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Sociability • Confidence

How to Live Like an Exile

The American writer James Baldwin first went to Paris in 1948, as a 24 year old, and was to stay in the city for much of the next nine years – and in France intermittently until his death in 1987.

Sophie Bassouls, James Baldwin on the Quai des Grands Augustins, Paris, April 1972

Baldwin had felt asphyxiated in America: his family had expectations of him he hated, his friends were judgemental. He felt observed and intruded upon. Society was moralistic and prurient (not to mention racist). As a result, he couldn’t be creative or free and had the sense of being watched and commented upon all the time; it was like being always at school – or in prison.

So he undertook that most inwardly liberating of moves: he went into exile. From Paris, it no longer mattered what ‘they’ were saying. Public opinion could appear, as it always should have done, parochial and absurd. No one knew him in the French capital. They had never heard of his family. It was as if he had – in a good way – died and been granted a chance of a second, unsigned life. In France, he could create, take risks, dress differently, make unusual friends – and become himself.

Crucially, Baldwin had no interest whatsoever in assimilating into French society. He wasn’t looking to swap one narrow village for another. It was exile he was after – that very particular state in which one is free not to belong anywhere in particular, to escape all tribes in order to be unobserved, anonymous and detached. 

It may not always be possible for us to become actual exiles, but we should at the very least strive to become internal exiles, that is, people who can behave like visitors in their own lands, no longer bound by local idiocies, able to cut themselves off from the mean and restricted views of so-called friends or disloyal families, and to grow indifferent to provincial competition and grandstanding.

Baldwin and his fellow exiles are there to teach us about what freedom might feel like. We should strive to follow them in our minds, and one day perhaps, in our actual living arrangements.

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