Monday, June 24, 2013

Modern Life: Diaspora At Home

Bertha Worms, Homesick for Naples [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I don't know about you, but I often have a feeling like, "When are we going home from this place?" 

It's not that I have some home I'm thinking about going to. I grew up first in the suburbs of Boston, a regular old East Coast city, and then in the Connecticut commuter suburbs of New York. I have no interest in returning there. The texture of suburban life -- it's always been a problem for me. The houses surrounded by other houses, the driving, the buying a week's worth of groceries all at once -- these things make me feel more alienated, not less.

And it's not because I'm an American living in Canada. I'm not somehow pining for life in the US. It's true that I have an inexplicable and irrational love for my home country, but even when I'm there, I have this same subtle sad feeling of being in exile. But exile from what? 

I've come to think maybe it's part of the modern condition. I mean, I love modernity. A day without miniskirts, shoe-shopping, and cats on the internet is like a day without sunshine. But still, there's this other feeling too.

I wouldn't be the first person to think that living in a modern capitalist society induces, alongside its delights and liberties, a particular kind of alienation. But for me that alienation often feels surprising like homsickness.  Homesickness for a place that never existed, and never will.

It's a lot like the homesickness of people who are actually sick for a home. For example, I recently read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's excellent novel Americanah -- about a young woman who grows up in Nigeria, moves to the US for university, and ultimately returns to Nigeria. I was struck at her description of her homesickness.

Ifemelu has put together a full and complete life, with bachelor's degree, boyfriend, and blog, and yet ...

" ... and yet, ... [i]t had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glimpses of other lives she could be living ... "

I've had that feeling -- especially the sense of unsettledness, of glimpses of other lives. For all of modernity's pleasures, the limitless can be destabilizing. You wonder, "Is there some completely different thing I'm supposed to be doing?"

Of course, for Ifemelu there's a treatment -- "Nigeria became where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil." 

But what about the rest of us, who are already at home?

Thinking about this problem always reminds me of the incredible scene toward the end of Portnoy's Complaint, where Alexander Portnoy has gone back to Israel and goes out with an Isreali woman of pride, integrity, and maybe smugness. She's disgusted by his ironic detachment, his making a joke of everything, his relentless self-mockery, his refusal to take himself seriously.  She tells him he is what is all that is shameful in "the culture of the diaspora."

In a rage, Portnoy screams to himself in a silent speech that he'll show her -- he'll give her a venereal disease, he'll send her back to the kibbutz defiled, he'll make her see:

"This is what it's like in the Diaspora, you saintly kiddies, this is what it's like in exile. Temptation and disgrace! Corruption and self-mockery! ... Whining, hysteria, compromise, confusion, disease!" 

You don't have to be Jewish to understand this. I wouldn't trade modern life for anything, but it can be really really difficult, and even hateful, and as I've said before, you have to have a certain kind of tough-mindedness to make it even moderately workable. Temptation and disgrace aren't my particular bugbears, but I know irony and self-mockery. I know that once you're in modernity, you're trapped. You can't get out of it, because native, non-ironic attachment isn't something you can just get ahold of if you don't already have it.

"This is what it's like in exile."  Exile indeed. But for most of us this is home, and it's exile from nowhere. 

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