Friday, July 28, 2006

Exilic Time

I’m flying back to Singapore for a two week visit. I don’t know when Singapore stopped feeling like a home to me. It happened earlier than my flight to New York to write poetry and come out as gay. Earlier than my undergraduate years at Oxford when the Anglican church appeared a more favorable spiritual home. National service, with its regimentation, terror and unreason, only confirmed, but not initiated, my feeling of alienation.

The loss of a home is not the same as leaving home. Leaving involves personal choice. In Singapore, you decide to get married, and you leave home to set up a home of your own. In Britain or the States, you leave home to set off on the adventure of college, expecting to make your own way after that decisive break. My American friends who return home to live with their parents after college always speaks of that homecoming with a rueful sheepishness. You don’t have a choice, however, in losing a home. The loss comes to you, whether in the form of a letter or a Boeing megatop, with the force of a humming air-conditioner or that of a hurricane, and you are forced out of the house, even if physically you remain in it. It is exile.

There are two ways of responding to exile. One may strive to return home. If that proves impossible, as it is for Tiananmen dissidents or for Native Americans who don’t have the American plains or wilderness to return to, one re-creates the new world in the image of the old. So, Chinatowns take the place of China. One danger of that first kind of response is fossilization; the home changes, as it must, but the homestead is a mere skeletal record and skeletons, devoid of flesh and blood, do not grow. Perhaps I am turning more British or American in this: I think sheepishness rightfully accompanies such attempts to return to the fold.

The second response is to accept one’s exile as permanent. Not just permanent but the true state of things for oneself, and others. The idea of home then is revealed to be an illusion. Origin is a dream. Parents are a story two strangers tell you and you believe them. The story may even include the realist convention, also called “fact,” of similar DNA. No mother, no father, or what amounts to the same: many mothers and fathers, one wanders wide-awake from house to house. When things get too hard, one closes one’s eyes and dreams of home.

I am persuaded this is the true state of things because of our experience of time. We are exiled from one moment to the next because we don’t have a choice whether we wish to leave that first moment. Time does not ask for our consideration or our decision; it boots us out. We are always alienated from our past, from the minute, the second, that just went by. To dream of returning to that minute, that second, is the work of memory. Against Eliot, Time Past is not Time Present. Time Past is Time Past, and memory is that pathetic effort to delude ourselves about the presentness of the past. There is only the exilic present. IS is an exile, an expatriate or a refugee, I AM already banished from Paradise.

A poetry of place is necessarily nostalgic: New England, old England, Midwest, The West, East Coast, Ivory Coast are switcheroo versions of Eden. A poetry of time, however, is defiantly truthful about our outcast condition. Poetry, written and read in time, confesses the truth of our metaphysical condition: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...”

What are then our loyalties, as exiles, to the past? What does the past deserve of us when it is responsible for turning us out of the first place? Commemoration, intones the historian. Celebration, exults the chauvinist. I say the past deserves nothing of us. Let the dead bury the dead. My loyalties are to the living. Those living in the continuous present of pain, those who pain. And those in the presence of joy.

When in Singapore next week, I will be there for the living. Let me attend to them.


Larry said...

Hi Jee,

Thanks for such a generous peek into your personal life. I find it profoundly true that there is an aspect of exile in each person, but I don't believe it can be shaken off by an act of will as you seem to wish to do. And while there is a universality to the internal exile that we all experience as an aspect of individuality, there are exiles of a biographical nature which are of a different order and which color life with a particular sadness and longing: these are exiles from one's childhood land and culture, exile from family, from language, etc. Accent and physique and lack of shared memories will make an immigrant an exile par excellence who will forever lack certain core comforts that other people get to take for granted.

Yes, he may choose to become an icon of human exile, and he may learn to make use of his position for a particular freedom from attachment. But is the longing for belonging ever truly dulled? I doubt it.

Have a great trip. Take care.


Jee Leong Koh said...

Dear Larry,
you are right, of course, that there are different kinds of exile. I don't mean to reduce them to an archetype by flattening the differences and erasing the colors. My experience of exile is very different from that of a Chinese dissident who is prohibited by his government from returning home. What we have in common, however, is our experience of time as exile. I cannot return to Singapore without acknowledging that it is no longer home; neither can he to China. If there is an element of wilfulness in my words, there is also acceptance of the inevitable. Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts on this. It's good to hear from you again.

Jee Leong