Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Digression, On How I Got Here



Over Thanksgiving, I saw my friends Paul and Lisa, who are rebuilding a brick cottage they bought out in Garfield Park a couple years ago.  Real Estate is an awful lot cheaper out there.  Paul bought the cottage for $25,000.  He's spent evenings and week-ends since he bought it straightening out one of the exterior walls and building the inside back in.  In the meantime, he's picked up some other properties as opportunities present themselves, including the vacant lot next door to this cottage, and a 2 flat on the next block – most recently he bought himself a car wash.

Back before the crash, our mutual friend TC bought a graystone a few blocks away from where Paul's buying now.  He got jumped twice while living over there, and took to carrying a knife and a bottle of bear mace.  Paul, who rented a room from him for the better part of a year before moving to a live-work studio with Lisa, says TC's graystone was in a different situation.  There was a scrap metal dealer behind it, and a heroin dealer with political connections installed in the house at the end of the block.  Junkies would haul scrap to the metal dealer for cash and stroll by on their way to the drug dealer's house.

Paul's new 2 flat has an open air drug market out front, and the previous owner cut a trap door into the front porch to discourage scavengers and squatters from trying to break in.  But Paul says if you approach from the alley, which is still paved in Belgian block, it looks quaint; he says this part of the neighborhood is relatively safe. 

The drug market is a drive through operation, and the dealers operate as quietly as they can.  There was a shooting incident last year, but that was over a dice game in front of the corner store.  Someone lost a lot of money and the other players were making fun of him, so he got a gun and shot 6 of them.  There were no fatalities.  Since everyone knew who the gunman was the police scooped him up pretty quickly.

But for the most part, Paul says his neighbors are all quiet homeowners, many of them elderly people who bought their houses when the neighborhood first turned black.  They greet Paul and Lisa by name when they see them on the street.  Now, he sees other young professionals who can't afford to buy in places like Bucktown and Logan Square buying cheap property on the Garfield Park frontier.

Paul’s efforts to establish himself out there got me thinking about the urban frontier, and the nature of the opportunities out there.  And even though I don’t live on the frontier by any definition, it reminded me of how I got here myself.




I first moved to Chicago in 1990 – a year that would seem significant later, in terms of the urban frontier.  Superficially though, I was preoccupied with an entirely different set of issues at the time. I came to attend divinity school, to study early Christian history.  I had big ideas about what that would entail.  I imagined it would mean tracing out patterns in the expression of human consciousness. 

The Hellenistic era, when Christianity emerged, was a time of exceptional religious ferment, and of tectonic shifts in people’s sense of where they stood in the world.  At least 20th century scholars often described it that way.  They saw parallels to tectonic shifts they’d witnessed themselves.

They would say the world had been a smaller place before the Hellenistic era.  In the ancient world, the earth had been a finite plane.  The heavens stretched over it like a dome, encircling its horizons.  Within that enclosure, people had a clear sense where they were, they were generally confident they were standing at the center of the world.

Each particular society exerted more influence over its members under the old world order, because they lived their entire lives without leaving it.  Their religious experience was more socially defined too, expressed in collective rituals more than in personal pieties.  So much so that individuals didn’t need to believe their own souls were immortal.  After death they might pass to some shadowy underworld where they’d chatter in the darkness like flocks of bats, seething in a cave.  But overhead, under the sun, their gods guaranteed the lasting welfare of the society where they had lived their lives.




Alexander’s armies rattled their confidence in these things.  Or the empires that followed would do it, because there had been conquests before.  The armies proved their gods weren’t all powerful, but the Greek and Roman empires unified vast territories under a common administration of law, and taxation, run by an elite who all spoke Greek, and circulated from one city to the next.  These things supported a more cosmopolitan culture than the world had seen before.  Travel was made easier, trade flourished and communication flowed more freely.

Globalization was stimulating, but it was also unsettling.  It was hard to claim you were established at the center of the world from out in the provinces of someone else’s empire.  And the terrestrial dislocations were magnified by astrological ones.  The heavenly dome broke open, people came to understand the position of the earth within a much larger construction of planets and stars, moving overhead in ascending spheres.   The atmosphere below the moon had been shown to be more unreliable, the pull of the planets seemed more complex and sinister, the brilliant realm of the stars much further away.

People’s minds were altered, and they flocked to new forms of religion to orient themselves.  Cults promising personal transformation, sometimes even immortality, spread like nervous energy among  people dislodged from the safety of their enclosed societies.




I first heard all this from a professor named David Ulansey – I remember him as a trim man with a tonsure of dark hair and expressive eyes who dressed in the same neat uniform every day: blue oxford shirt and a tie, with dark blue pants.  He had just made his reputation piecing together a credible account of the Mithraic mystery cult.

The Hellenistic mystery cults promised salvation by initiation into transformative secrets, many of which have been lost to history.  But the cult of Mithras left subterranean sanctuaries across the frontiers of the Roman Empire, preserving the cult’s distinctive iconography.  The central image inside those sanctuaries was the “tauroctony,” or bull slaying, in which Mithras stands over a bull, stabbing it in the neck with a dagger.

Ulansey had come to the conclusion that the tauroctony represented an astral phenomenon called the precession of the equinoxes, which had been discovered by a Greek astronomer not long before the Mithraic cult first appeared.  He described this answer unfolding itself gradually, yielding to years of careful research, with all the small details falling into place around this central connection.  The strength of this Ulansey's argument was not just in his command of the historical particulars, but the imaginative charge of the whole thing: you could believe that ancient discovery had transformative power.

Hellenistic people, uneasy in their new universe, were drawn to astral cults that promised to teach the secrets their souls would need to pass through the heavens, shedding layers of their mortal flaws, and slipping out from the demonic powers that rule the earth to contemplate perfection from among the stars.  The discovery that the equinoxes change would have rattled the whole thing: it meant that the realm of the fixed stars is not really fixed; it meant the whole cosmic structure moved in a new direction, motivated by a previously unknown force.  In secret initiations conducted underground, Ulansey argued, that force was revealed as Mithras, Kosmokrator.




Years later, I’d learn that Ulansey had wandered off from academia not too long after his book on the Mithraic Mysteries came out. He would write that he had fallen into a depression, because all his most compelling ideas were dismissed as too speculative by his academic peers.  So he moved to California where he teaches courses in cosmology and consciousness at an Institute of Integral Studies.

The ancient dislocations he described still remind me what Chicago seemed like when I first moved here -- vast and unnavigable.  The effect was probably magnified by the hour when I arrived, because the city’s population was still waning, its traditional economy contracting, its neighborhoods going back to prairie in spreading patches.  Especially its south side neighborhoods and the west side ones – preparing for new waves of opportunity, it turns out.  But back then, no one knew for sure that the people would come back, not in 1990, when the murder tally was approaching 1,000 a year and the population kept dropping every time the census came in.

I’d moved to Hyde Park, a leafy academic enclave that was surrounded by acres of decimated ghetto we were sometimes warned to avoid, at least until we got our bearings.  But it wasn’t just the poverty close by that was unnerving, I thought it was the novelty of the streetscape.  Compared to the quaint, crooked little city I’d just come from, Chicago was relentlessly rectilinear, the ground was flat, the buildings were plain brick boxes, almost without ornament, the streets laid out on a grid.  As you learn it, it resolves into neighborhoods, each one distinct from the others.  But on arrival, it looked like mile upon mile of the same sort of thing.

I remember thinking it was more profane than where I’d come from.  It was a term I’d learned from History of Religions. The opposite of “the sacred,” as used to great effect by a Romanian scholar who had made the Chicago school of History of Religions famous.  The Romanian's name was Mircea Eliade.  He had just died, 4 years before I got to Chicago, and the fact he was Romanian was turning out to be important.




At the time though, what impressed me was his Homo Religiosus, a distant cousin of Modern Man.  Religious Man craves reality: he wants to center his life around it, participate in it.  But he is painfully aware most of the world is not real in any navigable sense.  Time plods senselessly forward, wearing him out; the landscape spreads out in all directions, a wilderness, indifferent, uninhabitable.

But on occasion, reality boils up in the desert.  Eliade called it heirophany, the appearance of the sacred, the eruption of something vivid and real from out of the vast profane.  To Religious Man, it seems that place is the center of the world, the point of the cosmic axis that connects earth with heaven.  He’ll build his home at that place, or he’ll establish a temple, or found a city.  Build a wall around it.  Outside, the world dissolves into incoherence.

One example Eliade used to illustrate the orienting power of heirophany was a sad tale about the Achilpa people, a nomadic clan of the Australian outback.  The Achilpa did not settle in one sacred place and call it the center, they carried their cosmic axis with them in the form of a tall pole, made from the wood of a gum tree. As long as they had it, they could always communicate with heaven and re-establish themselves.  But then the pole was broken in a tragic accident.  Disoriented, no doubt despairing, the entire troupe simply lay down and waited for death to overtake them.

Homo Religiosus experienced time differently from modern people too.  Eliade claimed that all religious rituals repeat some original act of creation.  And they are not just a sentimental memory of the event, they effectively re-enact it, canceling the damage done by time, and restoring the world to its original condition.  He’d write about the “terror of history” and wonder how humanity has been able to tolerate it.  Modern Man chases after history, trying to make his mark. Homo Religiosus obliterates it over and over again, in an eternal return to the time of creation.



As a Romanian, Eliade had been born in a small country on the eastern frontier of Europe, on the crossroads of empires.  Through the centuries, it had been overrun by the Romans, the Huns, the Franks, the Ottoman Turks.  Eliade was born in 1907, his father and his uncles were military men who fought in the First World War, when Romania was a battleground for larger powers once again.  At the end of it though, Romania came out reunited with contested territories, and with a new sense of national purpose.

Eliade believed his generation had an important destiny: they would define a distinctly Romanian culture, one that could take its place on the world stage.  He believed Romania’s great cultural disadvantage had been that it could not boast a medieval history.  The great Western nations could all do that, but only because they’d been lucky to have a handful of literate men who’d recorded it.  On the other hand, if Romania didn’t have a written history, it had something more fundamental, it had a proto-history, preserved in the oral traditions of its folklore, the myths and symbols of the Romanian peasantry, much of it reflecting their immersion in the rhythms of nature.

Eliade spent the Second World War in Western Europe, serving in posts with the Romanian embassy, first in London, then in Lisbon.  His diaries from Lisbon describe his despair as Soviet troupes encircled the Romanian army at the Battle of Stalingrad.  He lamented the short sightedness of Westerners who cheered for the defeat of the Germans -- he thought they were na├»ve about the Stalinist Soviets, he thought the Nazi army was defending the West against the modern day Turks, the Asian hordes that had crossed Romania and menaced Europe before.

Eliade came out of the Second World War with a more radical cultural project than when he went in.  He saw that his destiny was not in Romania, championing the particular heritage of the Romanian peasantry, but in the west, where he would look for universal patterns in religious experience that were common to all humanity, at least before the corruptions of modernity.  And he realized that destiny.  He became an academic superstar, his Homo Religiosus defined the field of History of Religions for decades after the war.

Even as Eliade’s international stature grew, other post-war scholars, trying to understand how Nazism exerted such appeal, would point to a German cultural project not unlike his proto-history.  It valorized an indigenous culture of the German peasant, still retrievable through folklore, a culture that reflected their genetic connection to the native landscape. The project comforted a populace left disoriented in a rapidly urbanizing, industrializing society, giving them a venerable folk tradition to grasp hold of.  The Germans also used it to summon up a common ethnic identity to unify the fractured German states into a single nation, an ethnic identity that would later be taken to sinister extremes.




Eliade died in 1986.  When I moved to Chicago in 1990, his intellectual heirs were taking him down from his pedestal.  His Lisbon diaries hadn't been found yet, but people were asking questions about what Eliade had been up to in Romania between the wars.  They wanted to know about his relationship with the fascist Iron Guard – did they just share a romantic view of Romanian peasant and his native culture, or did they share more than that?  And if Eliade was a fascist, maybe Homo Religiosus was susceptible to fascist ideology in some fundamental sense.

A lot of it sounded like guilt by association and subtle attacks by innuendo.  But there were complaints about his method, too.  They’d say in his search for sweeping patterns he’d played loose with the particulars.  The Achilpa didn’t really lie down to die because when their sacred pole broke, they’d lost congress with heaven and could not navigate the world.  A closer reading of the source material makes it sound like they died from embarrassment when they came to a meeting place and their pole was shorter than those of all the other clans.

The context was clarified by JZ Smith, one of Eliade’s Chicago colleagues, who had found that the original story about the Achilpa with the broken pole was not about the importance of establishing a cosmic “center,” or an axis to communicate with heaven.  It was a story about maintaining a connection with ancestors whose travels had marked the landscape.  But it was still a story about making the world navigable, by making it a coherent, meaningful place.

Other critics would make more radical critiques of the way Eliade privileged myth and symbol over collective ritual practice -- the individual’s quest for meaning over religion’s more social functions.  Some would question whether religion constitutes a real category outside of the experience of Western scholars who invented the field.




I wandered off from divinity school 20 years ago, but I still find myself going back every few years to read a little Eliade, and to see what his critics have to say.  Because whatever his failings as a historic portrait, Eliade's Homo Religiosus still carries an imaginative charge.  Not that the particular ways he's said to have oriented himself sound entirely credible, or appealing.  But as a mirror image of Modern Man, who is still out wandering the landscape without a cosmic pole.

Homo Saecularis still craves reality, or at least he’s always talking about it.  It’s just that he seems to pursue it by chasing whatever’s new in the world, and scrambling for the peripheries.  He’d like nothing more than to live in history, even as it accelerates, making his chances of making a lasting impression on it slimmer every year.  So he climbs Everest and treks the desert, he seeks out the remotest societies he can find, looking for a native culture that’s still authentic, or trying to jar himself out of his comfort zone.

At least, those experiences are often glorified in lifestyle magazines.  They may not be the way most people really live their lives.

Years ago, as a student in Ulansey’s class, I wrote a term paper comparing Eliade’s Religious Man, who clings to the center, with Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay about the significance of the American Frontier.  I remember that paper as an embarrassing lament about how Modern Man's restless pursuit of new frontiers shows our unabashed thirst for the profane.

I wouldn't describe it that way now.  Twenty years on, the Frontier doesn't look so much like the opposite of Eliade's center, it's more like it's image in the mirror. For one thing, it's turned out to be eternally recurring.  For another, it still promises to connect us with an experience that’s vital and real.

In 1893 when Turner wrote his essay, the US census had just declared it could no longer identify a frontier line, marked by a certain population density on the edge of settled territory, and would no longer include the “frontier settlement” as a category in its reports.

For Turner, this was a historic moment of great significance.  Up to that point, it was the frontier that had given rise to the culture and institutions that have made us distinctly American.  It did this partly because it offered distance from the Old World, freedom from old customs, laws and institutions.  And partly because the encounter with the Savage exerted a stimulating influence that spurred the creation of new ones.  The frontier fed our vital forces, as the landscape and the cycles of nature were said to feed the vital folk cultures of Europe.

Or, as Turner had concluded, “What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities...” so the Western Frontier had been to the Americans.  “And now, 4 centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”  Except that now, a hundred years after the Western Frontier was closed, we are still establishing new ones.

Paul and Lisa do not describe themselves as frontiersmen out in Garfield Park.  In fact, applying the word "frontier" to Garfield Park brings out insulting connotations.  It evokes old tropes of civilization evolving from an encounter with savagery, it insults their neighbors who have made homes in their neighborhood for decades, it dismisses the ways cycles of disinvestment that create frontier opportunities also blight whole generations of human lives.

In materialist terms, the frontiersman is an opportunist. And staking out the next urban frontier in an undervalued neighborhood is undoubtedly a way to build wealth, and even establish your position in society.

But materialist terms don't exhaust the Frontier's significance.  In romantic terms, it evokes a certain tension between vital energies and the way the world is always threatening to dissolve into incoherence.  It's easy to think that's a threat particular to the modern world, which gets faster and more complex and trickier to navigate every day. But it might be that people have always felt it. That before you can live, you have to establish a foothold, a place to stand and orient yourself and make sense of the world. Whether you do that on some new, vital frontier, or in a place like Bridgeport, someplace more like the center of the world.


1 comment:

  1. Actually, I lost count of the number times I was jumped. It was at least 5 separate occasions and there were at least as many "events" I managed to avoid/diffuse/get the upper hand. And I always carried a knife, I began carrying bear repellant and an asp baton at some point.

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