Oct 7 2017

A Pair of Thoughts on Empty Rooms

book spines

A Pair of Thoughts on Empty Rooms

empty room

Upton House (Joseph Lister/Wikicommons)

First from the Irish writer James Stephens (1880-1950):

At last the room was as bare as a desert and almost as uninhabitable. A room without furniture is a ghostly place. Sounds made therein are uncanny, even the voice puts off its humanity and rings back with a bleak and hollow note, an empty resonance tinged with the frost of-winter. There is no other sound so deadly, so barren and dispiriting as the echoes of an empty room. The gaunt woman in the bed seemed less gaunt than her residence, and there was nothing more to be sent to the pawnbroker or the secondhand dealer.

–The Charwoman’s Daughter, (London: Macmillan & Co., 1912) “Ch. XVI,” 100.

Next, 102 years later, from Wilfred M. McClay of the University of Oklahoma:

An ordinary but disquieting phenomenon: the translation of place into space—the transformation of a setting that had once been charged with human meaning into one from which the meaning has departed, something empty and inert, a mere space. We all have experienced this, some of us many times. Think of the strange emotion we feel when we are moving out of the place where we have been living, and we finish clearing all our belongings out of the apartment or the house or the dorm room—and we look back at it one last time, to see a space that used to be the center of our world, reduced to nothing but bare walls and bare floors. Even when there are a few remaining signs of our time there—fading walls pockmarked with nail holes, scuffs in the floor, spots on the carpet—they serve only to render the moment more poignant, since we know that these small injuries to the property will soon be painted over and tided up, so that in the fullness of time there will be no trace left of us in that spot.

–“Introduction: Why Place Matters.” Why Place Matters,

Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister, (New York, NY: New Atlantis Books, 2014) 4.

Oct 12 2016

Why We Retell Stories

bookbread Canterbury

The sentiment is probably assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family has struck into the soil…. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town.

–Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter [1]

I. The Place

Often while traveling down a road–one familiar though not taken weekly, or even monthly––I and members of my family have retold stories to ourselves. Indeed, as if unconsciously hypnotized by a mantra, we “sit indulgent” and “partake rural repast” by these retellings.[2] We partake in tales involving particular places along the way to wherever we’re going. Often they can’t even be categorized as stories, at least not in the sense of possessing a beginning, middle, and end. Instead they are but blots of memory and splotches of myth.

One of the stories that comes up while traveling in northern Williamson County, Texas along Highway 183 where it meets County Road 121 tells how in the early 1900s, my grandad’s grandad’s uncle Cyrus planted a tree. It was a tree that could be seen about a hundred yards away from the east side of the highway, and it was a tree that was seen for about hundred years until it fell over around 2010. It’s absurd that we know neither why he planted it nor what species eventually grew alone in a field on the edge of Shin Oak Ridge and Briggs Prairie, but because Cyrus’s older brother Livy operated nurseries and orchards throughout his life, I suppose it was some kind of fruit tree. The tree was always short, and the only explanation to which we could satisfy ourselves was that Uncle Cyrus perhaps planted it in soil rocky enough to stunt the tree’s growth.

But why did we repeat this vignette whenever we passed by the tree, or repeat it nowadays while driving past where it once stood? It’s because we seek stability while traveling and retell a tale to remind us so. Something in the subconscious says: “See that! Something happened there. Today I call attention to the place, and by telling you about it, that spot further becomes a part of me, and also now a part of you the listener.”[3] Just as in Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country (1913), the mother of the main character, a New York transplant from the Midwest, resorts to retelling:

Mrs. Spragg liked to repeat her stories. To do so gave her almost her sole sense of permanence among the shifting scenes of life.[4]


II. The Placeless

On the other hand, I wonder which stories get told only once. I bet it’s those that are quite forgettable. I further wonder: do the stories that get told only once evoke in their readers and listeners a sense of placelessness?—perhaps even a sense of instability? Are some stories too unstable to be retold? Perhaps that speculation works for stories, perhaps not, but on the other hand a poem can certainly evoke placelessness and at the same time be good enough to qualify as unforgettable. Consider the twenty-eighth sonnet of Shakespeare, where readers encounter a wanderer who asks:

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night, and night by day, oppressed?
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright,
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven.
So flatter I the swart-complexioned night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

The speaker wishes without hope––an individual stuck between twinkling night and radiant morn.

Or is the speaker free rather than trapped? Has the poet captured the psychology of one coursing through a place of non-existence just as the clouds course through the air? While the speaker tells the day and flatters the night, unlike Mrs. Spragg, this particular poet doesn’t retell a tale in an attempt to craft a place of permanence. Is this because Shakespeare wasn’t an American?

We should seek to discover how, given the American people as they are, and American economic and social life as it now exists—and not as those things can be imagined to be—we can find means of resisting the steady homogenization of the world. This means cultivating a strong sense of place wherever we find it—and thereby cultivating the human goods that depend upon an enduring sense of place and are impossible without it.[5]



[1] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. “The Custom-House.”

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 3–4.

[3] Compare Job 38:4–7: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding….”

[4] Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country.  NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1909. I, vi, p. 79.

[5] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 7.

Jan 27 2016

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

bookbread Canterbury

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]


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.


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:




[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:





Oct 7 2015

Communities Who Bring about Suffering & Loss Will Bear Suffering & Loss

bookbread typewriterSome new notes from Rod Dreher:

Whatever Benedict Option communities end up being as we pass through all this, they are going to have to bear witness to suffering and loss, in a way we [in the West] have not had to do for a great long time.

This may well be true, but it seems to skirt around the possibility that plenty of late 20 and early 21st century Americans were born into religious communities, bore witness to suffering and loss, and endured their own sufferings and losses brought on by that very community, and are now no longer interested in living in or perpetuating that kind of community.

Communities who bring about suffering and loss will bear suffering and loss. In other words, it takes one to know one. Communities are made of individuals who know each other; communitas reaches beyond known individuals, as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has recently pointed out:

Anthropologist Victor Turner notes a common type of movement in pre-modern times, which he says is from “community” to “communitas.” The movement occurs periodically in response to the needs of economic exchange, but not only that. It is also prompted by the desire of the people in a local community—say, a village—for a larger sense of who they are. That larger sense of self villagers find in the market town—the “communitas” of acquaintances and strangers.*

*“Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to be More Fully Human” in Why Place Matters. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 106