Saturday, March 13, 2010
The Condition We Call Exile by Joseph Brodsky
As we gather here *, in this attractive and well-lit room, on this cold December evening, to discuss the plight of the writer in exile, let us pause for a minute and think of some of those who, quite naturally, didn't make it to this room. Let us imagine, for instance, Turkish Gastarbeiters prowling the streets of West Germany, uncomprehending or envious of the surrounding reality. Or let us imagine Vietnamese boat people bobbing on high seas or already settled somewhere in the Australian outback. Let us imagine Mexican wetbacks crawling the ravines of Southern California, past the border patrols into the territory of the United States. Or let us imagine shiploads of Pakistanis disembarking somewhere in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, hungry for menial jobs the oil-rich locals won't do. Let us imagine multitudes of Ethiopians trekking some desert on foot into Somalia ( or is it the other way around? ), escaping famine. Well, we may stop here, because that minute of imagining has already passed, although a lot could be added to this list. Nobody has ever counted these people and nobody, including the UN relief organizations, ever will: coming in millions, they elude computation and constitute what is called - for want of a better term or a higher degree of compassion - migration.
Whatever the proper name for this phenomena is, whatever the motives, origins, and destinations of these people are, whatever their impact on the societies which they abandon and to which they come, one thing is absolutely clear : they make it very difficult to talk with a straight face about the plight of the writer in exile.
Yet talk we must; and not only because literature, like poverty, is known for taking care of its own kind, but mainly because of the ancient and perhaps yet unfounded belief that, were the masters of this world better read, the mis-management and grief that make millions hit the road could be somewhat reduced. Since there is not much on which to rest our hopes for a better world, and since everything else seems to fail one way or another, we must somehow maintain that literature is the only form of moral insurance that a society has; that it is the permanent antidote to the dog-eat-dog principle; that it provides the best argument against any sort of bulldozer-type mass solution - if only because human diversity is literature's lock and stock, as well as its raison d'etre. We must talk because we must insist that literature is the greatest - surely greater than any creed - teacher of human subtlety, and that by interfering with literature's natural existence and with people's ability to learn literature's lessons, a society reduces its own potential, slows down the pace of its evolution, ultimately, perhaps, puts its own fabric in peril. If this means we must talk to ourselves, so much the better: not for ourselves but perhaps for literature.
Whether he likes it or not, Gastarbeiters and refugees of any stripe effectively pluck the orchid out of an exiled writer's lapel. Displacement and misplacement are this century's commonplace. And what our exiled writer has in common with a Gastarbeiter or a political refugee is that in either case a man is running from the worse to the better. The truth of the matter is that from a tyranny one can be exiled only to a democracy. For good old exile ain't what it used to be. It isn't civilized Rome for savage Sarmatia anymore, nor is it sending a man from, say, Bulgaria to China. No, as a rule what takes place is a transition from a political and economic backwater to an industrially advanced society with the latest word on individual liberty on its lips. And it must be added that perhaps taking this route is for an exiled writer, in many ways, like going home - because he gets closer to the seat of the ideals which inspired him all along.
* Wheatland Conference, Vienna, 1987
"The Condition We Call Exile, or Acorns Away" in "On Grief and Reason; Essays"; Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995.