05 November 2007

Exile

The exile that I personally know about is an exile far less gruesome than the fate which befell Saturn's children; it is not at all dramatic like the epic of Oedipus, not a bit lyric, either, like a ballad bemoaning the old days from the lute of a Slavic poet. It does not even concern the exile of a person whose speech was found to be offensive, and who was sent away where his message could be heard no more. I am talking about the loss of a use of language, in my opinion its fundamental employment--the poetic in the broadest sense--and how that limb of our language has been cut off and callously discarded.

This has been, of course, my subject all along. And someone may ask, so complete has been its disappearance, what is this special use of language, and what makes it so special? Alas, to answer would require another essay and an honesty absent from most hearts. It is, first of all, a use of language which refuses to be a use. Use is abuse. That should be the motto of every decent life. So it treats every word as a wonder, and a world in itself. And it walks between them, even over dizzy heights, as confidently as a worker on beams of steel. And it does not care to get on, but it dwells; it makes itself, as Rilke wrote, into a thing, mute as the statue of an orator. It reaches back into the general darkness we--crying--came from, retouches the terrors and comforts of childhood, but returns with a magician's skills to make the walls of the world dance.
~ William H. Gass, "Exile," Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile

6 comments:

Sylvia said...

That's interesting. When I moved to Canada I became unilingual, and I wonder what effect losing Spanish has had deep in my psyche. For starters I think there is grief there. I may have to relearn the language (fully) to find out...

amcorrea said...

In another place in this essay Gass writes, "So what is sent away when we are forced out of our homeland? Words. It is to get rid of our words that we are gotten rid of, since speech is not a piece of property which can be confiscated, bought or sold, and therefore left behind on the lot like a car you have traded, but is the center of the self itself."

He explores many different interpretations of what "exile" means, whether it's imposed by a government or by the self.

Your use of "grief" is probably more accurate that you may immediately realize. (A world lost...) Reading parallel translations of favorite poets (where either the originals or the translations are in Spanish) would be a lovely way to continue your journey.

Sylvia said...

Are you psychic? Just last week I spontaneously picked up a bilingual edition of Neruda. I think my subconscious knows what I need better than I do!

Brian Crabtree said...

There's another interesting point here, one that also applies to us sedentary unilinguals: we are all drifting away from words, sentences and their sounds. While we have benefitted from modern life in many ways, it seems to have pushed us from the beauty we once viscerally knew to be there, hidden in the lines. We no longer toil, collectively, over the lines of a popular ballad, committing the pulses and unexpected variations of sound and color to memory--we don't even here them; we no longer take words in, imbibe their many shades of meaning, taking joy in them all the while. Hart Crane seems emblematic of Glass' theme, use is abuse. You've got to quick trying to solve his words, trying to impress your own meaning. They simply are.

On a side note: if you're looking for it, you can almost hear echos of Orwellian ideology--who are we if the center of self is lost to us?

Brian Crabtree said...

I meant Gass. Sorry!

amcorrea said...

Sylvia...I began with Neruda as well (Merwin's translation of Viente poemas de amor y una canción desesperada) and knew I was on the right track when I found myself penciling in alternate wordings in the margins. (And this was years before I returned to Latin America.) Somehow you'll know that it's never left you...only quietly sleeping. (It's fun to compare various translators' readings of the same poem, too.)

Brian...absolutely. More soon...