Permanent Aliens

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"Leaving the Center: The Modern Writer as Exile" by Morris Dickstein, in The Common Review (Summer 2005), 35 E. Wacker Dr., Chicago, Ill. 60601–2298.

There’s a long tradition of writers living and working in exile. Usually they’ve been expelled for political offense, as Ovid was 2,000 years ago and Dante 1,300 years later. But the great modernist exiles—such as Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Vladimir Nabokov—embraced a different sort of separation, and they did so willingly. According to Dickstein, distinguished professor of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center, they were "exiles of the spirit rather than of the body politic," seeking a new contemporary idiom in which to express their alienation: "Exile is crucial to modern writing not simply because so many of its leading figures happened to leave home; they left home because they saw modern life itself as broken, dislocated, discontinuous with the past."

Dickstein calls Henry James the first spiritual expatriate, "at home everywhere and nowhere," and in his wake came Eliot and Pound and Henry Miller, all of whom left America to escape "a philistine hatred, fear, or incomprehension of art." Eliot and Pound shared James’s absolute dedication to art and used the European past to create new traditions that were characteristically their own.

Joyce left Ireland behind—in life, though not in his work—and Kafka, a German-speaking Jew from Prague (in that identification there’s already a wealth of displacement) made exile and homelessness even more central to his work than these themes had been for Joyce. Kafka "felt exiled from no place he could begin to imagine as his real home; the ultimate modernist, he felt exiled from life itself."

Kafka was an immense influence on the Dublin-born Beckett, another writer who believed he had no place to lose because he had none to begin with. Beckett eventually gave up his native English to free himself from its "dense network of literary associations" and from the towering figure of Joyce, whose secretary he had been in Paris in 1928, when he first left Ireland. The original language of the works for which he is perhaps best known, the plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame, was French. Its abstractness "lent a piercing clarity to his sense of isolation and hopelessness"; his characters speak in largely unfurnished worlds, where their spare words do little more than mark time against death.

But gloom is not the only mood of modernism. Kafka thought his work comic, as Miller, exhilarated by the Paris of the 1930s, thought his. There’s rueful comedy in Beckett



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