In place of a homeland / we hold the transformations of the world.
– lly Sachs
SOMETIMES I THINK the idea of home is just a failure of nerve. I must have been about 14 years old. Alone in Australia, I was farmed out to different families for the school holidays. I learned to surf on a long board, trying to fit in with the culture. Growing increasingly myopic, I tied my glasses on with rubber bands.
One morning, a wave washed away my spectacles and I landed on a glistening shore. My pile of belongings was gone; my friends had disappeared; the stretch of sand was completely deserted. Realising I had washed up on the wrong beach, I tried to make my way back by land, but was obstructed by a rocky point and a high cliff. I was in the wrong place. Where was home? There was a growing sense of panic; blindness without insight.
To question one's attachment to place, one has to peel words, look relentlessly for false feelings. Place can be a cloying illness – nostalgia, a pathology. The Germans have many home/belonging words: Heim, Heimat, heimisch, heimlich. The French have few. La maison is cold, emotionally neutral. There is no equivalent for the word cosy. Confortable is as close as the French come – though I keep my distance from home when I detect the odour of durian. That's a smell from my childhood, which is now uncannily unprepossessing.
Longing; belonging. To belong is to think only what one already knows, not knowing what else to think when a cold wind blows out the fire in one's comfort zone. Clothed in rank opinion, groups caress the dead fur of beasts against their flesh. Bilangên. The clangour of an iron age.
Poet Siegfried Sassoon, having smelt the carnage in the trenches of the Somme, could not bring himself to re-embrace the rose gardens of Sussex. No one had a right to be born. Life, like death, was an arbitrary process. The war for Sassoon was a traumatic delivery – a caesarean. Home would never be the same again.
Penser, c'est dire non. To think is to say no – so said the French philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier. He was from a provincial background, a humble teacher who was mocked by his students. He loved cows. One of the most brilliant of French essayists, he never publicised himself, concealing himself behind the pseudonym 'Alain'. A pacifist, he nevertheless volunteered at the age of 46 for active service during the First World War. He declined promotion from the ranks and throughout his life said "no" to medals and honours.
Poet and politician Dante Alighieri knew how deceptive were the favours of the people. As the leader of a party, he faced repression and revolt. He went into exile without his wife. He could do without further scrutiny. He never returned home.
Philosopher and mayor Michel de Montaigne retired to a tower, cautioning against mythologising mateship: O my friends, there is no friend.
Real thought is always in between, inseparable from a complexity of feeling. It always suffers from contradiction, since contradiction is the experience of truth. In order to allow such vagabond ideas full dialogue and debate – for this is the agony and achievement of any civilisation – we have to sever the umbilical; head out for the territory beyond.
More and more, Freud has become for me a kind of imaginary uncle, I don't know why. Perhaps because he wrote exceptionally clearly about feeling. He pointed out that instincts and drives were ultimately inexplicable. At the very moment when you think Freud has concluded something, he astounds you by reaching further into doubt. His daring springs from the elasticity of his humanity. Nothing surprises him. But in his muscular prose you see that it is always an individualistic humanity. Crowds and power breed crimes. Groups and nations have always defined themselves through violence.
In 1938 he completed Moses and Monotheism and wrote a preface to it:
We are living here in a Catholic country under the protection of that Church, uncertain how long that protection will hold out.
In a matter of weeks he will have to leave the comfort of his rooms at 19 Berggasse in Vienna and flee to London. Meanwhile, the Nazis have pasted swastikas on the walls of his building. Yet Freud will always call Vienna home.
His is a considerable undertaking in those dark times, to be thinking and writing a thesis that religion is the neurosis of humanity. He will call down upon himself both Semitic and anti-Semitic vengeance. He is already aware of this, and writes that he will not give this work to the public. Concealment is his strategy. But what friendship he offers, when he concludes his essay by addressing the sympathetic reader of the future:
... there was someone in darker times who thought the same as you!
I visited his house in London. Hampstead was severely bombed by the Germans but Freud had already ceased to exist, well before the Blitz. Dying of cancer of the jaw, he went up and down the marble steps inside the house sneaking puffs on the odd cigar. The maid complained that he spat over the balustrade. She scolded and protested.
That would have been my most memorable image: a photo, which may not exist, of Freud sneaking another spit while the maid wasn't watching.
I THINK OF other refugees and exiles. Other diasporas. Displaced persons are geniuses of mimesis. They imitate everything and everyone. They try to blend in. The more they try, the more comical and awkward they seem. Then they spit the dummy. They tell their stories, but this is from the pain of always having to cover over something. Telling stories limits them to how others see them. As actors, perhaps. Sometimes it's easier that way – to make sounds rather than meaning.
Erich Auerbach was a displaced person. Exiled from Nazi Germany, he wrote his famous work Mimesis(1946) in Istanbul. He had very few tools to undertake such a massive study of the Western cultural tradition. Critic Edward Said pointed out that such a work was possible only because the insights came out of an agonising distance from that tradition. Auerbach's was indeed an "Oriental" viewpoint of the Occident. Sacrificing footnotes to avoid endless detours, he proceeded through intuition. He dared think beyond his comfort zone, granting himself an opposite perspective. In so doing, he became, as Said wrote, a "mediator" between unfamiliar territories.
Auerbach outlines his thesis in the first chapter, "Odysseus' Scar". He claims there were two great influences on Western literature: Homer and the Old Testament. Athens and Jerusalem. The Homeric poems he sees as having no subtext. Human beings who appear in them do not seem to have a consciousness. The world that is depicted contains nothing but itself. As Auerbach says, everything is foreground: "Homer can be analysed ... but he cannot be interpreted."
On the other hand, the Old Testament is "fraught with background". Oriented towards "truth" and not stories of external action, the biblical narrator had to develop a history of personality through conflict and dilemma. It is this richness of individual psychology that allows the reader a share in an inner life, thus making the reader's belief commensurate with a "universalism". The basis of biblical authority depends on the ownership of this merger. In other words, the Old Testament is pivoted psychologically around conflict and complication, and works by being subject to imaginative and empathetic commentary – an interpretation that sees itself as special.
It is through sadness and despair (mirroring Auerbach's own situation in the writing of his work) that the Old Testament achieves its effect. Murder, the sacrifice of sons, jealousy, internecine warfare, exodus and exile form the potencies of this realism. Essentially it ends in the Jewish diaspora and not in singing the praises of the family in solidarity. The Old Testament is full of asylum seekers with their "unnatural" families being chased out of their homes.
As Julian Jaynes noted in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind(University of Toronto Press, 1976), it was through such wars and catastrophes in biblical times that individual consciousness was able to evolve. Mass movements of refugees necessitated a rethinking of home. It was in the camps that negativity and doubt became internalised. Individuals learned to say "no" to collectivities – refused to be commanded by hallucination, by what the masses believed were the voices of the gods. In refusing to obey a simplistic totality, the intellect invented the self, which had to accommodate paradox and contradiction, the discourse of doubt and debate. The self, released from its god and seeking refuge in expression, was condemned to perpetual nomadism, made powerless and neurotic by an unavailable divine principle that formerly guaranteed safety and privilege.
I wonder if such angst provoked a choice between inauthenticity and self-possession. The choice between mindlessly calling somewhere "home" and feeling at home in oneself. Die Unheimlichkeit: the uncanny, the unhoused. To care for the condition of this estranged and melancholic state of being is to dwell poetically.
Hide and go seek.
In traditional Hebraic texts, a punctuation mark, a point, was used not only to sound the word, but to determine its meaning. In the original codices, these points were absent and were supplied by interpreters. One thus had to recreate meaning through intuition of the text. As writer Edmond Jabès pithily noted, God made Himself visible in a point. It is the reader who determines the book's true meaning but it is also a matter of knowing how to read, which is the sign of a transforming consciousness ... reading from elsewhere.
According to Kabbalist Isaac Luria, creation was not a generous, expansive act, but a withdrawal and contraction of God into Himself. Creation was about concealment. Concealment is an awareness of what the future holds. This is the seal of authenticity. What is kosher is what is caché.
Heim – home; heimlichkeit – secrecy. Home is the keeping of a secret. It should never be an advertisement.
But writing is now so much of a public performance – a resemblance of oneself in the mirror, a literature of identity, geography and custom pageants where only popular recognition and sentimentality matter – that "literature" is being overtaken by the laws of entertainment. Consumers are turned into conscripts of belonging, without an inner life ... passive readers whose needs to be entertained are so great that they lower their ability to interpret, recreate or to make leaps. A recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States entitled Reading at Risk, found that more people than ever before were "doing" creative writing. Correspondingly, there was an even greater decline in the number of people reading "literature", rendering them "less informed, active and independent-minded".
Noise howls down dignity. Critique, understanding the nature of being, concealment and the estrangement that makes poetic emergence possible ... all of these are in short supply. When the display of the self is all-important, a permanent insincerity develops, bordering on hysteria.
The employment of the word "terrorism" as a vague and general threat has given authorities the excuse to potentially censor, restrict, imprison whatever once existed as anarchic ideas, counter-narratives and social dissent. "The joke" is no longer tolerated on aircraft. Humour, satire, false memoirs, misleading diaries, invented lives, the Dostoyevskian terrors of the soul ... all will verge on the semi-illegal. Already, the phrase "literary terrorism" is being used in America without irony. "Those who are not with us are against us." Insincerity is the order of the day. Dissenters and loners need not apply.
Texte de plaisir – a text integrated with its culture, yielding a comfortable reading.
Story-telling alone is not enough for a culture to demonstrate intellectual capability. Stories attempt to dispense with the complexities of the written text to create a seamless effect based on an implied orality – a provisional and unquestioning acceptance of presence and point of view. Story-telling, for the most part, depends on the seductions of plot and a communal acquiescence. We do not ask for its justification. In contrast, writing that cannot be spoken has always turned against the controlling voice, against the authority of the logos. Such language overthrows and transforms thought, precisely because it embodies the paradox of being us and not-us. Kafka's writing is one example. Difficulty demands contemplation and concentration in privacy. But solitude, as philosopher George Steiner said, has become "rarer and indeed suspect".
Texte de jouissance – a text challenging the reader's presumptions, values and tastes; above all, a test of one's relation to language.
A scattering; dispersing; sporadic dissemination. A diaspora characterises itself by its difference from its host, which is usually a linguistic difference; a difference made significant by a memory of a time when continuity was lost; cut off. A seed word. A spore. Its sound is of the cadence of oars, of the waves of history. In its gaps, in its silences, we are challenged.
Asylum from "home".
The asylum seekers, the refugees, the border crossers, are limited to their profiles. They are not supposed to have an inner life. They are not granted complexity. In fact, they are fraught with complication. No one respects their language and therefore their stories, which are held against them. There are always gaps. The self is never the same self beneath the skin. It is an even more alien self in narration: a textual self that defies authority. There are many more. Is not being alive the idea of perpetual self-invention? An overturning of the familiar? Asylum seekers are the living embodiment of the texte de jouissance. They are the bearers of truths generated by their probing, testing and questioning of the authority of the border.
Australia, an island, worries about itself. "My island home" is getting smaller and smaller, because it is being excised, pared away, circumscribed; cut adrift. It is withdrawing, not elsewhere, but into a core of emptiness ... an empty "house" and not a home shared among diverse subjects. Such thinking is like that of a man who burns down his house in order to roast his pig.
Homeland security extinguishes a great civilising concept: the principle of hospitality paid to the stranger. Hospitality reaches outwards, but how circumscribed has the word "home" become! In this new dark age of materialistic self-interest, it has the capacity to limit what it means to be human.
One of the effects of any war is the loss of freedom. This may have a backlash. In the late 19th century, a strange form of diaspora was documented, where a largely amnesic, wandering population crisscrossed Europe. Afflicted with the fugue, a so-called "mental illness", these were (mainly) men who sought to escape military conscription, societal constriction and familial claustrophobia. They literally turned into other people; in some cases for years. Freedom was the freedom to forget oneself through flight (fuga). Distinguished from vagrants, they were men who had homes, jobs and domestic goods. On the one hand, they sought liberation from "identity", on the other, the systematic destruction of their sense of self forced them to abandon personal security for a vague wandering into sometimes dangerous situations. In order to counter this "threat" to their sovereignty, nations labelled them "degenerates" or non-persons.
Gypsy moths and chameleons.
Woody Allen's film Zelig deals ingeniously with the non-person, the unhoused. Zelig is a human chameleon, effortlessly changing from Republican to Democrat, from ball player to gangster, from "Chinaman" to Nazi to aviator. It is ostensibly a film about the power of transformation. But is it? We never actually see him changing. All we see are appearances, with nothing behind them.
Mimesis occurs when there is a loss of vision. The loss of vision is due precisely to a mis-identification of being and space. A subject loses focus because of an overwhelming spatial attachment. Absurdly, migrants, for example, are urged to blend in, to mimic the nation; to become non-beings in the national consciousness. Depersonalised by such mimesis, driven to the point where there is a complete loss of distinction, Zelig, the human chameleon, wants to be his surroundings. He disappears so that the nation can represent itself to itself. He is sacrificial; indeed, the name "Zelig" is the hypocoristic form of the name "Isaac", the son whom Abraham was ready to slaughter for God.
In the 1930s, Roger Caillois of the Collège de Sociologie in Paris, named this phenomenon of willed disappearance "legendary psychasthenia". A moth assumes the colour of a tree trunk not because it is able to rationalise camouflage, but because it is totally obsessed by its surroundings and gives itself up to it.
Phillip Roth, in his novel American Pastoral (Vintage, 1997), puts it another way:
Conflicting Jewish desires awakened by the sight of him were simultaneously becalmed by him; the contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and want to stand out, who insist they are different and insist they are no different, resolved itself in the triumphant spectacle of this Swede who was actually only another of our neighborhood Seymours whose forebears had been Solomons and Sauls and who would themselves beget Stephens who would in turn beget Shawns.
Rex Butler, in an intriguing paper entitled "The Zelig Principle" (SHIFT, Critical Strategies Forum Papers, Institute of Modern Art, 1992), writes that:
Zelig ... is perhaps nothing more than a documentary about representation, the sudden, catastrophic discovery of representation, the fact that the world is represented ...
Butler goes on to argue that the "Zelig Principle" is really the principle by which a system postulates difference, but claims there is no other but itself. It creates an "other", but only according to its own benchmark, and which can only be understood in terms of it. The authority and power of official discourse results from the creation of minute differences that allow their resemblance. This doubling enables the system to close itself, making sure that its own principle is beyond itself and unavailable to itself.
Consider John Howard's famous (or infamous) declaration: "We will decide who comes to this country ..." The "we" is unproblematic. It does not include all of us, but is a benchmark of the national (white) will. This kind of apparent inclusion-exclusion doubles the world: this is the way the world works. Everything else is outside of it and cannot be represented. The all-powerful notions of "belonging", "identity" and "nationality" replace the world. It is indemonstrable but it is irrefutable. To exist is to be represented as these ways of being "in the world". This is the system. Outside of it, one is a non-person. It is impossible to imagine a non-person. Everyone must belong.
This constitutes a totalistic theory that masks an ignorance of human character. It was Freud who debunked the myth of the unity of the personality. Above all, the idea of a besieged, unchanging identity is based on fear and its propagation. Such a view speaks its own terror.
Philosopher Roland Barthes advocated "drifting" instead, not respecting the whole, discarding social meaning, taking pleasure in fragments, "bobbing like a cork" on language's seductions and illusions. Indeed, traditional languages of social belonging have failed us. This fragmentation of a sense of total belonging is characterised by Judith Brett (Australian Universities Review, vol 46, no 2, 2004) in these terms:
... cosmopolitans will describe themselves as "citizens of the world" and be uncomfortable with and even hostile to the traditional languages of national political communities. Globalisation has turned national patriots into locals, and cosmopolitans often treat them with the contempt nationalists once directed at small-town folk.
HISTORICALLY DEFINED BY race, Australian polity has not yet been able to unshackle itself from it. This is most apparent in its official self-perception, from government to tourism. For all the decorative indigenous motifs that now adorn it, the "experience" of Australia that is advocated is almost entirely a white one. Until these historical tendencies are severed from the general culture, new ways of belonging will not arise. There will be no hybridised forms, no cosmopolitan identities, no ease with languages suitable for living in a globalised world. Above all, no real civic solidarity. As fewer people travel to countries of vastly differing cultures, as lower numbers of people read "foreign literature", or any literature at all, ordinary Australians will become more fearful and more inquisitorial. Already a legitimation crisis is developing. To ask people their cultural identity is to negate their humanity. It presupposes that only one identity is possible; and this, an unconsidered one.
I am infinitely interpretable, but it is only because you are so curious.
Never really "at home", writing inhabits the "elsewhere" of the mind. It tries to make strange the phenomenon of conscious existence.
In 1570, that great sceptic Michel de Montaigne withdrew to his library at the age of 37. "We are always thinking somewhere else," he wrote. To be conscious is to be elsewhere, but also thinking about the "elsewhere". One day, Montaigne went out for a ride. It was an era in which gentlemen-warriors practised the art of reading while riding. He was involved in a collision and his steed shied. Having fallen from his horse, he languished in a peaceful limbo between life and death. The border was sweet; the self diffuse. Pain only set in when consciousness, or as Montaigne called it, "discourse" returned.
Life is anxiety. In writing, one is always thrown by one's horse. But that doesn't mean one should desire coma.
Lines of flight.
The desire not to be suffocated by one's own culture is a common cause of flight. In an interview with the magazine L'Express, the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf had this to say about family:
A tradition of silence occurs in the family, not from masking unspeakable secrets, but from a feeling of shame.
Anthropologist Ghassan Hage, in reviewing Origines (Grasset, 2004), Maalouf's book on the Lebanese diaspora, writes that the family
... can be the source of pride and they can be the source of shame. When we are near them, we want to leave and we strive for "routes", and when we are far away we want to be near them and we strive for "roots". Most often, we want to be near and far away from them at the same time, so we become forever hanging in a state of in-between-ness not really knowing what we want.
Leaving home is not about ideas of progress or of modernity. In many cases these ideas turn out to be illusory, tunnels without vision. Leaving is a flight "from" rather than an escape "to". There is no "outside", no border. Whether flâneur or fugueur, the levanter follows no linear path of desires. The world is his living room and he understands his illegitimacy and ambiguity as nothing more than a kind of poetry.
Exsilium: from ex(out) + sal(Skr. Sar – to go), root of sal?re ? to leap.
Having exited the old system, the exile (whether self-imposed or not) creates alternate forms by leaping over what he or she cannot own or promulgate with any authenticity: the mythology of blood and soil, the cosiness of the well-rounded story, the seductions of the conventional melody. For the exile, only dislocation can enable a newness that simultaneously ruptures the idea of progress. To be able to speak at all is to be aware of not playing the game, by refusing celebration, the desire to be adopted, the rites of inclusion. Language overthrows everything.
But such dislocation, a leap into the unknown, can also mean a jarring and painful landing. Recall the sad names of ships not too far removed from memory: St Louis, Dunera, Tampa. In November 1934, the Czech writer Egon Kisch was invited to Melbourne by an anti-fascist congress. Kisch arrived on board the Strathaird.He was immediately declared a prohibited immigrant by the Australian Government. Forbidden to land, Kisch leapt overboard, breaking his leg in two places. In order to deport him, the authorities gave the multilingual writer a dictation test in Gaelic, guaranteeing his failure as an immigrant as surely as it confirmed his success at warning Australians about fascism.
"Truth" is itself a diaspora. It cannot have a home because it turns the home upside-down. It breaks all the rules of friendship. Welcomed into other people's homes as a child, I felt a deep abyss within; a mask of silence through which I could not speak. Truths became untruths and vice versa. It was a form of welcome, as Derrida wrote, that "recalls the haunt as much as the home".
Exiles will change direction, renew departures, nomadically cover the same ground. Their journeys will consist of jumps, disjunctions, disconnections. Their traces will form texts that interrogate the dark spaces inside old cultural vessels, shattering them. A scattering of light. A desire not to live hemmed in by one single cultural imagination. Both a homelessness and a questioning, this is a writing that is in pieces. Its form is the caesura. A pause before the fragment continues its leaping, in an attempt to express the irreparable.
... without interruption – between letters, words, sentences, books – no signification could be awakened ... [writing] proceeds by leaps alone.
– Jacques Derrida
AT THE AGE of 14, I found myself stranded on that strange beach. I was lugging a heavy surfboard and was cut off by a rocky, God-forsaken point below a sheer cliff. A squall seemed to be approaching. The only way back was to leap into the water and head out to sea. In order to call anywhere "home" one first had to take on all its contradictions.
In any case, it was a way of getting around the point.