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Chapter 4 - Exile and Escape: Transporting Knowledge

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 September 2020

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Summary

The composition of this book [his General Theory (1936)] has been for the author a long struggle of escape … a struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and expression … The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.

John Maynard Keynes

INTERSTITIAL societies treated escape and exile as imaginative, mental journeys because knowledge is Promethean, many-sided and changing; it is not fixed in geographical spaces. It is a moveable feast. But it has neither will nor volition; it has to be moved. Knowledge moves in cognitive social units. Such movement has sometimes been treated as something fraught. Movingly, Edward Said put it this way:

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and the true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history can contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile's life, these are no more than efforts to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

So the gladness of escape into exile is coupled with sadness. It can be a misfortune and an opportunity, a reason for unhappiness and also a ‘source of painful encouragement.’ As Leszek Kolakowski has argued, in exile Marx, Freud and Einstein became ‘world-conquerors’:

It was only by, as it were, exiling themselves from their collective exile that they became exiles in the modern sense. However hard they might have tried, they failed (at least most of them) to lose entirely their identity of old and to be unreservedly assimilated, they were looked upon as alien bodies by the indig-enous tribes and it was probably this uncertain status, the lack of a well-defined identity, which enabled them to see more than those who were satisfied with their inherited and natural sense of belonging.

Geographical exile and escape, if one takes advantage of them, can have important intellectual consequences. They may make it possible to escape from long-held convictions and theories.

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Learned Lives in England, 1900–1950
Institutions, Ideas and Intellectual Experience
, pp. 121 - 158
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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