I always feel like an exile these days. And that’s probably because I actually am an exile. I’ve been an exile ever since I was ‘exiled to the outdoors‘ on 1 July 2007. I’ve remained an outsider ever since, no longer part of the society to which I once belonged.
Today I’ve been reading about exile in ancient Rome. And in particular the exile of the poet Ovid by the emperor Augustus to the town of Tomis (now Constanta) on the shores of the Black Sea. It was the subject of a painting by J.M.W.Turner:
That will be the Capitoline Hill on the left, and the river Tiber reflecting the setting sun (or is it rising?), and the Isola Tiberina on the right.
Ovid continued to write poetry while in exile. Ovid in Exile p. 16:
By turning his punishment into a poetic motif in the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto Ovid offers an explicit challenge to the emperor’s display of political power: what is an end for Augustus (out of sight, out of mind) becomes a means for Ovid (poetic presence through physical absence). Put another way, rather than silencing him at Rome, the punishment of exile furnishes Ovid with an exceptional kind of disembodied presence made more powerful by virtue of the poet’s conspicuous absence from the city.
Ovid’s disembodied, exilic voice on the lips of his readers – both ancient and modern – is a purely poetic presence. Indeed, it comes from an imagined place of intellectual refuge beyond the control of the emperor, where the poet can reflect out loud how and why his own art has been legally banished and left for dead on the margins of empire. As the last of the Augustan poets, Ovid is in a unique position to take stock of his own standing and the place of poetry itself in a Rome deeply restructured during the lengthy rule of the city’s first emperor.
Nobody seems to know quite why Ovid was exiled by Augustus. But Ovid appears to have felt he deserved his exile, and was resigned to it.
I suppose my blog might be modern Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from Pontus). I hope it’s not Tristia (Lamentations), because I’m neither sad nor depressed. I am instead angry. Neither do I think I deserved my exile, nor am I resigned to it. For I am only one of some 150 million similar exiles in Europe alone, with ten times more all over the world. I don’t believe that so many people can be demonised and excluded without terrible consequences ensuing. I am not writing for myself, but instead for them.
My carmen et error, along with theirs, was simply to smoke cigarettes. It could equally have been drinking beer or being too fat in the early years of our new, totalitarian, EU empire. For much as in our times, the era of Augustus was one of attempted moral reform, and Ovid was a Roman erotic poet, and according to some “an intellectual proto-resister against totalitarian authoritarianism”.
And mine also is a disembodied, exilic voice. Nobody ever gets to actually meet me in my version of Pontus, which is to be found in the county of Herefordshire in England. Like Ovid, I spend my time scribbling letters to distant readers I will never meet. And I now have perhaps something of an exceptional disembodied presence: I am far better known now than I was when I was writing the Idle Theory which first made me a small name.
Much like I’m sure Ovid did, I wake up every day thinking about my exile. I am always exploring its dimensions, like some wound that never heals. And I am always finding new depths to it, and new bits of shrapnel within.
“Perfer et obdura, dolor hic tibi proderit olim.”
“Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.”