I started writing this just days before the presidential elections here in the US a handful of months ago. I wanted to at least attempt to formulate something before the results of the election further tainted my already murky position.
But alas, I find myself now revisiting my already clouded and scrambled notes from early November, hoping (in vain) that time might afford me a new kind of clarity, but also (conversely) with the somewhat reluctant acknowledgment that clarity may never have been the end-game to begin with.
And yes, I am going to continue this as a first-person narrative.
I remember asking my high-school English teacher what the phrase ‘beyond the pale’ meant once after class. I don’t remember where I heard the phrase, but I remember very clearly how, after he explained it was a phrase that inferred a failure to adhere to acceptable norms, I was surprised that I had somehow identified with the phrase even before knowing what it meant.
However… I actually wanted to start with a joke about Melanie Klein, but the punchline escapes me at the moment.
No matter—I can still speak to my own personal disillusionment by way of my many (professional, sexual, social) selves. Klein wrote about the condition of loneliness stemming from a “ubiquitous yearning for an unattainable perfect internal state.” She continues to write that “the conviction that there is no person or group to which one belongs” renders even the illusion of acceptance or integration impossible… whatever that means.
This assumes, however, that ‘full and permanent integration’ is our desire—and that its very impossibility is the root of (our) loneliness, and therefore also anxiety and depression.
But let’s flip that for a second, and assume that NOT being fully and permanently integrated is the goal instead. Would that mean that experienced loneliness in the individual (me) is actually a measure of success on this flipped spectrum?
Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise: it is not always easy to live abroad. The world may be getting smaller, but the paperwork required of a so-called global citizen hasn’t diminished at all. It became almost like a necessary trauma for a life that I had created from scratch for myself abroad. The process itself was almost empowering because it was one of my choosing. While I could also argue that all the major decisions in my life seem about as random as a coin toss in hindsight, I would still argue that they were indeed decisions, my decisions. Being an ex-pat was as important a part of my identity as anything else, and it was something that defined itself through a fundamental and pervasive opposition.
The point is—after nearly 15 years living abroad (very formative years, I might add…), I seem to have turned in my ex-pat badge when I moved to New York City. So what does this mean? If I’m no longer an ex-pat, if I’ve been repatriated, where does that leave me and the pride I took in my alien status? I would argue, however, that a complete and full integration (or re-integration) is impossible, and that my condition may better be described as an ex-ex-pat.
So perhaps where I find solace again is in this place that Klein refers to as loneliness. This fundamental state of opposition (being both at home and away from home) is a psychological space I can work with. This is a space in which the failure to adhere to accepted norms or career-paths affords empowerment: self-determination.
Now, I realize that I may have created a dangerous set of dichotomies here. I’ve been careful to avoid words like ‘the other’ or ‘immigrant,’ but have painted an unfortunately simple allegory for choosing difference over sameness. But this is not a right / wrong binary, and I would actually like to emphasize that the empowerment I am speaking of as being located more in the decision itself. Choosing to think outside the box can even be a kind of integration—and doesn’t necessarily entail a decision for non-participation.
Walter Benjamin wrote something about the job of an artist being about finding forms appropriate to the energy of our time. I don’t believe he was suggesting that art needs to look, sound and act like the energy of our time, but rather exist in some relation to it. Protest through participation is a very fine line to walk, but flirtations with loneliness, insecurity and uncertainty can only mean we are on the right path: the path of our own making.