Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home"

Besides the Psalms, Song of Solomon, Job, Ecclesiastes, and other books in our well-worn Bible, I remember only one book of "poetry" in my childhood years at home in Kansas: the folksy, kitschy verse of a transplanted Brit, Edgar A. Guest, who spent 40 years in Michigan writing thousands of poems for books, newspapers, radio broadcasts, and even TV.  His most famous line is quoted above as title of this piece, and is taken from his best loved poem, "Home."

My relationship with housing has been exceptionally promiscuous.  I was born at home, not in a hospital.  And in the course of eight decades I have made my home in small and large houses, condos, coops, and apartments--in cities, suburbs, and countryside.  I have also lived in a dorm room, a mobile home, 2 basements, above a garage, in 2 garages (made into an apartment), 2 boats, a treehouse,  in Maine, Manhattan, France (Paris, Nice), Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Long Island, Flushing, California, Maryland, and, given the boating adventures, every state between Maine and Florida.  So where/what is home?

Though I have lived in scores of houses, from one point of view (the bucolic-Romantic construals of Gaston Bachelard and Martin Heidegger), I have mostly been homeless.  Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, which is assigned in many schools of architecture, argued that a "home," properly so called, requires a house with three levels, set in nature.  The basement, locus of the irrational, fears, and alimentary provisions, is balanced at the other pole by the attic, which provides a long view, an assessment of the grounds and building as a whole. These poles sandwich the main floor, where living, effort, work, and sociality reign.  Plato's social anthropology is thus echoed with its tri-level division of lower appetites (irrationalities), "thoracic" willful action (heart, lungs, arms), crowned by the sublimity of the soul and its Reason--just as the State is best organized by a hierarchy of the appetitive workers under the courageous military class, both governed by the rational dictates of the philosopher-king. More than two thousand years later, Freud proposed his own three-level analysis of the person as an ordering of unconscious drives under the supervision of the dictates of the ego, and both checked by the conscious strictures of the superego "above." Anyone with a passing knowledge of Western culture could immediately supply myriad parallels in Dante, Milton, Wagnerian operas and children's fairy tales--not to mention contemporary movies, video games, and travel guides.

I come honestly to my own default preference for this topomythology: my birth-home, and those of my grandparents and neighbors in Kansas and Oklahoma were--or were intended to be--of this sort, though many had only a root-cellar, and most had no second story, though there were aspirations when budgets (rarely) allowed.  Our current house is a small Victorian with full basement, main floor (living/cooking/socializing), second floor (sleeping/bathing/offices), and an attic floor (art studio). I am always more comfortable seeing "nature" from my windows: in Kansas it was our Victory Garden, livestock pens, and weedy fields. Now it is our gardens, lawn, the many trees that line the streets, and the large wooded park across the street.  Heidegger--as one might have anticipated from his monumental Being and Time, and his patrimony of southern German peasant stock and agricultural preoccupations--carried aspects of such meditations into some core ideas of his later work, in his  Building, Dwelling, Thinking (1954), in which "dwelling" comes to assume the central role in the "unfolding of Being."
"[H]uman being consists in dwelling and, indeed, dwelling in the sense of the stay of mortals on the earth...But ‘on the earth’ already means ‘under the sky.’ Both of these also mean ‘remaining before the divinities’ and include a ‘belonging to men's being with one another.’ By a primal oneness the four—earth and sky, divinities and mortals—belong together in one."
Dwelling is being at home, where one "has a place." This sense of place is what grounds Heidegger's notion of spatiality.  In dwelling, then, human existence is located within a set of practices that are "familiar,"   Being has us in unfolding within the "four-fold" of earth/sky/gods/mortals, and the poet and "thinker" can be our only real guides in this risking by means of language.  By a scandalous oversimplification, I'll risk saying that this simply means that we have no access to the world apart from our situation:  Dream as we may about knowing God, nature, ourselves and others by access to the Absolute, history, science, revelation, reason, or intuition, we are still, always in the limited here and now of living as experiencing bodies standing on the earth and under the heavens.

It seems obvious to me that a major weakness in the views of Bachelard and Heidegger stems from their ethnocentrism.  I would be surprised to find that people from non-European cultures, and people from epochs at great remove from the 20th century, would find any recognition of these definitions of "home." Eskimos? South Pacific islanders? Brazilian jungle dwellers? African tribal peoples? Native Americans--from the 6th, 12th, or 18th century? Such people could hardly respond to the mythic structures indicated with any sense of resonance! Children from tower coops in bustling New York City would likely find Heidegger's beloved peasant hut in Bavaria a prime candidate for representing hell. Circumnavigating sailors find "home" on the high seas: Vita Dumas, leaving the turmoils of Argentina felt comfort in returning to the rolling oceans, as did Moitessier as he began his second consecutive circumnavigation, passing the point of turning northward towards "home" to finish the race in England, in favor of sailing on to eventually reach the south Pacific islands.

Another sometimes overlooked flaw in the view of domesticity as a peaceable kingdom was developed, after Bachelard, by Foucault, who rightly noted that not all "homes," reflect anything like "dwelling in the harmonic fourfold."  Rather, many such spaces can be wrenching, disruptive, victimizing and illusory. Prisoners under surveillance are not dwelling, as Erving Goffman's heartbreaking analysis of life in "total institutions"--the military, hospitals, prisons, residential schools, and, indeed, patriarchal families--spells out in his catalog of the defining behaviors and rituals of institutions of 24-hour control.

But this is hardly the place to explore further the range and depths of this detour into Heidegger's work. Nevertheless, if one can get past the uncomfortable echoes of Nazi ideologies of blood and soil (Blud und Boden), it can be instructive to spend some time with Heidegger's texts on this matter--which do go beyond the simple germanic mysticisms of the 19th century.

If I read the European etymology correctly, however, there is a nice irony in the choice of "dwelling" as the core idea of one's thinking about the notion of "home." (This point is my own pure speculation.)

"Dwelling": Old English dwellan "to mislead, deceive," originally "to make a fool of, lead astray," from Proto-Germanic  dwaljanan (cf. Old Norse dvöl "delay,"dvali "sleep;" Middle Dutch dwellen "to stun, make giddy, perplex;" Old High German twellen "to hinder, delay;" Danish dvale "trance, stupor,"dvaelbær "narcotic berry," source of Middle English dwale "nightshade"),from PIE dhwel-, from root dheu- (1) "dust, cloud, vapor, smoke" (and related notions of "defective perception or wits"). Related to Old English gedweola "error, heresy, madness." Sense shifted in Middle English through "hinder, delay," to "linger" (c.1200, as still in phrase to dwell upon), to "make a home" (mid-13c.).   [!]
Perhaps human development from nomadic hunting/gathering societies into animals who communicate, cultivate, and construct in a fixed place (who dwell), is unconsciously portrayed in linguistic changes as the result of a series of errors, mistakes, and confusions.  Born nomads and travelers, the species becomes confused, unhinged  (perhaps by means of herbal drugs and stress), and start to wander in circles, falling into trances, losing their minds, and finally "settling," putting down roots, building permanent shelters, adopting laws--and make themselves "at home"?  Such a hypothesis might shed light on the human desire to travel (think of all those songs about "ramblin'," rolling stones, the billions spent on travel and transport, the horrors of "cabin fever," the punishment in imprisonment and "time-outs," as well as the fascination with space travel, jet-men, star treks, and "cruising."

The astronomical dimension of travel obsession is perhaps an echo of a darker meaning of "home."
"This world is not my home.
I'm just a passin' through.
My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me 
From heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home
In this world anymore."
For millions and millions of people of religious conviction, home=death.
"Goin' home." "God called her home."  Such people see themselves crossing the Jordan, passing into the comfort of sweet death to rock in the bosom of Abraham.

As I said earlier, "I have been homeless for a good part of my life--IF home is staying in a fixed place, a place with a proper natural surround, a basement, an attic, etc.--and if Edgar Guest is right that one must stay there long enough to accumulate a "heap o' livin'," by which he means marriages, births, deaths, illnesses, crises, triumphs, shared epiphanies, gardens kept, generations established. In spite of lacking so many of its "markers," I have always felt "at home," in so many different dwellings and circumstances--trailers, boats, one-level flats, cramped rooms, spacious multi-level villas, garden apartments, urban tenements, alone, in pairs, in groups, en famille.

We are torn, ambivalent, nostalgic, homesick for ..something else...(saudade, sehnsucht, eleutheromania, ecophobia, resfeber), yet we dream always of getting home, when we are "away."  We picture the "cottage small by a waterfall," a fire in the hearth, our loved ones around us, food smells from the kitchen, sturdy shelter from the cold and storm, and rush out to buy the nearest god-awful painting by Thomas Kinkade, choose equally awful greeting cards to lie to each other about our feelings, and put up hundreds of photos on Facebook to make a branding, communal "selfie" depicting the endless series of victories and perfections that have blessed us and our domestic progeny.  On one hand, we fetishize home, by advertising home-cooked, home-made, home-spun, "make yourself at home," "no place like home," and refer to friends as "homeys." On the other hand we speak of an unattractive person as "homely," and are advised by realtors to stage our houses for quick sale, by erasing all "homey" touches, and emphasizing clean, slick, hard, and technological surfaces.  We're told to avoid, "quaint," "cozy," "unusual," in ads and told to talk about stainless steel, granite, and sleek. Perhaps LeCorbusier's definition of a dwelling as a "machine for living" has won the culture wars? Perhaps it is a Freudian fear of animalistic contamination?  Or perhaps it is the longing for a jet or rocket to carry us away (with a suitably re-manufactured partner) to a simpler, faster, joyous, speedy life, without the travails of illness, cleaning, death, schedules, lists, and eternal sameness.  All of this makes for the possibility of a new nostalgia.  Families 40 to 50 years ago, after an evening sitting in front of the TV,  mourned the loss of the family table and hearth, where shared stories brought the brood together. Now families text one another while watching commercial programming on 6 different device screens in separate rooms or vehicles, to mourn the loss of the family gathered around the TV to watch "All In the Family" or "The Ed Sullivan Show."

I grew up listening to "O, give me a home, where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play," and had no trouble imagining "home on the range."
I chose a life of always moving.  At my retirement ceremony, a colleague and old friend noted that anyone who knew me had learned to enter my name in their address book in pencil, since it changed so often.  Later I synthesized the two poles of home and travel by the not-so-simple solution of living on a boat! Home on the range became home on the waterways.  Like turtles, tortoises and mollusks, we took our home with us, cruising in comfort from port to port to anchorage, snug in the familiar confines of cabin, cockpit, galley, and vee-berth, but blown next day by wind (or diesel engine) to a new town, new people, new seascapes and challenges.  It was the closest I ever got to a solution to this human dilemma.  By suffering the intellectual and physical confines of early life in Kansas and Oklahoma and Indiana, I absorbed the subliminal message that moving always made things better.  And the bonus was a palpable sense of freedom.  "I can always just leave." "Start over."  Much later, Sartre and DeBeauvoir provided the theoretical armature I needed to rationalize these obsessions: consciousness IS freedom.  Even the prisoner chained to a wall can always to some extent recontextualize his plight.

Having a home is then, in my view, nothing more than being embodied.  "I" am all the relationships that bind me to my "surroundings," including those of fantasy, memory, hope, and imagination.  I carry my home in my (extended) body, in a way somewhat analogous to the sailor in his boat.  Having absorbed the efforts, distances, motions required to navigate my house, my neighborhood, my decade, my fellow human beings, I am "at home," thus embodying all those cliches of dwelling peaceably: familiarity, safety, affection, satisfaction, emotional attachment, and sharing--a domain that extends from the erotic to the cosmic and back again.  There may never be anyone truly "homeless" in this sense (though no one denies the tragedy of human beings without shelter--especially in rich, industrial countries.)  Sometimes it is quite enough to have one's "clean, well-lighted place," a "room of one's own," a wild duck in the attic, or a vee-berth after a hard day's sail.

However, there is that lurking shadow of having finished my 70s, and approaching the inevitable end of consciousness, of living.  Death awaits us all. That death is bodily death, so there is no place, no need, for a home after death, though we are sold (by religion, and various death industries) the idea of making ourselves comfortable in our "eternal rest." and have to cope with offers of paying to have eternal Muzak piped into our well-appointed mausoleums.  My eschatology can be summarized by the great philosopher, Rodney Dangerfield: "A girl phoned me the other day and said... 'Come on over, there's nobody home.' I went over. Nobody was home."

So what are we to do before that day?  Keep moving, even if "in place." The grim reaper will always win the race, eventually ("Always at my back I hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near...") But he occasionally stumbles, gets the address wrong, has second thoughts, so I remember that he can't really run that fast with that stupid hoody flopping around his knees, and carrying that heavy and inefficient scythe.  Besides, as the Stoics knew long, long ago: "Where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not."

* * *

Coda: so here I AM, where death is "not yet."  And where I am truly "at home." We have now lived more than ten years in this little haven in Portland; home has manifested itself in deep ways in the feel, views, smells, and familiarities of this house with its hearth and books, its busy kitchen, its gardens built and tended by F., its stairs, offices, and studio, its shop, tools, garages and fencing, its art and computers, its stained glass and music hanging in the air.  It feels like home, perhaps most of all, those cold winter evenings, after a good dinner, when we sit for a few minutes by the fire in the library, almost ready to climb the stairs to bed.  And, again, next morning, when I have started the coffee as first sunlight streams into the kitchen through the giant oak branches next door.  For me, home is a day well-lived with my love, and us in our place at the day's center, as it opens to unknown paths.