How to Perfect the Art of Exile: A Critical Review of Alienation in Antanas Škėma’s ‘White Shroud’

By Elžbieta Janušauskaitė

In Perfection of Exile, renowned literary critic Rimvydas Šilbajoris defined the attempt to comprehend the meaning of exile as the struggle to articulate what humanity had lost in the Second World War (92). Tracing the evolution of Lithuanian literary tradition, he concluded that the events of the early 20th century produced a critical juncture, so that perceptions of exile in literature significantly diverged. Whilst the traditional vision of exile as the loss of one’s homeland endured, younger writers experienced exile as a manifestation of alienation.

To established Lithuanian writers before the war, “reality seemed solid enough to be regarded as something given, as a reliable framework” (Šilbajoris 136). Yet, for the young modernists, meaning had been shattered beyond recognition and exile had become a universal human condition. Edward Said shared this vision of the modern creator. In his memoir Out of Place, he argued that only writers who had themselves faced exile, could look upon the world and see it as it truly was (Said 269).

The perfection of exile was then, a renewed sense of liberty and creative catharsis for those writers who had survived the war. Young Lithuanian authors, who would have otherwise been bound by the requirements of native literary tradition or Soviet ideological constraints, became open to new poetic reflection. Amongst them was the émigré playwright Antanas Škėma, whose provocative text White Shroud, not only revolutionized Lithuanian narrative, but envisioned exile in a new and radical way. Exile is a way of dwelling in space with a constant awareness that one is not at home, remarks Said in his seminal text Reflections on Exile (139). On one hand, exile is an orientation to a distant place, where one feels divorced from their new environment. On the other hand, exile is an orientation to time, whereby an individual life is plotted around the pivotal act of departure. “Exile is a condition of terminal loss”, claims Said (137). Loss that in the case of White Shroud, manifests itself in alienation from both time and place, from oneself and the world.

White Shroud, which was first entitled The Elevator, takes place over a single day and follows the tedial existence of its protagonist Antanas Garšva, who like the novel’s author, works as an elevator operator in a large New York hotel. Garšva is a middle-aged poet, hopelessly in love with a married woman named Elena and ultimately lost in a city that harbors millions of others. As a consequence of being beaten and tortured by Soviet agents whilst fleeing his homeland, he suffers from repeated attacks of amnesia and neurasthenia, which all too often make him depressed and schizophrenic. The novel’s composition, just like Garšva’s mind, is fundamentally fragmented. His own consciousness mirrors the flow of the elevator, as he moves up and down the levels of the hotel. At ground level lies the reality of New York, surmising his affair with Elena and conversations he holds with the various passengers of the elevator. On the first floor are his memories of Lithuania. Often traumatic, they reveal pieces of his relationship with his abusive father, his failed attempts at love as a teenager and the origins of his mental instability. Lastly, the final level of his consciousness, which quickly gains dominance over the others as the novel progresses, gives readers a glimpse into Garšva’s inner reality. Snippets of forgotten poems are heard on this last floor and his memories are often transformed into strange fantasies as he converses with the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka and is even put on trial by the angels of God.

It is this experimentation with structure and language, and the fragmentation of time and reality, that express how exile functions as alienation. Garšva, as a struggling immigrant, feels like one of many intellectuals who are carelessly exploited as unskilled laborers in a teeming metropolis. “Up and down, up and down. The new Gods have relocated Sisyphus here”, Garšva observes with reference to the ceaseless and meaningless movements of his elevator (Škėma 33). Referencing the work of French absurdist Albert Camus, Škėma positions his protagonist as the modern Sisyphus who “no longer needs sinewy muscles” (33) to be allotted the same perilous fate of futile labor. The allegorical nature of Garšva’s alienation depicts the capitalist process by which he, as an individual, is dehumanized and stripped of the agency to create. “I am number 87”, Garšva repeats to himself, “I am the neophyte of loneliness and the epigon of Christ” (Škėma 44). Reduced to a digit, Garšva struggles with his new status as a convert to the radical individuality capitalism purports. An individuality that detaches him from both his homeland and his community and that he equates to a Christ like agony. Through his inner monologues, Garšva is revealed to be a deeply sentimental and creative person. Yet, in the capitalist metropolis of New York, he is but a cog – remade and changed to adapt to a new environment. And this, unlike his literal exile from his homeland, is the ultimate exile – a process of forced removal from one’s very own identity.

Garšva defines himself as “a Lithuanian kaukas in a Strauss operetta” (Škėma 13). The usage of the Lithuanian term kaukas is particularly interesting, because it depicts not only the exilic condition Garšva experiences in his life in New York, but the extent of his alienation from the rest of the world. In Lithuanian pagan mythology, the term kaukas alludes to the spirit of a dead unbaptized child. This creature, liminal in its position between birth and death, is symbolic of Garšva’s existence as an unfulfilled poet, a Lithuanian intellectual in a foreign and debilitating space – an American elevator – somewhere in between the poles of heaven and earth. In fact, it is this separation between heaven and earth, and particularly Garšva’s ability to move between the two areas through the elevator, that informs the ultimate plot of the novel – a torturous and prolonged attempt at a dialogue with a silent God, whose presence reveals itself only in the suffering of man.

Moments before the novel culminates in Garšva’s final surrender to insanity, he is heard praying:

My Brother, my Beloved, hear me. My sin, my madness, my subjectivity, my screaming, my vitality, my joy – lioj ridij augo. My Lift, hear me. My Childhood, hear me. My Death, hear me. Speak, Elevator. Because I am dying in a great peace. I am sweltered by this New York desert. My Christ, hear me. My Christ, I pray to You. O felix culpa quae talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem! (Škėma 45)

In his plea to God, Garšva alludes to those same fragments that constitute his travels through his own consciousness. Haunted by his childhood in Lithuania and the terrors that swept Europe before his arrival to the US, he prays to be heard, to be saved. Felix culpa, blessed fall. Škėma is here, referring to the theological concept of the Christian fall of man – the paradoxical nature of unfortunate events having fortunate consequences. In a moment of utter clarity, Garšva is prognosing not only his fate, but the future of humanity. Felix culpa, the fall to madness is holy, because it makes you ignorantly blissful. In an attempt to escape the horrors of life after the war, Garšva chooses to surrender to his madness in the same way, that according to Škėma, humanity is surrendering to capitalist oblivion. The consequence is literal and symbolic exile, a universal alienation from the world as it was before the war and the accompanying reality of life.

This place of no return, the tedious existence Garšva is forced to lead in the post-war reality, is for him, unsustainable. His fall to madness, however, is not entirely tragic. In his metaphysical death, Garšva becomes the modern Sisyphus – rolling the boulder up the mountain or in his case, traveling up and down the elevator. As Camus argues in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the absurd is born out of the confrontation between an individual’s longing for reason and the unbearable silence of the world. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Camus 76) and likewise, we must imagine Garšva to be happy too now that he has surrendered to the absurd. It is this surrender that is the ultimate victory, that makes the alienated exile into a happy creature, capable of belonging in an uncaring world.

“The pathos of exile is in the loss of contact with the solidity and the satisfaction of earth”, wrote Said (142). He, just as Škėma, understood that in the metaphysical haze left by the war, humanity could no longer sustain a sense of belonging to a world that now felt so alien and uncaring. White Shroud established this alienation to be a natural condition of human life. It argued, similarly to Reflections on Exile, that in the tragedy of the Second World War, humanity had experienced a terminal loss. That the state of man in the world had itself become exilic and would remain so. It was through literature that the modern creator could begin to unravel reality and create meaning. Felix culpa, the fall to madness is holy. Felix culpa, only in surrender could humanity overcome loss.

Elžbieta Janušauskaitė is an undergraduate student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Utrecht University. Her research draws upon themes of dissent, domination, and democracy. She is a published poet and continues to experiment with literary introspection in her spare time.

Works cited

  • Camus, Albert, and Justin O’Brien. The Myth of Sisyphus. Vintage International, 2018.  
  • Said, Edward W. Out of Place: A Memoir. Granta Books, 2014.  
  • Said, Edward W. Reflections on Exile: And Other Literary and Cultural Essays. Granta Books, 2012.  
  • Šilbajoris Rimvydas. Perfection of Exile: Fourteen Contemporary Lithuanian Writers. 1970.  
  • Škėma Antanas. White Shroud. Vagabond Voices, 2018.  

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