There is one impression that dominates when you are in the position of being an exile. The impression is of being in a new and different world, one whose unfamiliarity is disconcerting. It is not only others who see the individual in exile as a stranger; in his place of exile, he will also see himself as such. He will be unable to repeat things that he already knows or to extend his former abilities to this unfamiliar milieu. Since, in his new place, he cannot imitate anything on the basis of what he knows of his former situation, he is faced with solitude. Such solitude bears witness to a distance that, so he believes, cannot be reduced. It imprisons him, trapping him in an anxious sensation of disorientation. It cuts him off from most of his unspoken ways of understanding the world. It plunges him into the troubled waters of a limited choice: to live an artificial social life or else to opt for a life that is completely private. “To live an entirely private life means above all to be deprived of things essential to a truly human life: to be deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, to be deprived of an ‘objective’ relationship with them that comes from being related to and separated from them through the intermediary of a common world of things, to be deprived of the possibility of achieving something more permanent than life itself. The privation of privacy lies in the absence of others; as far as they are concerned, private man does not appear, and therefore it is as though he did not exist.”
Between the enforced assimilation of the stranger who has only just arrived and his solipsistic withdrawal, the exile is faced with the need to acquire a new definition of himself. But how is it possible to believe that you are going to gain anything by frequenting a milieu composed of people who you do not know? How can you believe that it is not preferable to keep your own company within the reassuring cocoon of your memories and erstwhile certainties? You need a special kind of heroism to forge your own identity in exile. It is the mindset of the shipwrecked mariner that is peculiar to the exile and motivates him to recover the flotsam and jetsam of his memory. Ulysses discovered what it was to be shipwrecked as he strove to return to Ithaca. As he narrowly escaped being drowned beneath the waves, he was assailed by visions of death. He recalled concrete details. The tyranny of exile is the tyranny of specific things that come back to haunt you as if they were obsessions.
J.M.W. Turner, 1838, 94.6 x 125 cm. Photo:The Athenaeum. Source: Wikimedia
The term “exile” takes its meaning form the Latin exilium, which is literally “outside this place”. In Greece as in classical Rome, the place from which the exile is banished is the town (polis or urbs). Exile is a punishment that excludes the individual from a geographical location where there are norms based on political values. The result is a loss of protection, a loss of those rights that depend on the mutual safeguarding of interests between citizens of the same city. What has been lost is, above all, a place that provides familiarity. Exile can only be exile for someone who has first been, at least once in his life, settled within a community. If this were not so, there would be no sense of being uprooted from one’s native soil. Consequently, there can be no possibility of exile for anyone who is a nomad. Exile, by definition, can only exist where such uprooting has taken place.
It is often the case that some external authority is responsible for the exile. It may be decided by a government. Alternatively, it may be the individual himself who anticipates the workings of the ideology and chooses to leave on his own initiative. In the eyes of the authority, to leave its territory voluntarily is tantamount to a declaration of hostility. A deserter is someone who can no longer be banished. Political power, when exercising its right to censure, is not very keen on the individual deciding to flee. Such flight is proof of irreconcilable dissent. For the individual who thus organizes his own exile, the place to which he flees takes on greater importance than the place that he has just left. The “elsewhere” counterbalances the “outside this place”. A foreigner of this kind begins to
transform his exile. He accepts the irreversible nature of his departure. It confers on him the
psychology of the rebel. He can thus more easily endure the numerous sentences imposed on him in absentia. It is quite a different matter for anyone being forced into exile and uprooted. He is forced to live in suspense, in uncertainty, still emotionally attached to the place that predates this break. Enforced exile is unbearable because it fails to satisfy the conflicting demands of a period of impatience. Although he longs for his involuntary journey to end, the exile is aware that return is impossible – but he does not accept it.
When setting down in writing the impressions made on him during his lengthy sojourn on the shores of what is now Romania, Ovid, banished by Augustus because of his poem on love, struggles to draw from his exile some practical wisdom. He is haunted by the memory of facts that he can neither forget nor understand. He is struck by the way that friendships begin to fade away, the failure of language to provide words capable of expressing the feelings that imprison him in his anguish and his obsession with one place, with Rome. Several times, he remarks that it was probably less difficult for Ulysses to live in exile than it is for him. You cannot leave Ithaca in the same way that you leave Rome. Rome is a “land of empire”, the “land of the gods”. To leave such a land is to lose any form of protection, to be overcome by a feeling of complete insecurity. Ovid begs Augustus to bring him back home into the bosom of civilization: “This is why I beseech you, I beg you to banish me to some safer place. Having lost my fatherland, I do not wish to lose the protection of the Pax Romana too or have to fear these tribes from whom the Danube offers me but scant protection, or fall, me, your fellow-citizen, into the hands of the enemy. What? A man of the Latin race, in the lifetime of the Caesars, condemned to endure the fetters of barbarians? That would be sacrilege!” To live outside the civic domain that is protected by the military shield of the empire is to wallow in barbarity. Ovid feels that he is gradually losing command of his language. He is even sure that his own wife can no longer love him because shame is exhausting her sorrow, whereas it should be the case that sorrow banishes shame. He longs for his ashes to be brought back after his long voyage as some kind of compensation for his sadness.
As a captive in hostile territory, Ovid comforts himself with the thought that he has been condemned to relegation and not to exilium in the strict sense. In the depths of sorrow, he thanks Augustus for not stripping him of his rights as a citizen, of his property or indeed of his life, and for being content simply to order him to quit his fathers’ hearth. To call him an exile is a calumny. As if he supposes that his inspiration might have some influence over the emperor, Ovid praises Augustus in his verses. He also addresses the victorious Tiberius, alluding to Terence’s celebrated line: “I am a man and nothing that rejoices the heart of Caesar can be foreign to me: such an illustrious house can have nothing that is not for everyone.” The allusion is simultaneously elegant and good tactics. It should be seen as a profession of unconditional allegiance to the sense of empire and to its universal role. Nevertheless, Ovid continues to be tortured by a feeling of guilt for having written the Ars amatoria.
Ovid expresses his experience of relegation as a living nightmare in the midst of a barbarian world. He cannot, in the manner of the Stoics, call upon the harmony of the universe that is supposed to dispel the sufferings of his banishment. His relegation is a prison that results from an undeserved punishment and it is impossible to escape from it. Ovid is compelled to combine the inexpressible anguish of remorse with an imagined solitude that might open up possibilities of as yet unprecedented action, a new sense of freedom. He knows perfectly well that, under such circumstances, one’s existence has to be based on a quite extraordinary ability to make use of the present. And yet, time after time, he discovers that it is the past that provides the source of his means of understanding and that this past,
far from being terra firma, is an abyss.
Exile is always, to some extent, a shipwreck, but not every shipwreck necessarily ends in drowning. The exile whose world has been taken away attempts to stay on the surface. He reacts to the foreknowledge of his perdition. The first moments of his life are dramatic. They express the struggle that he has with himself to contrive to be the individual that he intends to become. The exile is stripped of any sense that there is any such thing as a natural place. The familiarity that made the world feel warm and comforting has been taken away. Siegfried Kracauer sees exile as being linked to a loss of belonging and of those automatic responses that construct an intervening, provisional existence. Here is how he describes the situation of a citizen who has been uprooted:
I am thinking about an exile who has had to leave his country when he is already an adult or who has done so quite willingly. When he establishes himself somewhere, all this sense of belonging, all these expectations and aspirations that make up such an important part of his being are automatically severed from their roots. His entire life-story is shattered, his “natural” self is pushed to the back of his mind. Naturally, those efforts that are essential for coping with the challenges of a foreign environment will have an effect on the way he sees things, on his entire mental structure. But, because his former self continues to smoulder beneath the person that he is in the process of becoming, his identity must remain in a fluid state. It is likely that he will never completely belong in the community of which he is, in a sense, a part. And the members of that community also will find it difficult to consider that he is one of them. In fact, he has ceased to “belong”. So where does he live? In the quasi-void of extra territoriality.
According to Kracauer, the exile shares with the historian the “situation of a homeless person” but, while the latter may switch between two periods or two societies, the former floats between past and present, between the country of his birth and his adoptive country.5
The exile loses any sense of his own biography. If it is true that he no longer belongs, it is in the sense that he no longer belongs to himself. Anticipating Kracauer’s view, Alfred Schütz explains the loss of genealogy by observing that “from the point of view of the new group, the outsider is always a man without a history”. Being uprooted means, from the point of view of the Other, appearing to be unclothed, no longer wearing the clothing of the life you have already lived.
Edward Said, in a way, continues the sombre view taken by Ovid. He distinguishes between four categories: exiles, refugees, expatriates and emigrants. Whilst the exile suffers ostracism, which gives him “a kind of solitude and spirituality”, the refugee is one of a mass of displaced persons in urgent need of help. Expatriates choose to live elsewhere. They do not suffer from being displaced. Emigrants too choose to live elsewhere. They may be refugees or they may be expatriates. They may experience feelings of exile but they have not been banished. The situation of the exile is therefore unique. It bears witness to “the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home, its essential sadness can never be surmounted”. But if exile is as painful as that “why has it been transformed so easily into a potent, even enriching, motif of modern culture?” This is not a naive question. It involves refuting the industry based on a literature of exile. The aim is to alarm public opinion about the unrivalled scope of phenomena related to movements of population and immigration:
Against this large, impersonal setting, exile cannot be made to serve notions of humanism. On the twentieth-century scale, exile is neither aesthetically nor humanistically comprehensible: at most the literature about exile objectifies an anguish and a predicament most people rarely experience at first hand; but to think of the exile informing this literature as beneficially humanistic is to banalize its mutilations, the losses it inflicts on those who suffer them, the
muteness with which it responds to any attempt to understand it as “good for us”. Is it not true that the views of exile in literature and, moreover, in religion, obscure what is truly horrendous: that exile is irremediably secular and unbearably historical; that it is produced by human beings for other human beings; and that, like death but without death’s ultimate mercy, it has torn millions of people from the nourishment of tradition, family and geography?
To transform the sufferings of exile into a detached awareness of one’s experiences is not legitimate: not because it could lead to no appropriate understanding of such an experience but because it is illegitimate to try to draw a lesson for life from exile, to assign some moral value to an experience that has no such thing. Exile cannot be idealized. Nothing can be gained from it; on the contrary, one loses everything. Exile dehumanizes. It diminishes the ability to make critical judgments or to exercise “moral courage” (especially in the case of those nameless exiles that go to earth in the seedy back streets of major cities). There is no redeeming virtue to be found in the fact of being thus rendered a stranger to oneself. It is rather the nationalists that gain by recruiting new reinforcements from this desolate environment. The nationalism of exiles is grounded in their anguish at being no longer part of a community. Consequently exiles feel:
an urgent need to reconstitute their broken lives, usually by choosing to see themselves as part of a triumphant ideology or a restored people. The crucial thing is that a state of exile free from this triumphant ideology – designed to reassemble an exile’s broken history into a new whole – is virtually unbearable, and virtually impossible in today’s world.
In this connection, Said cites as examples Jews, Palestinians and Armenians. When he is certain that he can never return home, the exile manufactures for himself a new world that he can hold in his hands. Most nationalisms “develop from a situation of estrangement”, that is, from the solitude imposed by exile. Many exiles overcome such solitude by falling into the trap laid by the rhetoric of national pride. Belonging to an ideology is a way of reconstituting their broken life, to give it some kind of a future, to recreate a universe of values. Whilst the exile is himself a foreigner, his state of
exile strengthens the sense of being part of a group and thus hostility towards the foreigner. It can happen that exiles become the cause of other exiles.
Hannah Arendt was aware of this danger and draws conclusions from treaties on minorities drawn up in the contexts of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of unemployment, inflation and civil wars. These treaties drew a line between nationals liable to benefit from the protection of legal institutions, and the others whose status remained exceptional. In Arendt’s view, the attitude of western countries towards these stateless persons is evidence of a rampant disease among democracies: everyone admits that the principle of equality before the law, the basis of the history of nation-states, has been broken. Infringement of this principle can be seen not so much in the loss of the right to remain and the right to government protection as in:
the impossibility of finding a new one. Suddenly there was no place on earth where migrants could go without the severest restrictions, no country where they would be assimilated, no territory where they could found a new community of their own.
This instance of invisibility before the law opens the door to a challenge to the right to life itself:
Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them; not that they are oppressed but that nobody wants even to oppress them […] The point is that a condition of complete rightlessness was created before the right to live was challenged.
In this context, Arendt considers cosmopolitanism from the point of view of a world government. But her uncertainty arises from the fact that:
[…] this predicament is by no means solved if the unit to which the “good for” applies is as large as mankind itself. For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will conclude quite democratically – namely by majority decision – that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof.
Here it is understood that, up to the time of writing, Arendt assumes “The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”
In exile, the problem is always the same: the fact that you suffer from not being able to appear in public, not being able to show yourself to be naked. It is this right to appear that is refused to the exile in the view of both Said and Arendt. The exile has a personal history that he cannot proclaim, as if it were a shadow that he has lost and could never hope to recover. This is the complex from which he suffers, one that we may call the Schlemihl Complex. The cosmopolitan meaning of life in exile depends nevertheless on the meaning that we are to give to the story of the loss of his shadow.
One is tempted to say that any shadow represents the hidden face of an individual form. Like some faithful companion, it can be seen as an external manifestation of what is within, the echo of originality that can distinguish one individual from another. In the story by Adalbert von Chamisso, The Wondrous Story of Peter Schlemihl, the Shadowless Man, the motif of the disappearing shadow turns out to be ambiguous and is interpreted in ways that are contradictory. It provides the pretext for an endless race during which no one understands the reasons why Schlemihl is acting as he does until the end of the story, when all is revealed.
The tale opens with an unfortunate young man arriving in high society armed with a letter of recommendation, with the purpose of being accepted. During a ceremony attended by persons of high standing, a character appears whose clothing is uniformly grey. He takes from his pocket a series of objects, which does not appear to surprise the guests in any way. He then addresses Schlemihl, offering to buy from him his shadow in exchange for the purse of Fortunatus, which has the magical power to grant all his desires. Since he is without money, Schlemihl scarcely hesitates. He agrees to hand over his shadow.
Soon after this baleful transaction, he notices that everyone pours scorn on him because of his missing shadow. He realizes that his shadow is more precious than all the gold in the world because it enables him to exist in the visible world and to appear in the sunlight of social relations, even when the role that he plays is not of any great consequence. Suffering from melancholy and tormented by bitter regret, he sets off to pursue the man in grey in order to recover his most intimate possession. When he fails to catch this character, he comes to recognize in the events associated with this fleeting figure “the mysterious character of the unknown”.
In order to escape his predicament and win the favour of his beloved Fanny, Schlemihl borrows his servant’s shadow so that he does not have to remain shut indoors during the day, and he thus regains, for a while, a social role. However, during an evening reception when he is talking to Fanny, the light of the moon momentarily reveals that he has no shadow. He flees the troubles that now descend upon his head. Much later, he becomes close to another young woman, Mina, as a result of mistaken identity – he is taken for a count travelling incognito. He wants to marry. Once again, his stratagem is discovered by his fiancée’s father. Schlemihl desperately attempts to assure the father that someone
had stepped on his shadow, made a hole in it, and that he has taken it to be repaired. In vain, for Mina’s father grants him only four days grace. As if by magic, the man in grey reappears and this time demands Schlemihl’s soul. Schlemihl refuses and, for a moment, tries to run away with his shadow, which the man in grey had handed over to him in exchange for his soul. However, his shadow returns and attaches itself to the feet of the enchanter. Faced with such magic powers, Schlemihl concludes that you cannot be rich and devoid of your shadow, for that is a price too high for a life that is impossible. Relieved, he throws away the purse and quits society. He unknowingly buys a pair of seven-league boots in a market and, wearing these, he travels throughout the entire world. Banished from high society, he retreats to meditate in the Egyptian desert. After a tumultuous episode, he wakes
in a hospital that turns out to have been founded, using his gold, by Mina herself and by his servant Bendel. But Schlemihl leaves the hospital without revealing his identity. He sets up home with his dog and his books in another solitary spot, in the midst of unspoilt nature, and devotes his life to study. The tale ends on a little moral, opposing life in society, which requires you to pay tribute to money, and advising instead to live for yourself, which demands no such deception.
Chamisso’s story can be read in two ways. On the one hand, it can be seen as a parable about the human condition after the Fall. The loss of the shadow would be equivalent to the banishment from Paradise and Schlemihl’s post-lapsarian existence would be equivalent to the long march needed to attempt to return to it (after which the human race would be restored to its youthful state). On the other hand, it is possible to decode the story as teaching a practical form of good sense that says you should not run after your shadow because to do so is merely an expression of the vanities of a world that it is preferable to ignore if one wishes to achieve tranquillity of spirit. These two readings do not contradict
each other. It is simply necessary to identify those moments when the one switches to the other, when the frantic quest for the shadow gives way to the desire to live your life without it. It is like an image of the series of inward transformations that many an exile experiences.
The protagonist in Chamisso’s story exchanges his shadow for a purse of gold in order to try to live amongst men with an elevated status. Previously he had not attracted very much notice, whereas afterwards he was esteemed until the time came when everyone noticed that he had no shadow. His wandering begins; it continues in society but ends in nature after he has refused to sell his soul. Schlemihl becomes a highly-regarded naturalist and travels all over the world using his magic boots. The essential point of the story is not understanding what motivates Schlemihl to sell his shadow: he gives away his shadow in exchange for money and fame. It is more important to notice that Schlemihl learns to live without his shadow and, in the end, prefers his new way of life as though it were a form of freedom that he has succeeding in regaining thanks to the regenerative magic potion of solitude.
The reward of happy solitude is not to “revere your shadow”.
From the outset, Schlemihl chose the wrong world. The reason why no one ever recognizes him is that he is attempting to figure in a society that has no place for him. The world that rejects him at the start is not the world of society as a whole; it is high society, the world of power and high rank, of appearance and deceit, as depicted by Rousseau. To this restricted world, Chamisso opposes the variety of the world that Schlemihl discovers at the end of the story. Having a shadow means running the risk of being seduced by a society founded upon pretence, and beginning to think of nothing but the kind of public approval that is typical of the court. The risks are high: living in the false world of applause, the flattery of courtiers and the artifice of fine words. When you no longer have your shadow, you disappear from that world. On the rebound, you are forced to “run through solitude”. Schlemihl loses his social connections because all other social milieux attach importance to your shadow. Owning a shadow is synonymous with a false form of socialization, with an existence that is
subject to the power of social conventions. Once you have lost it, you avoid pretence but you also cut yourself off from society. Chamisso has his character say that your only salvation will consist in opting for “the best that is in you”. Without his shadow, Schlemihl is certainly therefore deprived of “high society”. For all that, however, he will discover the world as it really is and will learn to take pleasure in it.
The conclusion, which opposes “living among men” to “living for yourself”, is the ultimate
achievement of this tale of the shadow. It provides a practical moral for the reflections of Said and Arendt about the difficulty of drawing any lessons from exile. Chamisso’s story relates the worries and cares of the exile and of any citizen of the world who loses his shadow. Schlemihl is the victim of a process that is beyond his control, one that means that he can never feel at home in this world. He interprets the fact of having lost his shadow as a sign of the endless wretchedness of exile. Favoured by a nameless Providence that watches over his destiny and acts in an ad hoc fashion to assist him, he reconnects with nature through study and solitary travels. Chamisso’s Schlemihl is not just an “unfortunate” in the German sense of the word, he is also an individual who transforms his fate into an opportunity: the chance to undergo within the wider world an inner edification, even though this may be at the cost of a series of disappointments. In the end, he knows what it would be right for him to do. He has acquired a precise knowledge of the social worlds that he has passed through. He can choose how he lives without limiting himself to the kind of world that everyone desires. He has learnt to distinguish between the essential and the inessential, the first stage on the path to renewal.
These moments where the subject moves from one form of existence to another are to be found in all biographies of exiles. The function of the motif of the shadow, seen in the context of exile, is very clear: it is a way of showing that the exile can find the way out of the labyrinth of social labels and finery. Schlemihl’s choice is nevertheless a perplexing one for, in the end, he intensifies his solitude. Schlemihl could have rejoined society at the point where he lies on his bed in the hospital that bears his name. The proof was there that his previous existence was not so devoid of social connections or loyalty. And yet, he leaves without revealing his identity. He slips away, simply leaving a note that will remind his former companions of his existence. He chooses science and poetry and meditation on
the nature of Man. He does not revolt against that high society that had forced him into his early wanderings. He prefers the protection of nature to any political struggle that would require him to play a part in society. If we suppose that the fate of a Schlemihl who does not revolt is to beg from the parvenu, from the person who has oppressed him, then Peter Schlemihl avoids becoming a Schnorrer. When Hannah Arendt compares Charlie Chaplin to Heinrich Heine’s Schlemihl in these terms, she does so to illustrate the figure of a pariah, a metaphor of the Wandering Jew and an alternative name for the cosmopolitan, who is now regarded as “suspect”. Now the suspect is not just the beggar that we distrust, the individual who stands out from the crowd because of his unusual way of life; he is the
one that is excluded by that crowd which dictates his fate in advance, by cutting him off from his own history. When everyone pours scorn on the past of one individual, his shadow is discredited. The individual is crushed by the weight of incrimination. He can no longer decide how to live his life. Since he no longer has the strength to transform his wandering or his solitude into a social assertion, he will often fall victim to nostalgia.
In the end, Chamisso’s Schlemihl wishes to become unrecognizable. He chooses invisibility and it is for this reason that he learns once more how to live. Strictly speaking, the Schlemihl complex therefore applies to those who have, for too long, had faith in the powers of the shadow, like Chamisso’s protagonist at the beginning of the story. But, in the end, he concludes that he has not really been robbed of a part of himself, of the part that is traditionally regarded as essential. He learns at least two lessons from the fact that he cannot get his shadow back: first, he concludes his wanderings and finds a way out of the maze that is the false world of high society. Then he escapes from that world by living in a different way, refusing to live half a life, without a shadow, but in a different world (that of nature, whilst others prefer to return to society). As if to counter the despair of an Ovid, Chamisso’s Schlemihl sets forth on a path at the end of which one may conclude that it is sometimes preferable not to have a shadow if you hope to be at peace with yourself. The final point is that the search for such a resolution would not be justified in the eyes of the exile himself if it were not for the nostalgia that has to be fought and an inner rift that must be healed before any reconciliation with society can be achieved.
Un monde étrange: Pour une autre approche du cosmopolitisme