The public ban now in place in many parts of the world hides a more awful reality: we are not just banned from our streets, our squares, our schools and our offices, we are in exile. We are wandering away from home, sometimes nervously, sometimes resignedly, while staying home and staying still. There’s no shortage of paradoxes these days.
Pandemics are not new, confinements are not new, and exiles are certainly not new. The sense of loss and longing of the exiled runs through our history, nourishing all our art and literature. Some of the most beautiful poetry of Antiquity was written in exile on the banks of the sacred rivers or on the shores of the Black Sea.
The backward glance of the exiled wanderer, gazing at the place she can no longer call home fills all our libraries, while the hope of the one who is doomed to drift away, move in circles, forever unable to turn the ship homebound, is foundational for our shared culture. The sense of exile fed the ancient Jews (and later Christianity and Islam, not to mention Plato & Co) as well as the more recent idea of progress. For what is Judaism if not a sigh and a longing, and Christianity if not a desire, best articulated by Dante, of returning to the stars, or progress other than a slow (or rapid) progress-ion towards a place we may call home?
The greatest dramas of world literature are conflicts of exile. Ulysses was roaming the seas of exile away from Ithaca. Dante was exhausting his exile on foot away from Florence. In the soul of the exiled, homelessness meets homesickness giving rise to a species of indeterminate longing, grief and hope which language is often unable to express.
Our paradoxical exile at home away from home is testing many of us today. May our exile come to an end soon, so that we as a society may find our way home.