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.
My emigration took place during the Cold War, though not in the worst Stalinist years. I happened to be a young, unwilling emigrant, yanked from my happy childhood. I felt the loss of my first homeland acutely, fueled by the sense that this departure was irrevocable. Poland was suddenly unreachable, and I felt as if I were being taken out of life itself.
Like so many emigrants, I was in effect without language. To lose an internal language is to slide into an inarticulate darkness where we become alien to ourselves; to lose the ability to describe the world is to render the world a bit less vivid. It takes time before a new language begins to inhabit us deeply, to enter the fabric of our psyches and express who we are.
As with language, so with culture: how much incoherence we risk if we fall out of its matrix. We know that cultures differ in customs, food, religions, social arrangements. What takes longer to understand is that each culture has subliminal values and beliefs. They inform our most intimate assumptions and perceptions, our sense of beauty, of acceptable distances between people, or notions of pleasure and pain. On that fundamental level, a culture gives form and focus to our mental and emotional lives. We are nothing more--or less--than an encoded memory of our heritage.
Real dislocation, the loss of all familiar external and internal parameters, is not glamorous or cool. It is an upheaval in the deep material of the self.
Exile, however, gives perspective, making every emigrant an anthropologist and relativist. To have a deep experience of two cultures is to know that no culture is absolute, to discover that the seemingly natural aspects of our identities and social reality can be arranged, shaped, or articulated in another way. Biculturalism has its pleasures--the relish of sharpened insight, the savviness of skepticism--and they can become addictive.
These virtues have serious defects. The addiction may be too seductive; as a psychological choice, being in exile may become not only too arduous but also too easy. The exile lives in a story in which one's past becomes radically different from the present. The lost homeland, sequestered in the imagination as a mythic, static realm, can be idealized or demonized, or become a space of projections and fantasies.
In our habitually diasporic and nomadic world, the playing field has changed. When all borders are crossable and all boundaries permeable, it is harder to imagine an idyllic realm or a permanent enemy. This situation is initially confusing, yet its merits are easily discernible. We move not only between places but also between cultures with grace and ease. We are less shocked by prevailing assumptions, less prone to absolute assertions. The literature of this new nomadism, represented by Salman Rushdie, is full of multiple cultural references colliding and colluding in robust, vital play. This is a vision of exile as comedy rather than despair.
But I wonder if, in our world of easy come, easy go, of sliding among places and meanings without alighting on any of them for very long, we don't lose an internal focus and certain strengths that come from gathering experiences and accumulating understanding, from placing ourselves squarely where we are and living in a shared framework. I wonder if, in trying to exist in barely perceivable spaces, or conceiving of experience as movement between discrete dots on a horizontal map, we don't risk what the novelist Milan Kundera calls 'the unbearable lightness of being.' It is the illness that comes upon unanchored people, those who travel perpetually to new moments and sensations and to whom no internal feeling is more important than another.
Among nomads, exile loses its charge because there is no place from which one can be expelled, no powerful notion of home. Indeed, now we are less likely to say that all fiction is homesickness than to say that all homesickness is fiction--that home never was what it was cracked up to be, the haven of safety and affection we imagine. Instead, we conceive of home mostly as a site of enclosure and closure, of narrow-mindedness and nationalism. There are two kinds of homes: the home of our childhood and origin, which is a given, and the home of our adulthood, which is achieved only through hard-earned, patient choice, the labor of understanding and gradual arrival.
In a parable about the founder of the Jewish Hasidic movement, thieves tell the Baal Shem Tov about a network of underground corridors that leads directly from Poland to Palestine and offer to take him there. With great difficulty, they walk through the tunnels more than halfway to their destination. Then, suddenly, the Baal Shem Tov sees before him 'a flaming sword, turning this way and that,' and decides to turn back.
On one level this parable shows the Baal Shem Tov's ambivalence about going to Palestine. On another, its unconscious, compressed message may be that we can't steal into paradise, or take a shortcut to the tree of life. Of course, the parable also suggests something about the fear of approaching our object of desire and finding ourselves in paradise--which may then turn out to be an ordinary garden, needing weeding, tilling, and watering.
To be sure, it takes long, strenuous work to find terrain of safety or significance or love. And it may often be easier to live in exile with a fantasy of paradise than to suffer the ambiguities and compromises of cultivating actual, earthly places. And yet, if we do not create home structures for ourselves, we risk exile that we do not even recognize as banishment. And, paradoxically, if we do not acknowledge the possibility and pain of expulsion, then we will not know that somewhere a tree of life--if we labor hard enough to approach it--can yield fruits of meaning after all.
Eva Hoffman was born in Krakow, Poland, and immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, at the age of 13. She is the author, most recently, of Shtetl (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). Adapted from Letters of Transit (New Press, 2000).