“The experience of newly arrived immigrants is different from that of a long established, ‘indigenous’ proletariat or sub-proletariat. Yet the displacement, the homelessness, the abandonment lived by a migrant is the extreme form of a more general and widespread experience. The term ‘alienation’ confesses all. (It would even be possible to talk of the ‘homelessness’ of bourgeois with his town house, his country house, his three cars, his several televisions, his tennis court, his wine cellar—it would be just possible, yet nothing about his class now interests me, for there is nothing left to discover there for the future.)
After the migrant leaves home, he never finds another place where the two life lines cross. The vertical line exists no more; there is no longer any local continuity between him and the dead, the dead now simply disappear; and the gods have become inaccessible. The vertical line has been twisted into the individual biographical circle which leads nowhere but only encloses. As for the horizontal lines, because there are no longer any fixed points as bearings, they are elided into a plain of pure distance, across which everything is swept.
What can grow on this site of loss? Perhaps it can only be that which, earlier, when every village was the center of the world, remained inconceivable. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, at least two new expectations—offering the hope of a new shelter—have become more and more widely shared.
The first is that of passionate romantic love. (Of which there is more in the backstreets than in the libraries.) In one sense what happens between women and men in love is beyond history. In the fields, on the roads, in the workshops, at school, there are continual transformations: in an embrace very little changes. Yet the construction put on passion alters. Not necessarily because emotions are different but because what surrounds the emotions—social attitudes, legal systems, moralities, eschatologies—these change.
Romantic love, in the modern sense, is a love uniting or hoping to unite two displaced persons. Friendship, solidarity, mutual interests can also unite people, but they do so according to experience and circumstances. They usually have an empirical basis. Whereas romantic love remembers beginnings and origins. Its primacy pre-dates experience. And it is this primacy which allows it to have a special meaning (from Novalis to Frank Sinatra) in the modern epoch.
In the beginning, which such love remembers, the division into two sexes polarized life. The creation of male and female constituted a separation, a new form of incompleteness. The sexual instinct was the energy of attraction between the two poles. As soon as human imagination and memory existed, the desire to hold and maintain that attraction began to declare itself as love. Such love held out a hope of completion, and proposed that its own energy belonged to the heart of the real. The hope of completion developed simultaneously with the founding of the home, but it was not the same thing. In the modern period when we are deprived of the second, we feel more intensely than ever before the resonance of the first.
The other expectation is historical. Every migrant knows in his heart of hearts that it is impossible to return. Even if he is physically able to return, he does not truly return, because he himself has been so deeply changed by his emigration. It is equally impossible to return to that historical state in which every village was the center of the world. The one hope of recreating a center now is to make it the entire earth. Only worldwide solidarity can transcend modern homelessness. Fraternity is too easy a term; forgetting Cain and Abel, it somehow promises that all problems can be soluble. In reality many are insoluble—hence the never-ending need for solidarity.
Today, as soon as very early childhood is over, the house can never again be home, as it was in other epochs. This century, for all its wealth and with all its communication systems, is the century of banishment. Eventually perhaps the promise, of which Marx was the great prophet, will be fulfilled, and then the substitute for the shelter of a home will not just be our personal names, but our collective conscious presence in history, and we will live again at the heart of the real. Despite everything, I can imagine it.
Meanwhile, we live not just our own lives but the longings of our century.”
— John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos