Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Domesticity of the Dead

Recently, I learned that my wife is Irish.

Well, not completely Irish. But her researches into her ancestry have taught her that, despite her Sicilian maiden name, the blood that streams through her veins is predominately Irish.

I'm surprised how much this means to me. I always liked the fact that she comes from America, since I am an admirer of that great nation. (And I think there is something uniquely attractive about a woman who speaks with an American accent. It's so peppy.) But to learn that she does, after all, belong to the same people as me seems to add a whole new dimension to our relationship.

She's also come upon some old photographs of her family-- for instance, her grandmother and grandfather on their wedding day. Looking at the picture of the handsome couple, and remembering having stood by her grandmother's grave only this year, has only deepened a conviction that I've been feeling a lot lately-- that family folklore, family traditions and family memories are something precious beyond words.

What is depressing about a graveyard? Not so much the presence of death, I would venture, as the absence of memory. The names and dates upon the tombstones are so bald, when they can even be made out. They tell you so little about the people who lie beneath them. And how many of them are ever visited?

I think that the dead live on, not so much in tombstones and epitaphs, as in the stories and anecdotes and sayings that survive in the mouths of their children, grand-children and great-grandchildren. (Or those of their surviving relatives, if they didn't have children themselves.)

It seems strange to me that we tend to look only a couple of generations back. How many of us know anything about our great-great-grandparents? And yet we wouldn't exist without them. Their bodies and their efforts and their sacrifices gave us life. Our sense of affinity with our kindred is so intense, why should it evaporate at so few removes?

Another thing I find fascinating about family folklore is its evanescence. Most of the time it isn't written anywhere. It's not in any archive or library or chart. When it's gone, it's gone. And it belongs to nobody except its possessors; it's entirely in trust with them.

There is also something quite fascinating about the concept of a family-- I mean, an extended family. It may be ridiculous to think like this, but I find it interesting that there is no central bureau or authority for an extended family-- there is no headquarters for all the Millers in the world, or all the Donovans in the world, or all the Coopers in the world. We live in such a bureaucratic world that this actually seems odd to me. I take pleasure in thinking about it. Nobody owns a family name, and yet it's an affinity much more real than being a member of any corporation or club.

I could write so much more on this subject. I could write about my own family background, and my strong sense that my own life is only the latest chapter in a story which features so many other actors, so many other episodes, stretching back beyond the horizon of memory. But, for now, I'm savouring the fact that it turns out my wife was Irish before she even met me.


  1. It's funny that you mention family names; I discovered that there are two completely separate origins for my family name - one Irish, the other Welsh. The latter has (in America) a famous novelist, an Olympic gold medallist and even the singer of a 70's disco hit in its ranks. The wholly unrelated Irish family has... nobody of note. Oh well...

  2. The Irish side of the family doesn't need any distinguished members, they already won the lottery of life by being Irish!!

    Nice to hear from you Éamonn. Thanks for the comment, I get masses of spam comments these days but not very many real comments.

  3. I agree that it really is astonishing, the narrow scope that tends to be taken of family history, and how irretrievable it is once forgotten. A great deal of research has failed to yield much information about my great-great-grandparents (who were from Athy), even a trustworthy list of all their children, many of whom died when quite young. This is in spite of their cutting a large figure in our family history - it was they who moved to Great Britain, and through them that I have my Catholicism. Not knowing all the children's names is especially exasperating, because if asked, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for them to have rattled off their names and talked about them for hours.

    I suppose one reason for this is that it takes a long time for children to work out their place in a family, and to comprehend the different perspectives - to see and to understand their parents as their grandparents' children, for instance. And people must also look forward for half their lives: to marriage and to their own children. By the time they begin to look backwards, much has been buried for ever...

    It must also be worth considering what digital photography and social media will do in this regard, and how people will regard their ancestors...

  4. I hadn't really thought about the effect digital and social media will play in this. We tend to think of them as ephemeral but I imagine they're all still out there, even when we think they are deleted or trashed, and maybe as technology advances it will be easier and easier to retrieve them. Or maybe it will just be lik all the lost television and radio shows whose tapes were wiped and which were never found. All the same, surely people will keep virtual memorabilia which might be more long-lasting than physical memorabilia.

    It's true what you say about not looking backwards until the latter part of your life. And yet, I think, we are always very conscious of an extended family 'atmosphere'. I know I was. I think we might be more attentive to it if it became more of a common practice-- I don't know how-- maybe story-telling sessions on a 'family day' each year or something.

  5. In terms of heritage/culture/ancestry, I've always thought of being American as something like the equivalent of waking up with amnesia in a room full of strangers. Maybe you know that you're Irish or that the guy next to you is Italian, but none of you really know exactly know what that means.

    My theory is that there are a 1/3 of Americans (among the 2nd generation and later) who could completely care less, another 1/3 who are at peace with a dual identity and a final 1/3 who are troubled about the whole situation. The kind of people who map out elaborate genealogies connecting them to hoary viking warlords, or at least shell out for the DNA testing service that connects them to other people's genealogical charts.

    Within that last group there are maybe a final 1% or so who exhibit something like the ethnic equivalent of Jerusalem Syndrome. These are the sort of people who change their name to conform with African tribal traditions, or convert to Latvian Orthodoxy, or visit Dublin once and speak with a completely ridiculous brogue for the rest of their lives. I'd put myself somewhere within that last 3rd group. I've spent a lot of time learning Gaeilge, but it's given me no resolution. I think that our current president is as close as touching the final group.

    Anyway, it must be nice to just be able to say "I'm Irish" and be able to leave it at that. It's a very clearly delineated identity and set of customs, right? I've always wondered what it's like to live in a country where where you can look at a medieval or stone age monument and say, "yeah, grandad built that" or where every one is genetically the equivalent of your 5th cousin. It must be a consolation to know that you're in some way a continuing part of culture and set of traditions larger than yourself?

  6. Nice to hear from you again, Rusty!

    My own experience of the US was that everybody seems passionately interested in their ancestry and their extraction, and they even describe themselves as 'Polish', 'Irish', 'German', or whatever, rather than Polish-American etc.

    This fascination, for me, is evidence that ethnicity IS important-- and that it is also something with a strong genetic component, and not simply something cultural.

    America is a unique case. I'm rather sceptical of multiculturalism in general but it seems to me that America is an example of multiculturalism working-- in the sense that it is neither homogenous nor balkanised, but a genuine vibrant (and distinctive) national culture which contains an almost infinite diversity within in.

    Of course there is a great deal of satisfaction to be taken from knowing, as you say, "That you're in some way a continuing part of culture and set of traditions larger than yourself". It's priceless. But in many ways I think Americans make more of their younger traditions than Europeans do of their older ones.

  7. Well, in fairness, the US is a big place, and I speak only to my own experience growing up as an average 80's kid from the suburbs whose ancestors have been here for a while. There are definitely communities of Italians, German Americans etc. who maybe aren't culturally identical to people from wherever their ancestors came from, but who are definitely a lot different from the typical American. People from these groups aren't likely to have much ethnic ambiguity in their lives.

    I would say that's a perceptive remark about how Americans speak about their ancestry. Though in point of fact, the Italians, Irish and to a lesser extent the Poles and Germans are probably the only widespread groups who've really tried to maintain any communal identity or link to their traditions over the generations. Unfortunately, Danish Americans don't throw Herring Fests in their local parks or stage performances of the The Little Match Girl to commemorate great days in Danish history. And if you were to ask enough Americans where their ancestors were from, you would start to run into a large contingent who'd say that they're "just American" or gormlessly shrug the question off. These people genuinely don't care.

    The only ethnic term that I despise is "white." In popular culture it's been an all purpose pejorative since the 60's to describe something that exists at the confluence of lameness and evil. It strips away history, culture and tradition and negates an individual's ancestors. Politically, it's used by racists, race hustlers and liberal Harvard professors alike to hang the crimes of the colonists around the neck of every person of European ancestry in the country. The term is impossibly used to link a descendant of Polish immigrants who came here in the 1920's with slavers and the people who gave infected blankets to the natives. I don't think that I've ever heard any one say "I'm just white" but I hear talk of "white Americans" all the time. It's impossible not to use the term entirely, but I think that "white ethnics" such as myself would be doing ourselves a favor if we could separate ourselves from the term as much as possible.

    As for multiculturalism working, I'd agree that it has, to a marvelous extant. That's probably due to the historically abundant supply of land relative to the population, job opportunities, and hands off government. All these things are inevitably changing for the worse, and the cultures involved are a lot more diverse than they used to be as well. It'll be interesting to see how far the system and resources needed to maintain it can stretch before the whole thing pops. I don't know if it's international news, but my city is currently in the middle of a violent race riot that's now lasted 8 days. In the background, I'm watching the carnage going on across town on the TV in the same way that I'd watch the news from Iraq or Afghanistan. It's amazing how the individual outlets are twisting the news to fit their agenda. You know it happens, but you can still hardly believe it when you see it first hand.

    So, since the last time we chatted, it seems that you've married an American and have probably been to US a few times. You must have put some thought into the culture and the national character of the place. I'd agree there is something like a national culture or least that there are certain themes and characters that have repeated themselves in the history of the country. Honestly, though, I'd rather hear your opinions on the culture and type, if you'd care to articulate them?

    For the record, I stop in here every few months or so, usually by way of an unrelated, random google search. I always think of blogs as social media for anti-social introverts, and I'm delighted that there are people still keeping the the blog alive so long after it's fallen out of popularity. Keep up the good work.

  8. Do you mean you hit this blog through looking for something completely unrelated? Sometimes that happens to me but I usually put it down to the fact that I'm likely to have written about something I'm searching for, and because maybe Google stacks results to favour what you've looked at before. It's interesting otherwise.

    I've been to the US a good few times now, yes, although (as my wife always reminds me when I pontificate about 'America') to a tiny pocket-- that is, Richmond, Virginia, and environs. Plus a (hot and bothered) day in Washington D.C. And New Jersey.

    Thanks for being interested in my thoughts about America. What you said about supply of land is really what strikes me. The fact that you can stand on a strip of your own land and not see the nearest houses, and that's not such a strange thing, has (I think) huge psychological ramifications. I think this can hardly be overstated. I'm struggling to express it but I think Europeans don't even conceive of the level of individualism that Americans expect as a matter of course. I heard the conservative philosopher Thomas Fleming claim that American individualism is a myth but I don't think so. When my wife has driven me around America the sheer sense of SPACE is what is most striking, and I think that creates a sense of possibility and freedom which is all-pervading.

    But I think the most significant fact about Americans, for me, is that they really do believe in the pursuit of happiness, not as something abstract, but as something achievable. Americans expect to be happy. If their job doesn't make them happy, they get another one...if they don't feel happy in the place they are living, they move. I got the impression (I might be wrong) that Americans medicate a lot more than we do over here because unhappiness is seen, not as something to be expected, but as something very wrong. I think this also fuels what a lot of observers have seen in America, that is, a strange mixture of materialism and idealism.

    I also think this commitment to happiness means that Americans are more committed to OTHER peoples' happiness, as well-- at least in the sense that customer service in America seems so much more thorough and eager. Maybe these are all clichés that I've projected on what I've seen in America, but they are what genuinely strikes me.

    I should add that, in many ways, I feel more of an affinity with Americans than I do with Europeans-- they are less cynical, in a way. I think, to attempt a paradox, Americans are more religious than Europeans, even when they are atheists. The fact that you say "awesome" so much seems significant to me.

  9. And, yes, the race riots here are big news too.

  10. For whatever reason, I realized early on in the internet that the stuff I posted might be around for a long time. I've probably written phone books worth of comments, reviews, etc. that will maybe stored on some hard drive for centuries, but no one would ever connect them to the man who wrote them. And I'm pretty okay with that. For an OCD guy like me, actually writing a blog would be equivalent of going down the rabbit hole and never coming up. Every statement would have to be triple checked, every point addressed, every challenge rebutted. If I don't limit even just the time that I spend on forums and blogs, I'd sit here all day posting manifestos like the one above. And don't get me started on the youtube. I'm just glad that I got to live a normal life and get the most embarrassing parts of it out of the way before video recording technology became ubiquitous. I don't envy today's kids.

  11. Yes, I can see how being OCD would be a recipe for exhaustion on the internet. I have some (self-diagnosed) OCD tendencies myself, as I suppose most people would, but I never felt the urge to respond comprehensively to an argument-- as this blog attests!

  12. I clear the cache regularly, so unless google is tracking my ip address, I think that it would just be random hits. And that's happened several times over the last year or more. If it's of any interest to you, I specifically remember hitting your sight while looking for the Flann O'Brien quote about gaelic speakers and another time looking for a quote from Father Ted where a Sinead O'Connor character talks about the church shutting down the potato factories and turning them into prisons for children. I'll sometimes hit the sight directly, also, and binge read from wherever I last left off. It'd been a lot longer than I thought it had since I'd last posted, but I have kept up with reading the blog's posts in the mean time.

    And thanks for taking the time to reply seriously to what was maybe an unintentionally flippant question. Alexis de Tocqueville spent 700+ pages or so addressing the matter (I bought the book from a thrift store and will get around to reading it.. eventually) but I think that you hit the high points there really well.

    If it interests you, there's a proven correlation between land prices and political views in the US. The red state conservatives live in places where land is cheap, where as blue state liberals live in highly populated corridors where real estate is expensive. A writer name Steve Sailer wrote a series of articles about it for a magazine called the American Conservative several years back, arguing to the conclusion that this ultimately plays a large part in the current political divide. The default position in the current political schism on all sides is that disagreement is the result of some sort of intrinsic stupidity or evil on the part of the other. I'm really fond of the idea that there are usually rational and valid reasons why people have the opinions that they have, even when they conflict.

    I do take exception with this American idea that unhappiness is a disease that needs to be battled with all the might that the pharmaceutical industry can bring to bear. In high school I had a friend who was depressed and hated the American institution of public high school in general and his fellow students in particular. We were broadly in agreement there; it's why we were such good friends. We were both constantly getting into fights and causing trouble. Eventually, at separate points, the administration had had enough and we were both referred to psychologists by the school and both prescribed prozac. He took it, and I didn't. Long story short, yes, the guy was happier, but it cost him a chunk of (for lack of a better word) his soul. He was ultimately a shallower, truncated version of who he'd been before. It was as though the fire had gone out of him. In my case, I just figured that me and high school didn't mix and that I'd be fine when I got out of it. And I was right.

    To me, if someone is depressed, that is very likely for a reason other than just brain chemistry. It needs to be addressed and not just medicated over. Further, I think that sadness has a legitimate part within the scheme of things and it needs to be given its due. But, yeah, I would think that those sentiments are likely at odds with how the average American would view things. The comedy group The Kids in the Hall made a movie called 'Brain Candy' in the 90's that took that general theme and ran with it for the length of a feature film, which I remember as being pretty good.

  13. (contd.)

    Also, I don't know if it's the same outside the US but there's a massive difference between my generation and the current one. I never believed in the Gen X thing until I recently started working with people who are clearly of a younger generation. I sometimes think that they are prone to self delusion in certain ways but they are so much more friendly, cheerful and optimistic than the people that I grew up with. I can't imagine them making a gloomy, nihilistic bastard like Kurt Cobain into a rock star (which doesn't excuse the fact that their music is awful.) Maybe growing up under the threat of a mushroom cloud had a bigger impact on us than I'd given it credit for.

    About the OCD thing: I actually fact checked that statement about Danes not having herring fests before posting. (There are herring fests in the US but none directly connected to Danish heritage groups, so far as I can tell.) These days I try to go out of my way to do little things like shutting the oven off before the timer beeps, turning off the tv before end of the show or walking out of the movie before the credits. A friend recently suggested to me that this might be OCD manifesting itself in a new way. So you can't win for losing.

    Finally(!) the sort of stuff you're blogging generally maybe isn't conducive to getting a lot of twitter hits or facebook likes, but it's the sort of thing people will still be interested in and reading about years from now. Nothing on the internet ever goes away and you're still a young guy writing at a fast pace. I wonder what impact these voluminous archives being compiled by all these bloggers might have on the future. I wonder if you've considered this long view of things. Even if you never make a nickel out of it, you've still had your say for the future. So at least you've got that going for you.

  14. Thanks for those encouraging words Rusty. When it comes to depression, I do think there's a difference between the intrinsic, irreducible tragedy of human life and the fact that some people have a debilitating mental illness. I wouldn't like to express any scepticism about that if it could possibly damage anyone.

    I think your friend's comments about being OCD about not being OCD was kind of stupid actually. I'm a bit OCD about not having doors hanging open or a piece of paper jutting out of a drawer of stuff like that. At one point I went through the fairly standard OCD thing of obsessive hand-washing, to the point that my knuckles were red-raw and my skin would bleed sometimes. I overcame that, though. Seeing the film "The Aviator" shocked me into it a little. There is a scene where Howard Hughes waits by a public bathroom door, unwilling to touch the knob and hoping someone else would walk through and let him out. I'm not afflicted by this anymore, though.

  15. I should have said the tragic dimension of human life rather than the tragedy of human life.