Exiles Eternal

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“Is the weather nice? How’s Aunt Gertie? And how’s Tempest, the dog? He must be getting up there in dog years. Are the tomatoes ripe yet? Did you have corn on the cob for the Fourth? Did the relatives come up from…Virginia, right? And is that old honey locust tree in bloom? How I remember that smell. It used to intoxicate me. On a warm spring day, I remember I used to lie in the hammock and suck so hard at the air I almost fainted. Couldn’t get enough of it, you know. People ask me what I miss over here, and that’s all I can think of is things that smell. Yes, I miss the odor of the beech leaves in late autumn. You know, under the big tree in the driveway, and the grass after the first time we mowed in May. And even the odor of the crisp northern wind before the snow flies.”

Exiled from our homeland…far from kith and kind…thus we write to our countrymen.

A man doesn’t choose what he is. His culture sinks in to him without his knowing, like the scent of the trees and the swamps. He can ignore it. He can disguise it. But he can never get the smell out of his nostrils, like Proust with his madeleines. Traveling in a strange country, even many decades after leaving home, he catches a faint aroma that seems to waft into some part of the brain that is normally closed off, like a room in an old house where the dearest memories are stored. And then it comes back to him. Not distinct images. Not words. Not even actions. But a feeling that picks him up and transports him thousands of miles to a place he once knew and had forgotten all about. And that is what he really is. He knows it. He is not necessarily happy or sad about it. But he cannot get away from it.

American tourists wandering the streets of Paris or London squeeze their passports tighter than their wallets. They can’t imagine anything worse than being cut off from the smell of home. When they go overseas it is as if they were visiting the underworld and in danger of getting trapped in hell forever.

They are not alone. There are many who would rather die than leave home. Socrates, for example. Told to shut up or face the consequences, he refused to stop philosophizing. His fellow citizens decided to put him to death. When his friend Crito asked why he did not simply leave Athens, he replied:

Or is your wisdom such that you do not see
that more than mother and father and all other ancestors
the country is honorable and revered and holy
and in greater esteem both among the gods
and among humans who have intelligence,
also she must be revered and more yielded to and humored

"and suffer whatever she directs be suffered,
keeping quiet, and if beaten or imprisoned
or brought to war to be wounded or killed,
these are to be done,
and justice is like this,
and not yielding nor retreating nor leaving the post,
not only in war and in court but everywhere
one must do what the state and the country may order"

Socrates might have gotten away from everything. He could have run off to Rome, for example, as was the custom. In fact, 300 years later, there were so many Greeks in Rome that Juvenal complained that they were ruining the city. “I cannot abide…a Rome of Greeks…there is no room for any Roman here.” Nothing about the Greeks appealed to him.

Ovid, by contrast, didn’t have to worry about any Greeks crowding into Rome since he was exiled to the Black Sea for writing what was either naughty or critical, historians are not sure which. He couldn’t bear being away from Rome — even if it was filling up with low-life Greeks.

From his exile, he kvetched about the weather (too cold), the people (barbarians), the language (incomprehensible) — everything.

And to the poetry he continued sending back to Rome, he added plaintively, “I wish to be with you in any way I can.” He even concocted a few lies about the climate — complaining about the snow lying on the ground all year round and wine freezing in the bottle — to get Augustus to let him go back.

We began to have doubts about Socrates when we learned that the neo-conservative bunglers behind the Bush administration were inspired by the classics. It was a little like saying our broken-down pony was inspired by Man of War; the only thing similar about them may be that they have four legs. Still, it aroused our suspicions.

Of course, not all the ancients were homebodies like Socrates and Ovid. When the Cynic Diogenes, for instance, was asked where he came from, he replied: “I am a citizen of the world.” He meant he was not ruled by local concerns and customs but by a more universal code, what the Stoics elaborated as a “kosmou polites” — or worldwide citizenry.

Marcus Aurelius extolled the virtues of the kosmous polites. “One must first learn many things before one can judge another’s action with understanding,” he said. But we have noticed that the more we learn, the less we know. Hardly have we got one idea down then another comes along to challenge it. We develop a taste for French wines, and then we discover Italian ones. We like living in London and then we fly off to Buenos Aires where we find we can afford twice the lifestyle at half the price. We were content in the paleo-anarcho-Christian wing of American conservativism — a voting block of at least two or three people — and then we discover that the French national health system actually works quite well. We finally master fundamental, deep-value stock analysis, and then we find someone who outperforms us using Vedic astrology. If we keep going in this direction, we wonder what will become of us.

In Socrates’ view, the masses need shared values to make the city-state work. Today, the lumpen can’t live without Social Security, central banks, and Major League Baseball, he might add. Certainly, the world’s governments would have trouble selling their bonds if the next generation showed itself unwilling to pay off debts incurred by the generation that preceded them. And maybe it is true; maybe most people need the warm embrace of familiar places, familiar people and familiar holidays, pastimes and rules.

Elizabeth came back from Paris last night. She reported on the madness in the streets:

“It was unbelievable. When the French beat the other team — I think it was Portugal — people went crazy. They leaned out of windows shouting and flying flags. Everyone was blowing his horn. It was amazing. We were trying to drive across town to the apartment, but there were mobs in the streets. They would come along and rap on the top of the car. It was kind of scary.”

A few days before, we were in a cab in London. The cab driver said, “I guess you were watching the game earlier.”

“What game?” we replied.

We cosmopolitans don’t know or care. We are cut off. Exiles from everywhere, and nearly everything. We work in the office on the Fourth of July, and miss the Super Bowl, too. We have no voice in local politics. We get involved in no local action committees. And we only read the local newspapers for entertainment. “What will those dumb frogs do next?” we ask ourselves. Meanwhile, the dumb things yanks do irritate us so much we can’t bear to read the headlines at all.

Are we lonely? Not so we’ve noticed. Do we miss the Rose Bowl? We never watched it anyway. Are we starved for information? On the contrary, at a distance, we see more clearly what goes down in the homeland than people living in the middle of it.

But who protects us? Who looks out for us? Whom can we turn to get our highways and speeding tickets fixed? We exiles are exposed to the harsh elements — always in danger of getting rounded up and shipped off. We are in danger of having our visas revoked, or having our property confiscated. But why would anyone want to get rid of us? We are no trouble. We do not vote. We do not ask for any services or benefits. We do not complain. What would be the point? We spend money and pay taxes. Who could ask for better citizens?

But the more cosmopolitan we become, the more we wonder about home. Out on the Maryland tidewater, the old families spoke their own tongue — derived from a 17th century dialect from Southwest England, we are told — for 300 years. With the language and time came history and eccentricities that made local life rich and interesting. But then came a homogenization that washed out the particularities. In a few decades, the place came to resemble every other suburb of America. Local accents were replaced by the English you hear on television. Tobacco and oysters yielded to government jobs. And local customs were replaced with national rules and regulations. You couldn’t smoke in a restaurant. You couldn’t build without a permit. You couldn’t drive without a seat belt. Toss an empty beer can into the river and it’s a federal case.

Ol’ Cap’n Earl used to live out on a pier in the West River. He had built himself a rickety cabin over the water to get away from his wife. He would sit outside, drink his beer and throw the cans into the water. In the summer, after work, when the river smells rose up so strong they were almost overpowering, men would gather out on the pier with him. They would talk. And drink. Sometimes they would pull a crab up out of the water. And the hours would pass.

But then some agency showed up. His cabin was condemned by about 12 different government agencies. Cap’n Earl, an old man by that time, was moved onto dry ground and died soon after. And then, the sailboats came, owned by Washington lawyers. They were soon so thick on the river that you could walk from one bank to the other, hoping from boat to boat.

No, all the baroque odors and smells have been scrubbed away. Now, the Maryland tidewater is no different from any other place in America. Our friends have grown up and become middle class Americans. There are no front porches, no rocking chairs, and no screens in the windows — no shutters. The old folks are almost all dead. No one speaks the local dialect anymore, except a few diehard watermen and unreconstructed tobacco farmers. And even the church seems to have been amalgamated into the general faith of America’s great religion — where the greatest sin is being “intolerant" and the greatest virtue is recycling.

We are happy here on the other side of the globe. And then, when the wind comes off the Atlantic, we sometimes get a whiff of it…a ghostly trace of what we once knew. We pause. We stagger. And then, we remember:

There are a lot of exiles in this world. Each one has his own reason; we have ours. Long before we left America, the America we knew left us. We travel not to get away from it, but to find it.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.

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