Exile accepted as a destiny, in the way we accept an incurable illness, should help us see through our self-delusions.

– Miłosz, “Notes on Exile”

To home in on the kind of acceptance of exile Miłosz encourages in the “Usage” section of his essay/prose-poem “Notes on Exile,” consider Zygmunt Bauman’s statement in “Identity: Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi” that you can compare identity only to a jigsaw puzzle “in which quite a few bits (and one will never know exactly how many) are missing.” If a belief in destiny relies on a self-constructed narrative in which one is continually fulfilling that destiny, routes of individual and collective memory must be traced in order to investigate circumstance and causality while affirming the present course. This selective memory involved in narrating the puzzles of identity is the basis for the short, almost aphoristic form of “Notes on Exile.”

Recognizing exile as destiny also means that precedents have been sought and incorporated, as the very use of “destiny” requires the identification of temporal parameters while use of “exile” entails knowledge of examples outside one’s experience (i.e., historical, national/ethnic, literary, etc.). Accordingly, the Adam Mickiewicz epigraph for “Notes on Exile” casts a long shadow over the essay:

He did not find happiness, for there was no happiness in his country.

Mickiewicz’s lines serve as an anchor for the Romantic paradigm of exile and its foundational effect on Miłosz’s imaginative and mnemonic balance. In his essay “The Costs of Zealousness,” the author works out the memory of this weight:

My imagination did not serve up fictitious plots, nor did it seek an outlet in words, but it filled an ordered space, expressing itself in fantastic drawings and maps of nonexistent countries. I experienced my escapes as a necessity and a defect; I would probably have given everything I had to be like everyone else, an equal among equals. My discovery that in retreating to my own space I was behaving exactly like a Romantic poet was arrived at under the influence of Mickiewicz’s and Słowacki’s poetry, probably no earlier than my sixteenth year.

As the Romantic exilic paradigm exerted influence on Miłosz’s early spatial and geographical conceptions, these acts of escapism provided a glimpse of the “destiny” that would become enabled in his real exile. Of course, viewing exile as a certain destiny for all writers – not just those who passed through Polish Romanticism or lived under Eastern European postwar regimes – has been recognized as a common legacy of Modernism. In “Ethics, Consciousness, and the Potentialities of Literature: Teaching Narratives of Exile,” Johannes Evelein points out that, “The modernist writer…is the proverbial stranger in his own land whose strangeness is a precondition for and source of literary creation.” This literary exile, which entails a certain self-conscious posturing as well as linguistic modeling (i.e., at the root of all alienation and thus of exile itself is language), only heightens real exile in what Evelein describes as a “doubling.” The double-exile begins with “the forced banishment of the modernist writer, be it in Nazi Germany, Communist Poland, or dictatorial Chile, whose modernity had manifested itself already in a voluntary posture of exile,” and then “merges with forced expatriation, internal and external, metaphorical and physical, inner and outer flight coming together, weaving the writer’s fate, guiding his or her work.”

Experience of these layers of exile spur on Miłosz’s mandate in “Usage” that accepting exile “should help us to see through our self-delusions.” The pronoun “us” at once crystallizes exile around an inclusive center of which the author and text are part (and which can include other exilic precedents) while reaching out to the reader in an allusion to the concept of universal exile (i.e., inevitable alienation through birth and language). The reference may also be to the specific regime Miłosz was exiled from (or went into exile from, depending on how we understand the power dynamics at work in his biography), and thus be directed at readers who may have been under the delusion that a degree of exile, whether internal or external, was anything but unavoidable for so many writers in postwar Poland and Eastern Europe. The concept of internal exile is especially relevant in the mode of Polish collective memory reflected in the Mickiewicz epigraph. As Eva Hoffman points out in her essay “New Nomads,” “For a patriot of an occupied nation, it was possible to feel radically exiled within that country, as long as it did not possess the crucial aspect of national sovereignty.” Although Hoffman is referring to Poland under the Partitions, a similar equation can of course utilize the extenuating mechanisms of Socialist Realism and censorship in Poland during Communism.

Miłosz’s explicit desire to combat self-delusions also situates the exiled author’s use of memory as one of process and inconsistency, in turn necessitating a reevaluation of historical contingencies and literary legacies in order to reconcile the subject’s former delusions of a more static identity. Such memory-work focusing on specific circumstances (e.g., social background in Lithuania, the “Polish Complex,” political Romanticism) must confront the very facts of real exile in order to accomplish the difficult debasement of delusions through the recognition that, according to Bauman, “‘belonging’ and ‘identity’ are not cut in rock, that they are not secured by a lifelong guarantee, that they are eminently negotiable and revocable.” Miłosz refers back to this problematic seeing through of self- delusions later in “Notes on Exile” in the “Despair” section:

Exile is morally suspect because it break’s one’s solidarity a group, i.e., it sets apart an individual who ceases to share the experience of colleagues left behind. his moral torment reflects his attachment to a  heroic image of himself and he must, step by step, come to the painful conclusion that to do morally valid work and to preserve an untarnished image of himself is rarely possible.

In light of this passage, we may cite Józef Wittlin’s ideas put forth in his essay “Sorrow and Grandeur of Exile” as another precedent for Miłosz’s text: “Exile, where he is unknown, may offer him an excellent opportunity of confronting his own opinion of himself with what he really represents.”

A theme similar to “exile as destiny” can also be found in the section of Miłosz’s “Notes on Exile” entitled “Acclimatization:”

After many years in exile one tries to imagine what it is like not living in exile.

The past and the present are conflated in this desire and inability to imagine. Because even though remembering not living in exile may be an option, the present has exerted such weight that the memory no longer suffices, and the exiled author is in effect destiempo (Wittlin’s term for a “a man deprived of his time”) in regards to pre-exilic experience. Social frameworks of memory fail and, accordingly, the exiled author forgets how to locate himself effectively in the pre-exilic collective. Memory becomes too weighted with the act and distress of exile, reflected in Miłosz’s comment in his Nobel lecture that, in reference to Nietzsche, “It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds.” So although the emphasis in this section of “Notes on Exile” is on “imagining” and, by extension, on the present and future, total “acclimatization” is not possible. For the exiled writer cannot even locate himself in a contemporaneous collective through his imagination, and there can thus no longer be any delusion that exile is anything but an imperative component of his identity and an extension of his personal mnemonic tracking. Exile as destiny is thus affirmed.

Meanwhile, Miłosz is injecting a fair amount of irony into “Notes on Exile” here. After all, as Paul Friedrich points out in his essay “Binarism versus Synthesis: Eastern European and Generic Exile,“ “Exile discourse tends to be ironic: generically, what is meant differs markedly from what was intended…Exile also illustrates dramatic irony, ‘the irony of fate,’ and, for that matter, all other forms of this powerful trope.” This “irony of fate” calls to mind another “note,” this time from Miłosz’s “Notebook:”

Energy should encounter resistance; resistance keeps it in practice, rescues it. If, however, energy comes up against a gigantic smooth wall on which there is not a single rough place, not even a crack, this is more than resistance; it is too much. Energy then turns inward, consumes itself, and a person asks himself, “Could it be that there is no wall? Could this be my own delusion? Could it be that all this is my own fault and I should adjust to it?”

There is a confrontation with both destiny and delusion (not to mention a fair amount of absurdity) in these lines. For if the wall is exile, how can the exiled writer dissect that monumental and blockading experience while hoping to acclimatize to it but through a negotiation with the memory of everything that has led him to face such a destiny?

Previous essay in the “Two Centers – on Memory & Exile in Czesław Miłosz’s Essays” series:


Who is going to reproach me for lack of precision, who would recognize the places or the people? My power is absolute, everything there belongs to one man now, who once, a student from Wilno, arrived there in a dogcart.

– Czesław Miłosz, “The Wormwood Star”