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Nepantla: Views from South 4.3 (2003) 449-491

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(Un)inhabiting Exile
Franz Rosenzweig and Jewishness

Ricardo Forster

Do not accuse them of being parvenus: how could they be, when they have passed through and left their mark on so many civilizations? Nothing in them of the recent, the improvised: their promotion to solitude coincides with the dawn of History; their very defects are imputable to the vitality of their old age, to the excesses of their penetration and their acuity of mind, to their excessively long experience. They are ignorant of the comfort of limits: if they possess a wisdom, it is the wisdom of exile, the kind which teaches how to triumph over a unanimous sabotage, how to believe oneself chosen when one has lost everything: the wisdom of defiance. And yet they are called cowards! It is true that they can cite no spectacular victory: but their very existence, is that not one? An uninterrupted, terrible victory, with no chance of ever ending!

—Emile Cioran, "A People of Solitaries"


What does it mean to un(inhabit) exile? Can one think exile, the loss of the land, as an experience contrary to inhabitation? Is exile, perhaps, the very essence of inhabitation? The wandering that is opposed to being-at-home leads us directly to the persistence of what is lost in the experience of loss, confronting us, at the point where absence becomes tragic evidence of an emptiness, with the continuous, unpostponable, and recurrent presence of what we remember, in remembrance, as true inhabitation.

In the estrangement that is expatriation and expulsion, what has been subtracted returns, converted into a foundational mnemonic imprint, the presence-absence of inhabiting the land (understanding "land" here as [End Page 449] birthplace, or, as it was for Abraham, as the place of that promise which will be transformed into a bright sign in the historic journey of Judaism).1 From this paradoxical perspective (since the [un]inhabitation of exile constitutes true being there in the absence of the home that makes its lack present at every moment), Jewishness, understood as the experience of the deep-rooted uprootedness that is most fully manifested in commemorative memory, represents the purest and most distilled expression of genuine (un)inhabiting exile, assuming, in a diasporic itinerary, the continuum of the home beyond space-time, won from the land as geography of the natural homeland and from time as the persistence of memory that threads the lost steps of multiple generations. (Un)inhabiting exile thus converts itself into the essential peculiarity of Jewishness, its foundational and most fundamentally defining characteristic: one is only at home, only inhabits home, when one experiences home's absence, when one is the child of dispersion. The homeland is an absence that makes possible, in the spatiotemporal journey of Judaism, what I am calling (un)inhabiting exile, the dialectic image of a genuine inhabitation that is born from a radical loss. Therefore, the Jew is always at home, his rootedness is born of uprootedness, which in turn means that never, not even for a single day, has he been absent from the land that was promised and kept in his memory. For this reason he can feel at home in supposedly strange places. This is also why he can inhabit other languages, escaping self-referential simplifications. These other languages that the Jew inhabits passionately, and to which he has transferred his own expressive wealth and cultural genius, he has transformed into an unfissile element of his (un)inhabitation of exile.

The space of the exile is memory; his wanderings in the earth allow him, through evocative memory, to reconstruct the origin of his steps without the past's becoming an impossible, paralyzing nostalgia, assuming the features of the messianic encounter of origin and goal. The Jew is always and never at home, always and never departing, making his diasporic destiny into the writing of a promise a thousand times postponed, but whose fulfillment makes (un)inhabiting exile possible. That exiled memory which names the loss from the...


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