Apr/May 2011 Nonfiction

On Houses

by R. Joseph Capet

Photo by R Klurfield

Photo by R. Klurfield

As of mid 2008, just before the housing crisis, the total value of US residential mortgages was over ten trillion dollars, a value in excess of 66 percent of the country's GDP. This is because most Americans either dedicate 20 to 30 years of their lives to paying off the cost of a house, or aspire to. We may justifiably ask how there came to be such a market in the world's richest country for one of the most basic and essential of human goods. After all, houses are not consumer goods in the classic sense, needing to be replenished constantly like food, or water, or energy. A well-built house is one of the most enduring capital investments a person can make, yet it is a rarity for North Americans to live in a house over 100 years old (or even over fifty). By contrast, it is quite common for Europeans to do so. Houses built in the 1600s in Massachusetts and Quebec are historical sites; houses built in the 1600s in Holland and Germany are the homes of modern families. Why, then, is everyone buying a house in America?

The old houses of Holland and Germany were intended to be transmitted by a chain of inheritance. While younger children might need to build or buy their own, the eldest son of the house's owner could expect to become its owner himself someday, relieving him of the immense economic burden of purchasing a new house. A man who once bought or built a house could rest secure in the knowledge that what he had gained was not merely for himself, but for his family, and that he had provided for at least one branch of his descendents a significant leg up in life. Yet for all that we proclaim home ownership an essential pillar of the American Dream, the aim of which is supposed to be the provision of a better life for our children, we do not provide them this advantage. It is an expectation of our society that every child will start its adult life homeless, and that our sons and daughters will, each and every one, shackle themselves to decades of debt in order to have a house of their own. Every generation of Americans starts over again from the beginning.

The consequence of this has been the casual commoditization of the house—its demotion from treasured family heirloom to interchangeable shelter. Why this transformation? In part, so that we could avoid providing for our parents. Past generations, living in the same house with their parents through their old age, were compelled to include them in their own lives and to care for them in their declining years. We have sold the signs of our filial love for a small price, and, in seeking the total independence of the nuclear family, we have consigned our mothers and fathers, ostracized and ignored, to other "homes"—homes which ought, by right, to be numbered among the deepest shames of modernity.

The other, scarcely nobler, cause has been our ready acceptance of an economic order which compels us constantly to relocate for work. The "mobile work force" which was billed as a liberating factor in the life of the modern worker is, in fact, mere rootlessness. The opportunity to constantly seek a better life in distant climes, which was falsely depicted as the essence of the American Dream, is instead the greatest cause of its frustration, robbing us of our freedom even as it prevents us from making stable investments for our children. The reasonable expectations of past generations—the expectation of work in one's own town and community, and of being able to earn a living among one's family and friends—are increasingly denied to us, especially those who like to think of themselves as "middle class." Throughout history, participation in solid, working-class communities has been an essential pillar of the dignity and the quality of life of the working man. Indeed, though subject to hard and unpaid labor in his lord's fields, and forced to seek permission even to marry, the medieval serf regarded himself as a free man rather than a slave for the simple reason that he was tied to his land, and that no lord could force him to leave it or separate him from his family and community. We, the supposedly liberated descendents of such serfs, now live, like slaves, in the unending uncertainty of sale, and we flatter ourselves that we are better off than slaves and serfs—that we are truly free because we sell ourselves.

This itinerant labor market has dispersed our communities and deprived us of our autonomy. It is from fixed residences that we gain the stability to form a network of contacts and the permanence to learn local customs. Armed with such contacts and knowledge, we are able to exert influence in our communities and hence exercise power over our own lives. They are the tools with which we project our identities and desires into our communities and bring them to reflect, even if only in a small way, our personal visions and values. Our autonomy springs from the exercise of this power within a community, made possible by our houses. To treat houses as a commodity, as we do, is a sure sign of the degeneracy which has learned to prize wealth above the community that makes us autonomous. Never sure when we will be asked to sell ourselves to new masters in distant parts, we buy houses already calculating their resale values. When we renovate them, we ask ourselves how much we will get back on the market. When, at last, the opportunity to move to a bigger, more expensive model presents itself, we willingly uproot to display ourselves more ostentatiously elsewhere. We leave our own communities to impress strangers with the money we invest in theirs—communities of strangers with strange ways, among whom we can exert no influence. Thus we come to live sealed away like so many unstrung pearls in our jewelry box houses, connected to nothing, watching our personal autonomy, and with it our sense of personal fulfillment, slowly erode.

In the process, we are not only losing our sense of self-worth and of self-assertion, but our very sense of self. Every child who was fortunate enough to have his or her own room growing up remembers the importance of that space. Human beings impress themselves on the spaces they inhabit, projecting the contents of their inner space upon the outer reality. This is no mere indulgent self-expression, but a means by which we come to understand ourselves—inspecting, considering, reworking, and rearranging our own personalities through the symbolic medium of our external spaces. We perform this kind of self-projection against the screen of many places, but none so powerfully as our own homes, which we can personalize as we can no other space. We reimagine ourselves through our houses in the same way that societies reimagine themselves through the architecture of their cities, and just as with societies, the consistency of that space is key. Only when we project ourselves consistently against the same space are we forced to confront our old projections with each reimagining; our sense of continuity in our identities emerges in time from projecting our minds against the same space again and again. Deprived of this, we run the risk of becoming mere chameleons, constantly projecting new identities against new spaces, never forced to reconcile the inconsistencies (or answer for the missteps) which occur along the way. Indeed, this is the story of American independence—the formation of a radically new identity by people who projected themselves against new spaces, and who became dissociated from the people they had been before.

We have formed a new identity here as Americans for the same reason that our cousins on the other side of the ocean are still English (and German, and Chinese, and a thousand other things)—because the principle of psychic projection enables both our self-identification and our identification with others. Our Old World forefathers, living in inherited homes, lived surrounded by the psychic projections of past generations. Any modern German aristocrat can give you his genealogy in an open house tour, and the personalities of his ancestors impress themselves physically upon his living space. It is by participating in this story, written around him in wood and stone from the time of his birth, that he comes to identify himself with his fathers, his family, and his nation. The same sense of formative tradition molded generations of our American ancestors in hand-me-down pioneer homes, but very few are the people in America today who can find such meaning in their own houses, which are, more often than not, bits of 80s and 90s tract construction which connect them to nothing larger than themselves except their mortgages.

In this way, houses are crucial at the most fundamental level to our modern understanding of what constitutes a family. In his 1959 article, "Über die Struktur des Adels im früheren Mittelalter," Karl Schmid examined libri memoriales—books of names assembled in the middle ages for saying commemorative prayers. By analyzing the repetition of certain "core names," he was able to trace the evolution of medieval families, as each generation was named out the same small stock of names their ancestors had used, just as today we often name children after aunts or uncles or grandparents. Before the year 1000, family structures were relatively fluid. The names which were favored occasionally fell out of use, and new ones replaced them, as though a family suddenly stopped naming its children Joseph and began naming them John, for example. In modern times, when family continuity is expressed in last names, this is very common, but in medieval terms, this is an expression of a new family identity—a new consciousness of who constitutes one's family. Family identities could change completely whenever an individual married into a more distinguished family or a relative achieved some new and remarkable deed or high office, because the identity of a family centered around particular individuals and the prestige of their accomplishments. Nothing but individuals existed around which family identities could form. We might imagine our own family reunions, when everyone attending can trace themselves back to some elderly matriarch or patriarch, a great-grandmother, for instance, who acts as the focus around which that family's sense of identity and community is formed. For early medieval people who had no other anchor of family identity, the death of such a person would quickly loosen their connection, and the different branches of descendents would begin to take new names and regard themselves as new, distinct families.

Starting about the year 1000, however, there was a massive shift in the way that upper-class families thought about themselves. As more and more of the wealthy and influential class purchased or constructed castles and other fortified, fixed residences and passed these on to their children, the identities of their families began to center not around individuals and the prestige of the offices they held, but around those residences. For the first time, individuals who had died before a man was born were meaningfully members of his "family," because he lived in their home—a home which had been passed down from them to him. From the ever-shifting kin groups of early medieval Europe, changing their names and allegiances with the passing of each generation of unifying forebears, were born at last the stable and appropriately-named "noble houses" of Europe, whose creation is marked by a final name change, in which the names of residences become appended to personal names as the first modern surnames. In following centuries, this noble practice was imitated by commoners, who made themselves surnames out of the names of their towns or the titles of their professions and began to perceive themselves also as members of families stretching back many generations. They, too, began to pass down the houses they had built, and to understand the family not merely as a set of present relationships, but as a societal institution embracing the past, the present, and the future.

This idea of the family lies at the very root of the American Dream. The United States is home to some of the world's largest genealogical archives and research institutes; Americans connect so powerfully with their ancestors that they often adopt their ethnicities, declaring themselves to be Italian or Irish on the strength of the origins of great-great-grandparents whom they never met. The inverse of this has been an American preoccupation with posterity, which runs as a connecting thread through the rhetoric of the country, from the preamble to the Constitution to the contemporary debate over the national debt. Yet these enduringly American concepts of ancestral heritage and of posterity, which were established by the heirs of castle estates and nurtured a world away by men born in log cabins their fathers and grandfathers had built, are now threatened at their core by the very same thing that contributed so centrally to the meltdown of our economy—the casual commoditization of the house.

The American Dream is an advancing quality of life made possible in truth only by passing houses on within our families and liberating our children from the crushing economic burden of purchasing a home. But it is also a special understanding of the family, one in which ancestors we never met have sacrificed to better our lives, and descendents we will never know constitute a posterity whose lives we, in turn, seek to better—an understanding of the family which is possible only in a society that inherits houses. We now see the American Dream being swept farther and farther away in the tide of foreclosures brought on by the recession, but the truth is that it has been receding for much longer, every time we let a company relocate us, or every time we send our children out to buy new houses for themselves. We must once again regard houses with the dignity they deserve, not as mere shelters to be exchanged as the seasons may suggest, as were the caves of our most distant ancestors, but as projections of ourselves and our forefathers: the indispensable anchors of our identities, both personal and familial. We must again treat them not as commodities, but as precious heirlooms. To do otherwise is to betray our ancestors and to lose the idea of our posterity—to betray the American Dream and, ultimately, to lose the idea of America.


Previous Piece Next Piece