By Fatima Ijaz
Physical displacement would initiate a kind of poetic, rather surreal reality in the life of the emigrant as I feel leave-taking of one’s native land, roots and culture must create some very particular phenomena inside the one leaving. Surely, her/his relation to literature, news, fashion, language would come under all kinds of alteration. It would be a disorienting sensation when all that was held previously familiar was now fast moving away and a kind of double consciousness was brewing. The physical move, would result in an imaginative and somewhat spiritual move – which is what I find very mysterious.
You are simultaneously aware of two lands, two cultures – two ways of being. The older seemingly takes the back seat in the realm of the mind and memory, whereas the new reality starts to conquer the physical traces of existence. This mercurial state of constantly being able to be in the past and the present at the same time, must create poetic tendencies even in the ones most disinclined towards poetry. For instance, the ‘assault’ of verses would be acute to the new immigrant, with even seemingly non-associative lines such as from Sylvia Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song:
“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head)
The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.”
Here, prone to the state of nostalgia, occurring as a recurring ailment in the life of the immigrant, s/he would think these lines as having an added dimension – the homeland that is now not in physical proximity. Even though the immigrant has passed from nativity to the state of the outsider, the nearness of the old home can still be felt. As the past can now only be re-lived in a state of imagination, there’s the troubling duality that confronts the immigrant. Could this be a possibly maddening state? As in “Mad Girl’s Love Song”? As the new language pervades all sorts of communication and sensibility, it is only when you shut your eyes and speak in your mother tongue to yourself you perhaps consider: “I think I made you up inside my head.”
Thus, even the most practical and business-minded of individuals, would lean towards experiences that are usually the curse and reserve of those bent towards poetry and the arts. Andre Breton speaks of a collective-poetry, when he says: “Poetry must be made by all. Not by one.” I find the immigrant state rife in such terms. Time away from your country, impacts you in surreal, indefinite ways.
In Nostalghia by Tarkovsky, the protagonist, Andrei, is living in two worlds at the same time. The country of his birth, Russia, calls out to him in Italy (where he is currently situated) in ways which are enigmatic – at times, the two realities of past and present seem to co-exist – his old dog has emerged as a reality onto the page of the physical and present, his wife, though actually located in Russia, is a seemingly corporeal reality in his room in Italy.
These scenes raise the question: can we ever escape the past? Or will it constantly continue to haunt us no matter where we may travel physically? In a class on psychoanalysis, we considered that extreme states of being – such as actual madness, intense love, clinical depression or the like – can actually be used as case-studies to better comprehend all individuals. Thus, an extreme state in a person can possibly reveal tendencies that are existent in ordinary people. Following from this thought, can the state of being an immigrant, reveal to non-immigrants realities to which they themselves could be prone to as well?
The difference is, one has gone and crossed the desert, and the other contemplates what it might mean to leave behind your past, as you choose a new life. This could be choosing a new partner, neighborhood, vocation etc. The key is to understand your own self and choices in terms of the loaded and poetry-inducing choice of the immigrant.
Gaston Criel, in his essay “Surrealism,” writes: “Let us repeat that we believe in the power of contradiction.” The immigrant, in her/his double identity is also contradictory. Indeed, the state of the latter has truly surrealistic connotations. Andre Breton, considered to be the father of Surrealism, writes that “existence is elsewhere.” The immigrant who looks back constantly is also prone to such a dictum. The one who shuns his past, is reminded of it by a passerby’s comment. There is no escaping this essentially surrealistic condition.
To take the notion of ‘contradictions’ further, we can also consider Walt Whitman who writes in Song of Myself:
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
By undergoing this physical and spiritual displacement, the immigrant in a way is at a heightened experience. S/he can look to the past and present simultaneously as Janus, the Roman God of two faces who could look in two directions at the same time. The search for a reality, deeper than appearances is enhanced for the immigrant. S/he must make sense of reality, identity and self in the new circumstances. Immersed in constant questions and navigations that might be offset simply by a seemingly harmless remark in the new world, the immigrant cannot escape the philosophic burden of thinking deeply about displacement.
Criel asks of surrealism: “Should we call it a dead thing, or is it still alive?” I think it is very much alive in the experience of the immigrant. Whereas, at one end, the immigrant sigh is full of the lament, the wind-ravaged song, the bittersweet ache and has rather poetic tendencies, on the other it is a surreal way of being. There are hauntings and juxtapositions of the now dream-like past, contradictory feelings and an ambivalence towards identity.