We’re not very much at homeDuino Elegies, Elegy One
In the world
When I was six or so, I gathered up the horde of coins collected as tribute from my parents. On the corner, just down the block from my home, was a toy. Along the back wall, to the left, tucked between this-and-that, Mr. Spector had positioned a bin of toys.
One toy in that bin mattered. A whistle: you could move a plunger in-and-out to hear a change in tone. I knew the chance to make such a silly sound would increase my happiness, alleviate my boredom, and lead me to a state of peace.
I traded my pocketful of metal for a package full of plastic wonder.
At home, safely in my room, I opened the package and put the whistle to use. In that moment, I learned painfully what is known to everyone who has lived upon this world for any length of time and with any degree of observation, that reality refuses to conform to expectation. What I want and I what I get rarely match.
I was not the first to come to this bitter realization.
It seems even the Divine are discontented with the planet. In a text which probably goes back 3500 years and was found inscribed upon burial chamber walls of various Pharaohs (Sethos I, and Ramesses II, III & VI) it is disclosed that the gods had it in for humanity.
Re, the Sun god, gathers the court of gods and reveals a terrible turn of events, “Mankind, which came into being from my eye [don’t ask], has devised plans against me.” [Beyerlin, 9]
What the created beings plot against the gods, or why the plot exists, is not disclosed. We are only left with the bare accusation of “devising plans.” The gods, easily upset, decide that eradication of humanity is the only solution to devising. Therefore, Hathor, the goddess of intoxication, is called for to kill human beings.
Re sends out minions to get some red ocher. The “slave girls” are given the task of making beer. Re mixes the red dye into the beer and pours the red beer at a designated location where Hathor decides to kill off the devisers.
Hathor goes to the place and gets herself drunk. Crushingly, stupidly drunk. She got so drunk that she could not even “perceive” mankind. And so we lived.
An Akkadian story tells us that the gods, having created human beings to do work which the gods didn’t want to do, became annoyed with the noisy human beings doing this and that and making so much noise that the gods decided it would be best to send a flood and drown the whole lot of rabble rousers.
And when human beings have thought themselves divine, the idea has been to formed to remove at least some of humanity as a way of making the world right. The lot of these monsters from Hitler to Pol Pot to Stalin to Mao have thought the solution for the world’s ills is killing “those kinds of people.” If you were dead, I would finally be happy.
Fortunately, world-conquest and the death of billions is beyond the hope or at least the ability of most people. You and I simply can’t eradicate everyone from the face of the planet so that we will be happy.
If we can’t kill everyone who gets in our way, we will need a different tool to make others conform to our expectations: this is called persuasion.
Persuasion comes in different degrees and with different purposes. There is one persuasion to get a slighter bigger tip from a customer, another persuasion to get people to stop smoking. And there is an extreme form of persuasion which treats certain thoughts and certain actions as a disease to be quarantined or cured.
It is especially crystalline and clear when the state or a mob (which is just the state without a good story about legitimacy) becomes involved, because the state and the mob have powers which approach the terror of the gods. The mob may burn your house and the state may confine your bones.
And this is all done to make the world just a little bit better, a little more comfy. After all, we’re trying to feel at home. And if building a better house for me requires burning down your house, pillaging your crops and driving your family into exile, it is worth the effort.
At least that is one of the stories that history tells again and again.
Some people must be removed, like weeds which have grown up in the wrong place. You can’t make a weed better. Some people must be cured, like a rose bush being pruned for winter and readied for spring.
I would like to go back to the quotation from Rilke at the top of this chapter, “We don’t feel very much at home in the world.” But Rilke’s line actually adds a little bit more to the statement:
We’re not very much at home
In the world we’ve expounded.
It is the world as we have interpreted it. It is not the world as it actually is. Who has any idea how to even find that place. It is the world as we have come to understand it: as our thoughts and desires and expectations have worked experience into a comprehensible shape.
That makes our attempts at persuasion ironic: We don’t merely feel out of place in the world. We feel out of place in the world as we have come to interpret it, read it, explain it, understand it.
The problem then – at least as Rilke has it – is not that the world is the wrong shape, it is that we are the wrong shape. And so we try to refashion the world into a shape which conforms to our error.
In the end we commit a fraud upon ourselves and thus live in a prison of discontentment.
Our discontentment then demands further alterations to the world. I become discontent with you. I persuade you to be different. You do become different. I get what I want; and the world is no better for it.
But that has never stopped mobs and states and jerks and petty tyrants and the rest of us from trying to not merely nudge but to remake the world so that it will fit into our pre-ordained design.
And last for a confession.
When I took the whistle from the package, I was quite careful to open only the corner and to slip the whistle free. When I became disappointed, I wanted my coins back. And so I carefully returned the whistle to the grocer.
I persuaded someone with a cash register to take the toy back. I didn’t feel any better – as you can tell from my dredging up this personal stuff for examination in a completely different century from the time it was originally performed.
My actions would be a petty theft by means of fraud. It is a form of persuasion, too.
It is also described by California Penal Code section 484a:
(a) Every person who shall feloniously steal, take, carry, lead, or drive away the personal property of another, or who shall fraudulently appropriate property which has been entrusted to him or her, or who shall knowingly and designedly, by any false or fraudulent representation or pretense, defraud any other person of money, labor or real or personal property, or who causes or procures others to report falsely of his or her wealth or mercantile character and by thus imposing upon any person, obtains credit and thereby fraudulently gets or obtains possession of money, or property or obtains the labor or service of another, is guilty of theft.
The statute of limitations has long ago run, so I can’t be prosecuted. And being a minor, I supposedly lacked the capacity to commit a crime. So I have that much going for me.