Democracia y Política

The Wisdom of Exile

At one point in its history, the tango was popular in the world of Buenos Aires’s brothels. Toward the end of the 19th century, young immigrants — single, male, working class — who had come to Argentina to try their luck would seek comfort in the drink, entertainment and female companionship there. Argentines as distinguished as Jorge Luis Borges have insisted that the tango was born in these brothels. Others vehemently deny it. But the fact remains that the tango has preserved something of the anguish of the young and uprooted who danced it there.

Theirs is quite a performance. These men we see panting on the dance floor are not some ordinary youths seeking to entertain themselves. They’re people who have gone through the meat-grinder of uprooting and survived it; they’ve come as close to death as one can without dying. It seems that the memory of a personal catastrophe, followed by a miraculous survival, has somehow remained inscribed in the dance’s movements. Part of what makes the tango so erotically charged is that death is always so close at hand. To this day the tango has carried with it this uncanny mix of vulnerability and strength.

There are many types of uprooting. The brutal expulsions like those now devastating hundreds of thousands in countries like Iraq and Syria are common in the cycles of politics and war. But it can be more subtly political, too, as was Dante’s banishment from Florence at the hands of the Black Guelphs, or economic, as it was for the immigrants dancing in the Argentine brothels. Each person who survives this uprooting and finds himself in exile experiences an existential earthquake of sorts: Everything turns upside down, all certitudes are shattered. The world around you ceases to be that solid, reliable presence in which you used to feel comfortable, and turns into a ruin — cold and foreign. “You shall leave everything you love most: this is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first,” wrote Dante in “Paradiso.”

From Ovid to Dante to Czeslaw Milosz, exile has been portrayed as a catastrophic event. If such an uprooting comes to the exile as a form of death, it is not just his own death, but that of the world that dies with him and in him.

To live is to sink roots. Life is possible only to the extent that you find a place hospitable enough to receive you and allow you to settle down. What follows is a sort of symbiosis: Just as you grow into the world, the world grows into you. Not only do you occupy a certain place, but that place, in turn, occupies you. Its culture shapes the way you see the world, its language informs the way you think, its customs structure you as a social being. Who you ultimately are is determined to an important degree by the vast web of entanglements of “home.”

Uprooting is a devastating blow because you have to separate yourself overnight from something that, for as long as you can remember, has been an important part of your identity. In a sense, you are your culture, customs, language, country, your family, your lovers. Yet exile, should you survive it, can be the greatest of philosophical gifts, a blessing in disguise. In fact, philosophers, too, should be uprooted. At least once in their lives. They should be exiled, displaced, deported — that should be part of their training. For when your old world goes down it also takes with it all your assumptions, commonplaces, prejudices and preconceived ideas. To live is to envelop yourself in an increasingly thicker veil of familiarity that blinds you to what’s under your nose. The more comfortable you feel in the world, the blunter the instruments with which you approach it. Because everything has become so evident, you’ve stopped seeing anything. Exile gives you a chance to break free. All that heavy luggage of old “truths,” which seemed so only because they were so familiar, is to be left behind. Exiles always travel light.

The redeeming thing about exile is that when your “old world” has vanished you are suddenly given the chance to experience another. At the very moment when you lose everything, you gain something else: new eyes. Indeed, what you eventually get is not just a “new world,” but something philosophically more consequential: the insight that the world does not simply exist, but it is something you can dismantle and piece together again, something you can play with, construct, reconstruct and deconstruct. As an exile you learn that the world is a story that can be told in many different ways. Certainly you can find that in books, but there is no deeper knowledge than the one that comes mixed with blood and tears, the knowledge that comes from uprooting.

Exiles travel light because they barely exist. And that’s another important lesson philosophers can learn from exile: Uprooting gives you the chance to create not only the world anew, but also your own self. Deprived of your old world, your old self is left existentially naked. It is not only worlds that can collapse and be rebuilt, but also selves. Selves can be re-made from scratch, reassembled and refurbished. For they, too, are stories to be told in different ways. Often with uprooting there also comes a change of languages, which makes the refashioning all the more fascinating. You can fashion yourself in very much the same way a writer fashions her characters.

Socrates rarely left his native Athens, yet he fully understood the philosopher’s need to practice uprooting if they are do their job properly. He refashioned himself into a foreigner as a matter of philosophical method. As a recent biographer put it, Socrates claimed “to be a foreigner in his own city, even to the extent of not speaking the Attic dialect.” Not content with just taking an “ironical distance” from the Athenians, he deliberately uprooted himself from the city, cut off his ties and burned his bridges.

Socrates turned himself into an outsider in his own city, but didn’t move to another. He became “átopos,” which meant “out of place,” but also “disturbing” and “perplexing.” Being átopos is crucial if you are to be a straight-talking philosopher, as Socrates was. There is in every community something that has to remain unsaid, unnamed, unuttered; and you signal your belonging to that community precisely by participating in the general silence. Revealing everything, “telling all,” is a foreigner’s job. Either because foreigners do not know the local cultural codes or because they are not bound to respect them, they can afford to be outspoken. To the extent, then, that philosophy is exposure of “everything,” especially of things no one wants to hear about, foreignness is highly necessary for its practice. The philosopher, at least the straight-talking kind, is bound to remain a metaphysical gypsy.

Socrates’ case is telling. Like few others he saw the philosopher’s need to uproot himself from his own community. Yet he refused to go into an actual exile himself, preferring instead a symbolic one. He lived in Athens as if he were a foreigner. This means that he practiced philosophy as a rather dangerous pursuit. Such a tightrope walking can never take you too far, especially when you, performing it with no safety net, make incessant fun of your audience.

An Argentine poet called the tango “un pensamiento triste que se baila”: a sad thought that is danced. I am not sure. The tango is not just something sad — it is sadness itself that is danced. The ultimate sadness that comes from the earthquake of uprooting. If philosophers don’t manage to get them themselves exiled, at least they should take up tango for a while.

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