Albert Camus, in his quarantine reading list-topper The Plague, wrote of plague as a form of exile. In 1940’s, plague-ridden Oran—a French town on the Algerian coast that Camus imagines with plague—people endured a strange kind of exile-at-home. Though the residents of this fictional Oran were mostly confined to their homes, they still lost their worlds.
Camus described the exiled-at-home as experiencing “the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that has no purpose.”
Like the imagined citizens of Oran, many of us in the United States are in a kind of exile. Our streets, our playgrounds, our workspaces and our schools no longer feel safe—and, indeed, they frequently are not safe. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died, and Mitch McConnell has publicly vowed to replace her, despite his previous refusal to hold a Senate hearing that could have resulted in the appointment to the Supreme Court of Merrick Garland under the Obama administration. Teachers are dying of COVID-19, families are despairing, and much of the West Coast remains in flames. Meanwhile, Trump speaks of “negotiating” an unconstitutional third term in office, and he may be actively infecting others with the very COVID-19 he downplayed.
Yes, like the citizens of Oran, we have lost the world around us—we are in exile. But while Camus’s words help to articulate our exiled state, I believe he goes too far in stating that our pre-exile memories serve no purpose. We must hold our memories close in order to fight for a more democratic future—and, when possible, we must in the upcoming presidential election as a form of remembering.
This “imperative to remember” is particularly important when we are confronted most directly, intimately, and frustratingly with our own exiled states. For instance: I wearily embraced my pre-exile memories recently, when Trump held an illegal indoor rally in Henderson, Nevada, where my family and I live and practice social distancing. Earlier that day, I took my daughter to a local park and encountered the surreal vision of a MAGA-hat-wearing neighbor seat-belting her smiling child into a minivan, and then driving off to that very rally.
Approximately 5,600 mostly-unmasked people gathered indoors, at Henderson’s Xtreme Manufacturing, in violation of the Nevada governor’s COVID-19 emergency directives that mandate face coverings and forbid gatherings of more than 50 people. During that rally, Trump made false, undermining claims about Nevada’s electoral process and scorned Black Lives Matter protestor who bravely appeared at the rally. To our local horror but Xtreme Manufacturing was fined a paltry $3,000.
In confronting one’s exile-at-home in such an intimate way, one feels easily drawn into Camus’s vision, in which one’s pre-exile memories are said serve no purpose. Perhaps, I was horrified to find myself thinking, U.S. democracy is already completely eroded; perhaps I should give up and prepare for Trump’s second, and third, term.
Note that it is especially easy to think this way when one’s fading memories are of a deeply unjust past. Long before Trump, vicious racism and class prejudices caused innocent Black people to be murdered by police and super-exploited, Mexican farmworkers to become gruesomely injured and sick. Climate change was already rampant, and we were denied the right to elect our President through a popular vote. Many of us, it could be argued, were already in exile (indeed, the Argentinian-Mexican philosopher Silvana Rabinovich argues that this is true of Indigenous communities stripped of their land). Why cling to such a past, even in an increasingly terrible present?
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Acknowledging these injustices, I nevertheless argue that we exiles need to keep our memories—even the painful ones—close.
In his Lessons in Exile, the Uruguayan-Mexican philosopher Carlos Pereda, who writes from the Mexico he adopted as his home in his adulthood, tells us how and why to do this. Pereda describes exile as a series of three phases, all of which we should go through, even if it is extraordinarily difficult.
First, the exiled feel a loss so profound that it undermines their sense of self. One feels unearthed, aimless, and disoriented.
Second, we experience exile as resistance—as an anger toward the “political opponents” who did this to us. Regardless of whether this is politically effective, the resistance stage is productive, for helps us to find our “selves” again. It is painful, philosophical remembering.
Finally, and most importantly, Pereda argues that we should experience exile as a “philosophical threshold” and a “breakaway from one’s traditional desires, beliefs, emotions, and expectations”. This makes exile an “entryway to other possibilities.” It is exile’s most challenging phase, as it is easy to be overwhelmed by the previous stages of sadness and anger.
All of this means that we exiles don’t have to yearn for an unjust past. In fact, we should not do this, as it blocks us from reaching a philosophical threshold—the only potentially beautiful part of exile. However, we cannot do away with our memories, as we need them to develop new possibilities. Pereda’s ideal “exile” willfully remembers.
Voting in exile, I submit, is an act of willfully remembering. It is an acknowledgement that, though exiled, we have managed to recover our senses of self, along with a relatively clear vision of what we want (or, at least, what we do not want) for our future. The forces that have kept us in exile want us to lose touch with our sense of democratic agency—they want us to feel that we have forever lost our worlds. But we can simultaneously embrace our exile as an experience of transformation while voting to reclaim the world beneath our feet. Our pre-exile memories do have a purpose, and we owe it to ourselves to cling to them.