Summary of the essay "Reflections on Exile" by Edward W. Said
The essay "Reflections on Exile" gives the title to the entire collection and was originally published in 1984. It obviously builds on Said's own condition as an exile as well as on the experiences of other exiled intellectuals that Said encountered in the course of his life. However, Said is careful not to limit his argument to intellectuals and artists: to appreciate the real impact of exile, Said argues,
you must first set aside Joyce and Nabokov and think instead of the uncountable masses for whom UN agencies have been created (page 175)
Said also distinguishes between the glamorous image of the expatriate that comes to mind when we think about Hemingway and the Paris of the 1920s and the forced exile of masses of people who did not freely choose to abandon their homeland and will probably never return to it. Exile is equated in the essay with non-belonging, with the loss of contact with the native land. Said emphasizes the material and historical conditions of exile which cannot be sublimated by literary efforts. Rather than focusing simply on the poetry of exile, Said urges to take into account the poet in exile, the person who experiences uprootedness and homelessness.
The essay continues with the analysis of the earlier poems of Mahmoud Darwish and of Joseph Conrad's story "Amy Foster", a piece that, like most of his literary production, bears the marks of Conrad's own position as an émigré. Because literature gives exiles the possibility of creating a world of their own, it is not surprising that so many exiles have become writers. Here Said quotes the Hungarian Marxist critic Lukàs who experienced exile himself and defined the novel as the literary form to give shape to the feeling of "transcendental homelessness" in which the European novel is grounded.
The final part of the essay defines exile as a contrapuntual and endless condition. The first characteristic derives from the fact that adapting to the new conditions of life in exile is always done against the previous sets of memories of living in the homeland. Exile, in this sense, can be enlightening as it gives the person who experiences it multiple perspectives on life. On the other hand, exile becomes an endless process as by its very nature "is never the state of being satisfied, placid or secure." (page 186).
In "Reflections on Exile," Said writes about the pain of living in exile and the way in which the experience of exile has nonetheless inspired literature. He begins the essay by writing, "exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience." This contradiction informs most of his essay.
He writes about exile as a great loss and states that to think of literature based on exile as humanistic is to lose sight of the pain and suffering exile causes. He provides the stories of individuals who have lived a bitter existence, never feeling grounded, in exile. He compares exile to nationalism, as they are both attempts to find one's grounding in social groups. However, exile leaves one perpetually in isolation, while nationalism attempts to resolve this isolation.
He provides examples of the ways in which literature has captured the condition of exile—for example, Conrad's "Amy Foster," in which the exiled Yanko Goorall from Eastern Europe dies in lonely isolation in England. He believes that many exiles make up for their loss by creating a new world, either by writing or creating another art form.
At the end of the essay, Said speaks about the experience of exile as a corrective to the mass institutions of modern life. For example, the critic Theodor Adorno, a German-Jewish exile, saw modern life as far too subject to institutions. His experience in exile allowed him to see the pressures of mass culture.