Exile and its Analogues

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Edward Said speaks of exile as an ‘unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home,’ adding that, ‘its essential sadness can never be surmounted.’[1] Experientially, however, exile can connote nostalgia for another time as well as another place, as if space and time were interchangeable metaphors for our sense of being-in-the-world.  Moreover, as Svetland Boym observes, reflecting on her exile from his native Russia, we intermittently experience nostalgia for the past and the future.[2]

The danger of assuming that it is natural for human beings to belong in one particular place, tied to one timeless truth, or possessing one identity is that we risk construing exile unsympathetically as a synonym for inconstancy and loss. Yet the figure of the exile reminds us that stasis is an illusion and that transition and transience are unavoidable facts of every human life. We are always in movement, if not from place to place, then from one relationship to another, one faith to another, or from one phase of life to another, and our moods, emotions, and thoughts are in continual flux.  Despite the fact that we can only be physically present in one place at any one time, our minds wander constantly, and our dreams and daydreams carry us back to places we have left and people we once knew.

Consider, for example, Walter Benjamin’s account of his experiences in Paris where he took refuge after Hitler came to power in 1933. Sitting alone in the Café des Deux Magots, he suddenly glimpsed ‘with the force of an illumination’, the fateful links between his life and the lives of friends, comrades, chance acquaintances and lovers, as well as books and places. On a sheet of paper, Benjamin sketched a series of family trees or a labyrinth, bestowing a semblance of order on the ‘primal acquaintances’ that had revealed to him, over many years, new pathways and possibilities. Two or three years after his Paris epiphany, and having lost the scrap of paper on which he seemed to have found, like Theseus, a way through the labyrinth of his life, Benjamin was struck not only by the impact of others on his own life, but by the ‘hidden inter-twinings’ of their destinies, and he wondered whether it would be possible to divine in such a disparate group any common thread or family resemblance.[3] Was this an example of what Benjamin would later refer to as the ‘expatriate’s attempt to inoculate himself against nostalgia’”[4] A reminder of our all too human tendency, when disoriented and displaced, to fall back on the imagination as a way of creating a sense of coherence and continuity in our lives?  It isn’t only exiles who struggle to feel at home in the world, though the experiences of exiles sharpen our sense of how transitory and uncertain life can be.

That storytelling is one of the commonest ways in which we piece together what has been broken in our lives and regain a sense of being able to determine our own fate, is a recurring theme in the writings of Hannah Arendt who came to the USA in 1941 as a refugee from Nazi-occupied France.  Much of what she would write in the post-war years bears the imprint of her experience of displacement and loss, and of the dilemma of preserving her own identity while proving herself to be a ‘prospective citizen’ rather than ‘enemy alien’ – giving the impression that she had sloughed off her previous identity and language, and left her past behind.[5]

In The Human Condition (1958), Arendt addresses the question of how storytelling speaks to this struggle to exist as one among many, preserving one’s unique character while fulfilling one’s obligations as a citizen of a republic. But like the writing of many exiles, Arendt dwells less on the loss of a homeland than the experience of marginalized individuals living within the country of their birth, whose life stories are never heard and who have no effective presence in the public realm.  But one’s pariah status did not necessarily imply social death, for ‘this standing outside of all social connections’ makes it more likely that one will grasp ‘what is human in all people’ rather than see everyone through the lens of ethnicity or nationality.[6] This sense of being what she called ‘a conscious pariah’ undoubtedly influenced her dissent from Zionist ideology and her repeated arguments against the partition of Palestine which would risk making Palestinians emigrants in their own homeland.

History shows us how impermanent borders are, and how tragic the repercussions have been of separating entire populations by drawing arbitrary lines on a map. Go back far enough back in time, and every boundary has been transgressed or redrawn, and everyone’s lineage has been fractured by displacement and diaspora.  Whether forced to abandon their homelands because of war, poverty, overpopulation, or natural disasters, our forebears sometimes had no option but to go in search of a place where life promised greater fulfillment.  Some eight hundred years ago, many of the inhabitants of Central Polynesia were suffering the impact of overpopulation and competition for diminishing resources.  Using extensive knowledge of subtropical weather systems, star constellations, and ocean currents, some of these people sailed southward and made landfall in Aotearoa.[7]  Over the ensuing centuries, the same problems that had precipitated the exodus from Hawaiki beset the coastal settlements in Aotearoa and led to a series of new migrations into less hospitable regions inland or further south.  Māori canoe traditions fuse memories of the ocean voyages from Hawaiki with these more recent migrations within and between the islands of Aotearoa.[8]

British colonization and musket warfare in the 19th century once again displaced people from their traditional lands, and in the years after the Second World War a ‘new Māori migration’ began from impoverished rural communities to urban centers.  Known as the people of the four winds (Nga iwi a nga hau o whā), these migrants added another chapter to a long history of deracination and dispersal on the islands of Aotearoa.[9]

Though we must not lose sight of the tragic effects of colonization, it is important to recognize that similar emotional elements oppress all displaced people, regardless of the legal, moral and political rights and wrongs of the situations they have endured.[10] A sense of grief and grievance spreads like a stain through the psyche.  An indelible sense of shame and inferiority.  And like the lingering moral injury of the adopted child or orphan, the exile often feels abandoned by the motherland, and never ceases to crave its recognition.  Even before European colonization, Aotearoa was riven by intertribal feuds and warfare, with the inevitable result that large numbers of people lost their traditional lands and livelihoods.  When one reads the laments published by Sir Apirana Ngata in Nga Moteatea, one finds repeated and unrequited expressions of loss and longing – for a place from which one has been exiled, for a friend who has died in battle, or for a lover from whom one has been separated.[11]


In this great longing (E kuika nei),

Is there no one who will share it? (Matua ia ra e tahuri mai?)

For there is no one more melancholy (‘Wai te mea ka rukupopo)

Than he who yearns for his own native land (Ka whakamate ki tona whenua, i).[12]


The emotions that permeate traditional Māori laments also find expression in the émigré literature of 20th century Europe, the homesickness of expatriates, and the bereavement reaction that every human being will experience in the course of his or her life.  Much as one hopes and works for a more cosmopolitan and equitable world, in which national boundaries are no longer barriers to human movement, in which wars for territory or scarce resources become things of the past, and in which international cooperation saves the planet from the effects of climate change, it is likely that refugee populations will increase rather than diminish in this century.  Let us hope that those of us privileged or fortunate enough to be protected from the ordeal of losing our homes and homeland will nonetheless identify with those less lucky than ourselves and find a reason, born of our own tribulations, for accommodating them in our lifeworlds. After all, as Hannah Arendt observed, mindful of her own experiences as a refugee who found asylum in the United States, we human beings are not only defined by our gender, age, ethnic, and national differences but by our membership of a single species with experiences that we share with every other human being who lives and who has lived.


[1] Edward Said, ‘Reflections on Exile’,Granta 13 (1984), 159.

[2] Svetlana Boym, “Off-Modern,” in Atlas of Transformation, monumentaltotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/htm/o/off-modern/0ff-modern-svetlana-boym.html.  See also Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), xvi-xvii.

[3] Walter Benjamin, ‘Berlin Chronicle,’ in Selected Writings 1927-1934, v. 2, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 614

[4] Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood Around 1900, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 37.

[5] Hannah Arendt, ‘We Refugees,’ The Menorah Journal 31(1), 1943, 69-71).

[6] Hannah Arendt, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” Jewish Studies 6 (1944), 99–122 (111).

[7] For details, see David Lewis, We, The Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1972).

[8] J.B. W. Robertson, ‘The Role of Tribal Tradition in New Zealand Prehistory, Journal of the Polynesian Society 66 (3), 249-263.

[9] ‘The mixed Māori population of Pukekohe have given themselves a name – Nga Hau E Whā (The Four Winds) – which expresses their varied backgrounds. The Four Winds of Māoridom appear to have been caught in the stronger current of change, and it is worthwhile considering the direction in which they are blowing.’ B. Kernot, ‘Which Way are the Winds Blowing,’ Te Ao Hou, 42, March 1963, 20.

[10] J.G.A. Pocock argues that both  Māori, and Pakeha immigrated to New Zealand under duress – escaping marginalization in their original homelands, victims of social injustice, exiles from Eden.  Whether their origin stories are called history or myth, they provide common ground for conversations between two peoples whose histories have driven them together.  ‘Once the Pākeha stop seeing their first ancestors as heroic barbarians and see them as dispossessed exiles from paradise instead, dialogue with the tangata whenua becomes possible.  The question is whether either group will retain a discourse of liberty, or merely self-pity.’  J.G.A. Pocock, ‘Tangata Whenua and Enlightenment Anthropology,’ New Zealand Journal of History 27(1) (1992), 28-53 (44-45).  Anne Salmond makes a similar argument in Two Worlds: First Meetings Between Māori and Europeans, 1642–1772,Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991.

[11] ‘Māori poetry was generally inspired not by success and happiness but by sorrow and loss,’ writes Margaret Orbell in her essay, ‘The Māori Tradition,’ The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, ed. Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen (Auckland: Penguin Books, 1985), 53-61 (59).  But it could be argued that a lot of poetry in any language is both inspired by longing and loss and provides the poet a means of working through grief.

[12] Nga Moteatea (The Songs) Pt. 1, collected by Sir Apirana Ngata (Wellington: A.H. and A.W. Reed, 1959), 183.


Michael D. Jackson is a New-Zealand-born anthropologist and poet who has researched in Sierra Leone and Australia among other places. He has published thirty books of ethnography, poetry, fiction, and memoir. He has taught in New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, and the US, and since 2005 is a Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. For more, see: scholar.harvard.edu/michaeljackson


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