June 17, 2022
When I began teaching poetry writing many years ago, I adopted an exercise used by my predecessor Paula Rankin, herself a fine poet. What is there to write about, especially if you are only 19 years old and do not have many years of past life experiences? The exercise is simple. Imagine the house you grew up in, or, if you lived in more than one, the most important house you grew up in, room by room, from the top floor to the bottom. Imagine each room in as much detail as you can. But also imagine everything you can remember taking place in that room over the years, also in as much detail as you are capable of, making notes as you go. Whatever use this may have been to my students over the years, it has been an immensely valuable form of meditation for me. From the age of four until I went off on my own after graduating from college, I grew up in one house, 148 Roslyn Avenue in Canton, Ohio, and I can remember every room of that 13-room house in vivid detail, although I have not set foot in it for almost 50 years. There is a fascinating book, The Art of Memory, by the great scholar Frances Yates delineating the Renaissance technique known as “memory theatre,” in which someone can memorize a complex set of information by using visual imagery as a mnemonic. The information is broken down into parts, and each part may be recalled by being associated with a room of some well-remembered place. The family-home exercise is then a kind of personal memory theatre.
I got to thinking along these lines by rereading an essay called “The World, the City, the House” by the mythologist Mircea Eliade. The point of the title is that in traditional mythologies the world, the city, and the house all have the same structure: namely, the cosmological order revealed in the Creation myth. Sections of the essay are titled “The Cosmogonic Model of City-Building” and “The House at the Center of the World.” Cities and houses are constructed according to a mythological blueprint, or at least they used to be. I am not claiming that the house on Roslyn Avenue reflects a universal order, although it occurs to me that it is within a few years of being a century home. But the thought hit me hard that a house is a myth we make. It is a construction in more than a physical sense. Maybe not in every case, maybe not for everyone, but sometimes. When I think of it in this light, I realize that that house embodied the mythological pattern of the axis mundi, the vertical axis of the universe, that I have been writing about for years. The ground floor was a “middle earth” of common living space, but there were worlds both above it and below, rooms associated not with domestic life but with a child’s imagination. What I remember of my second-floor bedroom is not just the furniture but the models of spaceships and a Viking ship that I clumsily assembled, the record player (not stereo) on which I discovered folk music, and the beginnings of a book collection. In my last year or two at home, I was allowed to move up to the more or less finished attic, the top of a figurative tower of meditation whose sloped ceilings under the roof I thought were totally cool. The basement was an underworld in which, on a large table, I created a world. As the Greek cosmos reflected on the shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad was bounded by Ocean River, the boundary of my creation was the figure-8 track of my electric train, which I still own, an American Flyer inherited from my cousin. It was peopled with plastic toy soldiers turned into superheroes, on whose imagined exploits I spent as many hours as any modern child with a video game.
But, as always, the nagging questions start tugging at the corner of my mind. How much of this domestic mythologizing is the production of an unusually introverted little boy? Eliade is famous for his distinction between the sacred and the profane. Isn’t it unlikely that everyone has had the experience of living in a sacralized space? Have many, if not most, people simply grown up in a profane, everyday piece of real estate—all the more likely perhaps if their family moved every few years so that there was no opportunity to become attached to any single home? Eliade quotes the modernist architect Le Corbusier as saying that “A house is a machine for living.” Machines are utilitarian, convenient, and nothing more. And yet although nomadic people may carry their homes with them, as the Israelites and some of the Native Americans did their tents, those tents were constructed on the axis mundi plan. The Israelites also carried their “temple” with them—a special tent, the holy of holies, housing the Ark of the Covenant, which was the dwelling place of God himself.
A further question follows from this. Isn’t there a distinction between the sacred space of a home and the sacred space of a temple or church? A lot of necessarily profane life has be to lived within a home, but a place of worship is a temenos, a special area marked off and dedicated to the sacred. Of course this might be the old fashioned prejudice of someone who grew up Roman Catholic before that church modernized, which included making churches more places of community gathering than manifestations of sacred mystery. But I do think the distinction between home as a kind of sacralized profane space (“God Bless Our Home”) and a sacred temenos is valid. We speak of early humanity as “cave people,” whose living areas archeologists excavate, including their trash dumps. But the famous Paleolithic caves, like Altamira, were not for living in. They are accessible only through enormous effort, crawling in the dark through narrow tunnels on hands and knees. Within them is the memory theatre of a hunting people: images of the animals of the hunt imagined with almost hallucinogenic intensity.
However, a home can also be a temenos, even if not in the same way or to the same degree. Richard Thompson has a song “A House Is Not a Home.” Maybe the difference is that a house is merely a building, a machine for living, whereas a home has been invested by the imagination. That is why it is so terrible when someone’s home is destroyed by the elements—by fire, or water, or wind, or even earthquake or avalanche. By chaos come again. One of the most powerful emblems of the emotional attachment to a home is the marriage bed of Odysseus and Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, carved by Odysseus himself out of an olive tree still rooted in the ground. When Penelope tricks Odysseus by pretending she has had the tree cut down, it nearly destroys him, because it would have meant cutting the marriage off literally at the root. The attachment to a home is also the source
of a tragedy not always spoken of, when someone has to leave a house lived in for years, perhaps a lifetime, and go into the sterile environment of a nursing home.
In the past, before the middle-class nuclear family and its mobile lifestyle, a house would belong to, would in fact embody, a whole family line, which would identify itself as the “house of”—House of Windsor, House of Hanover, and so on. The house itself might have been built by an original ancestor centuries before, and added on to by successive generations. This was only true of the aristocracy, of course, and the decline and fall of the aristocracy is reflected in the decay of its ancestral houses, with their attendant curses: House of Usher, House of the Seven Gables. House of Gucci, I suppose. In Wuthering Heights, there are two adjacent houses: Thrushcross Grange is the home of the effete and failing respectable family, Wuthering Heights the location of a destructive anti-domestic class hatred, but also of an elemental energy that the respectable family lacks (“wuthering” means stormy).
The other extreme, at the other end of society, is the homeless person, the object of so much resentment and disapproval today. There are deep psychological reasons for that resentment that go beyond any rational fear of someone who is dirty, smelly, possibly mentally ill. Homeless has always been equivalent to accursed, all the way back to the heartbreaking Old English poem “The Wanderer,” spoken by a man who has lost his lord and his place in his lord’s hall, and who remembers his past happiness with anguish. Odysseus, who has been wandering for ten years, is literally accursed, persecuted by the god Poseidon because of a curse pronounced by Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops. In modern times the Jews and the “traveling people,” the Gypsies, have been scapegoated as disreputable; it is no accident that they are regarded racially as non-white. Instead of pity for the unfortunate, homeless wanderers often arouse a near-hatred so irrational that it has to be rationalized by blaming them for their predicament: they are lazy, dishonest, “tramps”; get them out of my neighborhood. Sadly, the message “There but for fortune go you or I” is likely to arouse anger rather than compassion. It frightens people to be reminded how fragile human fortunes are, and the first impulse of many is denial: “Out of sight, out of mind.”
In Words with Power, Northrop Frye organizes a vast discussion of myths and symbols around a few “primary concerns” common to the whole human race. Some are obvious, such as food and drink, sex and love, and so on, but an unexpected primary concern is property. While the nobility of all ages as well as the estate-owning “gentlemen” who founded the United States would have nodded understandingly, the modern world is on the other side of a divide demarcated by the anarchist motto “Property is theft.” However, what Frye means by property is everything that human beings need to compensate for the fact that they cannot live directly in nature like the animals—though for that matter animals have their dens and burrows and also their territory, which they defend aggressively. But property is what is necessary to survival, and that includes shelter.
I have been reading Paradise Lost for the greater part of my life, and have taught it over decades, am presently talking about it in a podcast, and it is only in writing this newsletter that I am struck for the first time by the fact that Adam and Eve did not have a house, only a garden. Why? Because their home was their garden, a natural environment so hospitable that there was no need for shelter. The ideal of a home that is actually a part of nature rather than a defense system walling it out has come down through myth and literature in the form of the pastoral convention. Tolkien’s hobbits have their burrows in the earth, and the Peter Jackson films do an excellent job of showing how warm and cozy they are, although hobbits also spend a good deal of time outside them, placidly smoking their pipes. Thoreau built his own house and lived simply in the woods at Walden, and the Frank Lloyd Wright ideal was a house in such close relationship with nature that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. My own house here is a poor man’s version of that ideal, with its entire front wall of glass all the way up to and including the gable, and its big-screen view, so to speak, of grass, woods, creek, and a more or less peaceable kingdom of animals sometimes so tamed by my feeding of them that they follow me and talk to me, even if that makes it sound as if I’ve been living alone a little too long.
The United States has developed away from the estate-owning model brought over from England, represented by Monticello, Mt. Vernon, and the Southern plantations, which were not sustainable except through slave labor, or, after the Civil War, through the harsh exploitive system of sharecropping. There was a migration, and not just by African-Americans, away from rural, agricultural life into the cities, and to accommodate the new population grew up a new phenomenon, the boarding house. The boarding house phenomenon, which developed in the later 19th century and lasted until the housing boom and the flight to the suburbs after World War II, is surprisingly little spoken of, although it is everywhere in the American literature and popular culture of the time, including a famous single-panel comic, Our Boarding House, featuring the loquacious braggart Major Hoople. Before the American Dream came to include home ownership, a remarkable percentage of the American population boarded, in situations ranging from a room or couple of rooms perhaps rented out by a widow to supplement her income to boarding houses large enough to be small communities. The communal aspect differentiates them from apartments: they are more like today’s bed-and-breakfasts, but for permanent residence, not just for vacations or travel. There were shared facilities to varying degrees, and often communal meals. The phrase “boarding house reach” referred to someone aggressively going after the food at a common dinner table. Boarding houses were havens for single people. They were a way that some women could live alone, even if they might be regarded as not quite respectable for doing so.
Boarding houses were a middle to lower-middle class phenomenon, but we have partly forgotten that even the rich did not always have houses in those days. The “brownstones” of New York and Boston were elite townhouses, and the more elegant hotels often included a permanent population of affluent people. When I lived in Buffalo years ago, the Lenox Hotel advertised that F. Scott Fitzgerald had lived there with his family for a time. In another famous comic strip, Bringing Up Father, also known as Maggie and Jiggs, a working-class Irish-American couple win the sweepstakes and become rich, but the elegant suite they are shown living in is always rented. It is a recurrent joke that the other tenants are constantly complaining about Maggie’s horrible singing.
Private ownership of a house in the suburbs seems to have ended a phase of much more communal living in the United States. Part of the attraction of home ownership was privacy: your neighbors might be loud and annoying but were at least not right behind the walls. Also autonomy: a man’s home is his castle, with no more dependence on stingy and disreputable landlords. It appealed to American individualism, but at a price of isolation. A real castle of the Middle Ages, after all, hosted an entire community, its large central hall the focus of common life. The dwellings in the Homeric poems were quite similar, having a large central room called the megaron with the hearth in its center, storage rooms and bedrooms around its periphery.
The imagination can mythologize any situation: it is only a matter of how. If you live in an older home, you may find yourself wondering about the previous owners and the life that was lived in the past within the rooms that you inhabit and call your own. I suppose it is a little like wondering about a partner’s previous relationships. Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Hole in the Floor” that I quoted from last week speaks of “The house’s very soul, / Where time has stored our footbeats / And the long skein of our voices.” There may be evidence left behind: pencil marks ascending a wall to record the height of growing children; a hand-etched stone in the flower bed to mark the grave of a pet. If you are lucky, you may have access to photographs of the house in its earlier years, before the old folding garage door was replaced with a modern overhead one, before the kitchen was remodeled, an old-model car parked in the drive, which was gravel and not yet paved.
There is one more thing you may find, as I did: a small religious statue buried upside down. Now, you may know all about this, because there are dozens of Internet sites explaining it, but it was 16 years before a friend, just recently, gave me an article cluing me in. When I accidentally unearthed a three-inch white plastic statue, wrapped in plastic, I assumed it was Jesus and had been buried by the children of the previous owners to see if he would resurrect. But no: it is St. Joseph, who, it turns out, is the patron saint of real estate. That part does not surprise me: I grew up Catholic, and there is a patron saint for everything. But it was the owners who buried the statue. If you bury St. Joseph, upside down, pointing in the direction in which you would like to move, he will help you sell your house, and, unlike your real estate agent, not charge any commission. But the owners did not follow through: once St. Joseph has performed, you are supposed to dig him up and take him with you. Perhaps they forgot exactly where they had buried him, which is what happened to A.G. Sloan, as he reports in his piece “Things That Get Dumped in the Night” in the Cleveland Funny Times (thanks to Ellen McCurdy for a copy of the article). Mind you, some of the Internet articles I have seen are by Catholic clergymen not quite happy with what they see as superstition encroaching upon true religion. But what can I say? It worked, or I wouldn’t be here on this property. Thank you, St. Joseph. Your statue has a place of honor on my shelf.
At any rate, if a sense of the mysterious persistence of past life intensifies, the house becomes haunted by the ghosts of the past, not only past inhabitants but past events, especially dark and tragic events as in the Overlook Manor of Stephen King’s The Shining. Within fantasy and horror, some houses are a kind of nexus of realities, open to traffic from other dimensions, most of them unspeakable, the most famous example being William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908). There is also the film Poltergeist (1982), directed by Tobe Hooper but written by Steven Spielberg (with others)—in other words, the cinematic poet of childhood meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That is actually a fair description of the film, in which the poltergeists enter our reality through the portal of the TV screen, prompting the classic line from the child who alone detects them: “They’re here.” Indeed they are. Freud’s famous essay on “The Uncanny,” refers to exactly such a feeling of the invasion of the safe space, the temenos, of the home, by something that is unheimlich, the German word translated “uncanny” but which literally means “unhomelike.” One wonders what was on Spielberg’s mind when he gave the father his own name, Steven.
In what Northrop Frye would call an undisplaced version of the pattern, the house itself may turn out to be a sentient being, at least in the sense of a kind of numinous presence. One of the greatest fantasies ever written—there are days when I am tempted to think it the greatest—is the Gormenghast Trilogy of Mervyn Peake (1946-59). The first two volumes, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, transpire entirely within the vast labyrinth of Gormenghast Castle—and it is a labyrinth, whose full extent is not known even to its owners. It is commonly remarked that one of the most acclaimed works in the history of fantasy actually contains nothing that is supernatural, magical, or otherwise impossible. And yet the atmosphere of the castle, dreamlike and yet satiric in a manner frequently called Dickensian, lyrically beautiful at times and at others as dark and alien as Poe, an atmosphere created entirely through the power of Peake’s language, cannot be adequately described. But the Castle is as hermetically sealed an environment as any science-fictional generational starship, and, despite Peake’s ability to create a huge cast of comic grotesques, it is the Castle that is the trilogy’s greatest achievement.
I began by speaking of the mythologizing of the house in which we grew up. Titus Groan, the trilogy’s protagonist, takes most of the first book to get himself born, a satiric twist clearly modeled on Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. But it has a serious point: as the heir of a centuries-old decadent and dying line, Titus is trapped in the predestination of the aristocracy—something we are familiar with in the fates of Diana, Meghan, and Harry in the present-day British royal line. Even before he is born, his entire life has been plotted out for him almost day by day, much of it taken up with senseless rituals that no one understands any longer but which the family insists on maintaining. The Castle is at once womb and tomb, and he has to break out of it in the third volume in order to be born. The third volume ends in tragedy, as Titus does escape and then finds himself regretting his escape, only to realize that his decision had been final: you can’t go home again. Or rather, you can, but only to a deliteralized home that you have created in your imagination. That is true for all of us, not just for scions of aristocratic families.
In addition to the lost, mythologized house of our past, there is also the possibility of a second mythologized house in mid-life, one that we create rather than one that has in a way created us. At the age of 46, after the breakup of a long-term relationship, May Sarton, one of my favorite writers, decided that she needed to lay down some roots but also decided that she needed to learn to live by herself and for herself rather than depending on being in a relationship, so she bought an 18th-century run-down farmhouse in New Hampshire and recreated it over ten years, recording the process in a wonderful book, Plant Dreaming Deep (1968). These mid-life houses are the creation of an identity through the creation of a dwelling. They do not have to be megalomaniacal monuments: Dylan Thomas moved to the Welsh seaside village of Laugharne and there repeated the pattern of profane and sacred spaces, turning a boat house behind the family dwelling, looking out upon the sea, into a sequestered writing space in which he wrote some of his most famous poems. On the other hand, Yeats, always one for the grand gesture, bought a medieval Irish tor or tower, so that he could write poems like “The Tower” and “The Winding Stair,” the tower being of course another axis mundi symbol. C.G. Jung built his own, much of it with his own hands, the famous Bollingen, a kind of DIY castle and tower, used for solitary meditation and writing, apart from the family dwelling in the town of Kusnacht. Jung added sections to Bollingen to mark new phases in his process of individuation. Artistically gifted, he also carved archetypal images on large stones on the property.
The imagination is the home of human life, but it may create for itself what T.S. Eliot called objective correlatives, material symbols that it transubstantiates into realizations that are paradoxically both transient and timeless. That is as true of a piece of writing as a house, for a piece of writing may also be a dwelling, as Heidegger in his oracular way tried to show. At the age of 55, we moved into this glass-walled symbol of identity in which at 71 I am still living. For several years, it took intermittently hard physical labor more suited for a young man of 19, but it felt good to be still capable of it. It is filled with what matters: my collections of books, of music, of musical instruments, my writing desk looking out the glass wall, which is a table made a hundred years ago by my grandfather, an Italian immigrant carpenter and cabinet-maker. It is more a hobbit burrow than a castle or a tower: a one-story “ranch chalet” style building, as they call it, nestled down in a kind of odd valley, with the ridge of the state highway on one side and another high ridge on the other side, down which the deer somehow manage to wend their way down to find the corn that I (illegally) put out for them. It is a “family home” in one way, because inheritance from my father made buying it possible, but it is not much of an immortality project, as I have no one to leave it to. It is for the moment rather than for the ages. I hope the next owners do not mind a resident ghost who loved this place before they ever knew it.
Eliade, Mircea. “The World, the City, the House.” In Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions: Essays in Comparative Religions. University of Chicago Press, 1976. 18-31.
Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.