. Heine was an outsider as a Jew in Germany. He found it impossible to get an official position, even after he converted--without any conviction--to the Christian faith. He felt like an outsider, too, because he was a free-thinker who could not stand the stuffy authoritarianism of the German states. Heine loved Germany, but at a distance. He would have liked to have died in Germany, but politics and illness prevented his return, and so (like Marlene Dietrich, another ambivalent wanderer from German lands) he died in Paris, which might have been just as well.
Heine was in many ways a typical example of the modern literary exile. The borderline between banishment and emigration was fuzzy. He was, more precisely, an expatriate, someone who has chosen to live his life away from his native country. Expatriates rarely get involved in the politics of their homelands. Their aim is more to find a place among strangers where they are free to do and think as they please. Many expatriates are writers or artists, and often homosexuals, too.
Heine was involved in politics, but not specifically the politics of his homeland. His politics were more a kind of heroic idealism. He was less a democrat than a man who thirsted for action, against the clerisy and the aristocracy. Freedom was a kind of religion for him; Saint-Simon was his hero for a while. He wrote that "freedom is a new religion ... the religion of our times.... It is the French, however, who are the Chosen People of the new religion, the first gospels and dogmas were recorded in their language."
During the last 200 years, often in the name of socialism or communism, freedom was the typical religion of outsiders in exile. For obvious reasons, Jews found it a particularly attractive creed. The idea of the French as the chosen ones, as though they were the descendants of the Jews, was typical of Heine's brand of Francophilia. But Heine rarely wrote anything without irony. However much he felt the pull of revolutionary action, he was too much of a skeptic to get totally carried away by political passions. Heine remained an outsider, even in revolutionary circles, whose gaze was never uncritical. The German revolt against the monarchy in 1848 left him on the sidelines, following events from a distance, without committing himself one way or the other.
But there is something else that marks Heine as a man of our time: the location of his estrangement. The typical place of exile has shifted, from the desert and the cold, windswept plains beyond the borders of civilization, to the metropolitan centers of the West: London, Paris, Berlin, New York. And political action, plotted in cafes and public libraries, would play an increasingly important role in the life of exiles. Exile from Rome, in the age of Augustus, or from Florence, in Dante's time, meant the loss of liberty, the civil rights of a metropolitan citizen. The modern exiles in our great cities, however poor or lonely, almost invariably enjoy more freedom than the citizens of the countries that they left behind. Marx could rant as much as he wanted against the British philistines, who were too stupid to revolt, despite the sage's predictions; but he stayed in London because he was at liberty to design his proletarian utopia.
London was a center of European revolutionary activities after the disasters of 1848, just as London is a center today for Arab or African politics, or New York for the Chinese diaspora. It is not an easy life, in this twilight world of emigre journals, shabby apartments, and personal feuds, fed endlessly by old animosities and political frustrations. Time, in this kind of exile, often appears to have frozen. People live only for the future, and once it finally dawns on them that the desired future will never come, they live only in the past. I have seen many examples: Chinese intellectuals, who once advised government leaders in Beijing, subsisting in rented rooms in Queens, in a mess of old newspapers and magazines which almost nobody reads. Since exile was supposed to be temporary, these fallen men never bothered to learn English or read an American paper. Before they know it, it is too late to return; they are stranded, their place gone, their way back cut off forever. They might as well be dead.
It does not have to be this way. Sometimes an exile will go home as a revolutionary hero. But the point is that exile has become a phenomenon of the free, big city-- like alienation, existentialism, postmodernism, and multiculturalism. The outsider--romantic, sexual, ethnic, whatever--is described and often celebrated in our metropoles, and the key word is often "exile". Christopher Isherwood's English novels came from the homosexual world of Berlin in the 1930s. Joyce wrote about Dublin in Trieste and Paris. Burroughs brooded on his American sexual delirium in a hotel room in Tangiers. Salman Rushdie wrote in London about his fantasies of Bombay. What started with Heine became almost mainstream in the twentieth century.
Again, I do not wish to appear frivolous. Writers and other exiles did not always move abroad for fun. Joyce chose to live abroad, so he was in fact an expatriate. But Roth, Feuchtwanger, Zweig, Schoenberg, Weill, and many others had to flee for their lives. Still, long before the 1930s, the difference between self-imposed exile and banishment had become vague, or ceased to exist altogether. By the end of the nineteenth century, exile had became an attitude, a literary and intellectual way of observing the world. Baudelaire saw the writer as a detached flaneur, a mocking dandy in the big-city crowd, alienated, isolated, anonymous, aristocratic, melancholic. For Joyce--and not just for him--isolation and detachment were necessary conditions for writing literature. "Silence, exile and cunning" was his prescription, or at least that of Stephen Dedalus, his literary alter ego.
A writer has to operate alone, as a stranger among strangers. Joseph Brodsky, whose departure from the Soviet Union was hardly voluntary, wrote that being a writer in exile "is like being a dog or a man hurtled into outer space in a capsule (more like a dog, of course, than a man, because they will never retrieve you). And your capsule is your language." Like Joyce, he believed that exile was good for a writer; you were alone with your language. Exile provided distance, the same distance that Heine needed in order to think about Germany in the night. Exile, in this sense, is not so much metaphorical as metaphysical; it gives meaning to a way of life.
Many were forced into exile before and after World War II. But the middle decades of the last century also saw exile and the outsider, or the outlaw, emerge as the main subjects of European literature. Camus wrote about little else. (His Eden was in North Africa.) But you did not actually have to leave home to be able to identify with l'etranger. Everyone is, in a sense, a stranger. The 1930s were also a golden age for English travel literature, written by romantic wanderers who chose to flee from the grimy industrial cities of modern England, often heading for places of older banishments, where contemporary Europeans were real strangers: hot deserts, uninhabited plains, exotic islands, many miles away from Western civilization. (And speaking of Brodsky's space capsule, it is remarkable how often the figure of the pilot, floating high above the world, blissfully alone in his cockpit, appears in poetry and fiction between the world wars; this was the time of Saint-Exupery, and of Auden's poems about the pilot. And as a variation on the pilot theme we have the secret agent, moving anonymously among the city crowds, like a Baudelarian flaneur.)
It is quite possible to see the detachment and the weightlessness extolled by Joyce and others as qualities shared by Ulysses (in Dante's version of him, of course). The adventurer, the eternal student, even the criminal, would rather do anything than settle down. Detachment as an ideal held a particular attraction for homosexuals, but also for straight Don Juans. Genet was an extreme example: gay, criminal, without a permanent home. Isherwood, in Berlin and Los Angeles, was a less extreme case. And leaving aside the quality of their prose, about which we might differ, we should consider also Henry Miller, an American in Paris, and Lawrence Durrell, an Englishman in Egypt.
And yet detachment, like everything, has its limits. Joyce might have seen distance and isolation as necessary conditions for writing his masterpieces, but the loneliness of the modern etranger, and the absurdity of a weightless, unbounded existence, made others thirst for engagement, a kind of solidarity--if not with a particular nation or people, then with humanity in general, or at least with that part of humanity living in what came to be called the Third World. This is how a fashion for Maoism, the most extreme revolt against individualism, could follow from a fashion for alienation.
But extreme nationalism has also cast its spells. A number of Japanese artists and writers moved to Europe at the beginning of the last century, to find a refuge from the narrow provincialism of Japan. There they were, living in exile, as it were, mostly in Paris, gathering knowledge, searching for love, painting pictures, writing poems, and seeking the key to their innermost souls in the anonymity of a foreign crowd. And it was precisely these same people who often returned home in the 1930s, with a sigh of relief, to bask in the motherly embrace of the Japanese nation, which was being whipped just then into a mood of xenophobic hysteria. Scorched by their lonely travels, some became the fiercest war propagandists once they got home.
My intention, in citing these examples, is not to plead against the spirit of adventure, promiscuity, curiosity, or freedom abroad. On the contrary. I am no stranger to wanderlust myself. What I am trying to get at, rather, is the tension between political engagement and intellectual independence. Said has written about this, without quite resolving the problem. He has made great claims, for independence as well as engagement. His argument is that an intellectual should always stand up for the poor, the weak, and the disadvantaged. The free thinker should resist the dominant powers, which means, in his case, Israel and the United States. But, while going about his acts of resistance, he should also guard his independence. The question is whether this is always possible. Can you be a spokesman for a political movement--as Said was for many years a spokesman for the PLO--and remain independent? I am not so sure.
One solution to this dilemma is to plump for an offshore kind of engagement--a detached involvement, so to speak. The intellectual abroad, a Sikh in Toronto, say, or a Palestinian in New York, or a Jew in Washington, calls for action, sometimes violent action, to be carried out thousands of miles from his home, the consequences of which he will not have to bear. Engagement of this kind can easily become a politics without responsibility. This type of politics, like modern literary exile, might be metaphorical for the "exile" in New York, Paris, or Toronto, but not for those living in India, Jerusalem, or Gaza. Said called his stone-throwing stunt on the Lebanese border a "symbolic gesture," a metaphorical throw of a metaphorical stone. But stones in the Middle East are seldom metaphorical. They hurt; they result in greater violence. People die when they are cast.
Political engagement can be essential. But too often it results from intellectual frustration. Intellectuals do not have much power outside the universities, nor much influence in modern democracies. This is because Western intellectuals, since the Enlightenment, have managed to gain their independence. They have fought themselves free. Unlike in China, where the notion of the independent intellectual barely exists, Western intellectuals represent nothing but their own ideas. They are not, or they should not be, a band of scribes who guard the dogmas that justify the powers that be. Instead they are obliged to take their ideas to the marketplace, and that is the way it should be. For intellectual independence is quickly sacrificed once ideas are made to serve a political organization, or a government. (Even this might be essential, on occasion; but one should be clear about the sacrifice involved.)
Many intellectuals would like to represent more than themselves. The Republic of Letters is puffed up with political ambition. The great revolutionary ideals, which intellectuals once served as secular priests, are out of fashion for the moment; but the multicultural society in which we live, if we live in the great cities of the Western world, offers new opportunities for intellectuals to play a public role. Especially in the United States, the identity politics of minorities have become increasingly significant, and the identities to be promoted are often based, partly owing to a lack of historical or cultural knowledge, on a sentimental sense of collective victimhood.
In such a setting, the shrewd thing for a politically ambitious intellectual to do is to act as the spokesman for such feelings. By identifying himself with the plight of more or less discriminated against minorities or other forms of collective suffering, the lonely intellectual manages not only to escape from his isolation, he also becomes a symbol of that suffering himself, and so obtains all the perquisites and privileges that go with it. In this way, the ideas of these self-appointed spokesmen become sacrosanct; and challenges to them are quickly seen as bigoted attacks on the minorities themselves.
My point is certainly not that intellectuals should not stand up for society's victims. They can and they should. But they must not do this by pretending to be victims themselves. For that is a false identification. To don the bloody mantle of real victims is not just in bad taste, it also trivializes actual suffering. It transforms victimhood into a fashion accessory. The soi-disant exile status might attach a certain glamour to the writer in London or New York, but it does nothing for the poor Tamil trying to get some sleep in Frankfurt station.
The cult of victimhood, marginality, and exile has also had a paralyzing influence on the academy, where literature, anthropology, and even history are difficult to discuss anymore without being cuffed in the fetters of postcolonial discourse. The notion of exile, especially from the Third World, has given post-colonial intellectuals the sacred task of attacking the "cultural imperialism" of the Western metropole. Imperialism is the Great Satan, and intellectuals compete to become the new priests of the post-colonial dogma. One of the main dogmas is that "hybrid," "marginal," and "post-colonial" writing should undermine the imperialist, even racist propaganda of the European literary canon.
There is something to be said for this. Any culture or tradition is bound to be rejuvenated by outside influences. And the idea that the Western canon should be surrounded by some culturally impregnable moat is silly. Yet this so-called marginality is often a form of intellectual self-celebration, for the new influences rarely penetrate from anywhere outside the Western world. Glamorous exile, the "hybridity" of literary style, the attack on cultural imperialism of the metropole are in fact products of that same metropole, and have become part of a dogma which is exported to the rest of the world. Bookstores in Beijing or Bombay are full of books that evangelize the postcolonial, multi-cultural, anti-imperialist gospel; and the authors of these gospels live in New York, London, or Cambridge. They live in a closed world of theory, in metaphorical exile, far from the problems of real victims, of people who are forced to live in real exile. Worse than that, multi-cultural theory has led to ethnic and sexual divisions of labor in intellectual life: more and more, women write about women, gays about gays, blacks about blacks, and so on. This is not hybridity or marginality in a positive sense. It is merely a new form of discrimination.
One way of creating more clarity in these matters is to separate metaphor from reality, or what Confucius called "the rectification of names." We need to agree that the word "exile" means banishment, not loneliness. A writer or an intellectual might operate in the margins of a modern, democratic society, without political authority, but that does not make him an outlaw or an exile. And surely it is time to cast aside the assumed badges of victimhood. For then we would be better able to recognize the real victims, as well as maintain our intellectual independence. As for those who find an intellectual odyssey too burdensome, they are best advised to seek another occupation.