The word exile, always a bit severe, has become slightly rhetorical nowadays. There is in it like a promise to achieve great, necessary things that will climax with a decisive return few of us get to achieve as expected and desired. Defined as exile, departing and the experience of living farther away (for far away from many things we were even in our native country, before leaving, and, after all, people are far away from lots of things anywhere) turn, if you don?t pay attention, into a river bed on which clichés flow that are dangerous, not so much because they lead to stolid texts, but mostly because they tend to falsify our daily lives and encounters from the start.
When trying to stay alert with respect to a word?s intimations, I know of no better means than dictionaries. You open them, leaf through them and the meanings entice you. Words regroup by themselves into the ?basic vocabulary? of the issue that is tantalizing you. The distinctions made and confirmed by so many speakers before reveal themselves in full light. A new, more artful, less direct way of recounting and looking at yourself becomes possible. The rhetorical charge that you?d superstitiously be inclined to attribute to the words under the obsession of which you live your life ? exile, country, loneliness, nostalgia and yearning ? diminishes in front of the multiple gestures of the mind, performed in many languages, among which you can choose and pick whatever might help clear things up right here and now.
Experienced etymologists refer the word exile to the Indo-European root *el- which meant ?to move.? Exile is, indeed, the grand setting into motion, the big start. Departing, with capital D, used to be, however, also a long wandering from a place where you were not wanted to one where you were unwelcome. Today, when getting out of a country and entering another has become, from a bureaucratic point of view, a much more complicated endeavor, the idea of erratic motion does not spontaneously come to mind when thinking of exile, which is always planned, official, ultra-legal. Those who run away ? a few Romanians recently surfaced in Providence, where we live, by hiding on a ship ? expose themselves to the risks of arrests, expulsion, and forced returns. If I sit and think about it, two-fold or three-fold exiles, with their inner chaos, still exist, although less often. People leaving Romania let?s say for one country (Switzerland it was for ethnomusicologist Constantin Brăiloiu, for example), who are pushed by need to reach a second (France for Brăiloiu) and struggle for years in a row, helped by influential friends (such as demographer Sabin Manuila and linguist Roman Jakobson with respect to Brăiloiu), in order to obtain the entrance visa for a third promised land (which was to be the United States), until one day, one rather sad day, they decide to end their nomadic destiny. Brăiloiu settled for exile number two and met his death in a gentle, maybe more humanly warm town of exile number one. We will never know how this most distinguished and elusive scholar got to die in Switzerland and not in France. Was it pure hazard or was it an instinct that urged him to the country best suited for the final departure?
In Latin, by adding the prefix ex- that expresses both the idea of ?getting or coming out? and that of ?absence,? ?lack,? ?passing from one state to the other,? the successor of the Indo-European root *el- gave the noun exsul and the verb exsulo, exsulare. Exsul, that is, ?exiled,? ?outcast,? ?expatriate; exsulare for ?being exiled,? ?leaving one?s homeland.? One can even exile oneself from the space of one?s own mind. In Latin, Romans used to say exsul mentis when talking about a reckless, unwise person, distracted from even the basic task of living. When departing for exile, when you punish yourself with exile, you tend to believe that you do not exile yourself from your own mind as well, if you have some left anyhow. Mens sola loco non exsulat, ?only the mind doesn?t depart? or ?only my reason does not fail me? the Romans used to say optimistically. Îţi iei lumea în cap, ?you take your world into your head,? Romanians say beautifully, using an expression the precision of which makes me proud. Still, things do not always happen that way. I remember that, after one year and a half spent in the usual struggle with the ?competent bodies,? I had completely exhausted the chance of a clean leaving, without bitterness, in full understanding of what was happening and of what I was doing to myself, of the drastic separation from all people and all things. I sadly recall the absurd joy with which I looked at the Colosseum, once we reached Rome. I had won (had I?), I was finally out of the overextended official quarantine, something was ?starting.? This upside-down joy, setting in on a major renunciation, in fact on the greatest renunciation in an existence which, like many others at home, had not been spared of them, lasted until we got to Pensione Dina, near the Termini train-station, where we were to wait for the U.S. entrance visa. There, while I was carrying up the stairs (lacking the ten Italian Lira coin needed for the elevator) a heavy suitcase representing everything I had in the world, and facing the mean gazes and words of some giggling kids from the upper floors, I rediscovered, in a flash, a thought I had struggled against for one whole year: one never leaves well the country one belongs to by birth and the simple joys of friendship or profession, one should not do it, we shouldn?t have left, at fourty as we both are; from now on no place on earth will be ours again, we enter a new deep freeze of the soul, sadder and deprived of rights even more than before, lonelier than ever, sole and silent witnesses one for the other, our tongues tied till the end. Afterwards, silence fell inside us and the words of the Psalms suited us well just as they do for all the exiles and emigrants of the world: ?I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul? (Ps. 142.4).