The Why and Wherefore of Farms and Banks
Larry Allums, Ph.D.
The task we have set ourselves for this City of Imagination lecture series is to explore the life of cities by reflecting upon the forms that constitute them. Some of these forms are visible, associated with structures and institutions; others are invisible, needing only a space for enactment but little or nothing else. There may have been a time when the city enjoyed a harmony of forms, when there was a continuity between or something like a collocation of the visible and the invisible, such as must have been the case, at least temporarily, in ancient Ninevah, converted to the message of the Lord that Jonah carried, against his will, to its center. The implication of Jonah’s story is that in the transformed Ninevah there was no disjunction between the sacred and the secular, the useful and the beautiful, the aesthetic and the practical. Or perhaps there are cities even now that enjoy such harmony—that could be called “sacred cities.” I don’t know of one. It is much easier to imagine the city, especially the modern city, as existing in a condition of disharmony between the visible and invisible forms. As Thoreau said in 1850, when other thinkers were likewise casting troubled eyes toward rapidly industrializing cities, “I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things. We think that that is which appears to be” (87).
One need only think of the origin of the Christian church as recorded in the book of Acts to see the relationship between invisible forms and visible structures. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the twelve apostles, whereupon, after Peter addressed the multitudes who had gathered to accuse the apostles of being drunk, they began to share all things in common, selling their very property and placing all their possessions into a single fund, from which a general distribution was made according to need. “With one mind,” the scripture says, “they kept up their daily attendance at the temple, and, breaking bread in private houses, shared their meals with unaffected joy, as they praised God and enjoyed the favour of the whole people” (Acts 2.46-7). It was not long, however, before division appeared among the koinonia, such that those who spoke Greek accused those who spoke Hebrew of ignoring their widows in the daily distribution. The apostles’ solution is familiar to the managerial mind of today: they appointed administrators—seven deacons—to look after the details of the distribution, and thus the visible structure of the church was born into the invisible aspirations of the body of believers. Today we still generally regard the institution of the church as Dante and his medieval contemporaries did: there is the Church with a capital C—the perfect form of the Church according to the will of Christ, which is never realized—and there are the many churches of the lowercase “c” variety—some splendid, some of ill health, none perfect.
The distinction I’m implicitly making is between a “place” and a “space,” which is given extreme expression by Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane. “For religious man,” Eliade says, “space is not homogeneous; he experiences interruptions, breaks in it; some parts of space are qualitatively different from others” (20). “For profane experience, on the contrary, space is homogeneous and neutral; no break qualitatively differentiates the various parts of its mass” (22). Eliade is especially interested in “theexperience of space known to nonreligious man—that is, to a man who rejects the sacrality of the world, who accepts only a profane existence, divested of all religious presuppositions” (23). Regardless of the nonreligious man’s choices and assertions, there is in Eliade’s view an ontological difference between sacred space and profane space, and he chooses as an illustration “a church in a modern city. For a believer, the church shares in a different space from the street in which it stands. The door that opens on the interior of the church actually signifies a solution of continuity. The threshold that separates the two spaces also indicates the distance between two modes of being, the profane and the religious. The threshold is the limit, the boundary, the frontier that distinguishes and opposes two worlds—and at the same time the paradoxical place where those worlds communicate, where passage from the profane to the sacred world becomes possible” (25).
Obviously, Eliade’s sacred spaces are the locations of fullest activity of the invisible forms. But Eliade also suggests that man has a hand in creating these sacred spaces, that they are somehow sacralized by his participation in their coming to be, such as in the groom’s carrying the bride across the threshold to mark the beginning of this home as a sacred space, the dedication of a statue in a public park, the public rite of the graveside ceremony, and so on. Such acts transform what was an ordinary, profane space into a “sacred enclosure,” in which “communication with the gods is made possible” (26).
With Eliade’s mythic and sacred language in mind (but somewhat off to the side), I want to make a widespread claim for the life of cities today: that the modern city is not in its nature inimical to the invisible forms, that the active presence of these forms can be quite common in the life of cities today, and in fact that any “legitimate” form generated within the city, even out of necessity or as a solution to a problem, such as the infamous assembly line, possesses some measure of such potential. This is a conspicuously comic, optimistic view of life’s possibilities in the modern city.
I know that I must earn this bright claim, so let me digress darkly first. In the modern city—the city in which we live—the visible forms are those that are apparent to the eye and seemingly exist as aspects of the city’s character in its fullness; these are embodied as customary features of a city’s landscape: the church, the school, the theater, the museum, the symphony, the courthouse, the public library, and even “official” holidays, with their listings on calendars and in newspapers, accompanied by notices of bank, school, and governmental office closings, are structures sanctioned by the city. Some of these we think of as purely secular. Some are designed to be “sacred.” Some are aesthetic; others intellectual. But they are not automatically efficacious. While they may have symbolic and even spiritual potency, they cannot activate any symbolic energy on their own merely by being what they are and doing what they do. It may very well be that within every visible structure there is an originary invisible form, but one’s mere participation in the structure does not guarantee the experience of the invisible form that is the reason for the structure’s being in the first place. One might very well sleep through Mozart’s Requiem or even the1812 Overture. I’m also thinking of the episode in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full in which all of upscale Atlanta society goes to a controversial opening exhibit at the High Museum of Art because no one who is anyone dares miss the occasion, even though little if any regard is given to the art itself.
Or take education as another instance of a visible form or structure sanctioned by the city. We are all too familiar with the complaint, increasing in exasperation over the past three decades, that our children go to school but somehow miss participating in the invisible form that we call learning. Similarly, higher education is commonly viewed today as an arena for the advancement of narrow political or cultural agendas. Or consider the judicial structure, the courtroom as the city’s supposed site of justice, another of the invisible forms: common sense tells us that something has gone terribly wrong with the practice of law in our time. Or take even the whipping-boy commerce—celebrated until the mid-19th century as an heroic enterprise—as another of the visible forms that have lapsed from an original vitality to the emptied-out inertness of their mere outward structures, especially the limited-liability, multi-national corporation.
To consider another, more specific example: a restaurant on Lower Greenville is literally a place for satisfying the nutritional requirements of the body, but it can become a space in which in the invisible forms of feasting in friendship and conversation and of engaging in mannered behavior increase the soul’s stature, not least in terms of the memorableness of the occasion. One might think of films such asBabette’s Feast and The Big Night in this connection, but it is difficult to imagine that kind of ritual event happening in McDonald’s. However, a meal at Star Canyon could turn out to be a forgettable bore, and the fast-food restaurant’s inability to allow activation of the invisible forms that potentially hover around the dinner table does not render the restaurant as such necessarily a “place” rather than a “space”; on the contrary, McDonalds’ inappropriate austerity and speed actually emphasize what the ritual of the shared meal ought to be.
The evidence, from filing endless reams of information on computers to filing through lines for Big Macs, almost forces us to conclude that these are degenerate times, that the prospects of dwelling with the invisible forms is unlikely in the modern city, and that this is simply a sign of social evolution, the way things are. Or perhaps it is a characteristic of democratic life, about which Alexis de Tocqueville, in speaking of the American character, said 150 years ago: “in a time of equality nothing is more repugnant to the human spirit than the idea of submitting to formalities. Men living at such times are impatient of figures of speech, symbols appear to them as childish artifices used to hide or dress up truths which could more naturally be shown to them naked and in broad daylight. Ceremonies leave them cold, and their natural tendency is to attach but secondary importance to the details of worship” (447).
If Tocqueville is right, then democracy is particularly hard on the value of “invisible forms” because they aren’t practical in terms of “getting down to the business of things”; they don’t allow barter or exchange in terms of measurable commodity. The “invisible forms,” which Tocqueville describes as symbols, harboring within them entire fields of potential meaning, do not consort well with the idea of equality, since their value for a plurality of people will be vastly different even when experienced, as these forms are, in communal situations. Another way of saying it is that the invisible, symbolic, or ritual forms of human life are, or should be, equally accessible to all, but they are not “common” insofar as that word connotes something vulgar or without distinctiveness—reduced to the sameness that equality might seem to demand. Tocqueville sees in the American character a proclivity to strip away all that is not absolutely necessary in order to get to the essential thing. This represents a mathematically logical approach to the “business” of life, something to be commonly understood. The logic of the “invisible forms,” on the other hand, bespeaking the rich existence of a symbolic and thus sacred dimension of life, suggests that the essential thing is precisely that which proves to be economically wasteful and unbusinesslike.
Tocqueville’s suggestion that the democratic man doesn’t want to “submit” to anything is a key consideration in our present search for the invisible forms, which require submission for their efficacy in the life of the soul and hence in the life of cities. The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset picked up Tocqueville’s treatment of submission in his prophetic treatise of 1930, The Revolt of the Masses. Ortega’s primary thesis is that humanity is split into “two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection” (15).
The twentieth century, Ortega believed, has been the time of ascendancy for the “mass-man,” who “ceases to appeal to other authority and feels himself lord of his own existence” (63), thus becoming inert in terms of desiring or pursuing any object—any form—other than what is at hand, what appears immediately to him, that which is merely visible and hence superficial. Hence, Ortega says, “we apply the term mass to this kind of man—not so much because of his multitude as because of his inertia” (65). Ortega then makes a distinction between “common life” and “noble life,” the former kind of life lived by the masses and characterized by the absence of any inward or upward pull, and the latter kind of life lived by those who are somehow urged beyond the mere appearance and structure of things. The mass-man, the man of inertia who lives the “common life,” easily inhabits the visible forms and is incapable of realizing their invisible potential; and the man who strives, whose eros is for meaning, who intuits the symbolic experience potential in the visible forms, is able to dwell within and respond to the rich solicitations of the invisible forms.
Now back to my claim that the modern city is not inimical to the active presence, if not the flourishing, of the invisible forms, which at this point I ought to attempt to define and enumerate. By the invisible forms I mean those ritually enacted forms the active participation in which the soul grows and thrives and prospers and in the absence of which the soul is straitened, pinched, and impoverished; moreover, the invisible forms are those upon which the city, whether it knows it or not, depends for its vitality: the “higher” forms of justice and freedom and intellectual and moral choice, of public worship and public deliberation, of the pursuit of wisdom; the less exalted but equally important forms of friendship, conversation, manners, hospitality, the ceremonies and rituals surrounding birth, marriage, and death. These must find their way into the imposing structures that visibly define a city—its institutions of law and finance, government and education, and so on. They must and can be allowed their proper existence within the city, as the Furies transformed into the Eumenides—the givers of blessing—are incorporated into the life of ancient Athens in Aeschylus’ great trilogy the Oresteia.
In pursuing this line of thought, which seems like a project of reclamation, one almost naturally turns to the Romantics, the first reactionaries against the de-souling tendencies of structure that seem so synonymous with modern science, politics, and economics (and which anthropologists also speak about in terms of structure and anti-structure)—what Wordsworth articulated in so many of his poems but with particular power in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” It is only when we escape structure, he said, that we are able to enter “that blessed mood”
In which the burden of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:–that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,–
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. (ll. 37-49)
But the Romantic solution doesn’t quite suit my purposes here, for it would return us wholly to nature and to the invisible forms, away from the things of the city. Nature certainly is involved in our apprehension of and participation in the invisible forms, but I’m looking for an artistic vision that is more complete, more inclusive of all the forms essential to human experience, which extend to the visible forms of the city. For that I will turn to William Faulkner for a just juxtaposition of the visible and invisible forms.
Go Down, Moses, published in 1942, is a novel consisting of seven stories—some critics consider it a collection of stories rather than a novel—whose focus is the growth of Isaac McCaslin to manhood. His education occurs primarily in the big woods, the wilderness, of the Mississippi delta before civilization in the form of railroads and logging companies violates its virginal character. Isaac’s mentor is Sam Fathers, part white, part black, part Indian, who takes him farther and farther into the big woods every year until his education is complete. At first Sam Fathers teaches the boy “the woods, to hunt, when to shoot and when not to shoot, when to kill and when not to kill, and better, what to do with it afterward” (164). Faulkner describes young Isaac’s reaction to his necessary return to the civilized world after the annual two weeks in the wilderness: “It was only the boy who returned, returning solitary and alone to the settled familiar land, to follow for eleven months the childish business of rabbits and such while he waited to go back, having brought with him, even from his brief first sojourn, an unforgettable sense of the big woods—not a quality dangerous or particularly inimical, but profound, sentient, gigantic and brooding, amid which he had been permitted to go to and fro at will, unscathed, why he knew not, but dwarfed and, until he had drawn honorably blood worthy of being drawn, alien” (169).
At twelve Isaac shoots his first buck, which he will remember forever after with the words he thought at the time: “I slew you. My bearing must not shame your quitting life. My conduct forever onward must become your death” (334). Then in the presence of Sam he witnesses the appearance of a great and mysterious buck that seems entirely real but that Sam recognizes as noumenous, of the spirit world, and salutes with the words “Oleh, Chief. Grandfather” (177). Then Isaac’s initiation in nature is completed with his participation in the annual pursuit of the huge and legendary bear Old Ben, which seems to possess a “furious immortality” (186), although Isaac somehow intuits that not only will Old Ben fall to the hunters’ guns one day but that that day will also mark the end of the wilderness as a sacred space in which the visible and invisible forms are conjunctive and simultaneous.
When Old Ben does fall, Sam Fathers collapses also, old and very near death, so that Isaac asks permission of his guardian and cousin McCaslin Edmonds to stay in the woods and care for Sam. Cass refuses, insisting that he has to be back in school on Monday, especially since he has already missed a week more than he normally does because of the final hunt for Old Ben. When Isaac still resists, old General Compson intervenes:
“‘All right, you can stay. If missing an extra week of school is going to throw you so far behind you’ll have to sweat to find out what some hired pedagogue put between the covers of a book, you better quit altogether.—and you shut up, Cass,’ he said, though McCaslin had not spoken. ‘You’ve got one foot straddled into a farm and the other foot straddled into a bank; you aint even got a good hand-hold where this boy was already an old man long before you damned Sartorises and Edmondses invented farms and banks to keep yourselves from having to find out what this boy was born knowing and fearing too maybe but without being afraid…;maybe by God that’s the why and the wherefore of farms and banks’” (240).
Old Ben is killed when Isaac is 16, and he shortly thereafter discovers the terrible truth of his patrimony—that his slaveholding grandfather, the old patriarch Quintus Carothers McCaslin, had been guilty of not only miscegenation but incest as well—which knowledge leads Isaac to repudiate his plantation inheritance and live a monklike life thereafter. It is a complex, controversial novel, but I want to focus on General Compson’s rebuke of Cass Edmonds, who insists on Isaac’s return to the visible forms after his immersion in the presence of the invisible forms, everywhere active in the big woods: “maybe by God that’s the why and the wherefore of farms and banks.”
What Isaac discerns with an uncommon purity of vision is that in terms of reality and spiritual sustenance, the structures of civilization are deficient, at a second remove or more from the true things of the spirit. He recognizes that in nature there is no discontinuity between the spiritual and physical realms and that, indeed, the spiritual forms give life and breath to the physical forms: he sees “into the life of things” and cannot repudiate his vision, cannot betray it by descending or condescending to participate in the agricultural and cultural forms represented by farms and banks. His extended glimpse through the aperture connecting the visible and invisible worlds renders him unwilling, perhaps unable, to participate in the farms and banks and their variations which civilized life represents. This is the controversy of the novel: Isaac is the “brightest and the best,” “talented and gifted,” but his superior capacity for an untainted vision renders him seemingly incapable of taking a place back, as it were, in Plato’s cave.
Thus Isaac McCaslin represents an extreme—an ideal of education that would demand that every visible form be operative and even resplendent with its invisible raison d’tre—the reason for its physical manifestation in the first place. What Isaac chooses instead—what his imperative impulse turns out to be—is to bear witness to the vitality and the essential importance of the invisible forms which embrace and permeate the organic life of the world. Isaac, then, is at the other extreme from Ortega’s mass-man who contentedly but unconsciously leads a common rather than a noble life.
Though he despairs at the folly and evil man is capable of, Isaac never crosses over to the stance from which he is not far removed and which many people embrace today: scorn for the forms of the city—its institutions of commerce, law, politics, education, arts, and religion. But is there some position in between, some stance or perspective, that would allow us to live in the city without being degraded by the visible structures upon which the earning of our bread seemingly depends? Faulkner ends his novel in a curious way, with a story entitled “Go Down, Moses,” about the death and funeral of a young black man who is a castoff descendant of Isaac’s inhuman grandfather, old Carothers McCaslin. But the protagonist of the story is Gavin Stevens, a 50-year-old lawyer whose education was not in the wilderness but at bastions of Western culture, Harvard and Heidelburg, and “whose serious avocation was a twenty-two-year-old unfinished translation of the Old Testament back into classic Greek” (353).
Thrown off the McCaslin plantation for stealing, the young black man, Samuel Worsham Beauchamp, has drifted to Chicago and into a life of hard crime, and it is on the eve of his execution for killing a policeman that his grandmother intuitively comes to Lawyer Stevens and asks for help in finding her grandson: “I don’t know whar he is. I just knows Pharaoh got him. And you the law. I wants to find my boy” (354).
What follows in the story is Gavin Stevens’ remarkable response to old Mollie’s plea. He leaves his law office in the middle of a business day and circulates through town, first to the newspaper editor’s office to track down the details of the boy’s fate, then around to the merchants and shoppers, the farmers and laborers, anyone he can find, asking them for donations to cover the expense of what he has decided must be done: the boy must be brought home and given the formal and public ceremony of burial. Gavin’s Quixote-like machinations are all the more amazing because the people who do know of the dead black boy recall him as an unwelcome troublemaker. But Gavin accomplishes his self-appointed quest, and in so doing he exemplifies the possibilities of modern man’s living in the visible, dominant structures of the city without sacrificing a habitation within the invisible forms as well.
For all his high civilization and formal education—and I’m going to say in some measure because of it—Gavin Stevens the lawyer is able to perceive what must be enacted on the fundamental level of human being to human being, regardless of race or station. There is loss, and there is grief, which demand for their proper existence in the world a form through which they can become part of us not as raw, unannealed anguish but as authentic human experience, an augmentation of the soul of something not chosen but given, offered, even in its dark quality. And not only that: Gavin also understands that the raw, unmitigated occurrence—the death of the last born—must be assimilated as a communal experience. Old Mollie may be the only one who truly loved the wicked seed, but the community itself must participate with her in her loss. It may be only in a formal way—none may truly grieve but her—but the invisible form that Gavin has caused to be enacted somehow increases the spiritual stature of the town.
The story—and the novel—ends like this: “Come on,” [Gavin] said. “Let’s get back to town. I haven’t seen my desk in two days” (365). The lawyer Gavin—a kind of modern-day Sir Gawain of the Round Table—returns to his habitual guise, helping farmers sort out tax problems and detailing the legal aspects of land sales, but the reader understands that Gavin Stevens is something like the desired model of the city dweller—the one the city needs lest it become hardened to the demands of its visible structures.
Returning to the optimism about the city that I announced near the beginning, I will assert that something like this movement in Faulkner’s story is possible everywhere in the city—in all its institutions. Even the most common-life, no-nonsense, profit-driven, down-to-business institutions of our culture—from farms to banks—can be infused with the vitality of the invisible forms, so that no one is so downtrodden or victimized that he cannot say, as Stark Young once wrote,
“It may be that the end of man’s living is not mere raw Publicity, Success, Competition, Speed and Speedways, Progress, Donations, and Hot Water, all seen with a capital letter. There are also more fleeting and eternal things to be thought of; more grace, sweetness, and time; more security in our instincts, and chance to follow our inmost nature, as Jesus meant when he said he must be about his Father’s business; more of that last fine light to shine on what we do, and make the sum of it like some luminous landscape, all the parts of which are equable, distributed, and right.” (358)
Manners, hospitality, sacrifice, generosity, justice, courage, moderation, wisdom, compassion—do these not have a rightful, organic place in the most visible forms of the city?
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York:
Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1959.
Faulkner, William. Go Down, Moses. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Ortega y Gasset, Jose. The Revolt of the Masses. Trans. Anonymous. New York: W.
W. Norton, 1932.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Other Writings. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York:
Modern Library, 1937.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Ed. J. P. Mayer. Trans. George
Lawrence. New York: Harper-Perennial, 1988,
Wordsworth, William. “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” In
Selected Poems and Prefaces. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin,
Young, Stark. “Not in Memoriam, but in Defense.” In Twelve Southerners. I’ll Take My
Stand. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962: 328-59.
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