Exile: The Exilic Meditations


Peyman Vahabzadeh

I was reminded, when Peyman began speaking about the student sit ins in Tehran in 1981 that eventually lead to his exile from Iran, of the dreamlike qualities of the heroine’s story in Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet. During the military occupation of the university in Mexico City in 1968 (i.e. UNAM), Bolaño’s heroine Auxilio Lacouture hides in the women’s washroom waiting to be captured and preparing to defend the university’s autonomy in the name of poetry. “I knew that I had to resist. So I sat down on the tiles of the women’s bathroom and, before the last rays of sunlight faded, read three more of Pedro Garfias’s poems…”  The protest that Peyman and his fellow students mounted when the protests collapsed in the face of brutal suppression took the shape of marching out of the university and into the milling crowds in military formation. This was a poetic gesture no doubt as cryptic and surreal to those observing it as had been the experience of the students themselves, having had their university education snuffed out by the Ayatollah’s declaration that the university would be Islamized. The mental image of this event is like that of the “multitude of young people” that Auxilio sees on the march at the end of Bolaño’s novel: “although they were swallowed by the abyss, the song remained in the air of the valley, in the midst of the valley rising towards the mountainsides and the crags as the evening drew on.”


Sayyid Ruhollah Mostafavi Musavi Khomeini

Peyman had been studying geology when the Ayatollah made his announcement, but from that moment forward, what might have been a very ordinary course of life turned to a life defined by violent dislocation —“a rupture in the existential continuity of life,” I think Peyman called it at one point. It is the “gift of poetic living” that Peyman found in this dislocation that reminds me of Bolaño’s fictional character. Certainly the experience could have gone in a different direction. We might say that geology’s loss was sociology’s gain, but with respect to the losses of home, belonging, family, and language, it’s difficult not to think that Peyman puts a brave face on a life scarred by terror.

There are various ways in which to think about the traumatic loss of the exile. As Peyman noted, there has been a rich literature of exile throughout the 20th century. But near the end of his talk, he began to address it in terms of healing—the healing that would come as a result of homecoming, and the healing that must remain suspended when homecoming is no longer possible. This was an interesting turn in the discussion. What is the nature of healing or health in this context? It struck me that the opposite of health in this situation was not pathology or illness exactly; not a quality, physical, psychic or otherwise, that might be designated within the course of therapeutic treatment. The exile is not sick per se. So what does healing mean in this context?


Peyman addresses the Iranian community in Vancouver

The main elements of Peyman’s discussion revolved around the relationship between home, belonging, language and violence. Heidegger also brings together the questions of dwelling/exile and poetry/language in his meditations on Hölderlin’s phrase “poetically man dwells” (although the theme of violence is conspicuously absent). In this regard, the assertions that “poetry is really what lets us dwell,” or poetry restores “the free readiness to respond,” might be Heidegger’s way at getting at the essence of health. Poetry has an intimate relationship with dwelling and health. In this sense, the experience of   dwelling poetically is health; health is the capacity for “the free readiness to respond;”  “free readiness” is the mode of life lived poetically.

Nevertheless, one thinks of Heidegger’s contribution to Peyman’s  exile meditation as limited. Heidegger seems to be the philosopher for whom being at home, rooted in the German countryside–the mountains and the valleys, the peasant in his field and the woodsman in his forest—was tantamount to being able to think at all. To dwell, “this signifies: to remain, to stay in one place.” “Poetically man dwells” of course points to the house of language and the openness to being as the human home, yet the connotations and valence of being rooted in place remain central to Heidegger’s imagery. The Unheimlichkeit (the ‘unhomeliness’ or estrangement) of the exile seems to have no purchase in dwelling in this sense. To the degree that coming home to dwelling is health for Heidegger, the opposite of health is exile.  For the exile, there can be no healing; not in a home or heimat, and not in language either.

There is a story by HP Lovecraft that comes to mind here though. A strangerHP Lovecraft_Barret Chapman leaves his home in New England and arrives in New York seeking “poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets … and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise Babylonian under waning moons…. such treasures as would make [him] in time a poet.”  Instead the “garish daylight showed only squalor and alienage … and throngs of squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eyes.” “I found only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze, and annihilate me.” He seeks the living “sentient perpetuation of Old New York,”  but discovers that the city is dead – “its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things which have nothing to do with it as it was in life.” In this state of illness or estrangement, the young poet takes to going out only at night, exploring the archaic lanes and hidden courtyards of Greenwich Village, where only “darkness calls forth what little of the past still hovers wraithlike about.” Finally however he meets the man, the “He” of the story’s title, some sort of immortal, who takes him through an “inexhaustible maze of unknown antiquity” into the heart of the originary dwelling he seeks. The harsh reality of this originary dwelling unfortunately is that its conditions of existence were founded on a genocidal atrocity. Like other Lovecraft stories, “The Shunned House” for example, coming home to originary dwelling is achieved only at the cost of acknowledging unspeakable horror. In Lovecraft’s world at least, Heidegger’s dwelling is itself built on violent displacement.

Lovecraft’s hero does not find healing. He escapes instead, and in returning to the “pure New England lanes up which fragrant sea-winds sweep at evening” one suspects more atrocities await discovery. This would seem to confirm Peyman’s suggestion that if healing from the traumas attached to dwelling can be granted, it is not through coming home in a literal sense. The dwelling of the exile is bound to the trauma of displacement. Trauma itself is the exile’s home. But because trauma is an experience of violation, of an event of violation, which can exist only in being pushed away, as foreclosed, it is constitutive of experience but lost to experience, it can not be remembered or returned to. If ‘home’ still makes sense in this context, the home of the exile persists only in the scars that have been left to mark its place.

As a pathology – like the pathology of melancholia – these scars bind the exile to the trauma of displacement in the manner of Lovecraft’s hero: to “a sense of horror and oppression which threaten to master, paralyze, and annihilate…” But to make a home in the trauma that grounds the life in exile, is to somehow make friends with the scars. “The scars are my friends,” Peyman said. As the scars go wherever the exile goes, exile is not about homelessness but about finding dwelling in the persistence of Unheimlichkeit (estrangement).

exileOf course, Peyman’s discussion goes beyond the situation of the stranger in Lovecraft’s story. The exile is a stranger, Derrida’s uncalled for and unwanted arrivant–-or the one who is perpetually both remote and close by, as Simmel puts it. But the exile is also more than a stranger. The life of the exile has been cut into and defined by the sovereign who has banished him or her. It is the life held under a ban that Giorgio Agamben describes as the homo sacer: the one who is subject to hospitality, or not, according to the whim of the hosts, not unlike the stranger, but also the one subject to the doublings, exclusions and violence of thorough juridical placelessness or exception. The exile is the one who, by sovereign decision, is irremediably exposed to violence in the wilderness outside the walls of the city. He or she is the one captured outside. To hold a passport that means nothing, or to be sans papiers entirely, is only the outward sign of the experience of the exile.  Unheimlichkeit is the inner quality. The experience is therefore not in essence homelessness, not a lack of shelter or a street address, but the knowledge that there is no state that has your back, that there is no home where you belong, that there is no contract, and that there are no laws which protect you.

From the point of view of the exile, “poetically man dwells” is therefore a profound political motto signifying a purely political existence unsheltered from expectations of lawfulness. In this way, to embrace exile is what Agamben calls embracing potencia, a life that generates its own forms, or what we might call embracing health.

Peyman Vahazadeh’s book Exilic Meditations: Essays on a Displaced Life has just been published.


Roberto Bolaño Amulet (NY: New Directions, 2006)

Martin Heidegger, “…Poetically Man Dwells…” and “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” in Poetry, Language, Thought (NY: Perennial Classics, 2001)

HP Lovecraft, “He” in The Road to Madness (NY: Ballantine Books, 1996)


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