Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Home: No Place Like It, or No Place?


As one who has relocated from one region of the U.S. to another, I often have the sensation of being an immigrant in my own country. Of course, since I remain in my native nation-state, my displacement is not nearly as significant as it would be if I had moved to China, for instance, or even to another English-speaking country like the UK.

But it is still a displacement, and, no matter how much I might love my adopted hometown of St. Louis, it can never be the place I am "from". This would be equally true--actually, it would be much more true--if I were to live in, say, Paris, one of my favorite cities on earth. No matter how much I might enjoy living in the City of Light, it would never be "home" in the sense that Florida is, and, unlike St. Louis, not even in the sense that the United States of America is.

As I stated in my earlier post about Generation X, I have come to realize over the last several years that one of the major themes of all my writing--perhaps the major theme--is that of longing for home, and seeking home--wherever, whatever, that may be. And it is not so easy a question to answer as to exactly what home is: is home, in fact, a where? Is it a when? A who? What is home, and what does it mean, and how do we know it when we find it? And, perhaps most intriguing and inscrutable of all, why do we long for it so? Why do we need it?

The last half-century has often been characterized as a "post-modern" age, which to my mind is just an extension, or a later stage of evolution, of the "modern" age... in itself a term suggesting a movement away from the past, away from tradition, away from history. But there is a crucial difference between the two.

Modernism (as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon) celebrated this rupture as forward movement, as progress, as boldly optimistic futurism; but post-modernism, while inheriting modernism's rejection of the past, rejects its faith in forward movement--that is to say, its faith in progress--and, rather than seeing this as a loss, celebrates the ensuing driftless, directionless sea of the contemporary globalized (yet highly fragmented and decentered) world.

So, instead of modernism's supposedly na├»ve utopian dreams, post-modernism chooses what it sees as unfettered, individualistic freedom from guiding "grand narratives", whether these be political, economic, scientific, religious, or otherwise. We are all become Democritus' atoms in the void. Therefore, let us party.

And yet, perhaps not so surprisingly, there has also been much complaint of the vapidity of post-modernism: intellectual, cultural, aesthetic, moral, emotional, spiritual. How can such a superficially carefree yet ultimately deeply empty worldview possibly be sustainable as long as we remain so stubbornly human, with the same intrinsic and ineradicable wants and needs we have always had, and always will have?

As I suggested in my meditation on Gen X, the only answer--the only workable and meaningful answer, as opposed to merely clinging to an imaginary idealized past that ignores the reality of recent history and the present--would seem to be some sort of "post-post-modernism" (which hopefully, once it is recognized as an unmistakable and definable cultural phenomenon, will acquire a much happier name).

I believe that post-modernity (as a cultural condition) can be summarized as a pervasive, profound, sometimes conscious sense of cultural homelessness. If post-modernism (as a cultural movement) likes to celebrate this condition as being one of unfettered freedom, then whatever comes after and displaces post-modernism will not celebrate the condition, but call it by its true name: cultural homelessness.

I see this movement already extant and growing, in myriad shapes and forms, across lines of the political spectrum: in everything from locally sourced organic farming to the genealogical quest for family roots and identity; from revivals of paganism to knitting. The common thread among these seemingly disparate cultural phenomena is the desire--the sincere and profoundly felt desire, as opposed to the superficial and ironic playing with surfaces--to return to, or to rediscover, something essential that has been lost in the mad rush of technological, economic, and social change (hitherto called by the name of "progress").

What has been lost? Well, as I touched upon in my Gen X essay, I believe much of it boils down to a sense of having been displaced, and the resulting, often unconscious yet very real, desire to return to wherever it is we came from. And wherever we came from is, more or less, what we call home.

"Home" does not necessarily mean a geographic location, though it may include one, or be in some way related to a particular place. In its essence, however, home is not something that can be located on any map.

It has often occurred to me that the places I remember living as a child actually no longer exist. Even if the houses, yards, and neighborhoods are still there, they are no longer the same places they were when my family and I lived there. Different people occupy those spaces now and have altered them irrevocably--not simply physically, but also spiritually. The trailer I lived in for many years while growing up may still stand in the same spot, but it is not the same home I lived in. The yard I played in is still there, but it is not the same yard I played in.

Home, then, is not just a spatial concept, but a temporal one as well--we are literally homesick for the past when we feel nostalgia. Space and time are part of the same continuum, and places do not remain the same over time.

But, even more significantly, home is not so much a physical concept--whether in terms of time or of space--as much as it is a spiritual concept. In other words, as the old saying has it, home is where the heart is--and home is, in fact, a place in the heart more than a place on a map.

This is why, as I once noted, the structures and spaces I see on Google Maps do not, cannot possibly, correspond to the places I remember dwelling in as a child. All Google (or science, for that matter) can show us is what falls within the narrow confines of the "objective", observable world. It can tell us nothing of the deep, vast, rich interior world of our minds, hearts, and souls, where our lives and our stories actually take place. That realm is for poetry, music, and art to explore and illuminate.

As a writer, it seems I am obsessed with the search for home that we all, to some degree and in some way, experience as human beings in the modern world. My characters invariably discover themselves to be homeless, in a spiritual sense, and their stories are largely about each one's personal and idiosyncratic (yet, I think, also universal) quest for his or her heart's true home.

Ultimately, it is not easy to explain or define what "home" is, or what it means, or why we so need it. Any definition we can come up with--it is where we are from; it is where we belong; it is where we are happy and fulfilled; it is what we were made for--might tell us very true things about home, but they do not really explain what it is. Like life, and like love, home is a mystery.

And, like all such mysteries, home cannot be explained by a scientific theory, addressed by a technological "solution", or remedied by government or business expenditures, but only approached by way of the heart and its language--perhaps especially through literature, as that is the primary vehicle by which we tell stories and explore and reveal our inner subjective worlds. And that is because home, whatever else it may be, is something that is enmeshed in story, and that exists, wherever else it may be, in the heart.

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