Hauts-de-Seine, Parc de Sceaux, France, 1987.
While writing this essay I had before my eyes Josef Koudelka’s photographs. Let my words serve as a tribute to his art of telling stories without words.
Rhythm is at the core of human life. It is, first of all, the rhythm of the organism, ruled by the heartbeat and circulation of blood. As we live in a pulsating, vibrating world, we respond to it and in turn are bound to its rhythm. Without giving much thought to our dependence on the systoles and distoles of flowing time we move through sunrises and sunsets, through the sequences of four seasons. Repetition enables us to form habits and to accept the world as familiar Perhaps the need of a routine is deeply rooted in the very structure of our bodies.
In a city or a village which we have known well since our childhood we move in a tamed space, our occupations finding everywhere expected landmarks that favor routine. Transplanted into alien surroundings we are oppressed by the anxiety of indefiniteness, by insecurity There are too many new shapes and they remain fluid, because the principle of their order through routine cannot be discovered. What I am saying is perhaps just a generalization of my own experience but I hope to be understood as that experience has been shared by many especially in this century.
Among the misfortunes of exile, anxiety of the unfamiliar holds a prominent place. Whoever has found himself as an immigrant in a big foreign city had to cope with a kind of envy at the sight of its inhabitants engaged in purposeful occupations, confidently going to definite, known to them, shops or offices, in a world weaving together a huge fabric of everyday bustle. It is possible that such an observer from the outside would have recourse to special strategies in order to diminish his feeling of alienation. Living in Paris, I was for a long time drawing a line around a few streets in the Latin Quarter, so that I could call a certain area mine.” A restaurant at the corner, a small bookstore, a laundry, a cafe succeeded each other when I was taking a walk and would give me some assurance through their presence at the points expected in advance.
To be lost in a foreign city. Perhaps something more is involved here than a mere inability to find one’s way It once happened to me, also in Paris, a city of my many joyous moments and many misfortunes, when I stepped out of the Métro in a part of the town with which I was acquainted but not too well. I started to walk and suddenly I noticed that there was not even one spot to serve me as a guide mark and I was seized by a sort of fear of height. The houses seemed to turn around and threaten to fall. I lost orientation. And I was quite aware that my indecision of which street to take reflected my loss of orientation in a deeper sense. Exile deprives one of the points of reference that helped us to make projects, choose our goals, to organize our activities. In our native countries we maintained a peculiar relationship with our predecessors, with writers if we were writers, with painters if we were painters, etc., and that was a relationship of both respect and opposition; our driving force was to better them in one or another manner and to add our name to the roster of names remembered by our village, our city, or country Here, abroad, nothing of that is left, we have been catapulted out of history, which is always the history of a specific area on the map, and we have to cope with, to use an expression of an exile writer, “the unbearable lightness of being.”
The recovery is slow and never complete. There is a period when we refuse to recognize that our displacement is irrevocable and no political or economic changes in the country of our origin can bring about our return. Then slowly we come to the realization that exile is not just a physical phenomenon of crossing state borders, for it grows on us, transforms us from within, and becomes our fate. The undifferentiated mass of human types, streets, monuments, fashions, trends acquires some distinct features and gradually the strange transforms itself into the familiar At the same time, however, the memory preserves a topography of our past, and this dual observance keeps us apart from our fellow citizens.
“Having left your native land, don’t look back, the Erinyes are behind you.” One of the Pythagorean principles, the advice is good but difficult to follow. It is true, the Erinyes are there, behind your back, and their very sight may petrify a mortal. Some say them to be daughters of Earth, others, daughters of Night, in any case they arrive from the depth of the underworld, are winged, and in their hair carry twisting serpents. They are your punishment for your past offenses and you know well that you cannot claim purity whether you are aware of your failings or not. The best protection against the Erinyes would be, indeed, never to look back. And yet it is impossible not to look back, for there, in the land of your ancestors, of your language, of your family, a treasure has been left, more valuable than any riches measured by money, namely, colors, shapes, intonations, details of architecture, everything that shapes one’s childhood. By letting your memory speak you wake up the past and by the same token attract the Erinyes; yet man stripped of memory is hardly human or he represents only a very impoverished humanity Thus a contradiction appears and you have to learn how to live with it. There is another aspect of exile considered as a specific affliction of the twentieth century The most famous of the exile writers of the past, Dante, after leaving his native Florence, wandered all his life from one city to another but today those cities hardly can mean “abroad” as they are all situated in Italy Dante died and was buried in Ravenna which today doesn’t seem at all a land distant from his birthplace. Could it happen that with the shrinkage of the planet Earth distances but also differences between particular countries grow smaller and smaller? Perhaps it would be possible to visualize a modern pilgrim’s wanderings as his going from one place to another within one country, whether that country is called Europe, a continent, or the world? If this is not so now, there is a certain latent dynamism inherent in the progress of technology, which pushes in that direction. The twentieth century also brings a quantitative change as befits an era of population explosion. In Dante’s time the number of people leaving the towns and villages where they were born was very small. Now hundreds of thousands, and even millions, migrate, chased from their homes by war, by harsh economic necessities, or political persecution, and an expatriate, for instance a writer, an artist, an intellectual who left his country for his own, so to say, fastidious reasons, motivated as he was not only by fear of starvation or of the police, cannot isolate his fate from the fate of those masses. Their nomadic existence, the slums they often inhabit, the deserts of dirty streets where their children play are, in a way, his own; he feels solidarity with them and he only wonders whether this is not an image, more and more generalized, of the human condition. For life in exile seems no more limited to a transplantation from one country to another Industrial centers attract people who leave their peaceful but impoverished rural districts, new towns grow where a few decades ago only cattle were grazing, shacks and barracks of slums surround big capitals. When characterizing the indefiniteness and insecurity inherent in exile one notices that practically everything that is said on the subject applies to the new inhabitants of the urban landscape, even if they have not arrived from foreign lands. Alienation becomes a predicament of too many human beings to be considered an affliction of a special category, and the self-pity of an emigre reflecting on that phenomenon is undermined.
Perhaps a loss of harmony with the surrounding space, the inability to feel at home in the world, so oppressing to an expatriate, a refugee, an immigrant, however we call him, paradoxically integrates him in contemporary society and makes him, if he is an artist, understood by all. Even more, to express the existential situation of modern man, one must live in exile of some sort. Are not Samuel Beckett’s plays about exile? Time in them is not perceived as a serene repetition favoring a gladly accepted routine; on the contrary, it is empty and destructive, it rushes forward to an illusory goal and closes on itself in a display of futility Man in those plays cannot enter into a contact with space which is abstract, uniform, deprived of specific objects, in all probability a desert.
Writing this I am visited by a tune of an old religious song in Polish which begins: “Exiles of Eve, we beseech Thy help.” And indeed an archetypal exclusion from the Garden of Eden repeats itself in our lives, whether Eden be the womb of our mother or the enchanting garden of our early childhood. Centuries of tradition are behind the image of the whole earth as a land of exile, usually presented as a desertic, sterile landscape in which Adam and Eve march, their heads despondently lowered. They were chased from their native realm, their true home where the same rhythm has ruled over their bodies and their surroundings, where no separation and no nostalgia has been known. Looking back, they may see fiery swords guarding the Gates of Paradise. Their nostalgic thinking about a return to the once happy existence is intensified by their awareness of prohibition. And yet they will never completely relinquish the thought of the day when their exile will end. Later, much later on, perhaps that dream will take the shape of a golden city lasting beyond time, of a heavenly Jerusalem.
The biblical image favors a cliche according to which exile means looking back towards the country of one’s origin. And, indeed, many poems and novels have been written in this century by exiles who describe a region of the world from where they have come as more beautiful than it had been in reality, simply because now it is lost forever Yet an objection imposes itself here. Displacement creates a distance measured by kilometers or miles, hundreds and thousands of miles. The biblical image is that of a movement in space from the Gates of Eden or, translating this into modern notions, from the borders of a state guarded by armed soldiers. However, distance may be measured not only in miles, but also in months, years, or dozens of years. Assuming this, we may consider the life of every human being as an unrelenting movement from childhood on, through the phases of youth, maturity, and old age. The past of every individual undergoes constant transformations in his or her memory and more often than not it acquires the features of an irretrievable land made more and more strange by the flow of time. Thus the difference between a displacement in space and in time is somewhat blurred. We can well imagine an old expatriate who, meditating on the country of his youth, realizes that he is separated from it not only by expanse, but also by the wrinkles on his face and grey hair, marks left by a severe border guard, time. What then is exile if, in this sense, everybody shares that condition?
Nevertheless, the condition of exile in a geographical sense is real enough and those whose fate is to experience it have been using various consolations to make it less depressing. An awareness of its universal character in this century may provide considerable relief and even induce a pride of belonging to an avant-garde. In addition, such an awareness draws encouragement from the fact that history knows big countries founded by wanderers, among them, America. An artist and a writer in exile are, however, confronted with the insidious question of his or her creativity or paralysis. An argument has been advanced many times according to which there is a mysterious link between the land of our ancestors, its soil, its light, sounds of its language on the one hand and the creative powers of the individual on the other It is said that our sources of inspiration risk to dry out abroad. And in fact a great number of people who were gifted, brilliant, promising poets, painters, musicians have been leaving their countries only to suffer defeat and to plunge into anonymity that would cover their names forever There is much truth in the assertion that the native soil possesses a vivifying force, even if we put aside the obvious, namely the mother tongue and its irreplaceable nuances. Fear of sterility is a companion of every expatriate artist and though it visits artists in general, its presence in that particular case is felt more strongly. To calm it, the most useful is to invoke the names of all those who despite the odds have not lost the game. Fundamental works of poetry in some languages, for instance, Polish and Armenian, have been written abroad, owing to the political persecution practiced by foreign occupying powers. Decades spent in Paris far from his native provincial town, Witebsk, didn’t discourage Marc Chagall from following his original inspiration and he continued to fly in the sky together with the roofs of huts, with the goats and cows of his childhood and early youth. Isaac Bashevis Singer recreated in America through memory and imagination the life gone forever of the Polish Jews. It is doubtful whether James Joyce’s Ulysses could have been written in Dublin, it is more probable to assume that his estrangement and his refusal to serve Irish patriotic goals were necessary preconditions for his description of Ireland from afar And Igor Stravinsky, in spite of malicious rumors, according to which after the Rite of Spring his talent, not enlivened by Russia, was on the wane, remained productive and very Russian during his long exile.
In every one of these examples, and they can be multiplied, a pattern is noticeable. A farewell to one’s country, to its landscapes, customs and mores throws one into a no man’s land comparable perhaps to the desert chosen as a place of contemplation by early Christian hermits. Then the only remedy against the loss of orientation is to create anew one’s own North, East, West, and South and posit in that new space a Witebsk or a Dublin elevated to the second power What has been lost is recuperated on a higher level of vividness and presence.
Exile is a test of internal freedom and that freedom is terrifying. Everything depends upon our own resources, of which we are mostly unaware and yet we make decisions assuming our strength will be sufficient. The risk is total, not assuaged by the warmth of a collectivity where the second rate is usually tolerated, regarded as useful and even honored. Now to win or to lose appears in a crude light, for we are alone and loneliness is a permanent affliction of exile. Once Friedrich Nietzsche exalted the freedom of height, of loneliness, of the desert. Freedom of exile is of that lofty sort, though it is imposed by circumstances and, therefore, deprived of bathos. A brief formula may encapsule the outcome of that struggle with our own weakness: exile destroys, but if it fails to destroy you, it makes you stronger.
The exodus of people from their countries is a familiar feature in our century and it has been categorized under various names. The Russian Revolution resulted in the appearance of Russian emigres in the big cities of the West. Soon they were joined by refugees from Hitler’s Germany and ex-soldiers from the Spanish Republican Army. At the end of World War II a defeated Germany was full of displaced persons called D.F.’s, former slave laborers and survivors of concentration camps, also of Germans expelled from the Eastern provinces. In the subsequent decades a wave of migrations from Central-Eastern Europe has been due to political spasms (the crushed Hungarian uprising, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the martial law in Poland) or to the economic attractiveness of the capitalist West. Similar names and categories can be found in Africa and Asia, the exodus of the “Boat People” from Vietnam being the most famous case. Though officials, charged with granting or refusing to a newcomer the right to stay, distinguish between ideological and economic motives, reality is more complex than that and a given person has usually been pushed to migrate by a tangle of reasons. One thing is certain: people leave their homelands because life there is difficult to bear.
Can we imagine a world in which the phenomenon of exile disappears because it is unnecessary? To envisage such a possibility would mean to disregard the current that seems to carry us in the opposite direction. What is probable is the increase of awareness that whoever looks for happiness in distant lands must be prepared for disillusionment or even for the doubtful reward of one who jumps from the trying pan into the fire. That awareness, of course, would not discourage anybody, for the pain we feel at a given moment is more real than the pain we may endure in the future. This earth with all its charms and beauty is after all the earth of the “Exiles of Eve.” An old anecdote about a refugee in a travel agency has not lost its bite: a refugee from war-torn Europe, undecided as to what continent and what state would be far off enough and safe enough, for a while was pensively turning a globe with his finger, then asked, “don’t you have something else?”
ASX CHANNEL: Josef Koudelka
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