Jan 27 2016

GERMANS, JEWS, & SOUTHERNERS: Knowing Your Place & Knowing Your Purpose

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In both The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013) and How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015) Rod Dreher writes about experiencing exile from his Louisianan hometown, an exile that had been imposed upon him. Yet, perhaps some of that exile was self-imposed, for Dreher is not a prophet:[1]

For the first time in all my life I was going home and [my sister] Ruthie would not be there. Ruthie, the anchor, the fastness, the tower and the ark that would carry our West Feliciana family into another generation. Long ago I accepted that I would never settle there, and I always felt ever more free to roam the world over, knowing that Ruthie would always be present on the ridge in Starhill…. There has never been a time in my life when I have not acutely felt that I was disappointing my father…. The cold war between my father and me.[2]

These feelings Dreher shares––“the cold war between my father and me”––compare well to an early conversation in Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen (1967) where two high school boys discuss the relationship one of boys, Daniel, has with his father Reb Saunders, the chief tsaddik (or righteous man) in their Polish-Hasidic-American community:

“My father doesn’t write,” Danny said. “He reads a lot, but he never writes. He says that words distort what a person really feels in his heart. He doesn’t like to talk too much, either. Oh, he talks plenty when we’re studying Talmud together. But otherwise he doesn’t say much. He told me once he wishes everyone could talk in silence.”

“Talk in silence?”

“I don’t understand it, either,” Danny said, shrugging. “But that’s what he said.”

“Your father must be a quiet man.” [3]

Both Potok’s fiction and Dreher’s nonfiction use the conflict between family members—particularly the angst between fathers and sons––to illustrate a  cultural severance experienced between silence and space, a spiritual chasm between purpose and place larger than just their individual experiences. And the notion of speaking in silence reminds me of a dictum from Gershom Scholem: “teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence”[4] as well as Oscar Wilde’s just observation:

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.[5]

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This disjunction between an individual’s place to live and that individual’s purpose for living isn’t just a problem that emerged in the middle of the twentieth and early twenty-first century America. The conflict of family and place may not be anthropologically universal, but it can easily be found when kicking over stones and thumbing through books.

It can, for example, be found in late nineteenth-century Northern Germany, as in Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks: the Decline of a Family (1901) where the character of Toni Buddenbrook and her choice of an unsuitable fiancé––unsuitable in terms of the community and culture of Lübeck and its old family of the Buddenbrooks––leads to a letter containing a tender rebuke from her father the Consul:

We are not born, my dear daughter, to pursue our own small personal happiness, for we are not separate, independent, self-subsisting individuals, but links in a chain; and it is inconceivable that we would be what we are without those who have preceded us and shown us the path that they themselves have scrupulously trod, looking neither to the left nor to the right, but, rather, following a venerable and trustworthy tradition.[6]

The point of view of Consul Buddenbrook is of a successful mercantile capitalist and statesman, and no doubt his particular brand of nineteenth century German conservatism tolerates far less individuality expressed by cheerleaders of American conservatism in the twenty-first century. The Consul expresses a faith in tradition-for-tradition’s sake based on an even deeper faith in the totality of good intentions of his own ancestors, the sound examples of his fellow citizens of Lübeck, as well as the experiences of all of that community’s past ancestors.

While the example from Thomas Mann offers a reply from the father, Franz Kafka, in his Letter to My Father (1919) replies as a son. Kafka uses an image of two ladder-climbers to illustrate the non-relationship shared between his father Hermann (a middleclass merchant businessman of Prague) and himself:

It is as if one person [you my father] had to climb five low steps and another person [myself] only one step, but one that is, at least for him, as high as all the other five put together; the first person will not only manage the five, but hundreds and thousands more as well, he will have led a great and very strenuous life, but none of the steps he has climbed will have been of such importance to him as for the second person that one, firstly high step, that step which it is impossible for him to climb even by exerting all his strength, that step which he cannot get up on and which he naturally cannot get past either.[7]

Both Kafka as the nonfictionalized writing-son and Mann as the fictionalized writing-father (Buddenbrook) act as teachers trying to impart lessons to students where the student-reader plays counterpart to the teacher-writer. Herr Buddenbrook knows his place as Consul of Lübeck. Kafka knows his place in relation to his father––perhaps he also perceives his own position (or imposition) within his immediate Jewish community––and Kafka knows he is confined to a low altitude, stuck looking upward at an unreachable rung on a ladder that progresses ever onward.

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If you don’t know your place, you’re agnostic about your environment. But for some, like Wilfred M. McClay in his introductory essay for Why Place Matters (2015), the knowledge and awareness in the United States of our past problems of conceptualizing and altering Place aren’t relevant to modern times:

Many of us can still remember when the idea of “knowing your place” was used to promote racial segregation and the social and legal subordination of women. But very little of that is relevant anymore, and it would be a grave error to think that the problems of the past are the same as those today.[8]

As demonstrated by Dreher’s cold war, Potok’s talking in silence, Mann’s trustworthy tradition, and Kafka’s unreachable ladder, today’s problems, while certainly not the same, most definitely share a family resemblance to problems of yore.[9] For when it comes to things like the lingering aftereffects of redlining districts by race––particularly in my own community of Austin, Texas[10]––unlike McClay, I don’t see how even old ideas about “knowing your place” cannot be relevant. (And no, “relevant” isn’t a code word meaning “successful” or “worthy” or “meeting my approval.”)

“The past,” said Faulkner, “isn’t the past; it’s not even over.” For the individual today in Texas in 2016 both a knowledge and awareness of the place where one lives emerge as  inescapable tropes that might best be rendered: if we don’t know our place, then we certainly know our placelessness. Yes, Bard Willie, we are all “on the road again,” but this time (as in all times) we don’t know where we’re going:

 

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NOTES

[1] Mark 6:4: “But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

[2] Dreher, Rod; The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. 176–77; How Dante Can Save Your Life: the LifeChanging Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. 7, 11.

[3] Potok, Chaim. The Chosen. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1967. Fawcett Crest Book reprint. June 1968. 72.

[4] Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006.) 203–31 at 208–09.

[5] Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist: Parts I.” Intentions. London: Osgood, McIlvaine. 1891.

[6] Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks: the Decline of a Family. (Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie.) Berlin: S. Fischer. 1901. Translation by John E. Woods. NY: Knopf. 1993. III, x, 130–31.

[7] Kafka, Franz. Letter to his Father. (Brief An Den Vater.) Translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. NY: Schocken. 1971. 99.

[8] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction: Why Place Matters.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. 6.

[9] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwells. 1953. I, 66, 67.

[10] See the recent series from the Austin Chronicle: