The Artist and Exile


“When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savor.”  – Niccolò Machiavelli

We don’t normally look to Machiavelli for examples of equanimity, but the above quote demonstrates that the political genius was able to find a fair measure of it in exile.

For an artist to truly actualize they must eventually wrangle with culture and society. While grappling with these meta-structures is a necessity, exile is also an essential component of the artist’s experience. The artist may be in fact exiled, as Dante was while writing The Divine Comedy, or this exile may be an imaginative one, such as Goethe experienced while immersed in the full current of contemporary political and social life. Despite his involvement in national and international milieus, Goethe nonetheless felt a profound alienation from his countrymen.

Both men constructed their seminal works in times of a vast sea-change in the political and the social spheres. Both dumped a fresh cache of tropes and types into the world’s imagination.

Even a cursory glimpse at the history of literature reveals the central position of exile in creation.

Artists in exile

Ovid, whose crimes remain unknown and debated by scholars

Ibsen, in self-imposed exile out of disgust

Marie-Henri Beyle, writing as Stendahl among 100 other aliases

Machiavelli, hung by his wrists by the Medicis whose favor he sought

Karen Blixen, forced to leave her continent due to marriage

Artists in prison

Boethius, who spoke to an invisible friend while awaiting execution

Cervantes, who conceived of Don Quixote while taken as a slave by Algerian pirates

Thomas Malory, arrested for a lifetime of robbery and assault

Solzhenitsyn, in Siberia with his stories on secret coded matchsticks

Artists in imaginative exile

DH Lawrence, who could only write beneath a tree

Emily Dickinson, lived in complete isolation

Marcel Proust, his walls lined with cork to silence Paris

Alongside exile comes deprivation, poverty, and even hunger. Earnest Hemingway cultivated his own hunger carefully to extract from it the seeds of his creative oeuvre. He chronicles his lean Paris days in A Moveable Feast. The romantic image of a starving artist has a much less romantic expression in reality, but many major works might not have been born had their authors not been forced inward. Perhaps the truth is that if literary giants such as Honoré de Balzac and even William Shakespeare had been able to fully realize their economic and social ambitions they would have been out enjoying life instead of writing about it.

It is perhaps necessary to make a distinction between the creative classes, professionals who have found economic and social security in the industrial media apparatus, and the artist. Though these identities can and do overlap, more than technical proficiency is necessary to make an artist. Nor is the artist limited to what we think of as the arts. The artist can and does appear in business, science, scholarship, and athletics.

Success at the wrong time can actually be fatal. Success certainly ended the lives of Stephen Crane and William Faulkner. Crane was only 29 when he died of carousing, cursing his fame. It is certain that Crane’s creative arc was cut brutally short and extinguished his potential.

The fact is that very few people will devote themselves to creative work without a deep dissatisfaction with the world around them to drive them inward. The human is a deeply social creature who will always first seek fulfillment in the social, the economic, and the political. And in fact the artist who abandons this impulse will degenerate quickly into irrelevance and inanity, if not outright criminality, for the demands of exile must be moderated always by a desire for reconciliation if they are to be useful. Without this propensity, one is likelier to become become a madman rather than an artist.

And in fact, the two modes resemble each other very much, and are formed out of the same raw psychic materials. Discipline and rigor distinguish the artist from the criminal. This is not merely a discipline in outer habits, though some form of structure is helpful for most, but a strictness that allows the artist to create a coherent work that is sound.

At the same time, the artist must cultivate a kind of radical naivete that can shelter them from the harshness of reality. It is probably this naivete that accounts for the artist’s tendency to the tragic in personal matters. It is within this space, located within the self, that the artist can build and create.

As the core becomes increasingly sterile and rigid, however much risk and boldness is required for trespass, both madmen and artists will be driven into the outer spaces to take their chances. Only upon this fertile ground, paradoxically within and without, can the seeds of creation take root.

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