Imaginary homelands

Imaginary homelands

A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house. Matthew, 13:57.

All human generations are born with the urge to travel. All living species are, in fact; it comes with the urge to procreate and subdue as many climes as possible to their use. If these two weren’t part of our survival kit, the human race would still be a small colony in eastern Africa.

Why then is so much rare spoken about exile? We are all exiles from our roots. Not the most rooted clan can claim to have lived in the same place for more than a thousand years or so. That is a small flash in the lifetime of the race.

No, the question is stated, what urge in creative people forces them to wander? Who, I reply, was more creative than they who invented the wheel, or the written script? The first wheelwrights were by definition wanderers. The first to put thoughts on paper were traders, who spent much time from home. Why should wanderlust be the prerogative of the creative artist?

I am playing devil’s advocate, but not just for the hell of it. When I first fancied myself a writer 20 odd years ago, I too believed in the cult then (and now) fashionable. To leave one’s family, to repudiate the household gods, was necessary to find oneself. But I have since found that it is possible to do both sitting at home. It is also less uncomfortable.

Silence or exile

The trouble is that exile is trendy. Like all trends, it comes and goes in waves.  The latest such wave came with Salman Rushdie and his sort, who made it an article of their creed that you couldn’t write well without being an exile. Call it a concomitant of globalisation.

Bosh. Is exile more cunning than silence? The statement loosely adapted from a passage in the early James Joyce is so often misused in praise of exile that it is as well to reproduce it: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile and cunning.”

Some persecutions, then, can be borne in silence, at the appropriate time, at home, fruitfully. It is the human’s (not necessarily the artist’s) cunning that determines whether silence or exile is more effective. Right now, those who praise exile speak louder than those who create in silence, which is what is to be expected and has always happened.

No man who is not happy in one place can be happy in any place. Let us call that one place ‘home’. Why does someone leave home? It is either to better himself, or because he is not wanted there. The emigrant’s is a curious paradox. If he goes elsewhere to make his life, he is generally not wanted; and if he is driven to flee he is often welcomed — for a while. He can make a virtue of it, as the convict cast did at the opening of the ‘Sydney Playhouse’ in 1796:

True patriots we; for be it understood,
We left our country for our country’s good

Even the convicts were lucky; not everyone is given the chance to settle in a relatively empty land. Our ancestors ruled that out long ago, deeming Aryavarta good enough for anybody.

The creative artist needs, or thinks he needs (I’ll stick to ‘he’ throughout, if you don’t mind) the right space to work in. This space is mostly in the mind. Give him a quiet room with the comforts he wants — or give him privation if he prefers it — and so long as what is happening in the outside world fits his preconceptions, he will be happy, or unhappy, enough to work. Scott Fitzgerald defined the test of an artist — actually, a ‘first-rate intelligence’ — as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” This is most true of the climate he can work in.

The creative artists who really set the tone for this modern notion of exile as something necessary all belong to more than a hundred years ago. Shaw and Wilde were not really exiles: They could make it bigger in London than in Ireland, and were happy to stay there. Joyce was never happy in one place, roaming all over Europe. The painters of the early 20th century went to Paris because that was where the best schools were, just as 50 years earlier the doctors had done.

Henry James came ponderously over from America, unhappy with the cultural climate of his country and seeking to milk the mother lode. He was followed by the poets Pound and Eliot, with romantic notions of their own. Pound couldn’t reconcile reality with his ideals and went crazy; Eliot after a brief fling with European culture settled down like the bourgeois he was.

Lost generation

You may function with two opposed ideas in your head, but when your romantic ideals interfere with the reality you accept, you cannot turn out good work. That perhaps ruined what Gertrude Stein, an exile in Paris herself, called the Lost Generation. How much of Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s work has endured? American writers of the last 60 years have preferred to stay at home, which has, however, imbued them with the idea that America is better than anywhere else. That’s a pity. A spot of exile would have done many of them good.

Was Joyce a forced exile? The Church, and the ways of thinking it imposed; the politics — he found all these stultifying. If he had stayed on he’d probably have been tried for obscenity and blasphemy and imprisoned. A creative artist can always choose what is to be created. He must be realistic enough to know how far he can take his criticism of the society he lives in. If he thinks it will be offensive, the wise artist carries his art elsewhere.

Some cannot, and they are the artists who really suffer. Look at Solzhenitsyn, driven to the Gulag and then to exile in a country he detested; at Pasternak, exiled within his homeland; at Sartre, exiled within his mind; at poor Husain, driven from his beloved Bombay at 90 because Indian society had changed too rapidly for him. And where was Saadat Manto exiled from, India or Pakistan, accompanied only by the devils in his head?

Tom Sharpe went to South Africa to teach. He wrote hilarious black satires on Apartheid society till he was deported back to England, where he wrote hilarious black satires on English society.

That was all right. Till the 80s, the English couldn’t believe anyone who criticised them was serious, so they didn’t take him seriously. Now they are so used to everyone criticising them that they don’t take themselves seriously.

Perhaps that’s why Rushdie settled there. He is no exile, he went there long ago to study, and then worked in advertising. Taslima Nasreen’s is a different case. To have to flee Bangladesh, and then to be unable to live even in West Bengal — that is misery indeed to one steeped as much in her culture as she is. The cases of Husain and Nasreen, and the responses to them, are as scalpels in laying bare our hypocrisy.
To tune myself to this theme, I have been reading again WG Sebald’s The Emigrants, a 1993 book translated from the German.

Sebald writes evocatively of four men, all northern Europeans, who were formed by the early 1900s and destroyed by what came after. It is a dirge for a vanished civilisation, very understated. None of the four was an artist, but all were very sensitive and intelligent. They saw Nature, and a caring way of human life, broken beyond repair by greed, and each in his way went mad.

“Memory,” one of the four wrote in a 1913 diary, “often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.”

We are all thus exiled, from happy childhoods or loving ties or from some dream seen and never recaptured. Time is a dimension, and a temporal exile can be felt spatially. The creative artist sees the ruin around, and either makes something of it in his art, or it breaks him.

They err who say an exile can see his homeland in better perspective. There is such a thing as missing the trees for the wood. To be driven into exile is painful; to go voluntarily and proclaim oneself an expert on what one has fled is not only conceited but lacks a sense of history.

No, I have no sympathy for the voluntary exile when he weeps in nostalgia, and no respect when he decries its ills and prescribes remedies. But my heart goes out to Husain.

As a society we seem to have too many romantic notions of our past, and are too apt to take offence when those notions are offended. The time to take offence, if at all, was in the past when the conqueror’s yoke fell, instead, upon our ancestors’ bowed and assenting heads. History is not a set of balances to be steadied. What enrages me above all is that we cannot think for ourselves, and the few who can, cannot always say what they think.

The lines at the head of this essay were spoken by Jesus when he came back to Nazareth and preached in the synagogue. The villagers said, “Isn’t this the same fellow who grew up among us? We know his family, we know him. Who’s he to come and lecture to us?”

An entirely freethinking society is the same as anarchy. There must always be certain codes and restrictions. But to say, “This fellow is one of us. Where does he get these ideas? How dare he be different?” also leads to anarchy, a desert of the spirit.
Jaswant Singh is no creative artist (except maybe in politics). They cannot drive him from the country, any more than they can tar and feather him or deny him fire and water. But in a sense he’s an exile, and it’s good to see an exile have the last laugh.