As If The Story of a House Were Told

by Jason Peters on August 28, 2012 · 3 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Region & Place

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Rock Island, IL

If there’s no disputing tastes, as the ancients said, then neither is there any public defense of a private life. Edwin Arlington Robinson, himself no slouch of a poet, reminded us in one of his best poems that the goings on in the private domicile are in a sense inscrutable. And he was right.

We tell you, tapping on our brows,
The story as it should be,—
As if the story of a house
Were told, or ever could be.

While no denizen of the Front Porch can hope to offer a public defense of a private life, nevertheless each one who ventures off the porch—and that means all of us who put fingers to keyboard—will suffer public dissent for the simple reason that, having been foolish enough to leave the precincts of the private household, we have entered a public realm. And, as long as we intend so to venture, we must agree to endure the various assaults, some of which come from friendly and some from unfriendly sources, some from kindred and some from hostile kin. That’s the agreement, and (to speak for myself) it makes me no nevermind. I have evolved a thick skin to go with a thick skull: nothing penetrates, but everything goes unnoticed anyway.

Even so, it remains the case that the story of a house cannot be told—nor ever can be.

That’s 231 words to articulate that what gets said in these “pages” can’t be defended, not really. Men and women in different places, plugged into different grids and bathed by the showers flowing from different watersheds, can piss and moan about each other all they want, but they cannot, finally, communicate—not like men and women rocking in chairs on the same porch. Those who think otherwise have ceased to take themselves seriously as full human beings. They have been reduced to what the schools (full of self-congratulation) now call “global citizens,” even though all of us inhabit not a globe but a place.

That’s another 104 words as prolegomena to this: it is a colossal mistake to suppose that any of us live anywhere but between at least two ideals—(1) the world in which we live and (2) the better world that we imagine.

The problem, of course, lies in what counts as an adequate description of (1) the world in which we live and (2) the better world that we imagine.

So for clarity’s sake I will say this: I have lived all of my life between two competing ideals: (1) a life in which I am close enough to the places I need to be (work, church, market) as to be able to walk to them, and (2) a life in which I occupy enough land as to be able to grow an appreciable amount of my own food.

The truth of the matter is that I have been able to strike a balance between these competing ideals, but not one that has satisfied me—and not one, of course, that can satisfy the anonymous critics who enjoy the anonymity of the medium in which I, without the benefit of anonymity, now write to admit my failure.

“As if the story of a house / Were told, or ever could be.”

But I do care that a way of life be articulated—and that it be susceptible of articulation.

In “The Law of Nature and the Dream of Man” Wallace Stegner wrote:

The guts of any significant fiction—or autobiography—is an anguished question. The true art of fiction, in which I include autobiography, involves putting that question within a plausible context of order.

I am one who willingly acknowledges that autobiography is a “significant fiction” governed by “an anguished question.” But what is the “plausible context of order”?

It had better be the truth that we attempt to tell about ourselves and our places and those around us. If it isn’t, if it isn’t a plausible context of order, then we can forget about the project of human civilization. For, as Stegner elsewhere says, “only in the act of submission is the sense of place realized and a sustainable relationship between people and earth established.”

There will be those for whom “de gustibus” applies here. They are wrong. They have not subjected the small thing we call “taste” to the larger thing we call “place.”

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar David Walbert August 29, 2012 at 4:20 pm

By coincidence I spent my lunch break today looking at a piece of land on which we would hope to build a home and grow as much of our own food as possible, and maybe sell some surplus, without being in the middle of nowhere, and without requiring my taking a higher-paying job that I’ll detest in order to afford the privilege. Yes, it’s always a compromise, and an unstable equilibrium if you find it. I was nailed once with a nasty email for stating explicitly that I was trying to make that compromise — so over the top grouchy that it provided entertainment for months, but I know what you mean about that, too.

It’s difficult to be at once firm in one’s prescriptions about what ought to be, and thus to inspire others, while remaining obviously humble enough to ward off charges of hypocrisy. It’s funny that so many people assume that anything one says about how anything ought to be is a particular judgment on them — and then respond by judging the judge as quickly and harshly as possible. We veer between therapy and condemnation, and everybody wants to get the therapy and do the condemning. (That last sentence needs an editor, but it’s been a long day.)

I’m afraid I can’t offer any advice; I’m still learning. All I have is commiseration. And regrets that it doesn’t come with a beer.

avatar JimWilton September 4, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Thanks for this essay.

But let me argue that if something that I don’t think is true is, in fact, the case: that “[m]en and women in different places . . . cannot finally communicate — not like men and women rocking in chairs on the same porch.” Then perhaps the reason is that we have evolved “a thick skin to go with a thick skull: nothing penetrates but everything goes unnoticed anyway.”

avatar dave walsh September 21, 2012 at 2:06 pm

“…But what is the “plausible context of order”?” – place and time. Precedence matters. Legacy – thinking of some of Wendell Berry’s eulogies. Lives shaped by place, places shaped by lives – looking over this piece of ground and seeing how those who lived here solved this place, knowing our end – and the result of our time laid bare – comes unimpeded. As for the rest, failure is the reward of the fallen. But what is the failure here, Professor? I rode in early this week, saw Orion in the sky. The sun rose, lit up the mountains. What can we add to that?
Anyway, that’s not the thing. The thing I’m thinking, based upon this: “Men and women in different places, plugged into different grids and bathed by the showers flowing from different watersheds, can piss and moan about each other all they want, but they cannot, finally, communicate-” is you all must not write many letters. Else they are tentative and cowardly.
Untrustworthy source, certainly, but proximity is not necessarily the antidote for that malady.

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