Edward Snowden in limbo: Culturally, it’s a familiar story

Correction: This article originally misstated the amount of time Tom Hanks’s character in “The Terminal” lived in an airport. It was roughly nine months, not 18 years. This version has been corrected.

July 2, 2013

He fled the United States for Hong Kong, then left Hong Kong for Russia. Now he’s withdrawn his request for political asylum there without having received a guarantee of safe harbor anywhere else. All of which leaves NSA leaker Edward Snowden sitting in a Moscow airport in a kind of legal limbo, with no country (thus far) willing to take him in and no home country (the United States) to which he can return.

If the American fugitive’s bizarre tale sounds familiar, here’s why. Style’s critics remind us that it echoes themes from popular music, literature, art, movies and more.

The Terminal— Based on the real-life story of Iranian refu­gee Mehran Karimi Nasseri, Tom Hanks’s character, Viktor Navorski, is stuck in a diplomatic limbo after the outbreak of civil war in his fictional homeland, Krakozhia. Unable to leave or return to his native land because his identity papers are missing, Navorski is forced to call a New York City airport home for about nine months.

Kanye West, “Lost in the World” — The penultimate track from West’s 2010 masterpiece, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” documented the rapper’s attempt to calm his turbulent headspace after a notorious outburst at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Fittingly, the album was largely recorded in the relative seclusion of the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

Brian Eno, “Music for Airports ”— Conceived by Eno as a way to improve the bustling, unpleasant atmosphere of an airport, his ambient music aims to calm aggravated, anxious travelers.

Elliott Carter’s “What Next?— Carter’s only opera, composed when he was 90, explores how six victims find themselves in a state of limbo following a car crash. Not quite sure where or who they are, they must work together to discover their identities and what happened.

Edward Hopper — The realist painter commonly featured deeply lonely and defeated-looking characters in transit.

No Exit— The existential play about Hell, penned by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, depicts three dammed souls forced to spend eternity together.

Five Characters in Search of An Exit— The title of this 1961 episode of “The Twilight Zone” TV series appears to be a mashup of Sartre’s “No Exit” and Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” The episode itself maintains the expected existential angst: An Army major awakens in a metal cylinder, with no memory of how he got there. In Wikipedia’s plot description, one of the four characters he meets, a ballerina, says: “We are in the darkness . . . [with] no understanding of what is now, no knowledge of what will be.”

Raymond Moore — The postwar British landscape photographer captured somewhat-bleak, black-and-white English landscapes and deserted roads.

Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 — The six-hour modern classical piece creates an atmosphere of meditative stillness, with lots of subtlety and repetition. Snowden would have plenty of time to appreciate its nuances.

Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo” — The lyrics of the song, performed by the reggae master on 1972’s “The Harder They Come, The Harder They Fall,” speak for themselves:

Sitting here in Limbo

Like a bird ain’t got a song

Yeah, I’m sitting here in Limbo

And I know it won’t be long.

I don’t know where life will take me,

But I know where I have been

I don’t know what life will show me,

But I know what I have seen.

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