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Said's "Reflections on Exile"

It's in this essay that we get Said's most sustained inquiry into the nature of exile. He defines it as "the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted...The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever" (173). The tone of this essay, and most of Said's works dealing with exile, especially Palestine, is one of melancholy shot through with determination. Hence his insistence that repeating the narrative of Palestinian is of utmost importance in order to combat the assertions that "there are no Palestinians" (Golda Meir) and, by extension, no place called "Palestine" to which they can return (or variations on this theme, for example, Jordan is the proper place for Palestinians). The bifurcated nature of the exile is evidenced in Said's formulation, with the parallelism between human being/self and native place/true home; the individual exile is identified and split simultaneously. And yet, paradoxically, it is necessary to "leave the modest refuge provided by subjectivity and resort instead to the abstractions of mass politics" (176) in order to conceive of the millions of refugees, exiles, expatriates and emigres which the modern world has produced.

Said insists on the fact that nationalism and exile cannot be discussed without reference to each other, moreso considering the fact that nationalism is often borne out of feelings of exile (American colonies, pre-unified Germany, Algeria, etc.). Even though the exile has opportunites to become affiliated in his or her new surroundings, even this entails a loss "of critical perspective, of intellectual reserve, of moral courage" (183). Thus by becoming more deeply attached to a state, one succumbs to an easy nationalism, chauvinism, and myopia.

Never one to accept defeat or play the victim, Said envisions exile as a state of being where new things become possible: "...I speak of exile not as a privilege, but as an alternative to the mass institutions that dominate modern life...provided that the exile refuses to sit on the sidelines nursing a wound, there are things to be learned: he or she must cultivate a scrupulous (not indulgent or sulky) subjectivity" (184), an attitude that all of Said's exilic examples: Adorno, Nietzsche, Joyce, exemplified.

In a particularly eloquent passage, Said reminds us: "The exile knows that in a secular and contingent world, homes are always provisional. Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason or necessity. Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience" (185). Forced to cross borders in the past, the exile becomes a willing crosser in the future, offering a promise of change. The idea of secularism is vital, as always, in that it signifies a refusal to submit to political and cultural mystification in exchange for security and false hope. Rather, by speaking clearly and thinking critically, the exile offers new perspectives and embodies the idea that human beings, not divine authority, have the power and responsibility to change their own destinies.