Writers are nature's exiles

UNESCO Courier, Oct, 1996 by Ismail Kadare

The question that writers living in a foreign country are most often asked is: "Now that you live away from your home country, do you write in the same way as you did before?" In other words: "Did you bring your source of inspiration with you, or do you need a new one?"
Ingenuous questions are often the hardest ones to answer. As if infected by their naivety, writers answer them naively.
The best answer would be another question: "In our little universe on earth, can you really be far removed from your country?"
My answer is: "No."
For a true writer, the world is immediately perceptible in its entirety, like the view that opens up when you stand at a window. This is so not only because of television, as might be expected, but for a more profound reason: the full extent of the world is always present in the consciousness of writers, whether they like it or not. If it were otherwise, their artistic vision would be mutilated, severed, and perhaps inoperative. It would be like using a language without the syntax that is vital if words are to relate properly to the expression of ideas.
In various layers of our consciousness are the Egyptian pyramids, the icecap of the North Pole, the winds of Siberia, the scorching heat of the desert, New York skyscrapers and Tibetan monasteries. It requires no effort of the imagination to conjure up these images, or others such as the crucifixion of Jesus or Genghis Khan's caravanserai. They are as familiar and natural to us as the local post office or the shop around the corner.
It could be argued that the human brain spontaneously encompasses the full extent of the
world and the course of events which have fashioned it over thousands of years. From earliest childhood, people get used to this scheme of things as if to exorcise their fears and avoid distress. They often add other boundless spaces, such as the flames of hell.
Distance and exile are not just a familiar condition for the writer. To a large extent they are part of the creative mechanism itself.
They are part of the screen of mist without which it is impossible to draw the dividing line between the appearance of reality and its artistic reflection, the necessary distance between the creator and life.
Absence has always been part of the creative process.
Before writing existed, before even the concept of "the writer" existed, there were rhapsodists - travellers who came from afar bringing stories about unknown peoples in distant lands. They were also the first authors.
Distance stimulated their imagination and encouraged them to modify landscapes and to invent human beings different from those who had existed, or even from those who had never existed - in other words, to create characters.
In the end, distance meant that they were not subject to control and thus ensured the freedom of the creator for the first time.
It could almost be argued that it was in the nature of creators to create distance in one way or another.
A combination of political and ideological factors and writers' quarrels and conflicts with society probably influences their choice of exile. But there is also a mysterious quest which is closely connected with the creative process.
Yet there is not the slightest contradiction between exile and a writer's cultural identity.
On the contrary, exile can strengthen cultural identity, and at the very moment when the latter seems to be languishing it becomes even more real thanks to the universal dimension it derives from exile.
In general, writers or creators of cultural values who move to a foreign country are like the travellers of ancient times, bringing from afar the more colourful and surprising aspects of their own country. As for the foreign country that takes them in, the immobile country that takes in migrants, it is at least as interested in their fantasies as in their view of everyday life, if not more so. Thus, the mechanism works reciprocally: on either side there is a quest for distance. And on either side that quest is satisfied.
Looked at from this angle, it could be argued that writers seek exile when something goes awry in their inner creative processes. Other motives then become less important. Homer, who in all likelihood did not settle permanently anywhere, left no explanation of his movements.
Wandering seemed a natural way of life to bards and rhapsodists.
The reason why a second great writer, Aeschylus, emigrated remains obscure, or at least seems rather poorly justified in purely political terms. An inability to come to terms with Greece, or indeed with his times, or perhaps a row with the jury of a drama contest, may have strongly motivated him, but that alone cannot explain why this genius was forced to leave Athens at the age of sixty-seven.
Dante Alighieri had the bright idea of opposing the political wrangling between two hostile clans in his city - with the result that he went into a long exile (in a neighbouring city). While in exile he wrote one of the most powerful works of world literature, the Divine Comedy. Perhaps this was the real reason why he went into exile.
Political turmoil, especially in the twentieth century, has prompted thousands of writers and artists to leave their countries and scatter to the four corners of the globe. But even in the fever of politics there is always something that remains immobile and in abeyance, "like stars during earthquakes" (as one poet put it). And that is the fever of creation.
This fever partly explains the reasons for exile. It decides the fate of exiled creative artists. It keeps them alive or it destroys them for ever. During the communist period, and above all during the transitional phase before it was swept away, thousands of writers and artists left the East European countries, some with clearly-defined objectives, others driven by a collective psychosis, a yearning for a more interesting life. Although the dust of that storm has now settled and it is easier to see things more clearly, we are still in no position to identify the real reasons for a migration on that scale. In any case we shall need a little more time before we can appreciate the artistic treasures it made possible.
In the nineteenth century, when the Balkan states were in the iron grip of the Ottoman Empire, their ideologues, leading thinkers, poets and philosophers left the Balkans and settled in Western Europe. From there, they called on their compatriots to join them in exile. At that time, exile was an understandable consequence of repression. But as the years went by it became clear to readers of the works they wrote in exile that exile was necessary to those writers primarily so that the importance of the countries they had left behind could grow within them.
In such a situation, exile becomes sustaining and redemptive. When your country becomes impossible to contemplate, you are forced to look away. It is said that the Greek philosopher Democritus blinded himself for that reason.
Somehow there always comes a day when, each in our own way, we replicate that age-old and definitive act.

© 1996 UNESCO
© 2004 Gale Group

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