“The Exile Literature – A New Perspective: Hoffman, Celan, Cioran” (Mara Magda Maftei)

The Guardian, April 28, 2001

This paper does not mean to cover all the positive and negative aspects of the exile literature, a particular kind of literature; it is not a bird’s eye view of this kind of literature, globally speaking. It insists on the way the exiled is accepting the new language, internalizing it, transposing his/her thoughts in a new linguistic pattern. I chose three writers, with a different personal life background, different approaches to the new acquired language, various emotions. A new language gives a new identity; then it follows the struggle to combine the previous identity with the newly achieved one. The exiled, content or not with his/her new position, never becomes a fully native, and this is perceived especially at a both linguistic and stylistic level. The new perspective is given by the way the exiled is reconsidering the new language.

The exile literature has always represented a special kind of literature, a type of writing where the style is suffering from a sort of misappropriation, somehow hard to be fully imposed because of an incomplete absorption of the adopted language, of the mis-feeling of emotions, which are to be sacrificed in order to fit in a new sounding correct pattern. There is also the desire the writer has to fulfill his/her own destiny, a real social acknowledgement. Learning a new language, especially when supposed to identify oneself with it, in order to create or sub-create samples of human mood, characters, means acquiring a new identity, identity one has to internalize it, to feel it proper, to measure it in point of awareness. The double nature of the exiled – s/he has to choose one way of mastering his/her feelings in order to externalize them on the page and, on the other hand, to make them intelligible in a new out-born language. A double existence, terrible in its attempt, which has no other way out but in madness, suicide, resignation. Most exiled writers were mad enough to assume a copyrighted existence, a borrowed life, but where art was the supreme vocation and target. It is art, which imposes the human being, not vice versa. However, a new language gives a new self; how well this new self is acquired, it depends on the age the writer has left the country. I shall not say that the motivation is stronger if s/he leaves the native country at an earlier age, but the thoughts and emotions are better transferred to a new structure and pattern of words. In addition, the exiled always leaves a less developed country for a well-developed one; the so-called civilization has always represented a magnetic, magnified, but also malicious world to marginal cultures. It is also difficult to the exiled to “accumulate” the canons, the history, the experience, the sentimental and moral behavior of the adopted culture. The original elements in an exile literature are given by inserting native data into non-native contexts. For example, it is fiction to French when hearing about Romanian invincible disposition towards irony, etc.

Writers, no matter where they come from, do create wealth within the borders of their own countries, but when it comes to Lilliputian cultures, the wealth is limited to national boundaries, the international community is barely speaking e.g. Romanian or Polish; it is up to individual choices to take national values outside inner borders and popularize them by choosing an international, but dislocated career. The most famous characters are imposed either by native writers who had the political support to assert themselves, being part of a group, or by non-natives, who represent a curious bold in the normal pattern of the Western culture. Surprisingly, but important, big cultures would be closed communities if the passions, ambitious, vices brought forth by Lilliputian cultures would not animate them.

In addition, for the exiled, the literature s/he produces remains an effort to temper the inborn tensions, often dialectical tension in searching for a new cultural identity. The problem of identity becomes an acute one, half borne, half acquired, never a complete one. The new identity includes a historical original background, and an achieved one, two different notions in time. The language suddenly becomes unable to produce a meaningful thought and the new space to be created turns out to be restrictive, it lacks the basic sense of comfort, not capable of rendering any common tensions, which persist, and in the end, booms in one exceptional character, one pleasant writing surprising the most vigorous international piece of literature. This multifaceted cultural production, personal history, national developments have to be embedded in both political and aesthetic contexts in order to be complex. There is also something that does not have to be at all ignored, i.e. the personal life of the exiled, his/her ability to surpass earlier traumas, the ability to integrate personal experience in a new political and social background in order to produce half artistic, half real life contexts. If days in a new country look like a pyramid, then the foundation is how solid personal experiences are, the intermediary stage being given by how successful the integration in the new culture is, the top of pyramid is made by a continuous hope, hope in managing to impose the kind of art one is producing, hope to preserve and draw people’s attention on national problems (there are many examples as such), hope that experience can be mastered and reproduced on paper.

1. Eva Hoffman – a successful exiled

Eva Hoffman was born in Krakow and immigrated with her family to Canada after the Second World War II. She was 13 years old when her parents chose to leave Poland. To her, English was a tough, unspeakable language, but, due to her young approach, not impossible to master and even use in artistic production. She is the example of a successful immigrant, young enough to have time to internalize the necessity to exploit a different language and the one option requirement i.e. living as better as possible in a new environment. She, later on, received a Ph. D in English and American Literature from Harvard and was a professor of literature and of creative writing at Columbia, the University of Minnesota. She also was an editor and writer at the New York Times. It took her some time to learn English, but the determination was high enough. It matters a lot the immigration age. Human beings tend to preserve very well memories of their childhood, all the life is patterned on early memories, if these memories are traumatic, then the life and all the literature produced will show signs of a disturbing personality. Also, a child is more determined to adapt him/herself to the new world, more resolute to become famous, not so dejected like a 30-years individual, fighting to hide past experiences, tired to disguise them, unable to cover the future with illusive hopes, focused on a multidimensional present. However, an exile cannot be surpassed completely. Remembering this, Eva Hoffman noticed, I think every immigrant becomes a kind of amateur anthropologist—you do notice things about the culture or the world that you come into that people who grow up in it, who are very embedded in it, simply don’t notice. I think we all know it from going to a foreign place. And at first you notice the surface things, the surface differences. And gradually you start noticing the deeper differences. And very gradually you start with understanding the inner life of the culture, the life of those both large and very intimate values. It was a surprisingly long process is what I can say.

Most exiled are nostalgic, it does not matter that the exile is still considered a better choice, but when the awareness of having become deprived of one inborn right becomes acute, the mind is sharp. Nostalgia is a source of poetry, and a form of fidelity. The largest presence within me is a welling up of absence, of what I have lost, is confessing Eva Hoffman. 

When learning a new language, thinking in that language is imperative. However, how to transcend feelings, coordinate them in a new language? That is the difficult choice. The better the exiled does it, the easier the acceptance among adopted culture will become. Some never succeed, but it is this type of success that would make an exiled writer famous or not, even if the literature produced by him/her will always notify an imported sense of being, a special writing. Emotions are still artificial when put on paper, somehow translated, kept insight, more intuitive, than uttered. Words have artificial meanings when not native, somehow strange, because they come out from heart and brain, personal organs, in a new language they create a new identity; they are regarded like a new being, developing side by side to the old one, odd, but determined to impose itself, accepted by lack of alternatives, but never fully felt. Eva Hoffman has a very intricate opinion about a new language, English in her case: in English, words have not penetrated to those layers of my psyche from which a private conversation could proceed. This interval before sleep used to be the time when my mind became both receptive and alert, when images and words rose up to consciousness, reiterating what had happened during the day, adding the day’s experiences to those already stored there, spinning out the thread of my personal story.

Her immigration trauma is recorded in Lost in Translation, where she describes the way she was properly assimilated to the American culture, the imperative to translate all her experiences into a new language, and especially the urgencies to see the new ones by means of an unusual expressive instrument. There is also the gap felt by those who come from communism towards capitalism; for Western civilizations, lacking important historical data, somehow protected and isolated from mass manipulation devices, knowing them from books, the gap may sound easy to overcome, they are not so critical with their own selves, as they have no stage to surpass in their recognition, they are born to receive everything, while people coming from Eastern and Central European countries are born to get nothing, unless they strive for. Melancholia is the main string here. The promise land creates dejection and nostalgia for the lost past, idealization of what used to be, even not perfect; when the exiled becomes aware of his/her coming from a marginal culture, the sense of unimportance and insignificance is acute. Eva Hoffman felt the need to write the autobiography in order to master her past, not all exiled are tempted to do so, some, on the contrary, do whatever to hide their past; in both cases, the cultural decision has or turns into a political motivation. Eva Hoffman’s melancholy is intensified in exile by the reaction of marginality followed by the practice of idealization of the native culture and an effort to intellectualize the inner suffering. In Eva Hoffman’s case, the idealization of the Polish culture is most evident in her silence about her Jewish.

2. Paul Celan – an outcast example

Paul Celan was not as lucky as Eva Hoffman was, probably because he did not immigrated at such an early age. He was born in Cernauti, Romania, in 1920, at a time when Cernauti was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and German the common language of the extended cosmopolitan community. Celan spoke German at home and Romanian at school, learning later on French, Russian, Ukrainian. As different from Eva Hoffman, Celan was a multilingual, and even more, born without a country, nowhere feeling himself at home, having no native language, just a dominating one that was German. However, he had miserable past experiences. In 1942, the Germans deported his parents to labor camps in Ukraine. They did not survive more than a few months. When the Russians liberated Romania in 1944, Celan refused to live in a communist Romania, he moved first to Vienna and then to Paris. But Celan was not a French speaker. He, the multilingual, found it very difficult to express himself in this language, despising German in the same time and he wrote there’s nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German. Celan was not home when his parents were arrested, he would never manage to surpass the feel of guilty overcoming him. Strange, but Celan will use German to express his hate, reconstructing the language, re-building it on a historical pattern, because German is the language of the Holocaust, the language of those killing his parents; poetry patterned on death or vice versa, words combinations, musicality stand for extermination camps, for sufferance. There is no nostalgia, as in the case of Eva Hoffman, but hate and refutation.

On the contrary, it is French which will give him a sense of loneliness and isolation, feel of inadequacy in a too touchy world, far from miserable events, but he will marry in France and live in Paris until his suicide by drowning in the Seine in 1970.

In Celan’s life, there are two periods: before and after his parent’s death. Language changes after this event, in an attempt to put language at work and at blame for past happenings, to separate various moments in his traumatic life. Each stage in his life is associated with a new change in point of language; language is a pre-fabrication of personality, which modifies when words have to take a different spelling, even if uttered by the same consciousness and felt by the same tormenting brain. Celan writes about language only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand dark nesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, “enriched” by it all. Language is the most worn out instrument of a human being’s architecture. A polyglot (not to forget that he also wrote in Romanian in early times), Celan had not a language problem or feeling like an outcast, exiled, but he was always between worlds, never home; the exile did not have for him the same meaning as it had for an ordinary one. He practically had one language, i. e. German, in an attempt to either destroy it or create it, because German was the only language, which, in his opinion gives back no words for that which happened, no justification; unfortunately history is made under the name of one language and it is strange that people suffering the consequences of different historical segments start hating the language provoking the trauma, the disrupter; language does not have after all its own personality, it is a copy, a landmark. However, language may copy one’s personality until getting to identify the individual with the language he becomes famous in, or the language s/he speaks in.

Celan’s language developed with his own personality; in the end, it turned out to be more urgent, more imperative, fractured, tired, almost impossible to control it. Private and political aspects are embedded in Celan’s poetry. He translated from Russian poets, also outcasts, also rejected by the native system; Celan turned to dispossession and exile. He was called a Jewish poet, always suffering for those imprisoned in the ghetto; Jews have their faith, which is a kind of guarantee for them, while the Christians, more lucky, have a life of their own. Celan’s linguistic experience proves to be a Jewish one, an experience inoculated by the traumatic death of his parents, over which he did not manage to overcome. He turns isolation and sufferance into his own remark, and he transmits it on the language level, into a significance of the chosen. Language is judged from a chronological approach; language has a meaning only rooted into a historical context, context that individualizes it, makes it popular and personal.

3. Emil Cioran – a mixed type

Also as Paul Celan, Emil Cioran grew up in a German-speaking context, in Rasinari, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unlike Celan, he will not write in German, becoming famous for writing in French, language he had been striving for ten years to manage it almost accurately. His use of the adoptive language was rarely as harsh as his use of Romanian, but the latter offered resources of originality. Referring to his hard trial when learning French, Cioran wrote to devastate by language, to blow up the word and with it the world, language having again the best force to re-pattern the world, a decision-making instrument. But unlike Celan, who was multilingual, and molded the German language so as to squeeze it of all negative connotations and put them at work in the best samples of poetry, Cioran always denied his origin, the Romanian one, having loved to be whatever else but not Romanian: Hungarian, Jew, even gypsy, and speaking any language excepting the native one. When arriving at Paris, he will do his best to deny his Romanian past, not worshiping it as Eva Hoffman and others. He hated his youth because of his decision to enroll himself in the Iron Guard, decision, which would not have been approved by the West.

Emil Cioran effectively enrolled himself in the Iron Guard in November 1933. When he arrived in Germany in 1933, Cioran became enthusiastic about the German order, he militated for the involvement of the youngsters in politics, he sent articles to different reviews in the country, showing its revolutionary sentiment (to see România în faţa stăinătăţii, Impresii din Munchen. Hitler in conştiinţa germană, Revolta sătuilor). When back in the country he continued publishing articles which displayed the same kind of admiration; for example in În preajma dictaturii, he showed that the Iron Guard favored the heroic death, an aim which was turned by Cioran into a famous objective of his philosophical discourse. However, he admired the movement for its irrationality, never considering it a spiritual one. As apart from his generation, Cioran regarded liberalism as to be the saving solution for Romania, writing that Romania owed everything it had to the liberals, but he somehow motivated his esteem for nationalism by his interest in his country that could not be but revolutionary at that time, somehow in congruence with the European political context. After 1937, Cioran became even more involved in the political phenomenon; in Renunţarea la libertate he asked for the dictatorship to come, even if in 1937 he suddenly turned out to be engrossed in a religious crisis when writing Lacrimi şi sfinţi. In November 1937, he left for Paris, with a scholarship offered by the French Institute in Bucharest; in the autumn of 1940 he came back, when the Iron Guard was running the country and Romania was a national-legionary state, moment when he delivered a conference entitled Profilul interior al căpitanului at Radio Bucharest. He had also sent a volume of Schimbarea la faţă a României to Codreanu, hoping to please him, but Codreanu did not see in the book the revolutionary aspects he was looking for. From February 1941, when Cioran left Romania forever and until his death, he kept denying all his between wars political adhesions, accusing Nae Ionescu in Ţara mea for dragging the whole generation into politics. He would also modify parts of Schimbarea la faţă a României, especially those referring to his considerations to Jews and Hungarians.

From the moment he reaches France, he will never write in Romanian again, refusing even to speak Romanian. The books published in French were appreciated because of their style, a refined use of language. In fact, he exaggerated his detachment from Romania to such an extent that even his letters to his parents were written in French. In 1944, while trying to translate Mallarme into Romanian, Cioran discovered the intrinsic weakness of Romanian and the limitations his native language imposed on his creative expression, so he decided to write exclusively in French from then on. He rewrote his first book in French, A Short History of Decay, four times even after it was accepted by Gallimard. Cioran needed French to get rid of his depressing past experiences and to impose himself as a writer; unfortunately, Gallimard did not speak Romanian, but even if, Cioran would have probably use French, to dismiss his Romanian personality once dismissing his native language. No Romanian exiled has ever felt such hate towards his origins. For Cioran, language was a vivid organism, that is why one does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland – and no other.

Unlike Celan, the new language was a revelation to him, happy to ever get rid of the native one (as different from Eva Hoffman). The new language was a chance to survive; Eva Hoffman’s nostalgia and Celan’s melancholia were replaced by a feeling of relief, surprisingly, but relief, even happiness when starting building a new identity. In Cioran’s writing, language has its own independent status, creating a new reality, adjacent to the imposed one; essays and aphorisms focus on how language makes death, mystery, melancholy, religion, and love lucid of their action and existence, all under the suspicion that madness rules in a supposed ordered world.


FELSTINER, John, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, New Haven, 1995

HOFFMAN, Eva, Lost in Translation, Vintage, 1991

PETREU, Marta, Un trecut deocheat sau Schimbarea la faţă a României, Editura Institutului Cultural Român, 2004