The Plight of the Homeless, Part One
In one of Douglas Addams’ very silly books, Zaphod Beeblebrox, the egocentric two-headed president of the universe, is condemned to undergo the ordeal of the Total Perspective Vortex. It is an excruciating form of torture that exposes the criminal to a sense of the infinite size of the universe and his own small place in it. The result is the annihilation of the self. The device was designed by a scientist who got tired of his wife telling him to put things in perspective. The nagging wife might just as well have been Adam Smith or William Godwin or any one of the liberal philosophers who insist that he look at ourselves as an impartial spectator or extraterrestrial would.
Liberals preach perspective, Epicureans advise indifference to friends and nation, and Buddhists long for Nirvana. Today it is principally Christians, who insist upon a sense of place. Our universe is filled with special places: this earth, to which God deigned to send his son, the land of Judea where He was born and Galilee, which he regarded as home, the cities of the Greeks that gave us our civilization, and Rome, still the urbs aeterna, the seat of an empire of which our world, so full of itself and little else, is the merest afterthought.
But when most of us think of place, it is not Rome or Bethlehem we have in mind, but the place we came from. But how many of us live in the town, much less the home in which we grew up? In American towns like Rockford or Charleston, to name only two of the places I have lived in, the bright and ambitious are expected to move off to Chicago and Atlanta, or, better still, New York and Los Angeles. Small towns, even small cities are for the losers, and Garrison Keillor may continue to bleat, in adenoidal tones, his saccharine tales of Lake Wobegone, but it is from the safe distance of St. Paul, New York, and Scandinavia.
John Crowe Ransom attributed much of America’s cultural and spiritual malaise to the refusal to settle down, and it is true that many of the great American heroes have been drifters: Christopher Columbus, Captain John Smith, Daniel Boone, Johnny Appleseed, to say nothing of Charles Lindbergh and Alan Shepherd, who are known principally for their dramatic exits from America. Americans, as we learned in school so long ago, were hardy adventurers who packed a Bible, a spare shirt, and two chickens, and headed off, in search of adventure, to the New World.
This theme, however, has been overplayed. Outside of fairy tales and Arthurian romances, few men are foolish enough to go on quests. Most of our ancestors were near the end of their ropes—in a few cases this was literally true—and they were looking for cheap land and the opportunity to make a fresh start. Once they arrived, they quickly put down roots. Although some hardy Celts pushed off to the Appalachian frontier, most settlers who had good land held on to it. We like to think of America as a youthful country, but, by the time of the Revolution, Englishmen had been living in Virginia for nearly 170 years, and many leaders of the rebellion—Washington and Jefferson, the Adamses, the Rutledges and Laurenses—were deeply rooted in the soil of Virginia, Massachusetts, and Carolina.
The exceptions, perhaps, prove the rule: the displaced Yankee rake Ben Franklin and that tax-collector without a country, Tom Paine. Both of them were afflicted with the Enlightenment fantasies of objective rationalism that have done so much to undermine the sense of place and loyalty our ancestors brought with them from Old Europe. Men of the late 18th century, following the philosophers, were learning to liberate themselves from prejudice and superstition, as they called tradition and religion, and to see the universe, not as the creation of a God who made the world and saw that it was good, but as a vast mechanical system in which the place of man was very small, and the place of the individual man infinitesimal.
Enthusiasts for the French Revolution were no longer interested in improving a single nation. Democracy in one nation was reactionary. The true radicals, like Tom Paine and his friend Anacharsis Clootz, had to be citizens of the world. Clootz, proclaiming the “nullity of nations,” headed the foreign delegation to the French National Assembly. As an Hébertiste, he suffered the penalty his party would have inflicted on much of France. His buddy Paine narrowly escaped the same fate and died in America, one of his many homelands. His demise in Greenwich Village seems to have cursed the place to this day and made it the natural home of bad painters and worse writers. Paine was buried in unconsecrated ground on his own farm, but his arch-nemesis William Cobbett, in a fit of uncharacteristic and inappropriate generosity, had the corpse dug up and brought to England for burial in a patriotic monument he intended to construct. Since Britain refused to rescind the order of outlawry passed upon a disloyal subject, the bones of the wandering taxman had to pass into the hands of a receiver. Sic semper omnibus rerum novarum molitoribus!
Even Tom Paine grew tired of his life as perpetual revolutionary and represented himself as a respectable American man of property. There are even stories that he repented of his atheism on his deathbed. What did he have to lose? Young men are thrilled to discover that their parents and ancestors are wrong on all the essentials, but, as the blood cools and they no longer think themselves immortal, they begin to hear the sad old music, reminding them how briefly they walk upon the earth, how faint are the footprints they leave. “Why ask after my ancestry?” is Glaucus’ famous reply to Diomedes in the Iliad. “Like leaves blowing in the winter wind are the generations of men.”
Glaucus, wise beyond his young years, is not taking time in the midst of a battle to inform his Greek enemy of the obvious fact that generations are born and pass away. Our situation is more humiliating than that. This entire generation passes away, scattered by the winds of time, until in three generations no one is left to remember what we looked like or what our voices sounded like. In another generation, we cease even to be a family anecdote. Our place in the scheme of things, if looked at from a sufficiently enlightened perspective, is nowhere.
But Glaucus was not enlightened. Although Homer’s Achaeans had a gloomy view of the afterlife, they did celebrate the deeds of their ancestors and worshipped the gods of their native places. Despite the melancholy tone of Glaucus’ question, he does remember six generations back to the grandfather of his namesake, who was his own great-grandfather. Like the Romans and many Christians today, Greeks paid tribute to their dead ancestors in religious ceremonies that served to consecrate the house. Until the philosophers taught educated Greeks to think in universal terms, the citizen of a polis was rooted in the sacred soil of Attica or Boeotia and, if he was attentive, knew the names of the gods and daimones of every hill and spring.
Early Romans were, if anything, more reverent, and it would be the work of a lifetime to memorize the names of every little god who presided over the first plowing, the second plowing, the sowing, weeding, harvesting, storing—to say nothing of the malicious spirits who inflicted the plants with mold or rust or weevils. A Medieval European peasant had almost as many neighborhood saints and martyrs as a Greek or Roman peasant, and these mysterious and friendly powers, commemorated in rustic shrines and local festivals, and in carved stone and stained glass within the church, made the landscape bristle with energy and meaning. But the festivals are now put on for the tourists who visit the church in busloads, and where the glass has not been broken, its stories are forgotten.
To be continued
This was first published in 2004