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 Montpelier Magazine

 

Exile is more than a crossing of borders; JMU scholars say it is a journey to one's self


'You shall leave behind all that you love

            most dearly, and this is the arrow

            that the bow of exile shoots first.

You shall find out how bitter

            someone else's bread tastes,

            and how hard is the way

            up and down another's stairs.'

                                       -- Dante, Paradise (Canto XVII, 55-60)

 

In the closing years of the 13th century, Florentine public life is a persistent danger zone for all who dare press their fortunes in it. The vicissitudes of politics become not more certain, but all the more treacherous when the Ghibelline party finally succumbs to the power of the Guelphs. Writ large on European life is the pope's campaign to consolidate his control over temporal as well as spiritual matters, as the sniping Guelphs take up sides as Blacks and Whites inside the walled city-state.

Into this peril steps the novice politician Dante Alighieri, who speaks and votes in various councils of the republic. Well-educated in philosophy and theology and with a collection of verse already published, Dante has not yet achieved literary greatness. Instead, says Giuliana Fazzion, he stumbles "against a host of unpredictable snares.

"Florence was such a tangle of public and private passions," the foreign language and literature professor explains. When Boniface prevails in 1300, and Dante's cohort falls out of favor, Dante himself is accused of misdeeds. Against the pope's backers, Dante cannot win. In 1302, banished from his beloved Florence, Dante

begins life as "a fugitive poet and beggar," Fazzion says. He spends the rest of his life roaming the courts of Italy, never to return.

The 700th anniversary of Dante's exile might appear a rather esoteric occasion around which to fashion even an academic conclave. Except, as organizer Fazzion and more than 100 JMU and visiting scholars revealed in presentation after presentation last October, the experience of exile is a harsh reality that has repeated itself throughout history and is a theme that continues to resonate in the arts.

Emily Bronte, François René de Chateaubriand, Joseph Eichendorff, Joseph Conrad, Paula Marshall and Alice Walker all deal with exile motifs, whether explicit or implicit, internal or external. Verdi and Donizetti romanticize it in their opera masterpieces. Art can illuminate the reality of exile and cross its barriers, says dance professor Cynthia Thompson, whose students' interviews of immigrants to the Shenandoah Valley served as the foundation for a major performance last spring.

Artists as diverse as the classical poet Ovid and the great African-American contralto Marian Anderson, separated by millennia, have endured various forms of exile in their own lives -- either forced, like that of Dante, or self-imposed, like those who fled persecution. So too have the world's prominent intellectuals. For instance, both Henry Kissinger, who shaped U.S. foreign policy on Wilsonian ideals, and Hannah Arendt, who elucidated European totalitarianism, first escaped the Nazis.

Multimedia artist Charlotte Salomon did not. Her epic autobiographical play, Life? or Theater?, mixes painting, prose, playwriting and song, and was strongly influenced by feelings of exile and death as the Nazi noose tightened around Europe, says English professor Susan Facknitz.

Exile in Russia meant life in Siberia or the Caucasus, restricted to one's own estate or under house arrest. "Russian intellectuals have been sent into exile throughout history," says history professor Mary Louise Loe. From the 18th-century Aleksandr Radishchev, known as the first Russian intellectual, to Andrei Sakharov, father of the Russian bomb and last official Soviet dissident, Russian history boasts a veritable who's who of exiles: Bakunin, Ballanchine, Baryshnikov, Chagall, Dostoevski, Gorky, Kandinksy, Nureyev, Prokofiev, Pushkin, Rostropovich, Solzhenitsyn, Trotsky and even Lenin.

The reasons for exile are universal, Loe says. "It was to silence them, to isolate them, to cut them off from society, to put them in a box somewhere and never hear from them again." Often the outcome was the opposite. "As a result, so many people did so much more. I can't think of many cases where people were sent off and just forgotten about. They used that time to be completely productive in terms of developing their ideas."

As Loe and Fazzion point out, the positive effects of exile can overshadow the negative. While despair drove Dante to contemplate suicide, it was also exile that inspired him to write the Divine Comedy. "… no work of the past is more of a classic than Dante's Divine Comedy," Fazzion explains. "A classic is a text that has permanent significance, that carries a permanent message for all generations. … a classic is a text that never belongs to the past but always to the present, a contemporary text, a text in which human beings -- precisely because they are human beings -- keep rediscovering themselves.

"Exile turned out to be for Dante a blessing in disguise," Fazzion says. "You cannot understand Dante without understanding the bleak clarity exile brought to his vision. … Exiled, never to return, his life became a mythical quest for the divine. … Exile was a great creative force."

English professor Suzanne Bost, who finds "exile from one's self at home" in the writings of Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa, says, "Exile involves pain and rupture, but it produces what we're talking about."

Implied in exile, says JMU Semester in Florence professor Alessandro Gentili, is a notion of traveling. Etymologically, he explains, the word derives from "ex" (away) and "ilios" (soil) and means "away from the homeland." The destination of Dante's journey, however, is not a geographic location, but one's self, Gentili says. Dante "is the salmon source of exile, the primary source of political exile. … Without the painful and tormenting experience of exile, Dante would miss the return to self."

For more recent exiles, displacement would begin a journey of unprecedented intellectual achievement in their new countries. Among them, says JMU physics professor Bill Ingham, was Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, who fled Mussolini's fascist dictatorship. He directed the building of uranium and graphite piles in Chicago as part of the U.S. wartime effort to build a nuclear bomb at Los Alamos. Also at Los Alamos for a short time were the controversial Edward Teller, European immigrant and father of the hydrogen bomb, and the future Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans Bethe, head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos. These three and others helped the United States attain and maintain scientific, military and political dominance in the 20th century.

"The biology influx was fewer and younger," says biology professor Ivor Knight, but the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 "owes its existence to those young exiles whomade their way from Central Europe in the 1930s and made their reputations in the United States."

Exile is anything but positive for a depressingly great number of the world's inhabitants, says sociology and anthropology professor Nikitah Okembe-Ra Imani. He describes exile as a social construct endured by "the other" and created by a power structure that divides people into "us and them," "positive and negative," "present and absent."

Schoolchildren who fall outside the mainstream are often the ones who find themselves classified as them, negative or absent. "If their behavior doesn't match the school's idea [of acceptability]," says education professor Doris Martin, "these are the children who share Dante's hell."

For statistics professor Hassan Hamdan, who grew up in Jenin near the Palestinian refugee camp, exile was palpable. In the 54 years since the founding of Israel, Palestinians have raised children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the camp's now permanent housing and suffer poverty, ill health, discrimination and violence.

"Exile can be a legal condition," says keynote speaker John A. Doyle, a poet and immigration lawyer who has helped countless victims of persecution seek asylum in the United States. "Modern states have become good at harassing people into leaving," he says. Even seeking asylum can be a form of exile for someone who must recount humiliating details of torture in a bureaucratic procedure. "The refugee needs a human connection to re-establish his significance," he says.

"Most exiles are not great scholars or writers like Dante," Doyle says. "They are not activists or in a fringe group; they're not out to change the world. They're everyday people. … Maybe if we read the poets," he concludes, "we'll increase our sense of humanity and hope for people who are not scholars and poets."

 

-- Pam Brock

 

Read more about JMU professors' views on exile at www.jmu.edu/montpelier/winter03/livingInExile.shtml