A Personal Dictionary

literature: n; 5.

We measure a great book by the quality of its shade. Terrible literature hurts our eyes precisely because of a lack of shade.

from A Personal Dictionary


Internal Exiles

The Captive Mind
by Czeslaw Milosz

251 p
1953; Vintage Books
ISBN 0-394-74724-0

   "All about him, in the city streets, he sees the frightening shadows of internal exiles, irreconcilable, non-participating, eroded by hatred."

   As my internal exile has at last broken through the barriers of appearance and laid claim to the everyday, I am taking advantage of the penetrating mirror, the gift of lucidity, which Czeslaw Milosz has proffered in his book The Captive Mind.

   His examination of the responses of creative individuals to the terrors of European totalitarian society is diagnostic for the creative individual of any age. This is not an argument for relativism— some epochs must withstand inhumanities that others may never have to experience. Yet, for the creative life there must always be forces that are inimical to it and which are detemined to undermine the world of possibilities which such a life presumes. It is for this reason that The Captive Mind speaks of an eternal, embattled, present.

   There comes a moment in every creative life when a choice must be made, or rather, when a concession is demanded. There comes a moment when one is required to judge oneself and to act decisively upon that judgment. Such moments are unmistakable— time does not only stop, it grows sick and trembles. Such moments are also often fatal, creatively speaking. This is because it is always at such moments that the internal exile takes his first, irreversible step, and where, amidst the imagined fanfare of pragmatism and common sense the specific creative challenges for which a certain mind is ideally suited are denied validity and subsequently betrayed for an ease that will always be illusory.

   If one possesses an ability and does not make appropriate use of it, this ability becomes an obstruction. So it is with the mind, and so it is with people who, in certain societies, do not fall into line, do not perform an adequate gleichshaltung. Such obstructions must be removed. Internal exile is how an individual disposes of himself. The cost of remaining within society, in such a manner, are always more than one can afford. These reasons for remaining, some of which are valid, some of which are not, run from a valorization of the authority who tyrannizes them to a love of those closest to them and a refusal to leave them behind. Reasons aside, the point is that the internal exile achieves what it often takes an inquisition to achieve…
I think
I must not think

   If internal exile is not the beginning of the end, it is how the end courts us, seduces us, assures us that it is our end.

   The phenomenon of internal exile is not solely the symptom of creative individuals, or specifically of intellectuals and writers. However, it is the writer who, as one charged with the task of subjective expression, is most able to verbalize and therefore to manifest the breach and duplicity which characterize the struggles of internal exile.

   For the writer, any questions of writing must be a question of living. For any poet, a question of writing reaches deeper than the human moment. A question such as the limits of lyricism is a challenge to being itself. It sounds grandiose to state it in such a way but such a thing far from being simply an aesthetic curiosity. There is a formula for writing: why write = why live. The justifications for either activity must be in complete agreement. It is a law of equivalence.

There are certitudes a man can never get over. And that is a strength, a blessing.

   Over the years I have asked myself the following question: If no one could read except you, what would you write? My answer has not always been the same. Or rather, the correct answer, my true answer, is always the same but it is shouted down by pseudo-solutions, complacencies and conciliations. Yes, the true answer remains:
I will write to the best of my abilities.
I will write for the ear that has been severed.
I will write.
I will

   It is not an exaggeration to decribe my entire adult life, and much of my adolescent life, as a full-time creative occupation. There has not been a day that I have not created something, a day that I have not written or developed an idea, a day that I have not been faithful to that part of myself that creates. Long ago I remember making a pact with myself, telling myself that whenever and wherever I had an idea or an urge to write, whenever I had a creative inspiration of any kind, I would attend to it, immediately. I can honestly say that I have never broken that trust. The result of such fidelity is a respect and an honest appraisal of creativity. And this, of course, is insufficient. There are also objective conditions which must exist, a realtionship to others and to one’s society, and a sense of place for one’s creative efforts to ensure that one's creative activity does not turn irretrievably inward. Incessant activity that is groundless finds its foundation in a subjective abyss. Lavish interior castles are erected as impossibilities from which the world can be regarded as a fable that one has learned by heart but which one no longer believes in.

   As Milosz reminds me “The objective conditions necessary to the realization of a work of art, as we know, is a highly complex phenomenon, involving one’s public, the possibility of contact with it, the general atmosphere, and above all freedom from involuntary subjective control.”

   Writing is not to be found in the processions of obedience; writing can only be witnessed, if at all, fleeing obedience… for its life.

   And though it is certainly true that “what can be said openly is often much less interesting than the emotional magic of defending one’s private sanctuary” there is a way to speak and to write and to think which is not a descent but an ascent, which is not a retreat but a way forward. The tension that characterizes such a situation is explicit in lyricism. The lyric poet embodies the subjective rift, the constant struggle between the consistencies of hermeticism and the contradictions of comprehensibility.
   The world is always there, making its demands. And then there comes an event, a crisis, in which its demands becomes commands, and it becomes an authority against which all subjective importunities can only prostrate themselves. As Henri Alleg said, describing his experience as a victim of French atrocities in Algeria, “in this enormous prison, where each cell houses a quantity of suffering, it is almost indecent to speak of oneself.”


   This may be exactly the moment when the subjective must speak, when the voice of an individual is needed, when the thought, the dream of a single person is the only thing that can divine a path through a collective nightmare.

   I have always believed, as Milosz also expresses, that for things that matter, “every form of literature could be applied to them except fiction”.

   A poet will always have work. The trouble is finding an employer.

   It may be that the overwhelming majority of internal exiles are poets. It may be that the overwhelming majority of poets are internal exiles. I sense it has always been this way.

   The poet writes as an attempt to alleviate the ruinous effects of the future, which as a poet must be borne and endured amidst the uncomprehending presence of others. As I said, the poet will always have work.

   Yet, if all an artist feels “is loathing at the discrepancy between what he would wish the world to be and what it is in reality, then he is incapable of standing still and beholding”.

   It is crucial that for every “disappointed lover of the world who longs for harmony and purity, discipline and faith”, that they force their disappointment to journey much further, past the ease of collective insanities. Salvation is not a condition that occurs here on Earth. To promise such a thing, or to attempt to manifest it is the sure path to mass graves and to destruction at a scale that no creative act can ever adequately redress.

word: n; 4. We all have the words we deserve. And our words cannot help but carry into the world whatever treasures, whatever rot, that constitutes our minds. (A Personal Dictionary)

“Whoever truly creates is alone”-

this statement is a shibboleth...

and with it one can