Requiem for a Nun
The Spectacle of the Real penetrates into all aspects of contemporary life. It isn't just about the media, or the news, politics or sports. It is also about family and history.
Families get trapped into the culture of the spectacle when the externals of consumer choice determine how a family positions themselves within the social environment of their community. The context of history provides a counter-balance as past generations' culture of identification provides perspective for self-identification.
The advent of "moving pictures" over a century ago in films and later television initiated the use of images as a way to depict the real world. Over the decades, the image on the screen became increasingly a hyper-reality. Post-World War II families, as presented on the screen, were understood to be a cultural standard for what a typical, traditional, middle class American family should be. The emergence of a new and growing middle class marked the shift of families out of the the poverty of the Depression era as a new society of consumers, with Hollywood and Madison Avenue as their guide.
Television's presentation of families shifted over time to become less traditional to more hyper-real and spectacular. Beginning with the traditional family of The Donna Reed Show, to all-male families of My Three Sons and Bonanza, to the pristine frontier family of Little House on the Prairie to the blended family of The Brady Bunch, each family represented a type of growing hyper-real traditionalism, where what constituted a family became less and less defined.
The ironic genius of Norman Lear in the late 60s and 70s, entered new families in shows like All in the Family, One Day at a Time, and The Jeffersons as the traditional understanding of the family was turned upside down.The span of television's perspective on the family came full circle as the Huxtable's of the Cosby Show were an updated affirmation of traditional family values and structure.
All these shows, though were fictionalized families in situation-comedies and historical dramas. Even as a kid, I knew they were not real families. Then in 1973, An American Family premiered on PBS. This was the first truly reality-based show. The series followed The Loud family through their daily lives. One son, Lance, came out as gay during the series. The parents, Pat and Bill, separated and divorced during the series. It began the trend toward reality television that continues to this very day in series like, The Real Housewives of Orange County.
The spectacle of hyper-reality is detached and voyeuristic at its core. It builds around the attraction of the images and stories whose unbelievability makes them all the more believable.There is fascination in people who are somewhat like us, yet, not like us at all. This is the pull of hyper-reality.
As a result, history has become less a continuing story of the past, but, rather, a design backdrop for the present.
History as Context for the Real
My son Troop and I have a long running, ongoing conversation about history, its place in the modern world, and its effect upon our family.
As a young man, he is seeking to understand history through the craft of writing novels. I find his insights deep, rich and expansive. He has begun a multi-volume history of one North Carolina farm family through many generations. The first volume of this family's story, The Knot of Home, will be published later this summer. Here he describes the cycle of stories that he has begun.
Stories have beginnings and ends, we all know, but sometimes we aren't aware of the start until we have already reached the finish. Maybe we were simply unaware of what was happening, or were born at the wrong time to have seen the whole of the story from its inception.
Arlen Breckenridge came to realize this too. Perhaps he feared that he was at the end of the cycle, that the family ways would all die with him. But that gave him the ability to look back to the beginning of his story, embodied in his family, and understand.The Knot of Home, though chronologically the last, is in truth the first of several books in The Breckenridge Cycle. Each book in the Cycle will examine the roots of the American agrarians, their values, their ways, and what they fought to build and preserve, often in vain, as America modernized. The Cycle will illuminate for all Americans what has been lost and forgotten, but what can be remembered and upheld, if we just have a little imagination.
Following one of our late night conversations about history and our time, I asked him to put in writing what he had said. Here's a portion of what he sent.
Rather than a distinct collection of facts that we know are right, have been tested and proven, are easily definable, and can be used to justify any theory or position on the world (present and past) in a neat, bibliographical form, history is rather a massive, ill-defined, humbling dialogue, both between individuals, but also larger groups, communities, etc; and also between the self-conscious thinker and his acknowledgement of his own influences, personality, and tendencies.
The latter definition encompasses everything - every discipline, field, tool, etc. - as a way for understanding the world in relation to the past (which is really the only real world, because it colors our view of the present). Thus it can build something by the agglomeration, juxtaposition, tension, or negation of various ways of looking at the world.
To get at both a certain true historical reality and thus a workable method for living in real, current world (two sides of the same coin), I am not writing any academic history. I am not dealing with facts, because the tested and proven facts that I was given by those who have "done the work" before me do not explain the reality that keeps poking its Cyrano de Bergerac nose through the curtain. Thus I combine from different sources - folk tales; philosophy; my own archaeology of past behavior in certain groups of "backwards" people; personal letters; psychology; traditional histories; and literary archetypes. These all prove to be different tools for getting at the same thing, which you will never do perfectly. For choosing one of these methods for understanding is as arbitrary as choosing "facts." There is no rational (or otherwise) criteria for choosing facts as criteria. But if you understand the uses of each method and are prepared to create a dialogue between them (both in your own head and potentially between other people who represent a given method), then you stand a chance at working out some kind of synthesis. ...It is all context, then. It is also the universal. ... Thus the dialogue runs on, getting closer to the truth, but always needing expansion. (Emphasis mine.)
This historical context for recovering the real is a dialogue that takes place with many contexts, not just one or two. Most of us can access these histories. They are embedded in our families and the communities where we live. We do so by talking with others, doing some leg-work, doing research online, and being aware of the historic connections that exist between the present and the past.
The Context of Family
I have a photo file of grave markers of the members of my family, from both my mother's and father's side, going as far back as six generations. I have been accused, jokingly, but not without cause, of practicing ancestry worship; it isn't worship, but honor and remembrance.
The scene above is of the Brinegar Cabin where Martin (1856-1925) and Caroline (1861-1943) Brinegar settled after they migrated into the mountains from the foothills of the Piedmont region of North Carolina in the late 1800s. This cabin is preserved by the National Park Service within the boundaries of the Blue Ridge Parkway (Mile Marker 238.5). The Brinegar's (notice the different spelling from mine, Brenegar) are "distant" cousins. We have to go back about five or six generations to find the family connection between my father's line and Martin's.
The story of Martin and Caroline and their cabin provides context for understanding my father's father's family who lived within a twenty mile ride of the Brinegar's before they moved to the mountain. Seeing the contrast between Martin and Caroline's life and my grandfather's family's life in town has provided me and my family perspective on who we are.
What is that story? Martin's lineage were farmers. My grandfather's were merchants, clerks and government workers.
On both sides of my family, I cannot find a single farmer within the past five generations. One great, great grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. Another great, great grandfather was a newspaper man, and his father ran a general store. My mother's father's mother's grandfather (my great, great, great grandfather) was a farmer in the Swannanoa River Valley of Buncombe County, North Carolina. One great grandfather was a lawyer, another a banker. Others were politicians and civic leaders. My father's father worked as clerk for a tobacco company. My other grandfather was a lawyer and a veteran of the battles in France during the First World War. No farmers after the first half of the 19th. century though.
What does this family history tell me, my siblings and my children? It shows how we were part of the growing modernization of the region and the nation. That there are reasons why we are more mobile, less rooted in the soil, and why our consumer tastes are more urban than rural.
I understand the reasons why my mother's mother told the stories that she did. Why she impressed upon us certain values. Why family was important. It wasn't about pride. It was about history and honor for those who came before us, and about never bringing shame to the family. It is identity and meaning that links generations of my family over the past 300 years.
My mother was a Morrison. Our Morrison line came from one of three brothers that came over from Scotland in 1750. Those three brothers ended up in the Rocky River community of Cabarras County, north of Charlotte, North Carolina. Two sisters there have done the genealogical research and produced a volume on each of the brother's lineage. It is fascinating to see time through the lives of these families. It is more than a history of the nation. It is a tangible way to understand the social, economic and political changes that have taken place over the past three centuries.
My father's family came to America in 1730 on a ship from Germany into Philadelphia. The Bruenenger's, as the name was spelled then, eventually migrated, like my Morrison kin into the Piedmont region of North Carolina. The two families were only about 65 miles apart. And yet, it was not until around 1949-50 that my parents met, and these two families were joined in their marriage.
Our family histories are not just about family, but about identity, place and community. In understanding them as living histories, we begin to understand ourselves within the context of each day's historical transition from the past to the future.
Traditions: Dead or Alive
I know many families that are broken, as spouses, children, siblings, parents and grandparents are at odds with one other. There is something missing from their relationships. It is only partly the self-centered independence of our time. That is too simple an explanation for the problems that I have seen in many families during my lifetime.
The lack of a broader context for understanding who the family is, and the obligations that come with being family is a greater contributing factor. The weaknesses that I see are not because these families are not following a traditional path of recognized family values. In fact, many of these families, that are in distress, are very traditional in their approach to being a family. The reality though is that the family doesn't work for each member. There is a failure for the family unit to provide a sufficient environment for the child to discover her or his identity in the context of the history of the family.
For many families, the expectation placed on the younger generation is that they will follow along the path that previous generations have trod. That loyality to home and hearth is to resist change, and sublimate one's own personality and sense of call in life to the family. This is the heart of Rod Dreher's story, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, where he leaves his small town Louisiana home to discover his course in life, returning after the death of his sister, to discover a part of his family's life that he had missed by moving away.
This also part of the story that my son Troop is writing in his The Breckenridge Cycle of novels.
We all wonder what it means to go home. For Arlen Breckenridge, it is no different. Leaving his North Carolina farm to fight a bloody war across Europe, Arlen finds that the memory his own home, a real and lasting place, is the only thing that makes him fight on. He hopes to protect it and return to it. But when he returns the hero, Arlen is a different man. His little rural world has changed, too, and Arlen is left almost alone, trying to bring the soil of his old farm back to life. Was all his sacrifice, misunderstood by everyone around, all for nothing? Or can he find redemption in how he has changed, able to make his home, his farm and family, live once again?
The larger context of family history is recognizing that each generation has had to establish their own path, while maintaining connection and respect for the past. At the heart of this context are values that provide a basis for understanding what has worked and has not worked in the past for families.
How we approach our family's histories is a guide to how we can approach history in general. If we close off understanding of the past because there are unpleasant aspects of it, the presence of the proverbial horse thief or scoundrel, then we also close ourselves off to a recognition of values that are worthy of elevation, and have served to define us as people.
Younger generations often struggle with the forced allegiance to family traditions that seem without logic or reason. This is often their parents and grandparents fault for failing to articulate the significance of the values that are at the center of their family's history. Families, like other traditional social and organizational structures, can fall into the trap of simply doing things because that is the way it has always been done. However, if they looked back in their history as a family or group, they'd see that those hardened traditions had a beginning in time that were created with the same sort of resistance to change as new ideas today
There is a difference between traditions that are alive and those that are merely habitual. The difference are values that provide the glue to the relationships. Values, when they are elevated to a place of engagement, are a living context for families.
In my own family's history, I go back to the decision my great, great, great grandfather, the proprietor of the general store mentioned above, gave to his son to make at the outbreak of the Civil War. The choice was to stay home, help his father run the store, or leave as a volunteer, and if so, the store would close. He chose to join the Confederate volunteers from North Carolina and spend the next four years at war.
Choice, responsibility and contribution are values that are part of my family's past that live on in how we function as a family today. The strength of those values provides the glue that holds us together as we live in different parts of the country and world, and as we, like all families, go through times of trial.
Living within the context of history enables us to know and understand who we are. This is particularly true for families. Without a grounding in the past, even if that past is not one of strength, provides a context for knowing what are the values upon which we can build our future.
Recovering the real from the hyper-reality of today's culture of the spectacle is partly accomplished by remembering the past as a living reality, here and now, in the present. Memory becomes an important aspect of this process of recovery, and is the subject of the next post in this series.
After posting, I decided to add this poem by Kentucky farmer and writer, Wendell Berry.
And Now in the Abbyss I pass
Of that Unfathomable Grass …
Dear Relatives and friends, when my last breath
Grows large and free in air, don’t call it death –
A world to enrich the undertaker and inspire
His surly art of imitating life, conspire
Against him. Say that my body cannot now
Be improved upon; it has no fault to show
To the sly cosmetician. Say that my flesh
Has a perfection in compliance with the grass
Truer than any it could have striven for.
You will recognize the earth in me, as before
I wished to know it in myself: my earth
That has been my care and faithful charge from birth
And toward which all my sorrows were surely bound,
And all my hopes. Say that I have found
A good solution, and am on my way
To the roots. And say I have left my native clay
At last, to be a traveler; that too will be so.
Traveler to where? Say you don’t know.
But do not let your ignorance
Of my spirit’s whereabouts dismay
You, or overwhelm your thoughts.
Be careful not to say
Anything too final. Whatever
Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure.
Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves. Why settle
For some know-it-all’s despair
When the dead may dance to the fiddle
Hereafter, for all anybody knows?
And remember that the Heavenly soil
Need not be too rich to please
One who was happy in Port Royal.
I may be already heading back
A new and better man, toward
That town. The thought’s unreasonable,
But so is life, thank the Lord!
So treat me, even dead,
As a man who has a place
To go, and something to do.
Don’t muck up my face.
With wax and powder and rouge
As one would prettify
An unalterable fact
To give bitterness the lie.
Admit the native earth
My body is and will be,
Admit its freedom and
Dress me in the clothes
I wore in the day’s round.
Lay me in a wooden box.
Put the box in the ground.
Beneath this stone a Berry is planted
In his home land, as he wanted.
He has come to the gathering of his kin,
Among whom some were worthy men,
Farmers mostly, who lived by hand,
But one was a cobbler for Ireland,
Another played the eternal fool
By riding on a circus mule
To be remembered in grateful laughter
Longer than the rest. After
Doing what they had to do
They are at ease here. Let all of you
Who yet for pain find force and voice
Look on their peace, and rejoice.
from Collected Poems 1957-1982, Wendell Berry, North Point Press, 1985.
Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.