Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dante in Exile

One image that has remained with me since those days long ago when I sat in LitTrad II is that of Dante as an exile. Dante ended up on the wrong side of the incessant disputes between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs in Florence. And, Dante never let you forget that he was on the right side all along, and that he was suffering in exile for it. Some critics, as a consequence, might simply dismiss Dante as petulant and vengeful, and would point to his penchant for placing his personal enemies in Hell as justification for their view.

This view, however, though not completely unreasonable, fails to do full justice to the experience of Dante’s exile. What is it, then, that makes exile such a uniquely harsh punishment?

Other forms of punishment can, of course, take a greater physical toll. An ordinary prisoner sits in his cell for a dozen years, all the while constantly abused by guards and fellow inmates. An exile, on the other hand, leads a free life in another country. Nor is exile harsh because the exile is forced to go to a place he does not particularly enjoy. Ovid, for example, did not enjoy being confined to a little village on the coast of the Black Sea, but at least he was not rotting in prison. It must be something more than physical pain or boredom.

What makes exile such a unique punishment, I would suggest, is the wound inflicted on one’s identify. Who inflicts this wound on the exile? His own native land inflicts it on him by rejecting him.

The legal distinction between expatriation and deportation might help clarify this idea of rejection. In legal terms, an expatriation is quite different from a deportation. When somebody is deported, the government declares merely that the deportee never even had a right to move into the country. In an expatriation, on the other hand, the government declares that one of its own citizens has committed such a horrible offense that he is now no longer worthy to remain a citizen. Moreover, the nature of the offense is different than an ordinary criminal offense. If the exile were a regular criminal, the government would just lock him up or execute him. But, the exile has almost always committed a political offense. Put a little less delicately, he pissed off the wrong person in power. And, that person has used his power to have the country reject him on the basis of his beliefs.

How does this rejection inflict such a grievous wound on an exile’s identity? To answer this, we have to look at a typical exile. The typical exile is an intelligent, public-spirited individual who has crossed a powerful politician, or an entire faction. Usually, he has done so quite visibly, and has probably made a fool of these politicians too. They are embarrassed and want revenge, so they turn public sentiment against him and ostracize him, before finally forcing him to flee the country. Such a person is aware of his position and his importance, and this self-consciousness is the source of his vulnerability.

What are the effects of exile on such a person? First, the exile is systematically excluded from public life in his native country. This cuts him off from his country’s living history. Before exile he saw himself as involved in shaping the land he loved; now that land hates him. Furthermore, he is physically cut off from his own native land; he loses contact with the places he loves most. Also, he is cut off from many of his family and friends. He is alone and without moral support in a strange land. Finally, he is often cut off from his own language. Even if he speaks the language of the country to which he has fled, the exile cannot easily explain to the people around him how he has been wronged. In summary, the exile is abandoned to fate.

Some of these effects can be clearly seen in Dante's Inferno. For instance, in Canto X (the Epicureans), the Tuscan dialect creates an instant bond between Dante and Farinata, one of his enemies. Not only does Dante show his love for his native tongue at the beginning of his dialogue with Farinata, he shows his desire to be on the right side of Florentine politics. When Farinata boasts of defeating Dante’s party, Dante is very quick to point out that the defeat was only temporary. All this in the middle of Hell! So strong is Dante’s constant concern with his exile that it preoccupies him throughout his journey through Hell. Interestingly enough, however, Dante is generally able to transcend these concerns later in Heaven with Beatrice. Dante makes far fewer complaints about exile in Heaven than he does in Hell. Dante’s experience of Heaven and Hell must have shown him how unimportant his political exile was in comparison to our utter helplessness when exiled from God. Once he allows himself to be purified in Purgatory and abandons himself to God’s mercy in Heaven, he seems capable of accepting his exile.

Exile, then, is a uniquely effective way to punish an outspoken individual for his beliefs because it affects the very identity of an individual who is already quite self-conscious and aware of his intelligence, influence, and ambition. It takes everything away from him, and he is helpless. The only way to overcome this helplessness is self-abandonment and abandonment to God.
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