Magazine article Salmagundi

Exile and Creativity

Magazine article Salmagundi

Exile and Creativity

Article excerpt

Exile is an essential human experience. Together with dislocation, it involves psychic and material dispossession, all frequently traumatic. Religious narratives noted the phenomenon early on. That has lent it great resonance over time. Abraham in the Bible and Odysseus in Greek mythology both personify this extreme adventure, and they're not the only ones who have symbolized it for posterity. The modern period, though, has amplified the centrifugal effect of large-scale conflicts and global catastrophes resulting from military conflagrations or accidents of nature. Voluntary or forced, estrangement from place of birth and exile to the farthest ends of the earth have become current occurrences in a context where speed of travel meets intensified traffic between countries and civilizations. Painful and sometimes even fatal, this trial, to which our fellow human beings are subjected (or to which they submit themselves), is not exclusively ruinous; it is sometimes tantamount to rebirth in the unknown. We find world-famous names, indispensable to universal culture, among the ranks of the exiled, and that's no coincidence. Picasso and Brancusi, Einstein and Marie Curie, Bartok and Rachmaninov: numerous learned individuals, writers, artists and thinkers have produced work in exile that has spectacularly renewed the thought and sensibility of their times. Their ability to transform a handicap into a reaffirmation has tremendous repercussions for human history, for human destiny.

Adalbert von Chamisso, the German Romantic Poet.

Consider a single example, edifying for Germany in general and Berlin in particular, and-why not say it?-for my own literary activity, since it's the subject of a novel that I've been working on for many years, a book that probes both the tragedy of exile and also the experience's potential impulse toward renewal. My own novel has three principal heroes: Adalbert, the author, his celebrated character Peter Schlemihl, who became more famous than his author, and today's narrator, called the Nomad, whose identity isn't hard to guess. In this essay, though, I refer to the French-born German Romantic poet and renowned botanist whose portrait hangs in the Berlin Botanical Garden as one of its founders. Adalbert's story has its own allure.

Adalbert Louis Charles Adelaide de Chamisso was born in 1781, at his family's Chateau, Boncourt, in the province of Champagne. He grew up in aristocratic surroundings. Then the Revolution of 1789 forced his family to leave France. Adalbert was 11 years old.

In his German youth, Chamisso ran through various phases of exile and personal reformation. He became a page to the Queen, then an officer in the Prussian army, an apprentice to Literature, a naturalist and a writer of prose, poetry and much-appreciated botanical studies. In 1802, when he was already around 30 years old, he summarized the situation in a letter to relatives: "You ask how I might have developed without the Revolution, if I would have been a completely different person, if in other conditions I wouldn't have developed the Ideas and Character that form my personality today. Other premises lead to other consequences. Would I really have been better? For me, it's hard to imagine. I don't want to advertise the ill-luck through which I have constructed myself, but I also don't want to assume to myself any cliché suitable to others that does not suit me."

The Prussian Exile

A young immigrant, Chamisso developed in relation to the conditions and customs of his host country. These stimulated his development. Although he still felt himself to be French in 1802, he began increasingly to see Germany as hi s cultural fatherland. When many expatriates returned to France, Chamisso remained in Prussia as an exile. He perfected his German, read Klopstock, Goethe and Schiller, and started writing German verse. Communication with the Jewish cultural salon in the Prussian capital was important to his integration. …

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