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Updated Up To 23/01/2018
Volume 8, Issue 2 (June 2010) : 389--407
Rebecca West and the Meaning of Exile

Bernard Schweizer
Rubric A: Topoi




Rebecca West was a protean artist (author of, among other works, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon [1941]), a leading public intellectual, and a visionary commentator on the twentieth century. This paper shows the connection between her major philosophical, spiritual, and political ideas and her attitude towards exile. Following a brief historical overview of the main kinds of responses to the state of exile, from Ovid’s laments to modernist celebrations, I document Rebecca West’s fear of exile, so powerful that it could override even her dominant philosophy of process, her revisionist thinking, and her love of metaphor. Twentieth-century artists and thinkers tended to associated the state of exile with heightened artistic creativity, linking it with epistemological “privilege” (Simmel), or seeing it as instrumental to self-invention (Olsson). For West these ideas were not acceptable. Her patriotism, determinism, existentialism, and essentialism combined with her encounters with refugees during the 1940s and the 1950s to bring about a powerful conviction regarding the misery of exile, one that challenged other parts of her own belief system.

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