The Poetics of Exile in Darwish and Kafka

Reading Darwish, we are struck by a vision of poetry that stands between reality and myth. “Language will take the place of reality,” he tells us, “and the poem will look for its myth in the entirety of human experience.” And yet, in his poem to Said, we find Darwish say that the “Aesthetic is only the presence\of the real in form.” As readers, we are left wondering: what then is the poem? Is it a myth that replaces reality, or the manifestation of the real? How is it that poetry founds a myth that is, simultaneously, an excavation of the real?

Let us place this paradox to one side to note another. For in Darwish we also find that poetry stands between exile and home. In the aestheticized world of the poem, “exile will become literature, or part of the literature of human loss.” What takes place in this “becoming” is not immediately clear. But it is clearly not a transformation in which exile loses its exilic character. On the contrary, as literature, exile receives its crystalized form precisely as the “literature of human loss.” The poem, it would seem, is the literary form of exile. And yet, we find that “in every exile there is a poetry made home.” Here, poetry appears as a homemaker. So what then is the poem? Does it “replace reality,” or mark “the presence\of the real”? Does it found a home, or formulate the “literature of human loss?”

This paper will attempt to understand the sense of poetry in Darwish’s writings that underpins these paradoxes. In doing so, we seek to understand the aesthetic dislocation to which poetry responds, a dislocation that threatens the foundations of identity. For while Darwish’s immediate goal is to find a way to write about the physical and political dispossession of the Palestinian people, he ultimately grapples with the impossibility of representation, or as Mustapha Marrouchi writes, with “representing the self, not only through its dialectics, or its reflexive consciousness, or its memory, but through its simulacra of the world.” Ultimately, Darwish is running against the wall of the possible in linguistic description — the sort of myth of selfhood language can create and the sort of exile it can preserve. Thus, at the end of “Counterpoint,” the dying Said tells Darwish that “If I die before you do\I entrust you with the impossible.” It seems likely that this “impossibility” of Darwish’s poetry should be understood in light of its two, overt paradoxes: its exile-in-home and home-in-exile; its myth of reality that manifests the real.

By understanding the impossibility of Darwish’s poems, we also seek to differentiate him from another writer concerned with exile, and with the boundary of the possible and the impossible: Kafka. Judith Butler has noted that, in contrast with Darwish’s will to the impossible, Kafka once quipped that there is “[P]lenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope, but not for us.” For Kafka, bursting the bounds of what seems possible — the “infinite amount of hope” — is specifically marked as an impossibility. Butler seems to suggest that Said’s entrusting Darwish with the impossible should be understood as a mandate to reach beyond Kafka’s “not for us,” an attempt to create a hope that Kafka’s world lacks by means of a greater faith in the poem, or by creating what Darwish’s Said calls a “hope for speech.” This faith differentiates Darwish and Said not only from Kafka, but from Camus’s understanding of the role of the aesthetic in mediating the real. However, to understand this faith, and the ultimate function of the poem, we need first to consider Darwish’s differentiation between two aesthetic forms: the poem and the novel.

Novels and Poems

Recalling his time in a refugee camp in Southern Lebanon, Darwish writes that he “was no longer a child as soon as I began to distinguish between reality and fiction, between my present state and what I used to be a few hours back.” The repudiation of “fiction” here has a double significance. On the one hand, it refers to the fact that, already as a child, Darwish must come to grips with the fact that he will not be returning home. He is thus no longer a child “the moment I perceived that the Lebanese camps were the true reality, and Palestine the fiction.” This recognition of spatial dislocation and temporal rupture, separating the past from a present that brutally supersedes it, marks the beginning of maturity, and the beginning of Darwish’s self-knowledge. “What is a refugee?” he asks his grandfather, and is told: “To be no more a child.” The confrontation with “reality,” for Darwish, thus begins with a recognition of exile.

On the other hand, however, fiction represents a genre, a species of narration that posits a particular and total account of a present or a past. Thus, the memory of the past — the narration that would connect the “present state, and what I used to be a few hours back” — is called into question, and this question is posited as a problem of letters and words: “As the moon waxes over the tree branches, dubious letters conjured recollections of a rectangular house, amidst which were a strawberry tree, an unmanageable horse and a well.” Darwish realizes, as a child hungry for the real, that in retracing his past to account for the present, he is running up against a limit of the possible, that he faces “a locution that went beyond the bounds of my language…” Darwish returns to this inadequacy of “fiction” in his poetic dialogue with Said. “Have you written a novel?” he asks Said. “I tried, he said… I tried to bring back my image\in the mirrors of faraway women\but they had already infiltrated their fortified nights\and said: We have a world separate from text.”

This “world separate from text” is the past’s proof of the inadequacy of novelistic forms. It forecloses in advance all hermetic narrative arcs, either from lost paradise to the triumphant return to “the way things were,” or with a climax of the past’s ultimate overcoming. Darwish both will always be and is no longer the child who grew up among the strawberry trees. He has been changed irrevocably by entering Western culture: he is a modern and an intellectual. Furthermore, his identity of the present contends with the political reality that the homeland of his past remains inaccessible despite physical proximity. For, even when roaming the streets of Hebron, Darwish finds himself “prisoner, half citizen, and refugee fully bereft of his rights.” So, for more reasons than one, Darwish’s absent homeland remains endlessly deferred. Caught in limbo, how is he to understand this absence?

It is clear that, for Darwish, exile has nothing in common with the diasporas of the Old Testament, initiated by the word of God together with a prophet’s promise for redemption. Rather, exile for Darwish is dislocation without a road back, without a singular, ordained path home. As a child, Darwish still lacks the words for it: “I had not known the word ‘exile’ until my words increased. The word ‘return’ was our sole linguistic bread: going back to place, to time; going back from the temporary to the everlasting, from the present to the past and future together, from the abnormal to the normal…” The shortage of words in Darwish’s childhood gradually gives way to a realization that, to write about the past — and to save the claim of return from either triviality (being “fictionalized”) or oblivion — will require a different linguistic form, a form that makes no claim to novelistic totality or to following a story’s unfolding from past to present. It rather occurs from the vantage of the present, endlessly returning to the past to uncover new threads, without laying claim to a first or last page: the poem. “Perhaps poetry is what keeps the name vibrant in its ever-alert tendency to name the first elements and things…” The way to the homeland is on “more than one road” and is “mostly… taken on shoulders,” without there being a clear path from the beginning to the journey’s end.

Language, Kafka, and Camus

Darwish comes to the poem realizing that he is struggling with the power of language to formulate identity and identity’s claims. He realizes that, like Said’s “world separate from text,” his own country is “semantically speaking, smaller than its space.” This is to say that its space is too large, and that it is largely a mute space, without the words to name it. As a mute space, Darwish’s absent homeland, his exiled present, is a prison. It has no possibility of achieving external recognition, or of transcending itself through self-knowledge. Furthermore, in silence, his exile is at risk of its own loss. For if one gives up articulating exile and becomes at home in dislocation — if the lost homeland is completely forgotten — then one ceases to be an exile. This is Darwish’s concern, firstly, regarding the potential forgetting, and so erasure, of Palestinian land claims: “[I]s the first [Palestinian] child doomed to grow up alone, without a homeland and without an exile…?”

However, as we have noted with Marrouchi, Darwish’s concern is not only for preserving the claim to the physical homeland of the Palestinian people. He faces the general impossibility of writing about identity in the opacity that streams through catastrophic ruptures in personal narrative. His poetry chases the possibility of finding words to articulate the self after an exile without chance of return, of doing justice to the past without nostalgia while simultaneously staking a possibility for the future. Caught in a situation of dislocation, he puts his faith in language to articulate an identity after rupture, to “fix what was broken and put together what was asunder.” In other words, Darwish puts language in the pursuit of the meaning of the real, even if the real is only accessible from the vantage of the exiled, of the semantically impoverished facing a space larger than vocabulary.

In so doing, he faces the opacity of exile with a dauntless refusal. And so, we see why Butler notes that Darwish covers and surpasses the same ground tread by Kafka. For Kafka was fascinated, transfixed, by the horror of muteness. Reiner Stach records that, from an early age, Kafka associated animal imagery with utter degradation. Particularly degrading to him was the fact that animal suffering “is not entered into the moral accounting of human history. They are mute; their forms of expression are not considered language.” In the animal transformation of the Metamorphosis, it is this horror that seals Gregor’s fate. “That was no human voice,” his mother says upon first hearing him speak. The loss of speech cuts off any path Gregor has of communicating with his family in a way that might humanize his situation to them. But it also symbolizes the reality that Gregor has no way of articulating his condition to himself, in a way that might preserve a memory of a different time and so contradict the horror of his present.

Without speech, Gregor Samsa is utterly trapped; he has no choice but to live out his mute degradation. He is an exile in his own home, but, unlike Darwish, he seeks no path of return to the home that once was. If his dislocation is surreal, he gives up all hope of making sense of it. For Kafka, the correct attitude toward this dislocation is resignation — what Adorno called his “comfort in the uncomfortable” — which allows one to find oneself at home in dispossession by giving up all claim of return. Consider the matter-of-fact way in which Kafka narrates one of the book’s most horrific exilic scenes — Gregor’s backing into his room, driven by the blows of his father:

Gregor was quite unpracticed in walking backwards, it really was a slow business. If he only had a chance to turn around he could get back to his room at once, but he was afraid of exasperating his father by the slowness of such a rotation… In the end, however, nothing else was left to him to do, since to his horror he observed that in moving backward he could not even control the direction he took; and so, keeping an anxious eye on his father all the time over his shoulder, he began to turn around as quickly as he could, which was in reality very slowly.

Kafka coolly juxtaposes Gregor’s panic with the technical details of his physical maneuvering. Gregor’s utter lack of control — he cannot even see where he is going — is accepted with narrative poise, and with the suggestion that his discomfort is really due to a lack of practice. He’ll get used to it, is the implication. The image of Gregor, walking mutely backwards, utterly without control over his present, evokes the message of one of Kafka’s aphorisms:

If you were crossing a plain, with the good will to get across, but all the same your steps took you backwards, it would be a matter of despair. But as you are clambering up a steep slope, as steep, say, as you yourself are viewed from below, it could also be that your steps backward are only caused by the nature of the ground, and you do not have to despair.

There is no need to despair in exile, Kafka indicates. Its senselessness and one’s loss of control — the fact that one finds oneself walking backwards — is on par for the course, and can be accepted as necessary and so justified. Consequently, there is no need to look to the redemptive power of language. One should rest within the muteness of the possible, rather than seeking the impossible.

This creation of locale from dislocation in Kafka marks the end of exile. We can thus understand why Camus says that Kafka introduces “hope in a strange form.” It is certainly not a hope that escapes the dumb blindness of dislocation. But it is a redemption nonetheless, achieved by “making us love what crushes us,” an absolute acceptance of an irrational present that frees from the obligation of trying to understand or transcend it. For Camus, Kafka’s conciliatory home-making in dislocation deserves criticism for betraying the existential project of living “without appeal,” i.e., with a lucid acceptance of absurdity. To accept things as they are because this is the way things have to be is to endow reality with meaning that it lacks. Camus’ own solution to the absurd — to existing in a world opaque with the impossibility of ascribing sense, or with what Darwish calls “the abyss” — is, like Darwish’s, not through acceptance, but by means of aesthetic creation.

However, unlike Darwish, for whom the aesthetic is “the form of the real,” Camus’ account of absurd creation bifurcates the realms of art and reality. For Camus, reality is irrevocably senseless — here he agrees with Kafka — and the absurd cannot be embraced as a new home for humanity without this becoming a second stab at hope. Thus, the art of the absurd creator seeks only “to enrich the ephemeral island” of existence. In other words, Camus’ art makes no claim to an absent home. It rejects the very idea of a home, and so approaches the absurdity of the real with indifference. For Camus, art is rather joyful artifice played behind reality’s back: “All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. Creation is the great mime.” Absurd art is a schizoid behavior, a dedicated creation that lucidly accepts the reality that it is nothing but sport. Thus, neither Kafka nor Camus follow Darwish’s exilic path. For the poem, for Darwish, is not a mute reconciliation with opacity; it refuses to merely describe its own walking backwards. Nor, on the other hand, is it a mime, lucidly indifferent to the reality that it masks.

Reality and Myth in the Poem

Darwish’s poem is thus neither absurd creation, nor Kafka’s reconciliation with existence. Unlike both approaches, Darwish believes that there is meaning to be excavated in the real, and that this is a task for the poem. And as we have seen, this meaning depends on the ability to forgo neat narratives that would connect the past to the present, describing completely the value of the past or the relation of the present to it. Yet, it is by seeing the present as the result of a past that one discovers its contingency and liberates oneself from its immediacy. This may be why, as Adorno notes, Kafka’s stories “assume a hermetic stance towards history.” Kafka presents worlds that are sealed off from any historical process, and so from any possibility of change. The present then takes on the aspect of the eternal, and “to the eternity of the historical moment there corresponds an attitude which sees the way of the world as naturally fallen and invariant.” The opacity of dislocation in Kafka feeds off of its inexplicable necessity, without being attributable to antecedent cause. It is, therefore, by recovering historicality that Darwish seeks to break through the muteness of exile, and so to add to the balance of the real: “I defend the poets need\to join tomorrow with memories.”

The reality of poetry, over the novel form, is marked by the fact that the poetic appropriation of the present in light of the past never amounts to a full account. “I don’t completely know myself\lest I lose myself,” Darwish has Said say. The problem of identity, thought as a problem of historicality, is marked in the initial consciousness of rupture in which Darwish transitions from the innocence of childhood to the maturity of exile. He asks: “Is it true that time breaks up like glass?” For the opacity of the present is not simply due to Darwish’s physical or political dislocation which, like Gregor’s transformation, would mar his consciousness with pain, or challenge it with the indescribable. It is further due to the temporal rupture that makes it impossible to give a final summation of the relation of the present to the past. Like glass, the events leading to the present break into a million causal shards, multifaceted, iridescent, from which numerous surfaces can be puzzled together. There is an irreducible excess of the silent over the spoken, of world over text.

And so, when Darwish returns home to his mother’s house in Aljalil, it is to find that the home with which he has identified in exile is lost to him even as he attains it. His road home, seemingly walked to its end, opens onto another road. His identity is not something Darwish can carry with him by folding temporality into his pocket like a kerchief. It is ragged at both ends, needing more knowledge of the past, and dependent on the as yet indeterminate future. Thus Darwish writes: “But I perceived, as I missed the consummation of the circle, that the separation of the myth from the reality still needed more of the past, and that the liberation of the reality from the myth still needed more of the future.”

Every poem is thus, simultaneously, a dazzling revelation of self-consciousness, and another myth to be overcome. For the very idea of “identity” — of persisting as one and the same in form — is rejected. “I am what I am\and I am my other,” Said says, “in a duality that finds harmony between speech and gesture.” Between the spoken and the mute, selfhood is posited as fundamentally exilic. The home that is longed for can never be reached; it is not to be achieved by a return to family house. On the contrary, a simple return to “the way things were” prior to dislocation would be a misrepresentation of identity, and a theft of the subject’s own future: “I tried to retrieve my birth\and trace the Milky Way on the roof of my old house…\But the beast of truth distanced me from the longing that was looking over my shoulder like a thief.” Exilic longing is, rather, “a conflict over a present\that grabs tomorrow by the testicles.” It moves beyond dislocation not by return, nor by mutely accepting its own “moving backwards,” but by transcending — by moving forwards.

Exile, Home, and the Other

As an exilic form, how does poetry make a home? For Darwish, the condition of exile that separates each human being from their home, thereby unites all humans with each other. If the exile never reaches his homeland, than the only constant in identity is exile itself, against which all homelands are defined. Beyond the physical dislocation of the Palestinian refugee, and the temporal exile that severs the present from a past on the far side of catastrophe, Darwish sees exile as a universal symbol of human identity. In the poetry made home that is, in reality, only “a visit” between states of exile, the poet thus founds a myth that both articulates his reality (in part), and that unites him with all other human beings.

Thus, the home of poetry is also populated by the Other. In the temporal discontinuity that breaks self from self, and that forbids any ultimate self-consciousness, the space is made for another to enter. And the Other, in exile themselves, makes the poem the home it purports to be. We have said that Darwish’s poem is not a site of nostalgia. It does not aspire to an ultimate return, but throws itself into the future. It is, thus, a site of freedom — “the aesthetic is a freedom,” Said says — and it overcomes the present not only by revealing its historicality but by directly transcending it. This exilic freedom unites self and Other in the poem and, beyond cultures and states, turns exile into a new principle of solidarity. “We have become two friends of the strange\creatures in the clouds… and we are now loosened\from the gravity of identity’s land. What will we do… what\will we do without exile…”

Butler has suggested that the two voices of Darwish’s contrapuntal poem may reflect the self-splitting that is the “form for the impossible task” of articulating identity without self-sameness. But perhaps there is more than one reason for this dialogic form. If Darwish is to write the poem that demonstrates exile as the principle of identity, he cannot do so without immediately finding himself facing the Other. The process runs as follows: the poem founds a myth that excavates the real but, discovering that the only temporal constant is exile, founds itself as the source of a universal solidarity. Thus Darwish can write: “There is nothing left of me but you, and nothing left of you\ but me, the stranger massaging his stranger’s thigh…\what will we do with what is left of us\of calm… and of a snooze between two myths?” The home — the “calm” — created between the strangers is a “snooze between two myths”: the real principle of exile that undergirds all processes of poetic homemaking.


To conclude, Darwish’s concept of poetry faces several forms of dislocation: a physical and political exile from the Palestinian homeland, a temporal rupture that severs present from past, and the reality of catastrophe that resists all accounting. Rather than sinking into muteness, however, Darwish’s poems represent a faith in language to maintain the claims of the past, without forgoing exile’s aesthetic freedom. Unlike the novel, the poem is a reclaiming of the real that is never consummated, but continually reopens unto further self-consciousness and further self-transcendence. Simultaneously, it founds a home by marking narrative exile as the general condition of human identity. For beyond all individual homes and all claims of return lies the constant of dislocation and the universality of the poetic task.


Adorno, Theodore, 1997, “Notes on Kafka,” in Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp. 243–271.

Butler, Judith, 2012, “’What Shall We Do Without Exile?’: Said and Darwish on the Future,” in Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, №32, The Imaginary and the Documentary: Cultural Studies in Literature History and the Arts, pp. 30–54.

Camus, Albert, 1991, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien, New York: Vintage Books.

Darwish, Mahmoud, 2007, “Who am I, Without Exile?” translated by Fady Joudahin, in The Butterfly’s Burden, Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, pp. 89–91.

— 2005, ‘Counterpoint, For Edward Said’ translated by Fady Joudah, Le Monde Diplomatique.

— 2014, “Gradual Exile,” translated by Taoufiq Sakhkhane, in Journal of Postcolonial Writing, №50, Vol. 2, pp. 230–235.

Kafka, Franz, 1995, The Metamorphosis, in The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, New York: Schocken Books, pp. 67–134.

— 2012, Aphorisms, in A Hunger Artist and Other Stories, translated by Joyce Crick, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 188–210.

Marrouchi, Mustapha, Spring 2005, “The Home That Never Was: In Memory of Jacques Derrida,” in Antigonish Review, 141/142, pp. 197–218.

Stach, Reiner, 2002, “The Lives of Metaphors: ‘The Metamorphosis,’” in Kafka: The Decisive Years, New York: Harcourt, pp. 192–205.

Occasional journalist; constantly curious; formerly @YUCommentator and @theharlembee; MA Phil University College Dublin