Going Home Again? Not Likely.By Mark A. Signorelli for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
If I am correct, it seems there is a certain kind of arch-typical narrative that has become quite popular here at FPR, and in some sense, emblematic of its defense of place and home. It is the “Going Home” story, the story of someone rejecting the allures of wealth and status in the big-city, and returning to the fixed traditions of his or her hometown. While such narratives are of great interest, in and of themselves, and while they clearly emerge from the sincere experiences of their authors, I find myself entirely unable to sympathize with them. I suspect, moreover, that, taken together, such narratives tend to distort more about the reality of twenty-first century America than they make clear. If I had to tell the story of my relationship to my own hometown, it would sound very different from the “Going Home” story. But it might just have as much truth in it as those.
I grew up in a suburban Nowhereville in New Jersey, not the least bit distinguishable, in its appearance and tenor of life, from thousands of other Nowherevilles in this country. Around the corner from my house, there was a long, desolate patch of road that ran through a soul-destroying landscape of abandoned warehouses, rusting trailers, and other industrial detritus littered about. Yet besides this scene of wreckage on its perimeter, the remainder of my town managed to strike an appearance of neat suburban dullness – block after block of ranches and split-levels, punctuated every now and then with the odd strip-mall. We did not even have the kind of small town center or Main Street that most of the surrounding towns had; it was just sprawl from one end of the town to the next. Nor was the least bit of the natural environment preserved. One of the most contentious issues in town when I was in college was what to do with the last piece of extensive farmland in the town, which was slowly being engulfed by shopping malls on every side. It was as if some inscrutable malice in the hearts of the town planners impelled them to extirpate the last link between the people and their land. When I was a boy, there was a patch of woods growing behind my house; later, it was hewn down, and replaced by a development. Whereas once we heard robins and cardinals singing in the backyard, now we heard our new neighbors playing rap music late into the night. I cannot think of a single place in my hometown where one could find a decent landscape to look at, either natural or built. It was just mile after mile of insipid, characterless “planning,” which could not engender the faintest sentiment of warmth or affection among its inhabitants.
On the street where I grew up, isolation was the norm. It was the kind of place where people came home from work, turned on the television, and had done with the outside world. The kind of place where next-door neighbors did not know one another’s name. One cause of this atomization from house to house was the frequent turnover among their inhabitants, as families moved in and out of the neighborhood with regularity. Many of the children with whom I played when younger had moved away before we reached high school. Over time, the ethnic diversity of the families who moved onto the block increased, and the consequence of this – though it is highly contentious to say so – was only to exacerbate the fragmentation of the neighborhood, as the cultural gap between families grew far larger than the half an acre of manicured lawn separating house from house. When the white families had parties, they invited other white people; when the black families had parties, they invited other black people; when the Asian families had parties, they invited other Asian people. So far as anybody on the block had entered into genuine social relations with their fellow man, it was with persons living outside of our community, which, other than in a physical sense, was no community at all.
The growing ethnic diversity of the town had other effects as well, particularly in the schools. I had good occasion to know of these changes, as my mother taught in the local public schools for nearly twenty years. During that time, she earned a reputation as an extremely competent and caring teacher, beloved by hundreds of her former students. Yet as she approached the end of her career, she found herself more and more on the receiving end of accusations of racism from minority parents, who would casually toss such charges around when she disciplined their children, or recommended they receive special education. On one occasion, she was forced to appear in court to defend herself from such slander. In the face of these parents’ baseless and self-serving belligerence, her administrators proved totally unwilling to fight on her behalf, as did the teachers’ union, which had picked her pocket for dues for decades. When my mother finally retired, it was obvious that her frustration with this abuse (which, incidentally, was directed at any number of her fellow teachers) was a significant motive in that decision. To this day, nothing excites my disgust for my hometown so much as the memory of the way this extraordinarily dedicated teacher was treated by a local combination of malicious parents and worthless educational bureaucrats.
The schools in my town had problems reaching far beyond the poisonous effects of identity-politics, however. They are the same problems afflicting schools throughout the country – the disorder in the classroom and the hallways, the narrowing of pedagogical aims to the strictly vocational, the failure to transmit anything resembling our intellectual and artistic heritage. I do not wish to sound ungrateful; throughout my schooling, I had a number of remarkable teachers, to whose instruction I owe much. But they, like me, were confined within an aimless system, which had long ago abandoned any responsibility to tend to the moral development of young minds. One of the most startling experiences in my intellectual development was when, once out of school, I began reading on my own initiative much of the classic literature omitted from my formal education. A short list of these works included the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, and Faust. It seemed to me as though my teachers had engaged in an extensive conspiracy to rob me of my proper literary patrimony. But they did teach me the varieties of STD’s. The situation was exactly the same in the Catholic as in the public schools; I moved between the one and the other throughout my youth, but found little difference between them except for the dress code at the Catholic schools, and their considerably lower rates of assault and battery among the student body.
I suppose I should not be surprised that the Church could not run its schools effectively, since, where I lived, it could not run its churches effectively either. When I was a boy, the small local church we attended played a very large role in my upbringing, and in the upbringing of most of my friends. But by the time I had reached my earliest maturity, it had become clear that it had ceased to be a place where any real spiritual work was being done.Sunday Masses were a most undignified affair; the chorus would sing cheesy folk music out of tune, and the priest would take his homily as an occasion to practice his stand-up routine. The parishioners, for their part, would arrive in tank tops, shorts, and, later, pajama bottoms, conveying the distinct sense that they did not really believe in the seriousness of the rituals they were attending. Their constant chatter and commotion in the pews made it impossible at times to hear the priest. In short, there was nothing even the least bit edifying about a trip to church, and well before I finished college, I had ceased attending services there, more than content to risk an eternity of perdition rather than suffer that slovenly debacle every week.
I could write much, much more about my hometown, but I think the point is clear by now. The town where I grew up has been utterly transformed over the years into a place embodying all of the destructive and inhuman tendencies of modern American life, that are the repeated, and appropriate, subject of lamentation here at FPR: the atomization of our neighborhoods; the crassness and destructiveness of our greed; our lack of stewardship towards the natural world;our obliviousness towards our intellectual heritage; the rancid divisiveness of our politics; the frivolity of modern American religion. My hometown is an absolute epitome of everything a Porcher loathes about contemporary America, a veritable minor kingdom of economic, cultural, and theological individualism. So as someone who loathes these things as much as the next Porcher, I must simply say that I have no place to return to. To return to my hometown, to settle down there and raise a family, would represent, to my mind, an act of surrender; it would subject me and my family to all of the malign forces in our culture I wish to defy. Consider just the schools; never in a million years would I allow a child of mine to be subject to the classroom anarchy and imbecility that now reigns in those schools. Never in a million years would I entrust the formation of his or her soul to the brainless time-servers who tyrannize over the educational establishment throughout my state. My hometown is the last place in the world I would wish to raise a child. It is the last place I would wish to plant my roots. It is the last place I would ever call home now.
To the contrary, one of the ruling impulses in my life since early adulthood has been a desire to get as far away from my hometown as I can. I have not succeeded very well. I presently live a short drive away, and return frequently to visit my mother, who still lives in the house I grew up in. But I have tried, at least, to move away spiritually, to purge from my mind all the insidious habits of thought which life in the American suburbs cultivates – the consumerism, the indifference to beauty, the self-absorption. I have tried to imagine what life in a properly ordered community would be like, and have tried modestly – through my writing – to advance the possibility of such a community. This is why I think the story of my relationship to my hometown has its significance too, why it amounts to something much more than a bout of embittered grumbling. Because it is through this story that I have come to learn the profound importance of a community of shared principles and ideals, of lives rooted in humane traditions, of a local habitation built in harmony with the loveliness and fecundity of nature. Not because I have experienced these things, but precisely because I haven’t. The narrative of “Going Home” centers on the discovery of the persistence of civil life in the place of one’s birth. My narrative, a narrative of the inability to go home, centers instead on the deprivation of that civil life in the place of my birth. Perhaps it is the case that that deprivation is a greater teacher than that discovery. Perhaps it is the life of an exile which best impresses upon the heart, through their absence, the abiding importance of place and tradition, and ofthat indispensable condition of human flourishing, which is a home.
I may be wrong, but I believe that my story will resonate with as many Porchers as the “Going Home” narrative. I know mine is not the only town in America matching the description I have given. Of course, much will simply depend on each of our personal experiences, on where and how we grew up, so I do not suppose for a moment that one kind of narrative is any more true than the other. But I have been struck repeatedly by a sense that the “Going Home” narrative omits something fundamentally important about our present historical situation. In different ways, these stories all seem to underestimate the extent of the cultural wreckage wrought upon our communities by decades, and even centuries, of imposed liberal ideology. They seem to overestimate the amount of genuine civil society remaining in our local communities, to be preserved and reclaimed. The “Going Home” story, for instance, seems to ignore the ubiquitous reach of our polluted “popular culture,” which leaks, like a waste seepage, into nearly every house in nearly every sort of community, from the cabins dotting the open plains of Montana to the massed high-rises in the Bronx. Move where you will; you will not be able to evade its presence, or its influence upon the people with whom you live and work. The same may be said of our political discourse, with all of its corrosive tendencies. The identity-politics which plagued my mother in the last years of her career did not originate in our hometown; they invaded there from the broader culture, and so, I am sure, do they invade every nook and cranny of this country. There is no protection to be gained from this toxic nonsense just by returning to the place of one’s birth.
The work we have before us, the work of restoring civil society, is a spiritual work, an intellectual and a cultural work. This is something often omitted from the “Going Home” narrative. The physical act of returning home in these narratives is, of course, intended to signal the possibility of beginning such a work, but it is remarkable how often the “Going Home” story fails to give much consideration to the tremendous effort such a work would entail. Too often these stories stop short at the purely physical act of returning home, and tend to conceive of “place” in a strictly material fashion.Too often, the “Going Home” story dwells on the admittedly pleasant features of this or that locale, in the groundless hope that such things will provide a sufficient haven against the dark and frightening cultural winds blowing through our age.
We are at home when we live and work among people who see the world in a way that resembles our own, whose affections are kindled by the same kinds of things that kindle ours, whose ambitions in life are guided by the same kinds of goals that guide ours, whose tastes are attracted to the same kinds of objects that attract ours. Those of us of a traditionalist way of thinking are unlikely to find many such people in contemporary America, migrate where we will. We are therefore unlikely to find a real home at this time, perhaps ever in our lifetimes. This is a stark, discomfiting fact to face, but it has the advantage of bracing us for the momentous spiritual labor we have in front of us. For what we face is nothing less than the restoration of civil society from its very rudiments, a task of the most fundamental social reconstruction, such as few generations of human beings have ever had to undertake. The “Going Home” narrative, to my mind, averts our eyes from this reality – at once terrifying and galvanizing – and comforts us with the delusive fantasy that there is something civilized left, when there is nothing left. It blinds us to the fact that our proper homes are not waiting to be found, but to be built.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for FPR about Homer’s Odyssey, arguing that Odysseus’ story of homecoming revealed to us the strong relationship between one’s community and one’s moral identity. I certainly believe that Homer’s prototypical “Going Home” narrative captures something timeless about human life in that sense. But if I were to point to an epic story that captures the distinctive contours of our historical moment, I believe I would sooner suggest the story of Aeneas – the story of a man whose beloved home has been obliterated by rapacious and impious hands, who must wander as an exile among peoples sharing neither his history nor his gods, and who must endure one heart-rending peril after another in the attempt to bring his destined country into existence. It is the story of a man who must find his home by going forward, not by going back. That is the story that best captures the unique duties history has laid upon us now.