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Émigré. What’s in a Word?

Émigré. What’s in a Word?

A life-sized rendering of a wild pig in an Indonesian cave points to some of our earliest evidence of the origins of human culture. Depicted in red ochre it dates back an estimated 35,000 years, a signpost to early human symbolic thinking. The cave painting suggests a desire to communicate, to reach outwards and beyond oneself. It is a rendering of the natural world and represents something of shared importance to a community. Provocatively this cultural artefact narrows the gap between then and now, us and them. The similarity of such Neolithic depictions in caves in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Western Europe all point to our enduring global connections. In the long durée it is unremarkable to state we have always been wanderers. We are a species that oscillate between significant places of our own making, locations where we leave our marks in footprints, scrawls, and constructions. 

The urban historian Lewis Mumford provides an edifying remark, that the very first settlements were ‘cities of the dead’. What he meant by this was that early human culture recognised the significance of lasting communal bonds so much so, that graves became points of orientation, places to return to. Perpetual and nomadic movement slowly gave way to festive retreats, seasonal hunting lodges, and garden hovels. Gradually the balance shifted, and these sites were no longer considered destinations, but homes. A flux emerged changing human momentum from an outward orientation, a moving beyond orchestrated by the seasons and migrations of other species, to a turning inwards. Settlements acted as a centrifuge. They gave us a reason to return and punctuated our existence with an attachment to place. Becoming a person of a ‘particular’ place and ‘time’ also anticipated the association that a traveller has a point of origin, that they have chosen to leave and become an émigré. What is in a word? In parsing a term such as ‘émigré’ one must reach through the past and contextualise its dense imaginings. Some ingredients seem essential such as movement and choice, others like duration, intention, and return are more nuanced and subtle. The word itself contains at least part of the message. It is a term that has travelled. Distinctly Gallic while achieving ubiquity; It has become an allegory for its own meaning. 

The word has its origins, or roots, in the French émigrer denoting emigration, or outward movement. The intent in this word is important. The immigrant comes in and the emigrant goes out. Exits. The émigré encapsulates both the centripetal and the centrifugal, they have a place, a gravity with which they are enduringly associated while they persist in moving beyond it, departing, without a clearly defined or scheduled return. The lasting sentiment is that of ‘leaving’. Yet this is disrupted by a lingering of something more, something left to be done.

The Origins of Leaving

Émigré comes to us as a word with a historic and political context. Entering popular parlance in the late eighteenth century on the eve of the French revolution. The émigré was initially an aristocrat sensitive to the spirit of the time. The word was infused with the notion of choice, the option to leave. Many travelled to Britain, Germany, and Russia. But in truth the mass of those that left France had little choice as the revolutionary government took hold. The bulk were also far from a privileged elite. Hordes arrived in England and were met with mixed sympathies. They were viewed as a hazard, a pending infestation while also being exotic and intriguing. Quickly the new communities set to work establishing a life in a fresh context. Many of the émigrés that settled in new homes across Europe and beyond lobbied for political and social change in France. This continued bond and engagement to origin is elementary in any understanding of the émigré. Thus, in alighting a foundation is set.

In time the émigré became a title that was assigned to legion of sojourners with disparate origins and motives. Throughout the twentieth century the émigré reached its ideological zenith at the height the nation state era. An array of intellectual and literary immigrants fashioned a new imagining of the émigré.  Some prominent names might include Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Milan Kundera. Each has an enduring legacy as authors broaching the human condition in transit and exile. Walter Benjamin has become regarded as one of the most influential essayists of the twentieth century, a cultural critic, philosopher, and eclectic. A German Jew, he had spent his life traversing European cities for study, research, and likeminded collaboration. His Arcades Project is a literary testament to his wanderings and observations set in the delimited context of Parisian arcades. These were architectures that prefigured modern shopping malls, covered passages that attracted window shoppers and chance encounters. His vast and formless text is an account of the minutiae of everyday life.

“At the entrance to the arcade, a mailbox: a last opportunity to make some sign to the world one is leaving.” [C3,2] pg. 88

The original manuscript, a palimpsest, is evocative of the émigré spirit; incomplete and unfinished a mass of revisions, erasures, bricolage, and juxtaposition. Benjamin popularised the notion of the flâneur. An adjunct to the émigré, the flâneur is imagined as an exemplar of the aloof urban observer. Ever wandered through a city simply people watching? If so, you were partaking in flâneurism. Always imagined as male, affluent enough to have disposable time, and intellectually curious while distanced toward his surroundings. A wanderer, treading the labyrinthine malls, streets, and cities of the world.

Benjamin was part of an educated elite that included Hannah Arendt, another famous German Jewish émigré. She traversed the Atlantic and made a home in Manhattan however she is also strongly associated with Jerusalem due to her enigmatic coverage of the Eichmann trial. Coming face to face with the Nazi spectre that prompted her flight from Germany.  The Czech novelist Milan Kundera adds further context to our understanding of the word by demonstrating its ambivalence. An exile from Czechoslovakia and long-time citizen of France. Kundera has wished to be regarded as a French novelist. Yet his most famous work The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a tale set in his origin country unfolding in the Prague Spring of 1968. Kundera had his Czechoslovakian citizenship revoked in 1979 and his work was banned in the country until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. It was not until 2019 that the Czech government reinstated Kundera’s citizenship, forty years after its original rescinding, and twenty years after the fall of communism. 

Benjamin and his contemporaries suggest something bittersweet about exile, something thoughtful and reflective. Even if the choice to leave is not entirely voluntary, the émigré is habitually imagined as an intellectual and artisan. An orbiting term is the cosmopolitan, one at home in the world, sliding between opaque boundaries with ease. The cosmopolitan is a world elite, but unalike the émigré, too easily dismissed as superficial. Lurking within the émigré is a depth that captures thoughtful introspection, a sentiment overlooked or absent in the rendering of the cosmopolitan. The cosmopolitan has arrived, seemingly never travels, always at ease and has nothing to learn. While the émigré is an incomplete work, a promise, aspirant.

A Pointless Departure?

Yet what is the point of waxing lyrical about the various incarnations of the émigré? Trying to tie down a word and in the process spill endless semantic departures? To those who say ‘meh’, consider this. Now more than ever is a time for the émigré, of thoughtful and deliberate movement. The social and environmental cost of travel has never been more scrutinised and alike, the traveller must be considered in the process. What is the worth of your journeying? Are you pedestrian or émigré. I invite you to note the difference. The movements of the émigré count, they speak of valued experience, encounter, and exchange. In 1922 Bronislaw Malinowski published his study of an arcane ritual of exchange performed by the Trobriand islanders in Melanesia. He had come to observe how they embarked on dramatic and often treacherous journeys to exchange decorative necklaces and bracelets. He learnt that these ornate items had no value in themselves. They were just endlessly swapped, recycled, passed along. But each journey, every single departure was made not for material reward, but the remaking of social bonds. Kula exchange was not pointless, not ‘meh’ but about social networks, their maintenance, and the remarkable efforts invested in creating, sustaining, and strengthening them. Think therefore of your own journeys, think of how consequential they truly are. Not just as business transactions, but as social bonds, promises, commitments, and reciprocal displays of trust.

A Traveller of Business and Pleasure

An exquisite example of the émigré comes from Jazz tours to Europe from the United States. In his first sojourn out of the country, Miles Davis headed to Paris in 1948 while a rising star, only twenty-two years of age. It was a formative experience which cemented the city as part of his character and identity for the rest of his life. The ambience and energy of Paris was entirely novel to Davis. There he was able to circumvent the racial politics and hierarchy of US society. Jazz was considered an artform and he was idolised. As an émigré he had his humanity reaffirmed. He fell in love with a young French woman and mingled with Jean Paul Satre and Pablo Picasso. When he returned to the US a melancholia possessed him and he succumbed to a four-year heroin addiction. The drummer Kenny Clarke who travelled to Paris with Davis eventually settled in the city for good and took up a resident role as an accompanying drummer to other jazz émigrés as they passed through the city. Davis also returned, but never settled in Paris. His passion for the city was reciprocated and he was awarded the Médaille de la Ville de Paris in 1989. Shortly before his death in 1991 he was also given the highest merit in French society, the Legion of Honour. His émigré status sealed; Miles Davis was a Parisian.

Many of us can relate to this rhythmic flow of commerce in and out of a familiar city. Is not a Jazz émigré a euphemism for a range of extended pecuniary voyaging? An economic migrant, a touring artist, a seasonal worker? In truth the modern émigré is most commonly a business traveller navigating multiple worlds. The term navigate is important here, a word that is bonded to the act of sailing. Or more appropriately, of steering across an animate surface. Negotiating shifting ground. Permanently in motion upon motion. Alike Benjamin’s flaneur the business traveller steps through the mundane, frequently performing a cameo in other contexts, times, and lives. But they are also pulled into moments of spontaneous frenzy, of incongruous happenchance where composure and diligence are their social currency. The business émigré is entrusted at the helm, guiding fortunes and futures across capricious seas. 

Of Myth and Legend

The émigré embarking on an adventure is an enduring image throughout history. It has ancient overtones of dynastic beginnings and epic excursions. These fables and origin myths come directly from stories of travel and underscore the very language we use today. The decade long odyssey of Ulysses after the siege of Troy contextualises idioms and allegories in the present. Beware of sirens on your travels, outwit the monsters, appease the powerful, navigate between hazards. Ulysses as émigré, traveller, and king is an understated hero adopting wisdom and patience as his armoury. He is the exemplary weathered traveller just striving to get home to his family while adrift in unending delays, mendacious companions, and overt sabotage. Similarly, the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt forms a founding narrative of Judaism and occupies the modern imagination. As Moses leads his nation out of bondage he receives the Decalogue, the covenant. How frequently does a journey include a contract, either one to be fulfilled or pending? The Islamic calendar takes its origin from the hijrah, the flight from Mecca to Medina by the prophet Muhammad and his followers. This emigration marks both an escape from danger and the start of a community. Most powerfully it also underscores the promise of a reprise. When the prophet did eventually return to Mecca he performed the first Islamic pilgrimage enacting the rites that millions replicate annually. 

Odyssey, exodus, flight; It would be errant to overlook the notion of pilgrimage as part of the suite of words to which émigré is embedded. While a cursory understanding of pilgrimage could reduce it to travel, its ritual significance is far more enlightening. Anthropologists have argued pilgrimage is a leap into a liminal space, a betwixt and between encounter with an ambiguous status. As the pilgrim sets off to their destination, they enter a ritual space where the journey is part of the spiritual process. Historically pilgrimages were fraught with hardship and uncertainty. Not simply the discomfort of prostrations, disrupted sleep, and unusual food. Disease, bandits, and spiralling costs meant that a pilgrim might spend months or even years on the road. Indeed, some of the very first travel writing comes to us from pilgrims recounting their trials. Historically, for some small Muslim communities in Malaysia and Indonesia, the completion of the Hajj was a source of shared pride. The modern transformation of pilgrimage is manifold enabling pilgrims to make their pious plans on a budget with ease. New imaginings of spirituality also recast pilgrimage as a complex amalgam of sightseeing, dark tourism, and bucket list checks. The modern pilgrim is just as likely to be photographing iconic movie locations in San Francisco as they are to be jetting to the Vatican.

Just Around the Corner and Far, Far Away

Perhaps the most evocative motif of the émigré is the parochial one. Invoking another Ulysses, this time that of James Joyce, allows us to consider the day tripper treading the streets of their own familiar city. In a microcosm our mundane daily routines reveal us as condensed émigrés in a localised cosmos no less significant or potent for chance and serendipity than the world at large. The lesson from this is that even the most insignificant journey is fecund for transformation. The alternative is that the traveller disengaged from their choices, orientation, and destination is merely a passenger. 

The émigré speaks of a choice. Choosing neither to be anchored or adrift. Leaving is akin to progression; momentum. A moving forward in time and space. An outward centripetal impetus magnetised with an enduring sense of origin. It can be argued that the word is really about renewal and re-invention. But never at the cost of losing what has come before. The palimpsest is once again evocative in this understanding, a life’s work with the traces evident and apparent. The émigré shows the workings, they have a history, yet they are forward facing. They return to their origin as a new destination, they are exiles, pilgrims, travellers, and entrepreneurs.

It is twilight and the émigré reaches for his tools. They are crude and perfunctory, truly instrumental. He gathers the paste as its potent smell lingers in the frigid air, awakening his nostrils and senses alike. Working by the dim but animate fire light that keeps the night country abated outside. He conjures the image in his mind and brushes the stone with a burgundy pigment. As the image becomes visible, a small miracle has unfolded. An idea has taken form. A disembarking from a prior state that is forever transformed. Something has been communicated, an idea has travelled.  


Benjamin, Walter (2002) The Arcades Project, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Carr, Ian (2009) Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, Da Capo Press.

Kiberd, Declan (2010) Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce's Masterpiece, W. W. Norton & Company

Listen to Miles Davis live in Paris in 1949 on Apple Music or Spotify


About Paul O’Connor - Writer

Paul O’Connor lectures in Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Exeter, and is Adjunct Assistant Professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. He is author of the books Islam in Hong Kong (2012) and Skateboarding and Religion (2020).

About Melanie Garcia – Artist

Melanie Garcia is a Filipino-Canadian collage artist and costumer for film. Her works have been exhibited in Canada, Netherlands, Iceland, and Norway. When not pushing little pieces of paper Melanie offers art workshops to youth in and around Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal.