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Exil de l'auteur, exil des genres

Pierre Gault
Jean-Paul Regis


William H. Gass

Texte intégral

1Let us begin where we began – in darkness: in a darkness where there was yet no color to the skin, no distinction between thine and mine, no tangle of tongues, no falsely alluring ideas, no worries which might spread like an oil slick over our amniotic ocean, no hither and thithering, mean emotions, treacheries, promises, prohibitions, life-long let-downs. We began in a place where darkness covered the face of things, and not because the shades were drawn and the lights were out, but because darkness was our ether, and let us sleep. It was a world where "qué pasa?" could be honestly answered, "nada".

2What colored our darkness with calamity? We soon grew too big for our boots, our britches, and our own good. So the walls of our world moved against us like a wrestler's arms, squeezing us out as though we were a stool: relief for the old walls, loose at last, lax as a popped balloon; but confusion for us, now overcome by sensation, seared by the light. Some still call it a trauma – birth – and the earliest Greek poets bewailed the day just as the babies themselves bewailed it, explaining that we cried out at the cruelty of being cast into the harsh bright air where perception and pain were one, where screaming was breathing.

3Before, we had been in nurture and nature's care, and although poisons may have seeped into us, or our genetic codes been badly garbled, all our exchanges had been innocent and automatic and regular as was our pulse. Now, suddenly, we were in the hands of Man; that is, in the hands of Mom and Pop, proud in their new possession, proud because they have fulfilled their function, happy because they are supposed to be happy, cooing their first coos, which will be our first words - coup de coude, coup de bec, coup de tête, coup de main, coup d'état, coup de grâce - while we wonder why we are wet and where the next suck is coming from, or why there is so much noise when we bawl, why we are slapped and shaken, why we are expected to run on empty, and not scream when stuck or cry when chafed, not shit so much, and not want what we want when we want it.

4Life is itself exile, and its inevitability does not lessen our grief or alter the fact. It is a blow from which only death will recover us, and when we are told, as we lie dying, that we are going home, we may even be ready to welcome the familiar darkness, the comforting "nada" of the grand old days when days were nothing but nights. Perhaps that is the last lie we shall be told, however, for the advancing darkness is one we shall never experience. It will not be the sincere zero of a release after long suffering, a quilted quiet, the past recaptured, a womb reoccupied, but the zero with the zero in it. It will not be the nothing from which nothing from which nothing comes, but the nothing that is nothing but its no - and a no, in addition, that is nothing but the pure brief round of its 'o'.

5When Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, according to the Christian story, death, pain, and labor, followed them: punishments for their transgressions, for falling for the first apple that fell in their lap. With an orchard of pears, plums, and cherries, to choose from - the Tree of High Times, the Vine of Accomplishment, the Hedge of Military Hardware, and the dense Bush of the Bomb, they pick a piece of fruit a worm has recommended. For the Greeks, far wiser in my opinion, life was a sentence, the Denmark that made our world a prison, and the body was the coffin of the soul. That attitude became a poetic tradition, so that centuries after the Greek poets had grumbled that the worst thing that could happen to a man was to be born, while the best was to get to the end as quickly and painlessly as possible, Guillaume Du Bartas was writing

You little think that all our life and Age
Is but an Exile and a Pilgrimage.

6That things were better for us once upon a time - before the revolt of the Angels (all those puissant legions, Milton wrote, whose exile hath emptied heaven), before the Fall, back in the Golden Age, prior to the Flood, the destruction of the Tower of Babel, when giants walked the earth, when there were real heroes, honest kings, and actual dragons, in any case before we were brought, through birth, into this brutality - is a belief which constantly accompanies us and somehow gives us comfort. The comfort, of course, is in the note of grace it lets us sound: that wretched things will one day be put right, and the wrongs of our distant forefathers finally paid for in full, and death will release us from present pain, and we can go home again to paradise.

7We continue to mimic these mythological banishments with ones of our own. The Greeks punished people by driving them out of their cities, by sending them into exile the way unwed former maidens were sent away from the door of their family home - with babe and blanket and much weeping - into the snow. Even Hades was considered just another foreign country, a lot like Persia, where the barbarians bowed down to their superiors, sniffing the dust of their lordling's feet.

8As we invariably exclaim: how things have changed! A vast reversal of value has taken place. Children wish to leave home and home town, the sooner the better. Down-on-the-farm has been replaced by up-on-the-town. High on the hog is not where we chose to feed but on the shrimp and the sole and the slaw, in our low-cal life, a life through which - in lieu of jig - we jog. Money is our country now. We go where it goes - we followers of the cash flow. There is nothing more seductive than the bottom line. Money makes the world go around, the song says, but the world keeps the wheel of fortune spinning, and that's as warming as the Gulf Stream to us all. Money. The Japanese make it, Hongkong smuggles it, Singapore launders it, the Swiss horde it for everybody, the Italians style it, the French flavor it, the Germans mark it, Americans lose it, the English pout, the Russians long, the Chinese make change. Yes. How things have.

9There's not a word of interest in our brave new world that isn't on a billboard. Pictures contain our information. We go blank when the screen does. Our previous definition of the human - that we reason; that we reflect upon ourselves; that we make tools; we speak - is in the shop for micro-chip repairs. We are really, when you count performance and tabulate behavior, not super-computers, but little chafing dishes, small works, modest ovens, simple furnaces, barbecue pits and picnic grills: we consume. A universe is burning - a forest for our flame.

10We number ourselves now in billions, a profusion so dangerous that were we, all told, to fart in unison, we would windsweep and poison the world; and were one to strike a match to such a methane-colored cloud... boom would not be the half of it.

11We also live in an age of migration and displacement. Driven by war, disease, or famine, out of fear of genocide or starvation, millions are on the move, by boat, mostly, as it has always been. Not every foot of ocean is under someone's boot. But boot people don't let boat people land. And, as if to balance those who have been thrust out of their country like a dog to do his business, there are an equal number who have been shut up inside it; who would leave, if they could, in search of freedom, a better living, compatible ideals.

12So we have learned to punish people by keeping them home as well as by kicking them out. Yes. Stay home on the range, with mom and dad and their ideas, stay home by the monitored telephone, out of the shops and markets, behind the bamboo, lace, or iron curtain, stay home where home rules rule, and the roost has already got its rooster. This cock, when it crows, is piped through the plumbing, and can be heard and reheard over a thousand stations, and in all the zoos. It crows, and a million eggs are Elvis'd by the doodle-doo, though still in their fallopian tubes and yet a day from laying.

13We should always allow the Greeks to instruct us. You may remember how the soothsayers came with their worry to the king when Oedipus was barely born and scarcely asleep in his cradle. They foretold what every father fears: your son will succeed you, and enjoy all you now enjoy, and possess, the love of your wife in her role as a mother; her breasts will be no longer yours, nor her caresses, nor her looks of love; your son's youthful vigor shall shade you and stunt your growth; and he shall slowly edge you into your grave with the negligent side of his shoe. In heed of these warnings, the babe was taken to the mountains during the night, his ankles pinned the way a skinned kid is trussed for the spit, and there he was abandoned in the belief that the cold wind would freeze his heart, and his lungs would expell his soul with their last outcry of breath; hence no human hand could be blamed by the gods for the child's demise.

14Of course the infant is rescued and raised by a shepherd who finds him in among the rocks or under a bush, or by an animal who takes him to her den (the stories vary), and he grows up in increasing puzzlement about his nature, because he doesn't resemble a wolf or a bear, or the parents who took him in. Twice an exile, first into life, as we all are exiled, then into another country, and now an alien among his so-called kin. Why wasn't he drowned in a butt of malmsey, a method favored by the English kings? or simply swallowed as Saturn swallowed his children, or the whale did Jonah, or Mr. Etna vain Empedocles?

15This becomes an important theme. The dead have relatives, sons have mothers, few expungements are really complete. Six million erasures, yet there were still more Jewish names. The mother arms the swallowed son with a dagger, and there in the darkness of his father's belly, center of his father's powers, he slits his way out while the Titan is asleep, or (the stories vary) the Titan is given an emetic and vomits the undigested boy, or a stone is substituted for the baby's body (stories vary), and stupid Saturn swallows that - not a recommendation for home cooking. In any case, the saved child seizes a sickle and cuts his father's cock, his father's balls off, and heaves them out an embrasure, over a parapet, across a cliff edge, into the sea. It is an instructive story. More morals than a Falwell sermon. The Greeks were great educators. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, rose from the ocean in the splash, and, blood borne, rode to shore on a shell formed from the foam of that fall. We could go on - it is tempting - but the tale would take us toward another lesson, rather than the one we are intent on now.

16Let us move, for a moment, from myth to history. You recall how the friends of Socrates had arranged his escape. Athens had no desire to make a martyr of a man who had practically pushed them into voting his execution. His enemies would be well-satisfied if the troublesome sage would go into exile like his protege, Alcibiades, and encourage the decay of some other city. Let the gadfly bite another rump. Here was one horse, at least, who was weary of being awake. But Socrates declined, nettlesome to the last, claiming, among other things, to be a son of the State, and unable to renounce his parentage. His arguments are interesting, although their reasons are hidden, and one of them can tell us something of what exile is. He claims, of course, to have gotten fair treatment at his trial. All he, or you or I, can correctly ask of the judicial system is that it give us our due, and Socrates felt that he had received it. If the umpire's call goes against him, he can't, then, take himself out of the game in a snit, a game whose rules he has accepted, and whose advantages he has enjoyed. Above all, exile is amputation, a mutilation of the self, because the society Socrates lives in is an essential part of his nature, a nature he cannot, now, divide. In short, he invokes three principles, none precisely put, but each profound: he affirms the importance of due process (which means he places a sound method above any result, however right it might chance to be, if it remains unsubstantiated); he believes in the co-relativity of rights and duties (which means that none is inalienable, but that each right is earned through the discharge of a corresponding and defining obligation); he takes for granted a kind of anatomical connection between individuals and their society (which means that our community is to each of us like a shared arm, and is thus a vital increase of the local self).

17We are generally related to other things and persons in one of three ways: instrumentally, as Locke saw us connected, in terms of our interests, so that the State, for example, is seen as a means to the individual happiness of each of its citizens; collectively, as Hegel saw us constituted, in which we are all functional elements contribution to the health of the whole; and, as I shall call it, Socratically, where the community is an essential organ of the self, but not the sum of that self.

18Families, societies, governments, are properly dissolved, on the instrumental view, when they fail to serve the interests of their members, just as we would replace a broken drill bit with another, or an incompetent business associate with a go-getter, or a losing football coach with one who will win. As a bachelor I am troubled by nerves, acne, and anorexia. Life seems pointless, i. e., without sexual direction. My doctor advises me to marry. It will clear up your complexion, calm your nerves, fatten you up. So I say, I do, and await the benevolent consequences. After several years, however, my nits return, my nerves refrazz, once again I can't keep my pasta down. Clearly, divorce is indicated.

19Under the concept of the collective, individuals can be substituted for others when they fail to perform their function, the way a pitcher is replaced on the mound, because it is the team which will continue (doesn't Notre Dame?), even though the Coach, and all those who played for him, have passed into history. The bachelor who happened to have bad skin was admitted to the Family in order to perform his function there, as husband and father, even grandfather eventually. If, however his performance is poor, then he may be replaced by a better breadwinner, or by one whose social standing is on steadier stilts. Families, in this ruthless fashion, sometimes survive centuries of misfortune and calamity. We have seen teams limp through losing season after losing season, with coaching staffs dismissed and players continually replaced. This last example allows us to observe that although the team itself may be collectively constituted, the owner's relation to it may be completely instrumental. If the club not only loses games, but also loses money, he may sell it and establish, instead, a line of ladies hosiery. Money, of course, is the pure and perfect emblem of instrumentality, and that is why, though so universally desired, it has always been, by the better sort, despised. The true fan, of course, thinks of the teams as a mutuality, and through it, the community participates in its rise and fall and maintains a common temperature as if it shared the same heart.

20A common blood is the common bond in the case where the community is defined as the shared self, like a public park or a library, belonging to all but owned by none. If my arm is injured, I feel sorry for it; I worry for it; I tend it, heal it; and even if it has offended me, I do not cut it off. Only when the whole self is threatened would that remedy be recommended. The loss would be mourned, and considered irrevocable. So if the bachelor's skin breaks out again, or if the family's fortunes decline because of him, he is not to be turned out of doors. Rather, the reasons for his earlier happiness must be discovered, the healthy state-of-affairs restored, and the family's welfare, in that way, sustained.

21Exile, as I am trying to define it, is not a condition which can arise for the instrumentalist. I can, of course, be separated from my rod and reel, my hamburger franchise, my seventh wife, and that separation might be costly, especially if the fish are biting, or my wife is wealthy, or especially litigious; but exile would always be far too strong a word for what really would be an inconvenience and a disappointment, even if these were severe. Under the collective conception, exile is an unmitigated catastrophe for the person expelled, since the entire self would depend upon the definition given to it by the State. On the other hand, the State which has cast that person out need suffer nothing, nor the other citizens sense a loss, so long as the job which was once done continues to be done obediently and well.

22Athens may wish him out of the way, but Socrates will be missed, because his contribution, and the contribution of every citizen to the State, has to be regarded as unique, so long as we are speaking of society as a shared self. Only here does each man's death truly diminish me, in Donne's famous phrase, because only here is each individual, without any sacrifice of self or its sovereignty, a part of the whole.

23City states were small, both in population and in territory, so that when the city felt it had a dangerous element in its midst - a cell which was becoming cancerous - expulsion was the reasonable recourse. But a body beset by enemies may not only attack and kill them, or send them away with a violent sneeze, it may seal them off inside itself, forming a sort of Siberian cyst. Countries with colonies can penalize one of them by shipping its idealists, convicts, and religious zealots. Individual malcontents, if simple disappearance isn't feasible, can be tossed overboard, marooned, or left to the mercies of the wilderness as Oedipus was. For its victim, exile has two halves like a loaf cut by a knife. Heart, home, and hearth, fill one side - the land the exile loses; while foreignness, strangeness, the condition of the alien, occupy the other - the strand on which the castaway is washed.

24Despite the grim character which the Greeks gave it, the term nowadays has many honorific, romantic, even poetical, applications. Paris is clearly the most favored modern island of exile, but it is difficult to take seriously the punishment which sends you there. American writers who took extended vacations along Saint Germain because Paris was Paris and because of the favorable rate of exchange, liked to think of themselves as exiles, although they readily went home when their money gave out, or to further their careers.

25Henry James and T. S. Eliot became expatriates out of sympathy and convenience, and from a vague distaste for their place of birth. In a way, they had been English all along, and the move merely confirmed their identity. Only Ezra Pound was ever a real exile, and that didn't occur until his incarceration in St. Elizabeth's. Shut away in an asylum for the insane (a common resort), he achieved, after those many years in Europe, exile's dubious status among the discomforts of home. These days there are a lot of things you can become beside an exile: you can be an immigrant, an undesirable alien, a displaced or stateless person, a dissident, an expatriot, a deportee, a wetback, a criminal, a colonist, a tourist, a Flying Dutchman, a Wandering Jew.

26To be exiled is not to be flung out of any door, but out of your own door; it is to lose your home where home suggests close emotional belonging and the gnarled roots of one's identity. I cannot be exiled from Café Society because I never had a home there. I can be blackballed from my club or cashiered from the army, expelled from school or ejected from the game, but I cannot be exiled from any of them. However, those black people who were enslaved and carried out of Africa: they were being exiled from the human race, and reduced to instrumentalities, to machines, to money. Black people have not yet been let into America. They are the dark artery that is denied.

27I can be forced from my homeland by a usurper, or by a conquering army, but so long as I cannot feel I have been excluded by the country itself, I am not really an exile. Exile involves rejection by a loved one, as if the face in your mirror grimaced when it looked out and saw you looking in. It is a narcissistic wound.

28What exactly is the crime for which exile seems such an appropriate punishment? There are scoundrels aplenty in our midst: murderers, muggers, robbers, rapists, vandals, addicts, extortionists, kidnappers, car thieves, safe crackers, embezzlers, arsonists, pickpockets, purse snatchers, skimmers, usurers (so many scoundrels we may be in their midst); those who make obscene phone calls, beat babies, steal from the poor box, drink or gamble away somebody else's savings, adulterate and poison, forge and deceive, or are guilty of cheating at parchesi, counterfeiting, bribery, kickbacks, pollution, tax evasion, libel, misrepresentation, plagiarism, peeping, high crimes and misdemeanors including treason; and all of these, and all those I haven't listed who nevertheless belong there, like those who foul the walkways and litter our alleys and deface our walls, who poison the air and offend the eye and din their dins in our ears; they are simply sent to the lockup, put in the pokey, and kept securely penned for varying periods of unpleasant time; but none of them, including those who threaten the welfare of the State by running from the enemy, selling secrets, disobeying their superiors, or abusing their high office, are sent into exile.

29Rulers frequently suffer this demeaning fate, often as a simple consequence of usurpation; but we must remember that in any game of King-of-the-Hill, it is the hill which must send you spinning, if you are to taste true exile, not a knock on the head by some kid who wants your job. And if a kid anyway, then only by your son (nowadays a daughter will also do), who has to have the people behind her, as well as an army and a couple of International Cartels. Then it will be the Hill, indeed, that gives you the heave. At other times, the rulers we lose are simply scoundrels who would have a place or two reserved for them on my list if they didn't happen to be playing Big Daddy behind some polished desk, and, like Ferdinand Marcos, probably ought to be jailed for bad taste, murder, and theft, but, for many reasons, most of them morally obnoxious, escape this result through exile.

30Who else? People of the wrong race sometimes. Yes. However, the ghetto is not a place of exile, or even a sealed-off area of infection. It is a convenient circle of moral and religious confinement which has the further advantage for the State of being economically useful. Like the slums in which black people are put, the occupants are encouraged to go out to do the Turk's work, the Mexican's, the Yugoslavs's labor, to dig holes and touch caps, to fare forth upon a bus to ma'am the ma'ams and wipe cracks.

31Who else? Artists. And among artists, it is only occasionally painters, sculptors, architects, who may have their shows closed, their buildings reviled, their casts smashed; but who are rarely banished for the reasons of their work. Nor are musicians - who may have performances disrupted, who may find that the concert halls are closed to them, who will receive excoriating reviews, and then an ornately orchestrated silence-ordinarily ushered out of the country on account of a run of seditious notes.

32The case of Socrates continues to be instructive. It was Socrates who felt, and taught, that the soul was the only true mover of the body, and that therefore it behoved us to learn its make up, and something of the way it went about its business. Like plants, we had appetites, and these impelled us; in league with the animals, we had feelings and perceptions as well, and these sent us in search of satisfactions; but, in addition, and unlike any other creature, we could direct ourselves by means of reason to responsible ends. Speech was the principal organ of influence. Through speech we made our thoughts known to others, and through speech each aspect of ourselves endeavored to persuade our differing desires, by reasoning, flattery, or shouts, to fall silent. More often than not, the exiled are novelists and poets, journalists and playwrights, or any others, whatever their occupation, who speak out, or up. Put generally, though I think centrally, what is exiled is nearly always someone's word.

33And when a musician is sent away in disgrace, it is because of what his music is said to say that is the cause; and when the painter is put out like a wild fire, it is because of what his paintings are supposed to mean; it is the words which can be pulled from them, the ideas they then can be alleged to support, for which they are excluded. Socrates did not corrupt the youth by laying his lustful hands on them; he did not corrupt them by omitting to pay ritual homage to the gods; he corrupted them by teaching them intelligent talk; he taught them to quiz the wizards of the market place and the heavies of the politburo and the swifties of the courts exactly where their walk would be most confident, and it was there they were to be confronted, and their words examined, weighed in a debate with other words.

34My pimps and prostitutes, card sharps, bid riggers, and legal liars: why should we suffer the expense of their long stays in our iron-bar hotels, and the pay of the guards who must guard them, and the cost of the high walls which hedge them in? Why should death row be crowded with criminals who have grown old on appeals and three square meals a day? why not wrap up our undesirables and mail them to Cuba? goons and contract killers and burglars by the boatload.

35That is to say: why are writers always able to find a welcome in some country, when other kinds of bad guy are turned away at the border? Well, why are miserable and misunderstood wives so valued by the husbands of their neighbors? Over and over again, one nation's persecuted artists have become another's national treasure. The word which sounded foul in one ear may ring sweetly in another. It was brave of Solzhenitzyn to tell the truth we wanted to hear about the USSR, and we shall be glad to give him a mountain top from which to broadcast, so long as he sets off his charges in the right direction.

36Rarely is an exile lucky enough to be kicked out of New Jersey only to fall down in Devon. Normally he is taken from his family and friends, deprived of his livelihood, his habits, his haunts; his ordinary avenues of expression are closed, his countryside is altered utterly, snow begins to fall in a world which had heretofore held an Hawaiian heart, the birds no longer sing the right songs, the flowers wear the wrong colors, nor are the car horns happy; the winds blow in different directions, the cities smell of fish or beer or paper, clothing is uncomfortably odd, and the words which once came to your tongue like your own soul freely, unashamed, naked to a wife or husband, now have to hide in your head, for there is no one to speak to, no one to read what you've written, no one to know about and protest your case, or understand the conditions of virtue which were called your crime.

37You are no longer you, when even your present daily life is as remote as a memory. You are no longer you, if - especially - you were defined by your way of life, the things you loved, the ideals you esteemed, your language.

38Against this, celebrity exiles have often reported improved conditions: they got better jobs, were lionized, given opportunities to express themselves - in dance, in painting, in design - in directions they could scarcely have foreseen. They were put on TV, asked their opinion, smiled at by strangers in the street, by the CIA debriefed. And there was tea on the terrace following the replay of their defection. Universities payed them to speak, and offered them even more to teach. They had assumed, in effect, the mantle of a new profession: Herr Doktor Dissident, Professor of Exilheit. And ease it is; for some, and easy for some to shift tongues, to pick up this word and that and grammarize themselves, to adapt to a new far richer life than they, earlier, could have dreamed. They might remarry, adopt a team (the Washington Redskins, most likely), disco around a lot, acquire a taste for scotch, begin to forget the wretched whom they once resembled and who lay in prison still or slid still in fear down gray streets or slept lightly as the cat sleeps when in the pound. It became equally easy to discount or forget their fellow exiles, who hadn't landed in swimming pools with surrounding lawns, but who found themselves taken down every peg possible, driving a taxi through streets they couldn't recognize or pronounce, selling bruised fruit, cleaning house when before they had owned one, patronized or ignored, handed a visored cap or a broom, and cast adrift where there was neither water nor a boat.

39To enjoy such successes, other exiles were unwonted competition: for limelight, limited sympathy, restricted access to the goodies of the new life. Back in their old homes, they had often cultivated a fine hatred for one another, so why should they change this comforting relation just because both were in a new place? Besides, only they, of this country or that, region or that, race or that, language or that, this or that kind of cruel repression, grim persecution, special pain and particular rage, only they, that is, were exiles really, exiles in extremis, with an island in their name, exiles in essence. Others were carbons, copies, no-accounts, unable to muster up the misery, the enmity, the enemies who might give them an honest exile's status, and an entry into the aristocracy of the properly deposed.

40Who are those who make this transition most easily? those for whom exile almost turns out not to be? The lucky ones scarcely cared about their country, were into making it one way or in one place or other, were cosmopolitan in their dress and tones and taste and bones, and who had early on freed themselves from clan and family, from countryside and climate - perhaps they lived in an apartment block on a city block amidst a lot of similarly anonymous built-up blocks, and saw only the sky through a sooty window, and wrote on mimeograph paper. Coca-cola and corn dogs comforted them; their microwave knew how much better off they were: clean sheets and a car, some good dope and their own towel. The region they cared about was a region of the mind, and the mind was mainly a mine made of texts, of pages of reportage and consignment, and drama, of course, sentiment, sob-stuff, high-minded alignments of rhymes before being shot or having a head cut off, and they understood geography as a text, history as a text, texts as texts, and were able then to transfer themselves as on library loan from one book depository to another, suffering only the ordinary wear and tear of careless usage.

41In particular, those who did well in their adoptive country were those who learned the new language quickly, and who quickly stepped into the idioms and lingo of the times, who wrote then in their new home as they had written when in their old one: easily, quickly, glibly, satirically. For them, the forced switch from one language to another put both the new one and the old one in a revelatory light. They saw their mother tongue no longer as a daughter might see her mother, but as mother's seducer might, or the baker whom she owed for last week's rolls. And they saw their adopted tongue as an entirely new, wholly free, wonderfully energized way of thinking, because nothing of their rejected past clung to it, the lint of an old life didn't remain; it was as clean of guilt and old emotion and memory as algebra is (one reason why algebra has always been a haven for the haunted).

42Oh, there was guilt enough to go around, and that was one more factor in favor of another language, another country; because every difference was desirable, and every distance; because no matter what wrong your Mother land had done you, or how clearly mistaken in you it had been, and was, or how unjustly you had been treated, how severely you had suffered, how bitterly you had been made to play Job; you were nevertheless still haunted by your Father Figures, your Idols of the Family; you were bitten by your conscience regardless; you called yourself an ungrateful whelp, disgraceful offspring, rotten kid - all the regular stuff - while knowing that your voice was only the flavored echo of your enemies, that it was your own arm they were using to bring the gavel down, and your mouth which dolefully pronounced their sentence. That was another unfairness. Perhaps the final one.

43Well, it is certainly sensible, under such circumstances, to make yourself over in the image of another culture, if you can, because you are going to want to call cabs and order croissants, and you may want to blow the whistle on the bastards who drove you from your homeland - a vigorous article in the local language might do that - or cash in on your new celebrity. It may be, however, as I've already suggested, that you used your first language as superficially as you will use every other, just to request cold toast and tea, or to kiss off an unwanted lover, get a good lie going; and it may also be that you know no other way to use it but badly, as if it were a laundry basket or a paper cup you could crush and throw away after use.

44The scientist, for example, is presumed to be working at a level of concept which escapes the parochial, so that, although the summaries of his experiments are in French or German, they are not in French and German, but in perception records and logarithms. Suppose our words spilled from our mouths as palpably as spit; suppose some were encased in soft pink clouds like cotton candy or encircled like comic strip balloons, or came out in Gothic; suppose they filled up small rooms, and we waded through them to reach the phone or the door, and little language ladies spent the night collecting them in nets, hosing them into vats, and at earliest dawn trucks laden with the logos slunk through the streets to great dictionary shaped dumps. I suppose it only to indicate how well rid of our words we are. No sooner spoken than absorbed by the wide, though increasingly worried, sea of air around us. As for the similarly useless written word... well, we may die of our records; bad writing is more contagious than a cold; and if it isn't pieces of plastic and those wormy twist-ties that get us, it will be vast memo slides, best seller blow-ups, or certificate subsidence.

45But if your language is supposed to be the medium of an art; if you, its user, are an artist and not a reporter, a persuader, a raconteur; if you aren't writing principally to get praise or pay, but wish to avoid the busy avenues of entertainment, to traffic in the tragic maybe, dig down to the deeply serious; then (although there are a few exceptional and contrary cases) you will understand right away how blessed you are by the language you were born with, the language you began to master in the moment you also started to learn about life, to read the lines on faces, the light in the window which meant milk, the door which deprived you of mother, the half-songs sung by that someone who said she owned and loaned you the breast you suckled and claimed as more than kin.

46Only if you spring fully grown from the brow of Zeus can you escape being born, and learning a language before you get big, and losing that language along with growing old. It is like living under a certain sort of sun, except that the word only begins as the wind and weather of the spirit, because what occurs outside initially as a kind of din is slowly made sense of and assimilated. Slowly, too, is a style formed, like the hardening of your bones and physiognomy, the way a character comes into being, too, assertive and tough, mild and weak. That you will learn a language, then, is likely; that you will learn it well is unlikely; that you will live well is unlikely; that you will have a shape is certain; that your soul - that old ghost - will be the source of your speech and the words you write is a Socratic conjecture I support; the word is all the soul is.

47So what is cut away and tossed into the sea when we are tossed? Syllables. The last syllables of recorded time. For speech (which is why the exile, I have argued, was banished in the first place), is not a piece of property which can be bought or sold, and therefore left behind on the lot like a car you have traded. It is the center of the self itself. The excruciation of exile lies in this: that although your body is being sent into the world like the Angel did Adam and Eve, your soul is being sent into a cell of the self where it may mark the days with scratches on the wall called writing, but where it will lose all companions, and survive alone.

48This claim of mine concerning the centrality of the spoken word is, of course, not believed. In our picture perfect time, who should believe it? So on your next date, draw a picture of your passion. Thus explain your needs. How far into real feeling will it take you? Will it not inadvertantly possess a certain lavatory style? When next you are alone, and pondering your problem: should you call him? will she, or won't she? does he like the amplified guitar better than the sawed-off bass? in what will she prefer that I express myself, chalk or crayon? Try posing your questions in terms of the flickering image you say you love and is the future's salutory wave. Think through anything. Try something tiny. But doodle the solution into being.. However, we can't even doodle with any skill. If this is a visual age, why is our visual literary next to nil?

49[That is a couplet of a kind which Shakespeare used to close a scene. I used it to make a point, as if its ready closing were a proof.] [My last remark was a parenthesis, a by-the-way; so while on your pictorial trip try designing a "by" to lie alongside your course and way.] [Try, when you are drawing your course and way, reminding your viewer of Little Miss Muffet who sat on a tuffet, and ate hers.] The pictorial gift is capable of quite wonderful things, as we all know; but what it does is its own, and the notion that it may replace language, or downplay its importance, is ludicrous.

50If we can read, it is expected that we also ought to be able to write, or, anyway, type. How many of us, in our camera crafted age, can take a really good photograph, or copy a pictured face, or form an interesting image in any medium, or read a blueprint, understand a map or set of architectural plans, or even follow the right arrows when trying to catch a suburban train?

51We could say, of Saturn swallowing his children, that he had sent them to hell inside himself. For quite a few of its sufferers, exile is a spiritual condition, not merely a geographical one. This is what many of our American writers of the teens and twenties meant when they described themselves as exiles, and when they weren't just putting on airs. Gertrude Stein said that when American expansion had reached the Pacific, there was no where else to go but "west in the head". And into the head we went. Then sent our luggage east of us to Paris. James Baldwin wasn't sent into exile in France. His exile began before he was born when the darkness of all our beginnings darkened his skin.

52The expression, "spiritual exile", is a metaphor, of course, but a significant one, in as much as I have been suggesting, there are a large number for whom exile is only a pro forma punishment: they are doing well and have found a happy home in their adoptive country. "Alienation" pretty well describes the condition of heart and mind which constitutes the interior content of actual, or effective, exile. While alienation can be mutual, as it sometimes is with married pairs, it is often a one-way street. Citizens can become alienated from their government without the nation noticing. That failure to notice is often part of it. Still, being indifferent to someone or something does not imply that you once upon a time felt otherwise, or that you must continue to mourn your separation.

53"Alienation", as a philosophical term, is no longer in vogue, so perhaps it is safe to pick it up again, if only for a moment. Things with which one was once familiar seem strange as the strange face you are shaving in your mirror; but what is that behind the head? It is a wall you've never seen, a wall the mirror has invented, and the head, too, wobbles on its neck as if it were under water. Remember how it felt to return after many years to the High School of your youth: how small the halls were; how tattered the blinds; how grim the lockers - a greasy green, and dented without design. Reality and memory were out of tune then, and now they are again.

54The movement of the razor over the face, the scrape of the blade, the cream being pushed here and there like suds across a floor, have all leaped over oddity and reached the surreal. The operation of doorknobs is inexplicable. Doorknobs? We expect bidets to be mysterious. After a few frustrating encounters, we count on them to baffle us: the socks still won't come clean. But as alienation settles over our souls like a fog, features, operations, relations, without actually altering, offer us different points of reference, their aims shift, their essences dissolve. An inner weariness wells up, everything is an obstacle, asking us questions we do not understand. We issue the same old orders to our will, but after that our limbs flail awkwardly; walking cautiously straight ahead we still back into things as though blind; we forget how to sneeze.

55At the same time, of course, how vividly, how accurately, how freshly, we see; for everything we had known well, we had long since ceased to know, of course: the bathroom wall which surprises us, the tone in our wife's voice when she was saying "no", which is the same as the scrape of our razor, the gurgle of water down the drain like the departure of all hope. In the blink of an eye, we've placed a Duchamp here, a Duchamp there, until we have a world full.

56We have spent a lifetime making things a part of ourselves, constructing, as they say, a second nature: learning to walk, to speak, to ride a bike, pick a lock, spoil a party, dance the fandango, wash dishes, shovel snow, swim, do our job, turn on, turn off, go to the bathroom, stoop to conquer. We had felt at home in our neighborhood, safe and sound, until houses were looted, purses snatched, and Pakistanis moved in. So now we walk a fierce dog. We had felt at home in our yard with its swimming pool until someone threw an open can of paint in it, until kids swam nude in the middle of the night, until a squirrel drowned. We had felt at home in our home, freshly done in chintz and lacquer, until the kids brought their noisy punk friends into the den, the dog began pooping in a corner, robbers ripped us off, and the wife stopped making the bed. We had felt at home in our flesh until our flesh grew old, grew flabby, went fat, and then there was that stranger in the mirror with his red-rimmed eyes, and the stubble, every morning, like an early field gray with frost.

57Then strangers invaded our private hunk of public space with their hands out and their staring eyes. Then strangers came too close to us in the subway, and sat down beside us with empty seats on every side. So now we come warily up to the ports of our eyes, and go about, even when alone, hidden deep within like a pip in a pumpkin, and protected from the actuality of everything, especially every touch, as we always did at rush hour, so as not to feel felt, when packed in the train like a tin.

58Everything we had embodied became disembodied. Every arena of action was under interdiction. Our history, too, grew distant, seemed mostly lies, or was simply, by the world at large, denied. Time shrunk as our space had. Our selves were fashionable. They were thin.

59Many, among Americans, have been cast away inside the nation; have suffered a spiritual exile so fierce and unrelenting, it long ago became material, and crept from the heart like a ravenous vine. James Baldwin spoke about it always, always well, and instead of presuming to describe a world so white that even the black night sky is white, even the bottoms of wells and the depths of caves are white, I shall let him have a moment.

It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you. The disaffection and the gap between people, only on the basis of their skins, begins there and accelerates throughout your whole lifetime. You realize that you are thirty and you are having a terrible time. You have been through a certain kind of mill and the most serious effect is again not the catalogue of disaster - the policemen, the taxi driver, the waiters, the landlady, the banks, the insurance companies, the millions of details twenty-four hours of every day which spell out to you that you are a worthless human being. It is not that. By that time you have begun to see it happening in your daughter, your son or your niece or your nephew. You are thirty by now and nothing you have done has helped you escape the trap. But what is worse is that nothing you have done, and as far as you can tell nothing you can do, will save your son or your daughter from having the same disaster and from coming to the same end.

60The exile that I know about is an exile of another kind, far less gruesome than the fate which befell Saturn's children, not at all dramatic like the epic of Oedipus, not a bit lyric, either, like a ballad bemoaning the old days from the lute of a Slavic poet. It does not even concern the exile of a person whose speech was found to be offensive, and who was sent away where his message could be heard no more. I am talking about the loss of a use of language, in my opinion its fundamental use - the poetic in the broadest sense - and how that limb of our language has been cut off and callously discarded.

61This has been, of course, my subject all along. And someone may ask, so complete has been its disappearance, what is this special use of language, and what makes it so special. Alas, to answer would require another essay. It is, first of all, a use of language which refuses to be a use. It treats every word as a wonder, and a world in itself. And it walks between them, even over dizzy heights, as confidently as a worker with steel. And it does not care to get on, but it dwells; it makes itself, as Rilke wrote, into a thing, mute as the statue of an orator. It reaches back into the general darkness we - crying - came from, retouches the terrors and comforts of childhood, but returns with a magician skills, to make the walls of the world dance.

62Paul Valéry divided buildings thus: into those that were dumb, and therefore would be, on my account, soul-less, dead; those that spoke, and would be, on my account, solid citizens and a worthy norm, provided their speech was clear and honest and unaffected; and those that sang, for these found in themselves their own end, and rose, like Shelley's lark, through the heaviest atmosphere.

63We have grown used to the silence of this art. We make other noises. Yet it is an old rule of history that exiles return, that they return wrathfully, whether a banished people, a forbidden idea, or a barricaded way, to reclaim what should have been their heritage. But of course poetry will never make us pay. No. It will not put us to death or in prison or send us, in revenge, into another county. It will simply put us to shame.


Washington University, St. Louis

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1990

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