Exile and Creativity: Signposts, Travelers, Outsiders, Backward Glances

Exile and Creativity: Signposts, Travelers, Outsiders, Backward Glances

by Susan Rubin Suleiman

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A major historical phenomenon of our century, exile has been a focal point for reflections about individual and cultural identity and problems of nationalism, racism, and war. Whether emigrés, exiles, expatriates, refugees, or nomads, these people all experience a distance from their homes and often their native languages. Exile and Creativity brings together the widely varied perspectives of nineteen distinguished European and American scholars and cultural critics to ask: Is exile a falling away from a source of creativity associated with the wholeness of home and one’s own language, or is it a spur to creativity?
In essays that range chronologically from the Renaissance to the 1990s, geographically from the Danube to the Andes, and historically from the Inquisition to the Holocaust, the complexities and tensions of exile and the diversity of its experiences are examined. Recognizing exile as an interior experience as much as a physical displacement, this collection discusses such varied topics as intellectual exile and seventeenth-century French literature; different versions of home and of the novel in the writings of Bakhtin and Lukács; the displacement of James Joyce and Clarice Lispector; a young journalist’s meeting with James Baldwin in the south of France; Jean Renoir’s Hollywood years; and reflections by the descendents of European emigrés. Strikingly, many of the essays are themselves the work of exiles, bearing out once more the power of the personal voice in scholarship.
With the exception of the contribution by Henry Louis Gates Jr., these essays were originally published in a special double issue of Poetics Today in 1996. Exile and Creativity will engage a range of readers from those whose specific interests include the problems of displacement and diaspora and the European Holocaust to those whose broad interests include art, literary and cultural studies, history, film, and the nature of human creativity.

Contributors. Zygmunt Bauman, Janet Bergstrom, Christine Brooke-Rose, Hélène Cixous, Tibor Dessewffy, Marianne Hirsch, Denis Hollier, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Linda Nochlin, Leo Spitzer, Susan Rubin Suleiman, Thomas Pavel, Doris Sommer, Nancy Huston, John Neubauer, Ernst van Alphen, Alicia Borinsky, Svetlana Boym, Jacqueline Chénieux-Gendron

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379829
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/29/1998
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 456
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Susan Rubin Suleiman is C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherhood.

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Exile and Creativity

Signposts, Travelers, Outsiders, Backward Glances

By Susan Rubin Suleiman

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7982-9





WHEN I WAS A CHILD in Brussels, brought up bilingually in French and English, I used to think that the word exile meant "ex-île," out of the island; not, I feel pretty certain, because of the British Isles, to and from which I was constantly taken and to which I nominally and paternally belonged, but because islands are magical to a child: Treasure Island, Crusoe's island, Peter Pan's never-never land, Paul et Virginie on their island, Coral Island, or whatever, a no-man's-land all the way to the island of solitudinous reading I loved to be in and hated to be suddenly thrust out of. And are not many utopias, even dystopias, islands, from Pindar's and Plato's to More's and Swift's and Golding's? Even science fictions planets and galaxies and alternative worlds are felt as islands, isolated from our round earth's imagined corners of reality.

But no: exile (L. exilium, earlier exsilium; exul, earlier exsul, a banished man) was long thought to be linked to solum, soil, but is now (by Andrews 1987 [1879]) related to the root sal, Sanskrit sar (to go), L. saline/saltare; and L. exsilio meant "spring forth." But then later, in Old French, exilier or essilier meant "to ravage," "to devastate," a shift in meaning still traceable in exterminate, literally "to drive beyond boundaries."

Thus the clanging connotations are of suffering in banishment, but also of springing forth into a new life, beyond the boundaries of the familiar (beyond the boundaries of the island-self, I obstinately add, since no man is an island, even in no-man's-land). "Thou paradise of exiles, Italy!" Shelley wrote in 1818 (Julian and Maddalo: 1.57). That's for the springing forth connotation. But Pope Gregory VII's last words are said to have been: "I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity; wherefore I die in exile" (quoted in Bowden 1840, 2: bk. 3, chap. 20). This is a bitter adaptation of Psalm 45.7 Revised Standard Version:

Thou has loved righteousness and hated iniquity,
wherefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee
with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

That's for the suffering connotation, a suffering felt as unjust, a punishment for righteousness instead of the promised reward. To be sure, Gregory VII (Hildebrand) was not a poet or other writer of fiction (except perhaps in those last words), and in many ways deserved his fate in the deadly struggle for supremacy, between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, that bedeviled the whole of the Middle Ages. The emperor Henry VII had captured the "Leonine" city (after Leo IX) in 1083, Rome itself surrendered in 1084, but Gregory held out in the castle of Sant' Angelo. Then the pope's ally Robert Guiscard at last came to the "rescue," brutally sacking Rome and taking Gregory, almost as a captive, to the safety of Salerno, where he died on May 31, 1085.

It may seem absurd today that mere writers should ever have been considered powerful or influential enough to deserve exile, as opposed to political figures or, for that matter, to bakers and carpenters. But they have, and, being writers, offer a good deal more variety than political figures.


There are so many different kinds of literary exile. At random from memory, in roughly chronological, nonevaluative order: "Isaiah" (and in a very wide sense, all Jewish writers of the Diaspora), Ovid, Virgil, Cavalcanti, Dante (from Florence under Charles de Valois), Petrarch (to Provence), Thibault de Champagne (to his new kingdom of Navarre), Charles d'Orléans (imprisoned by the English), Voltaire, Mme de Staël, Adam Mickiewicz, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Cyprian Norwid, Charles Baudelaire (debts), Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Gabriele D'Annunzio (debts), W. B. Yeats, Edith Wharton, Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, H. D., Djuna Barnes, Henry Miller, Radclyffe Hall, D. H. Lawrence, Max Beerbohm, Somerset Maugham, Stefan Zweig, Bertolt Brecht, André Breton, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, W. H. Auden, Thomas Mann, Malcolm Lowry, Witold Gombrowicz, Vladimir Nabokov, Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jorge Semprún, Luis Cernuda, Milan Kundera, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Harry Matthews, Italo Calvino, Anthony Burgess, Muriel Spark, and no doubt many others, all the way to the modern "foreigners" or "postcolonials" who write in English or French today, from Kazuo Ishiguro to Salman Rushdie, an exile within an exile.

Clearly, this list alone covers a great variety of exiles, from temporary (e.g., Hugo) to permanent, though the exile can't always know this; early (e.g., Ishiguro, who came to England at six from Nagasaki) or en fin de carrière (Wilde). But the most obvious and commonly made distinction is between the following:

1. Involuntary exile, usually political or punitive ("Isaiah," Ovid, Dante, Thibault, Charles d'Orléans, Byron, Mickiewicz, and all the moderns such as Ionesco, Semprún, Cernuda, Kundera, Solzhenitsyn, etc., alas). And these can be further divided into those exiled for their books or their behavior (Ovid, Byron, Mme de Staël, Victor Hugo, Wilde, Solzhenitsyn) and those who as private persons fled from political conditions or war.

2. Voluntary exile, usually called expatriation, itself for many more personal reasons: social, economic, sexual (e.g., Radclyffe Hall and the lesbian group in Paris in the twenties), or simple preference (Beerbohm retired in Rapallo, Ezra Pound choosing Italy).

Involuntary exiles may tend to be unhappy, poor, bitter (like Gregory VII), nostalgic about the society left behind, self-righteous; voluntary exiles may tend to be happy, comfortable, satiric about the society left behind, self-righteous. But that is obviously a useless generalization, with too many exceptions on any one feature, and some, like Byron (a sexual scandal but rich and noble) or Wilde (a sexual scandal but broken by prison and poverty) hover between the two, while Cyprian Norwid, though a voluntary exile, lived and died in Paris in abject poverty and was buried in a pauper's grave.

It seems to me that there are more pertinent distinctions, which cut across the differences in causes and conditions. The first is formal and thematic, the second linguistic.


In older times, before the rise of the nation-state, when literary forms and themes were more restricted as well as more universal within a common temporal culture (medieval, classical, etc.), many writers in exile simply continued to write what they would have written at home. Petrarch, Charles d'Orléans, Thibault de Champagne (courtly lyrics); Shelley, Keats, Byron, Hugo (lyrics, romantic epics, classical elegies, etc.), Voltaire (satires, tragedies, romans philosophiques, essays), Mme de Staël (novels, essays). In other words, despite the inescapable language differences, the formal and thematic idiom was closer to the universal language of music: Handel could live in England but compose in the classical idiom, whereas it is impossible to consider Schubert or Dvorák apart from their use of folk song motifs. The analogy is of course inexact, but broadly helpful.

With the development of romantic realism in the nineteenth century, many exiled writers wrote about the society they had left behind. Although forms remained universally recognizable, however developing, there was a shift in subject matter, so that a new distinction can be made between those whose themes look back in either traditional or more experimental forms, and those whose themes, often with more formal experimentation, transcend the condition of exile. This distinction can be illustrated with, in the nineteenth century, Mickiewicz versus Norwid, or, in the twentieth, Joyce versus Beckett.

Mickiewicz, leaving Wilno in "Russian" Poland after the 1830 insurrection, first for Russia, then Dresden, and finally Paris, was immensely prolific for five years. The whole of Pan Tadeusz, a romantic patriotic epic poem with a Polish hero, full of passionate detail of landscape and customs down to every different kind of mushroom, was written in Paris. Then, perhaps exhausted after that immense effort of total recall, he dried up, at least on poetry, although as national bard he became deeply involved with Polish messianism. A modern counterpart is Solzhenitsyn. Norwid's poetry on the other hand, however essentially Polish, is not only more experimental but explores far less specifically Polish themes.

In a parallel if dissimilar way Joyce, though boldly experimental in form, continued to write about the Ireland of his youth, first realistically then mythologically in a wholly transformed, interlinguistic new idiom that transcends the earlier realism; whereas Beckett, also pushing the boundaries of novel or play beyond familiar forms, writes much simpler English (and later French), yet leaves Ireland far behind, and his postmodern successors, such as Calvino, also abandon regional or national locales and themes.

In a general sense this abandonment of the local is true of many modern writers. Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain is not merely about a sanatorium, Djuna Barnes's characters are placeless, and so on. In What Are Masterpieces? Gertrude Stein said about herself: "I am an American and I have lived half my life in Paris, not the half that made me but the half that made what I made" (1970 [1940]: 62). Later, she elaborates: "What is adventure and what romance. Adventure is making the distant approach nearer but romance is having what is where it is which is not where you are stay where it is" (ibid.).

Those who make things "inside themselves," she goes on, do not need adventure but they do need romance:

It has always been true of all who make what they make come out of what is in them and have nothing to do with what is necessarily existing outside of them it is inevitable that they have always wanted two civilizations.... There is no possibility of mixing up the other civilization with yourself you are you and if you are you in your own civilization you are apt to mix yourself up too much with your civilization but when it is another civilization a complete other a romantic other another that stays there where it is you in it have freedom inside yourself which if you are to do what is inside yourself and nothing else is a very useful thing to have happen to you and so America is my country and Paris is my home town. (Ibid.: 62–63)

Whether we agree or not with this elaboration, it is true that the American expatriate in Paris is strangely immune to French influence, in much the same way that Joyce wrote about Dublin independently of Paris or Trieste. As Shari Benstock (1986: 78) has said about the English or American women who settled in France during the twenties (and it applies to most of the men, including Scott Fitzgerald), they wrote about the English and the Americans, and "were not affected by French mores and customs," since it was "the need for separateness that brought them to Paris," as well as, no doubt, economic and other advantages — the favorable rate of exchange, the sexual freedom, the liquor unavailable in Prohibition America, and "being geniuses together." (Being Geniuses Together is the title of Robert McAlmon's 1968 book, quoted in Gilbert and Gubar 1989, 2: 221. On the advantages of expatriation, see Gilbert and Gubar 1989, 2: 219.)

Hemingway, with his Parisian, Italian, Spanish, and African locales, is a notable exception, but then he hardly remained in one spot, and might be classed by Stein under "adventure." Perhaps the most exemplary exception, going back a generation or more, is Henry James, who shifted his subtle analyses from Boston to Europe, and more especially to the gulf between the two, skillfully inverting the cliché of Americans as vulgar and Europeans as civilized. His disciple Edith Wharton, on the other hand, though living in France, remained with American drawing-room society.

The Jamesian shift is more common today. Kundera is a good example, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) already mixing Geneva into a basically Czech story, and Salman Rushdie is another. The Satanic Verses (1988) is a real clash of Indian/London cultures. Kazuo Ishiguro moved from Japanese locales and themes to a tour de force in The Remains of the Day (1989), in which the thoughts and emotions of a typically British butler pierce through his pompously distancing, alienatingly "correct" idiom.

Apart from the last two, all these exiles — whatever their home/abroad themes or their familiar/innovative forms, whatever lands they left or went to, in whatever condition, Babylonish exile or prison, poor or relatively moneyed — nevertheless wrote in their native tongues.


The question of language is more complex, and examples of writers who adopt a language not their own are much rarer. Joseph Conrad is the modern archetype, writing all of his work in English. Apart from two poignant short stories, Conrad never wrote of Poland, but wrote instead of the sea, of Southeast Asia, South America, Marseilles, London. The other apparent exception, Under Western Eyes (1911), with an East European revolutionary theme, has a Russian hero, and a Moscow locale, and takes place partly in Geneva. As in all of Conrad's novels, the essential solitude of exile is transmuted away from Polish specificity.

Conrad was already born in exile (near Berdyczów), in the sense that this "Polish" part of Ukraine had been incorporated into Russia with the Partitions, although the idea of Poland and the Polish language remained very strong there. But Apollo Korzeniowski, Conrad's father and a literary man, was politically active and the family was further exiled when Conrad was seven, first to Vologda north of Moscow, then back south to Chernikov, not too far from Kiev; eventually, after his mother's death, Conrad returned at least to Lwów, then part of Austria, ending up as an orphan in Cracow (also part of Austria) under the guardianship of his maternal uncle. Conrad's dream was to go to sea, and at seventeen he left for Marseilles. In other words, he was born an involuntary exile in the East who became a voluntary exile in the West. But he was deeply read in Polish literature. A complex background.

Even today, Ionesco, Nabokov, and Beckett are rare examples of complete linguistic assimilation, possibly giving the distance needed for the transcending of regional/national themes into those of the human condition anywhere.

The phenomenon of language change, however, also cuts across geographical exile, since many writers from our ex-empires write in the ex-imperial languages of French and English. The Spanish/Portuguese situation is different, since those languages stamped out the native ones, at least for literary purposes, and became the first and native languages in much older ex-empires. But the Nigerians Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, the Somali Nuruddin Farah, the Algerian Rachid Mimouni (and other African writers), Salman Rushdie (and other Indian writers), learning English/French young and perhaps even being bilingual, chose those second languages over their native idioms.

This modern phenomenon, though still rare, is an exact inversion of the medieval one, when the ex-imperial language, Latin, though much debased, was the only literary language, and was eventually stamped out by the new vernaculars. The effort to create a new literary language (Languedoc, Languedoil, Tuscan, Spanish, Middle English, Middle High German) or, earlier, simply to continue in the old vernacular (Saxon, Anglo-Saxon, Old High German) must have been an equivalent challenge, with this political and social difference: the medieval effort, though in each case individual, was also a generalized (if sometimes condemned) struggle in favor of the native, popular language as against the dying official one, whereas the modern effort of writers who use a language other than their native one is a purely individual struggle to merge into and contribute to the (as yet) not quite dying official language in order to reach a wider public rather than be restricted to a language this wider public can't be bothered to learn.

And yet, despite this inversion, the modern individual who decides to create in an idiom not his own, or only secondly his own, is surely making the same qualitative effort as that of Dante trying to create a new literary language out of his own spoken and popular idiom. That is, the effort is as great, the result at its best is as fresh, as cliché-escaping, as enriching, as that of Dante; unless the postcolonial, on the contrary, tries to follow the clichés (of language, of structure) of the ex-imperial culture, as happens, in my humble opinion, with Chinua Achebe (e.g., Things Fall Apart [1958]).

How then are these various clashing features of exile (involuntary/voluntary, home society/new society, own language/alien language) experienced today? Such a vast subject would deserve a whole book, examining each writer in detail. But since, more modestly, I have experienced both aspects of all those distinctions, as expatriate English writer and as ex-wife of Jerzy Peterkiewicz, a Polish exile writing in English, I propose to move on to a brief but more personal treatment, in the sense that I knew him well.


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Table of Contents

Introduction / Susan Rubin Suleiman 1


Exsul / Christine Brooke-Rose 9

Exile as Romance and as Tragedy / Thomas Pavel 25

Art and the Conditions of Exile: Men/Women, Emigration/Expatriation / Linda Nochlin 37

"Mamae, disse ele," or, Joyce's Second Hand / Helene Cixous 59

Letter from Paris (Foreign Mail) / Denis Hollier 89


At Home Abroad: El Inca Shuttles with Hebreo / Doris Sommer 109

Gombrowicz's Tango: An Argentine Snapshot / Alicia Borinsky 143

Surrealists in Exile: Another Kind of Resistance / Jacqueline Chenieux-Gendron 163

Jean Renoir's Return to France / Janet Bergstrom 180

A Master of Amazement: Armando's Self-Chosen Exile / Ernst Van Alphen 220


Estrangement as a Lifestyle: Shklovsky and Brodsky / Svetlana Boym 242

Bakhtin versus Lukacs: Inscriptions of Homelessness in Theories of the Novel / John Neubauer 263

Romain Gary: A Foreign Body in French Literature / Nancy Huston 281

The Welcome Table: James Baldwin in Exile / Henry Louis Gates Jr. 305

Assimilation into Exile: The Jew as a Polish Writer / Zygmunt Bauman 321

Strangerhood without Boundaries: An Essay in the Sociology of Knowledge / Tibor Dessewffy 353

Backward Glances

Persistent Memory: Central European Refugees in an Andean Land / Leo Spitzer 373

Monuments in a Foreign Tongue: On Reading Holocaust Memoirs by Emigrants / Susan Rubin Suleiman 397

Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile / Marianne Hirsch 418

Contributors 447

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