The familiar lane is rutted with two deep truck tracks. “This always happens when it rains,” I think, and worry about getting stuck until I remember that the rain was two days ago and the ruts would have hardened by now, forming a two-lane trail to the farmhouse, Grandma’s house, “Grandma in the country.” Grandma is 85; Grandpa died last year, age 87. Grandma knows my daughter, Heidi, one of her 16 great-grandchildren, and we are coming, paying her a day-long visit during one of our infrequent trips home. Home is Colorado; home will always be Colorado. As Grandma would put it, “So that’s the way it is.”
Because our visit is anticipated, the kitchen will be suffused with rich aromas: the famous rye bread; the renowned chicken soup with “butterballs” (made of fine bread crumbs, held together with “real” cream and butter, molded into two bite-size nuggets, set afloat in golden broth); the notoriously delicious “Revel Kuga” (a sweet roll dough crust, topped with fresh cherries and a butter crumb mixture). The aromas are as I expect them to be, as I have expected them to be for as long as I can remember. Grandma, her back permanently bowed over from the effects of hard stoop labor in the fields, all those years of bending to hoe sugar beets, her gray hair cut short now as the bowed back makes brushing long hair and winding it into a bun difficult, greets us with a hug, a kiss, and the repeated words, “So good to see you. So glad you could come. I love all my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. All.”
Having fed us, Grandma shows us the collection of quilts she’s made since we were in Colorado last year. Her quilts get bolder, positively psychedelic, with each passing year, as if advanced age and the nearness of death have released a long dormant romantic dimension in her soul. She asks Heidi to pick out the one she likes best so she can take it back with her. Heidi whispers to me, “I already have so many. Oh well, this one is so beautiful. I’ll use it as a wall-hanging at Pratt.”
Then Heidi and her great-grandmother move to the sewing table. Out comes the familiar sewing kit. Heidi is urged to pick out “any buttons you want” and to select bits of lace or anything else that “might come in handy” for her own sewing. I don’t sew so I stand by and watch the discussion of the honorable craft of creating things of beauty and utility to provide envelopes for our bodies or warmth for our beds. I glance at the wall and notice the baptismal, confirmation, and wedding certificates and the citizenship papers, the markers of a long life lived in intimate communion with others. I mark once again Grandma’s pride and her intensity, her conviction that she has lived a good life and a productive one, and that her one wish now, that keen desire that keeps the fires of her life burning, is that her heritage of crafts and wisdom and piety and goodness be passed on directly by her, now to great-grandchildren.
Later we pay a visit to the outdoor “cellar,” a sunken stone structure, always cool, and Grandma shows Heidi where we used to “put up” catsup and sauerkraut and sausage in the summer, done less frequently now in this cellar though they are not entirely forgotten, and have not been displaced totally by supermarket packages and plasticized fare. We return to the kitchen—this is the ritual—and Grandma delivers her homilies. She moved into this mode of direct “telling” when the clan grew older and a few went away and visits by some came less often. The wisdom that is hers, the symbols and values and rules that animate her life and make it make “sense,” now must be imparted directly in gentle but firm perorations.
Once, when the family gathered ’round every Sunday, when there were fewer and less far-flung members. Grandma didn’t need to rely on homilies. Her principles were imbedded in her daily activities. Her commitment to family honor, decency, sharing, helping one’s neighbor, tending to the sick and needy, and honest hard work was visible for all to witness. But now she uses little stories and parables to impart these values to those family members who rarely witness them “in action,” including a great-granddaughter from “the East.” Grandma tells the story of the devastating flu pandemic of 1919 (“I think it was, or 1920, right in there”) when she went off, placing herself in peril, to nurse some neighbors. One whole family was down with the flu. Two children and the mother died. Grandma tended to the sick and the dying and buried the dead. She ends this tale of tragedy and heroism with simple words, “To have a friend you have to be one. So that’s the way it is.” Heidi and I nod and say, “Yes Grandma, that’s right.” And it is right.
Late afternoon now. Time for tea and “Handy Self Cake” and then we depart. Grandma worries if people stay too late; night driving concerns her. All these years and she’s scarcely reconciled to the automobile. As for airplanes, “You’d never get me in one of those things. Never. Right here I’m gonna stay. Nobody will ever get me out of this place.” Nobody will. Who would dare to try?
Home is a beloved landscape located in a historic time and space and in inner space. Homelessness is an absence, a fissure, where a rich and particular world ought to be. Intimate spaces, intimate places, my corner of the world. Home is the particular domain of intimacy, a landscape in which rich emotion, “psychic weight,” is dominant. Yet home implodes: images of home are carried with us, out into a world we experience as alien or feel more or less at home in. Countries become homelands. Nations are conceived as large and frequently warring families. The universe itself may take on a fierce and alien hue—cosmic homelessness, black holes in space compressing, entrapping, making things disappear. Or the sense of an ordered world, a cosmic meaningfulness may predominate because God, in the words of Albert Einstein, “does not play dice with the universe.”
Perhaps if we understand what it is to be “at home” in a beloved landscape, concrete and particular, we can understand intimacy as the content of a particular kind of relation that such a landscape makes possible. Gaston Bachelard might call this “topoanalysis,” “the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives.” The house, the image of home, draws things unto itself; it encloses. Home both constrains and “makes possible”—this it has in common with other complex cultural forms. Home is an intensely inhabited space. It is the evocative memory of that intensity in space that forms the basis of “home” as time remembered (time past) and as time present (psychic time).
There is, there must be, something “natural” about the way in which human beings have, in every culture, every place, every time, set about creating homes for themselves: protected spaces within which the shape of their face-to-face relations could be structured and given form and texture. In Mary Midgeley’s words, the notion of being “at home” is actually a rather modest idea. “It does not mean having an environment that has been especially designed for you. It means having one where you belong.” And human beings cannot belong just any place, for human beings start out their lives as helpless, dependent creatures who need protected spaces and places in order to grow up at all. The original image of the “abandoned” child is of a child “exposed,” left on a hillside to starve, to perish from the elements, to be eaten by wild animals. A child without a home, homelessness, exposure, abandonment—the powerful themes and images cluster together. That they do so speaks to something very primitive, very deep; it goes to the core of what it means to be a human person and to have a human culture.
Home is specific. Homes speak to, and of, our need for roots. Uprootedness, like homelessness, signifies the death of the spirit, the travail of the body, the curse of history. We require the rootedness that the form and idea of home provides in order to grow up with a sense of ourselves as particular, unique, and worthy beings, and, ideally, to see others as our fellows, not enemies, not foes, not that which stands in our way and must be destroyed. For the bitterly homeless are disruptive; they would destroy that which they can feel only as an absence, a negation of self We know that it is only through the child’s special relationships to specific others (the family, in the home) that he or she can later identify with and reach out to others—”enhouse” a wider universe, “familiarize” a social space that stretches beyond the walls and doors and windows of this house, this home, these particular people.
The home is a work of culture. It is culture—one of the forms within which culture itself takes shape. How does this work? The home is a particular and specific place; an incubating chamber, a launching pad, at times a prison. But it is necessary—as necessary to the creation of a human life, to the possibility of intimacy as life lived rather than longed-for, as the air we breathe. Some people are very unlucky in their homes. Some homes are battlegrounds rather than nurturing spaces. But this is the human condition, to be struggled against in its particular abuses, but no more to be lamented as a misfortune than is the fact that the sun fails to shine 24 hours a day. Midgeley writes:
Some people do feel that the proper thing would be to bring children up without a culture till they came to years of discretion, and then let them choose. This would mean bringing children up without a home; without intimacy, which gets under the skin, penetrates, shapes and forms the very tissue and fiber, muscle and sinew, of our being. But children who are held apart from life, or rushed from one set of people to another, no fixed abode, modern homelessness as the frenetic race between houses, temporary watering holes, do not become exceptionally capable of choosing. You can choose only between given alternatives, and to grasp any alternative you need years of acclimatization and practice in choosing from one particular set, in seeing what choices amount to. And to need to learn to hold on to something. All this is not a misfortune. A culture is a way of awakening our faculties. People proficient in one culture can usually make some sense of another. There is no prison. We can always walk on if we want to enough. What we cannot do is something which is no loss—namely, be nobody and nowhere. [Emphasis hers].
Nobody and nowhere. Searching for intimacy, never to find it because it requires a home. Our need for a home should guide us, should tell us something about ourselves, above what happens to us when familiar landscapes disappear—the disorientation, the shock, the sense that I come from “nowhere” when my home is “gone” give us further knowledge of ourselves as home bodies.
Robbed of memory, dislocated in time, the history of our real intimate memories comes to seem abstract. We find it hard to call them our own. We find it hard to call anything our own, to connect with anyone because the spirit has not been, or has not remained, enhoused. Home “makers” make possible a certain sort of love and that love is at the basis of human culture, the work of Eros, not the destruction of Thanatos. This is a recognition that Antonio Gramsci seems to have come to toward the end of his life when he wrote,
How many times have I wondered if it is really possible to forge links with a mass of people when one has never had strong feelings for anyone, not even one’s parents; if it is possible to love a collectivity when one has not been deeply loved oneself, by individual human creatures. Hasn’t this had some effect on my life as a militant, has it not tended to make me sterile and reduce my quality as a revolutionary by making everything a matter of intellect, or mere magical calculation.
We need to reclaim home as a special social space that makes possible a wider civil life. Without this immediate and particular home the human spirit becomes a restless and dangerous creature seeking victims. That destructiveness is our best clue to the lacuna where home ought to be and the black hole in mind and spirit that it is. If we lack the reliable knowledge of self and other that home, and its intimacy, is capable of providing, we will never be “at home” in the larger world, we will never understand, nor be able to interpret, the expressions and actions, words and deeds, of others. If nobody in particular has been family, no one can be truly familiar. Without knowledge firsthand of what home stands for we would all become flailing and formless beasts rampaging outside the corral rather than grazing, together, within it.
Individuals need the particular spirit of the Pentates to breathe cultural life into them as individuals and send them on their way—away from home but not into a homeless world. For home becomes an inner landscape, and we can reach out to enclose others within that landscape rather than to shut them out, shunt them aside, or kill them, if necessary, if they come too near, or seem too alien.
The first home: where hearth is, and heart too. But the heart is also at home in that culture with which we are on intimate terms. This is our own culture, most of the time, though there are some who feel alienated from the cultural homes their own nations or countries or people provide and offer. Alienation, anomie; two markers of the modern condition. (No doubt markers of every previous epoch as well, but alienation and anomie are the flip side of our mass, reckless, rootless search for intimacy. They describe us; intimacy defines what we want. But who knows what we need?)
The term my grandmother uses to describe her people and herself is unsere Leute, our people, a people, in her case, without a country but with a distinctive and authentic historic identity. She would never see herself as (could not see herself, could not be on intimate terms with) some abstraction like “class”; always her “peoplehood” is paramount. “Our people’s” way of life was threaded through and through by a populist pietism—a deeply rooted animus against experts (“big shots,” to my Grandma) and the too powerful (“pride goeth before a fall and some of them guys are gonna fall hard, just you wait”), and the too rich (“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God”). This pietism cautioned against judging things by appearance only; stressed responsibility to and for my life as a social life lived among others towards whom I had duties and responsibilities; advocated going the “extra mile” (the Good Samaritan parable here) and tempering justice with mercy (“the Prodigal Son” comes in at this point).
Grandma is on intimate terms with the culture of unsere Leute. Then she enters another culture, one in which market images of human beings as calculators of marginal utility prevails. None of the values of “our people” mesh neatly with the needs of capitalism; indeed, they clash at nearly every point along the way. This is the clash of truly intimate cultures—organic communities composed of face-to-face relations, both tight and restrictive, solid and nurturing—with the dissolving acids of modernity. The ties of such communities were seen, by those philosophies that spun off (and out of control) from Enlightenment rationalism and 19th-century historic myths of progress, as precisely what we all needed to be “liberated from.” Such enlightened, progressive beings would be “at home” in the wider universe; they needed no particular place, no particular space: they would be at home in the universal ether, in a deracinated universal consciousness. For my grandmother the “I” of the self was always a “we,” located within a larger web of intimate human ties and those responsibilities that, for her, flowed from such ties. She can no more think of herself out of the tissue of unsere Leute than she can fly. These ties of community were much eroded and altered by the forces of liberalism and capitalism that emerged historically in tandem and that realized, in practice, awesome possibilities for good and ill unthinkable in older social worlds.
What was forgotten was that social bonds of particular and intimate kinds structure human lives; that true human communication, and therefore human wit and warmth and intelligence, develops only where there are these longstanding deep relationships, only where there are homes for the heart. This is the basis of community; this is community—commitment, over time, in settings that include (though they may not be defined exclusively by) intimate relations, commitments, possibilities, responsibilities. There is no way to derive a true home—either in the particular or the more general sense of a community—through rational individualism and the image of totally self-reliant, totally independent human beings that emerged with the rise of capitalism and modern relations of exchange. There is what political theorists have called a “possessive” quality in the conception of the individual as it emerged in the West in the past three hundred years. The individual, stripped of his or her intimate ties (and thereby, it turns out, of both home add culture), was viewed as the owner of himself and, in our day, herself. This individual is free only insofar as he or she is the sole “proprietor” of self, free from dependence upon others, free to do or become anything so long as no external constraint forbids it. Society got construed as the aggregate of such free individuals engaging in relations of mutually beneficial exchange through utilitarian calculations and power strategies. The social contract, which cannot allow for the particular commitments of intimacy, supplanted the older notion of the social compact, which created places and spaces for intimacy.
The social compact is a very different notion from that of contract and it is a vision that has a lingering hold, in America, on working-class, religious, and rural culture. A compact is not a contingent agreement having instrumental aims (intimacy cannot be reduced to stratagems, tricks, manipulations, and wiles), but a solemn commitment to create something “new.” This “new” group gets forged on the heart of a presumed and lived intimacy out of disparate elements—a family, a community, a polity—whose individual members could not remain “as before” once they became part of an exquisitely social mode of existence. The notion of the social compact is of a community whose members share purposes and values that are enforced by moral suasion, not by coercion or manipulation. The idea of the compact, suffused with possibilities and requirements for intimate relations, challenges contractual images that dominate in our day and propel us into the world on a search for intimacy that, by definition, cannot take root in the soil of modern dislocation. The compact locates the human being within a historic and communal framework bounded by birth and death.
Unlike the picture of reality of social contract theorists, the compact ideal takes account of the varying needs of human beings over a lifetime. Contract theory and possessive individualism, however, are static views; they revolve around consenting, choosing, rational adults who, in principle, could love everybody equally (or not) and could lead a life having no preference among them. Such beings “may be in a sense conceivable to us, but they are certainly not imaginable.” That is why the form of intimacy dissolves when we grab books that tell us how to “get it” or “do it” or “have it.” For intimacy cannot, simply, be had. It isn’t a good on a shelf ready for the plucking and the buying. It emerges in and through our culture or it emerges not at all.
Having a culture and feeling intimate with it, however, does not mean feeling at “one”; that is, one can feel at home (I am an American), yet not fully share the prevailing social identity, perhaps because one fears that total absorption into the dominant culture will erode the terms on which one defines oneself in a particular subculture or set of social relation (families, ethnic groups, unsere Leute, for example). Or perhaps because the culture no longer sustains powerful self-definitions. Having shaped and formed a certain social identity, so that one feels “at home” in it, suddenly the terms shift. We awaken to the shock that either our selves are no longer on the same intimate terms with the culture that initially spawned us, or that we can no longer feel at home with those selves given shifts in cultural trajectory, force, and impetus.