Wanderers by Choice

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.

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).

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