Wanderers by Choice

Exile was once the worst punishment. Now it?s a glamorous adventure.

| July/August 2000

Since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, is there anyone who does not, in some way, feel like an exile? We feel ejected from our first homes and landscapes, from our first romance, from our authentic self. An ideal sense of belonging, of attuning with others and ourselves, eludes us.

Historically, the symbolic meaning and experience of exile have changed. In medieval Europe, it was the worst punishment possible, because people's identities were defined by their role and place in society. This implied a highly charged concept of home--although home did not necessarily mean birthplace. For medieval clerics, it was the city that housed the papal seat. Jews nurtured a powerful idea of home that existed on two levels: the real communities they inhabited and 'Israel,' which became an imaginative center from which they derived their essential identity.

In recent years, great shifts in the political and social landscape have affected the very notion of exile. Cross-cultural movement has become the norm, which means that leaving one's native country is not as dramatic or traumatic as it used to be. The ease of travel and communication, combined with the looser borders, gives rise to endless crisscrossing streams of wanderers and guest workers, nomadic adventurers and international drifters. Many are driven by harsh circumstance, but the element of choice is there for most.

People who leave the former Soviet Union nowadays are likely to be economic migrants or Mafia tax dodgers rather than dissidents expelled by ruthless state power. One Bengali village has a tradition of long migrations: Many men leave for years or even decades, but always intend to return. They are not powerless victims of globalization; smart young men choose different countries for the economic advantages they offer. Almost all go back, a bit richer and more important in the eyes of their fellow villagers.

The Herald Tribunerecently characterized the increasing number of American expatriates in Europe: 'They are the Americans abroad, and their number is soaring in a time when travel is unblinkingly routine, communications easy and instant, and telecommuting a serious option. They are abroad in a world where they can watch the Super Bowl live from a Moscow sports bar or send an e-mail from an Internet café in Prague.'

We all recognize these basic features of our new, fast-changing social landscape. Whether or not we have left, we know how easy it is to leave. We know that we live in a global village, although the village is virtual indeed--dependent not on locality but on the detachment of knowledge, action, information, and identity from a specific place. We have become less spacebound.

Exile used to be considered difficult. It involves dislocation, disorientation, self-division. But today we have come to value exactly those qualities of experience that exile demands--uncertainty, displacement, fragmented identity. Within this framework, exile becomes sexy and glamorous. Nomadism and diasporism have become fashionable terms in intellectual debate. Not only actual exile is at stake, but also how we situate ourselves in the world.

6/23/2014 12:46:28 PM

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5/12/2014 9:13:57 AM

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