ON EXILE: from “Notes from the Middle World”


To be of the Middle World is to have broken away from the parochial, to
have left “home” for good (or for worse) whilst carrying all of it with you
and to have arrived on foreign shores (at the outset you thought of it as
“destination”, but not for long) feeling at ease there without ever being
“at home”. Sensing too, that one has now fatally lost the place you may
have wanted to run back to. Have you also lost face, or is the “original
face” now unveiled? Exile? Maybe. But exile is a memory disease
expressing itself in spastic social behaviour: people find it a mysterious
ailment and pity you greatly. (J.M.G. Le Clézio has this evocative
definition of exile as “he or she who has left the island”; the exile, one
assumes, leaves the I-land of self to become water lapping at the
continent of we-ness, of belonging.)


Exile could be a passage and you may well speak of “passage
people”. Yet, the Middle World is finality beyond exile. For a while at
least the reference pole will remain the land from which you had
wrenched yourself free or from where you were expelled. Then, exile
itself will become the habitat. And in due time, when there’s nothing to
go back to or you’ve lost interest, MOR will take shape and you may
start inhabiting the in-between. The terrain is rugged, the stage bathed in
a dusty grey light. It is not an easy perch. Wieseltier, in another of his
barbed aphorisms, says: “In the modern world, the cruellest thing you can
do to people is to make them ashamed of their complexity.”


One location of the Middle World is where the turfs of the outcast, the
outsider and the outlaw overlap. It could be a dominion of outers. Is it all
shame, therefore? Not on your life! Listen to this poem written in the
year 1080 by a Chinese world-traveller, Su Tung-p’o, a functionary who
had carnal knowledge of prison and banishment:


A hundred years, free to go, and it’s almost spring;
for the years left, pleasure will be my chief concern.
Out the gate, I do a dance, wind blows my face;
our galloping horses race along as magpies cheer.
I face the wine cup and it’s all a dream,
pick up a poem brush, already inspired.
Why try to fix the blame for troubles past?
Years now I’ve stolen posts I never should have had.


(The translator, Burton Watson, adds that line 3, “I do a dance”, may
as well be interpreted as “I stop to piss”.)


Now let me draw the line a little more clearly by proposing a very
partial and partisan list of people I consider to be (or have been) of the
Middle World; these well-known names make the night of the nameless
ones even darker, of course.


I won’t touch upon religion or science — the Dalai Lama is there by
definition, and Einstein was surely an uncitizen of MOR — “I am truly a
‘lone traveller’ and have never belonged to my country, my home, my
friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of
all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for
solitude”; nor music (Mozart was one and so was John Cage with his
glass silences), or business (I suspect that Maxwell, the news mogul who
became a whale, was also an uncitizen, and Soros may well be there as
philosopher-pirate); nor politics (Mandela, for ever driven into selfpresentation by prison, burnt clean of attachments, may just be of the
Middle World, Trotsky who wore round glasses and a little pointed beard
in order to remember his singular self touched the black walls of this
night-land, and so ultimately did Gandhi, impaled on the flash-knife of
not “belonging” sufficiently).


You will take me to task for my choices, which depend more on
feeling than verifiable assessment, but my sketchy picture includes:
Kundera — for a while before he became French; Nureyev; Vidiadhar
Surajprasad Naipaul — adrift whilst denying it; Rushdie — neither East
nor West but enjoying the party immensely; Bruce Chatwin, exploring
the nomadic roads all leading to death; Homi Bhabha — “we now locate
the question of culture in the realm of the beyond”; Ieoh Ming Pei, the
international architect, and so was Gaudí; Juan Goytisolo; “Saint” John
of the Cross and his girlfriend, Teresa of Ávila; Yeats and Pound and
Auden, but not Eliot; Erich von Stroheim, but somehow neither Dietrich
nor Chaplin; Edward Said — very intermittently so; Bei Dao, the
Chinese exile poet, is in the process of getting his uncitizen papers;
Brecht, from the time after he returned to East Germany; Adorno, who
relished it, particularly in his late style; Borges — very nearly, tapping
his white cane against the gates; Freud — unwittingly, which is not so
strange because he fancied himself a scientist when he was in fact but an
interesting writer — and probably also Jung; Samuel Beckett, who
visualized the workrooms of Middle Worldliness on stage; Pessoa,
populating his head with alienated explorers of the self, that slippery
slope to damnation; Vladimir Nabokov, although he tried his best to
dissimulate it; Joseph Conrad of the dark heart; J.M.G. Le Clézio; Henri
Michaux — “hell is the rhythm of the other”; Rimbaud — both as poet
and trader; Victor Segalen; the toothless Artaud and the mutilated Van
Gogh, and Cioran, who considered it a shame to have been born, and
Max Ernst and Man Ray and Mayakovsky with the hole in the head, and
the mild revolutionary Aimé Césaire and Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse),
and Django Reinhardt, and Primo Levi fatally drawn to the downward
spiral of the dark stairwell, and Jimi Hendrix and Tristan Tzara;
Leonardo da Vinci, painting backwards to the unknowable I as if to light;
Faulkner going down into the thickets of language; Henry Miller, in
painful lust, and his buddy, Larry Durrell; Han Shan the Cold Mountain
poet and Gary Snyder his disciple; the al-Andalus explorers and
historians; Elias Canetti; Mahmoud Darwish — “Where should we go
after the last frontiers? Where should the birds fly after the last sky?”;
Frantz Fanon and Franz Kafka; Brodsky and Walcott, angrily; Bessy
Head and Amos Tutuola in their worlds of spirits; Cervantes of the
Missing Hand and Goya with the Screaming Mind; Morandi and
Giacometti; Carlos Fuentes but not Octavio Paz and certainly not Vargas
Llosa; Frida Kahlo but not Diego Rivera; the Zapatistas of Chiapas but
not the Shining Path guerrillas; Pasolini but not Fellini; Ryszard
Kapuściński; Robert Walser — “how fortunate I am not to be able to see
in myself anything worth respecting and watching”; Albert Camus;
Alexandra David-Neel; William Burroughs, maybe Jack Kerouac, but, I
imagine, somehow not Allen Ginsberg; the Chinese wandering
monks/artists/poets/exiles; Gauguin, maybe Degas, probably Bacon with
the raw meat of his thinking, and Matisse, but neither Picasso nor
Cézanne nor Velázquez; Billie Holiday, but not Ella Fitzgerald; Hannah
Arendt — “I am more than ever of the opinion that a decent human
existence is possible today only on the fringes of society, where one then
runs the risk of starving or being stoned to death. In these circumstances
a sense of humour is of great help.” And so many more down the ages…


Was Nietzsche of the detribalized tribe? Or was he more German than
mad? And of his acolytes I’d include only Foucault, who had the
baldness and the loud taste in attire so typically uncitizen, and perhaps
Deleuze, for he did sport extraordinarily long fingernails — although he
gradually glad-mouthed himself back to the closed-in compulsiveness of
self-indulgent French rhetoric before throwing his body like a stinking
dog carcass out the window; the others (Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva)
remain too rooted in a Jacobin arrogance where doubt is a cover for selfaccretion, they suffer from the blindness of brilliance and besides, the
text of itself (and for itself) being skein stretching over rotting body,
cannot be the Middle World.


Is one always of the Middle World? It may happen, as in the case of
Beckett who walked in order to fall down, and Paul Celan who never
escaped, not even when he became a bloated dead goose bobbing on the
oily blackness of the Seine. But one may also grow out of it. One is not
normally born there, and your children cannot inherit uncitizenship.


How does one draw the map of MOR? Wherever its uncitizens are,
there the Middle World is. I don’t have a complete topography because
cities and countries may change their colouring on the map and the forces
of conformism are voracious. Once more, I’ll not argue the nuances. It
should be pointed out that Middle Worlders paradoxically have a
sharpened awareness of place (topoï, locus) — as with nomads, the
environment may be constantly changing and one does not possess it, but
it is always a potentially dangerous framework with which you must
interact — and therefore they will know cloud and well and star and fire
better than sedentary citizens do.


Alexandria was Middle World territory (by the way, the Middle World
has nothing to do with modernity) and so was Beirut once upon a time;
Sarajevo belonged before the pigs slaughtered it to “purity”; Hong Kong
was an outpost (the poet P.K. Leung wrote, in an admirable volume
called City at the End of Time: “Ironically, Hong Kong as a colony
provides an alternative space for Chinese people and culture to exist, a
hybrid for one to reflect upon the problems of a ‘pure’ and ‘original’
state”); Paris used to be a section of MOR when it still had a proletariat,
many of whom were of foreign origin, living within the walls (by the
way, the Middle World has nothing to do with riches or urban
sophistication); Cuba may be of the Middle World despite its best efforts
at being communist; Berlin, still, although it is now becoming
“normalized” as the pan-Germanic capital; Jerusalem, even though its
present rulers try to stamp it with the seal of fanatic exclusivity; South
Africa went through the birth pains, it was close to understanding a
cardinal Middle World law — that you can only survive and move
forward by continuing to invent yourself — but then it became a
majority-led and majority-smothered democracy instead; New York,
except when it is too close to America; I have heard tales of tolerance
and centre-insouciance from a town once known as Mogador, now
Essaouira; Tangier, where I celebrated my twenty-first birthday (birdday)
wrapped in a burnoose, was a refuge despite the closed warren of its
Casbah; Timbuktu — how could I forget that sand-whispering place, and
the other holy sites of books that could only be reached on the swaying
backs of camels — Chinguetti, Ouadane, Ti-chit and Oualâta; Gorée, Sal,
Lamu, Zanzibar, Haiti and the other Caribbean islands — most islands
tend to be natural outcrops of MOR; Palestine most certainly —
“exodus” can be a high road to the Middle World, and what is now
termed the Territories (a euphemism for ghettos and Bantustans, subject
to Apartheid) will breed a new generation of uncitizens.

Breyten Breytenbach, from “Notes from the Middle World”

Breyten Breytenbach, South African poet, writer and painter.

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