When I left this country 18 years ago, I didn’t know how strangely departure would obliterate return: how could I have done? It’s one of time’s lessons, and can only be learned temporally. What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life – is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, ‘afterwardness’, which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.
But Jozef doesn’t stay, and as the novella closes, we see him in Vienna airport, about to board a flight to America:He did not want to fly to Chicago. He imagined walking from Vienna to the Atlantic Ocean, and then hopping on a slow transatlantic steamer. It would take a month to get across the ocean, and he would be on the sea, land and borders nowhere to be found. Then he would see the Statue of Liberty and walk slowly to Chicago, stopping wherever he wished, talking to people, telling them stories about far-off lands, where people ate honey and pickles, where no one put ice in the water, where pigeons nested in pantries.It’s as if jet flight is existentially shallow; a slower journey would enact the gravity and enormity of the transformation.
The ‘great movement of peoples that was to take place in the second half of the 20th century’, that V.S. Naipaul spoke of in The Enigma of Arrival was, as Naipaul put it, ‘a movement between all the continents’. It could no longer be confined to a single paradigm (post-colonialism, internationalism, globalism, world literature). The jet engine has probably had a greater impact than the internet. It brings a Nigerian to New York, a Bosnian to Chicago, a Mexican to Berlin, an Australian to London, a German to Manchester. It brought one of n+1’s founding editors, Keith Gessen, as a little boy, from Russia to America in 1981, and now takes him back and forth between those countries (a liberty unknown to émigrés like Nabokov or Sergei Dovlatov).Recall Lukács’s phrase ‘transcendental homelessness’. What I have been describing, both in my own life and in the lives of others, is more like secular homelessness. It cannot claim the theological prestige of the transcendent. Perhaps it is not even homelessness; homelooseness (with an admixture of loss) might be the necessary (hideous) neologism: in which the ties that might bind one to Home have been loosened, perhaps happily, perhaps unhappily, perhaps permanently, perhaps only temporarily.
Or suppose I am looking down our Boston street, in dead summer. I see a familiar life: the clapboard houses, the porches, the heat-mirage hanging over the patched road (snakes of asphalt like black chewing gum), the grey cement sidewalks (signed in one place, when the cement was new, by three young siblings), the heavy maple trees, the unkempt willow down at the end, an old white Cadillac with the bumper sticker ‘Ted Kennedy has killed more people than my gun,’ and I feel … nothing: some recognition, but no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there – just a tugging distance from it all. A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: how did I get here? And then the moment passes, and ordinary life closes itself around what had seemed, for a moment, a desperate lack.
Exile, as he understands it, is tragic homelessness, connected to the ancient sentence of banishment; he approves of Adorno’s subtitle to Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Mutilated Life. It’s hard to see how the milder, unforced journey I am describing could belong to this grander vision of suffering. ‘Not going home’ is not exactly the same as ‘homelessness’. That nice old boarding school standby, ‘homesickness’, might fit better, particularly if allowed a certain doubleness. I am sometimes homesick, where homesickness is a kind of longing for Britain and an irritation with Britain: sickness for and sickness of. I bump into plenty of people in America who tell me that they miss their native countries – Britain, Germany, Russia, Holland, South Africa – and who in the next breath say they cannot imagine returning. It is possible, I suppose, to miss home terribly, not know what home really is anymore, and refuse to go home, all at once. Such a tangle of feelings might then be a definition of luxurious freedom, as far removed from Said’s tragic homelessness as can be imagined.
Herodotus says that the Scythians were hard to defeat because they had no cities or settled forts: ‘they carry their houses with them and shoot with bows from horseback … their dwellings are on their wagons. How then can they fail to be invincible and inaccessible for others?’ To have a home is to become vulnerable. Not just to the attacks of others, but to our own adventures in alienation.
Wood, who grew up in England but has lived in the United States for 18 years, explores a certain form of contemporary homelessness — lives lived without the finality of exile, but also without the familiarity of home.He speaks of existences “marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end.”This is a widespread modern condition; perhaps it is the modern condition. Out of it, often, comes anxiety. Wood does not focus on the psychological effects of what he calls “a certain outsider-dom,” but if you dig into people who are depressed you often find that their distress at some level is linked to a sense of not fitting in, an anxiety about belonging: displacement anguish.
Even when you’re careful about picking a spot—protected forest, wild coastline, lonesome desert alongside a national park—you need a form of income and you need interludes of friendship and love and other problems. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a whole crowd in the nearest city, because they will rarely if ever visit. People are lazy. Even the smart ones toss away most of their “free time” watching television. You’re on your own out there, and even Henry David Thoreau got lonesome and went back to town. Your rural neighbors might be fellow conservationists and tree huggers, but they’re more likely gun nuts with a sheet-metal garage crowded with dirt bikes and off-road buggies.