Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Last Homely Homey's Homely Home

When I was fifteen, I read the Jr Tolkien trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, and I loved it. In fact, I would say that those three books cast an exceptionally long shadow over my imagination and my education. From them, I learned much. In the first book, there is a chapter entitled, "The Last Homely Home," and it seemed like a stupid title for a chapter. Given the high or low seriousness of the books as I read them, what was a wordplay title doing there? Later on, in the second book, I learned two cool words, and I'm not alone in learning these words from The Two Towers: "flotsam and jetsam." At fifteen, I didn't really get the fact that the author meant those to be different words with different connotations, that he was contrasting the things that float away and the things that are thrown overboard, but I still learned two new words. The next year, when I was sixteen, I learned another new word, "homeboy" and "homey." This was 1978, and the person who taught me the words was a Caucasian of my age who came from a bit of South Carolina.

I re-read those books as an over-educated adult -- last year or the year before -- before I begin to forget all the things I learned in school. I was struck by the homoeroticism in them, like everyone who doesn't fall under their spell is, and I was struck by the political theory enunciated in them (it's scary, folks), and I was also "getting" a lot of the Anglo-Saxon professorisms in the books. Many things in the books are because of standard features in Germanic story telling, or things that seem like standard features when we don't have much that survives from these Germanic tales.

The word "homey" goes way back. It goes back before you heard it in a song, and it goes back before that. It goes back at least to the 1940's. I don't have a problem with the word, in fact. Unlike other slang, it steps into a hole in English and fills a need. Remember that any time we find a "first usage," the word already has to have some currency, if there is any depth to the term at all. Unless the first usage is, "and by this I mean..." the person who uses it first is assuming that people already know what it means. Of course, with some words the meaning is so obvious that you can forge ahead without usage, but I doubt that such would be the case in those first jazz songs in the 1940's. These are songs, after all, so they probably aren't trying to build a new set of words. The point is that other languages have their pisano, and English has nothing but "countryman," and that -- let's face it -- is so diluted and nebulous that it doesn't give any sense of friendliness at all, and friendliness is the point of "homeboy" and "homegirl" and "homey."

In Tolkein, the "last homely home" is this standard feature. It's assumed to be, anyway. If you were heading out into the waste land or the wild wood or the deep forest -- all terms that mean little to us -- you would have to look forward to a long trip where anything might happen, and so the person who lived at the last possible place before the waste would be a person who would be expected to entertain, supply, and love up on travelers. We do have a modern corollary to "last homely home." It's "last rest stop for next 80 miles" on the highway. Suppose you were about to take the highway through Death Valley or through Idaho. You would have a serious need to restock, resupply, relieve, and replenish yourself before you headed out. There is a vague sense of dread when we see these highway signs. You have to ask yourself serious questions.

So, the person who actually lived there had to be ready. People would be coming out of the wild needing practically everything, and people would be going into it having forgotten almost anything. There were loads of social codes, too, about what happened to people who refused aid to travelers. This is the infamous "hospitality code" that goes into Greek literature as well as Germanic. Basically, it's just a theme that everyone needs if they're going to make it in a world with bad maps and slow travel. The thing about "homely," though, is not wordplay as much as curmudgeonly point-making (like in "flotsam and jetsam"), because Tolkien was pointing right at the fact that a "homely" person is a "homebody" and a "girl you leave at home." In other words, a homely person is a person you don't parade.

Is it good to be homely? If so, I'm up to my waist in heaven already. Tolkien was fighting a rear guard action and lamenting the changes that had long ago occurred.

How do we handle hospitality now? With the hospitality industry, of course. If you are coming up to the scary highway sign, you don't pull into the first driveway. You pull into the "service station." If you are weary and need rest, you go to a hotel. There, you pay the host a set fee for specific services (or a not-so-set fee, if you look at your bill in the morning (I'll bet you thought opening that mini-fridge door was just curiosity) (you might have thought that flipping by the porno movie was innocent)). The rest station provided by the state is better, perhaps, if you consider only $1.25 for a Snickers bar better than $1.95 for a Coca-Cola, but don't look for a bed, climate control, or ... what's that other thing?

The other ball I have in the air in this essay is the "homely" thing, so I'd best come back to it. There is no question that, by Tolkien's time, "homely" was an insult. It did begin innocently enough. There were girls who went on the promenade, and there were girls left at home. (See the agony of being left at home in "Cinderella?" That's not the source of pain in Ashputtel.) It is the sin of vanity (from pride) to want to go stomping around to be looked at by other women (and the cute men), but it is the sin of being unwanted to be told to stay at home. The moral conflicts with the psychological and biological. Cities created the "homely" by creating miniature environments for display. While Robert Burns is talking about girls on display at church, and George Eliot is talking about the non-vain girls being vain on their way to church, and Fielding is talking about the church promenade as a place for woman-on-woman fighting, the urban setting makes the park, and the park makes the promenade. In the US, we have the mall promenade (and it's even done in a circle), or we have "cruising" on "the strip." Either way, it is ceremonial display, and the homely person is not invited.

Today? Today, though, we're all on display. There are no homely people. There are no homely homes, and there are no homely people in them. The city and the town's restrictions have been lifted. Hooray! We can all promenade! We can all stroll and achieve that great goal of being looked at. With the advent of and blogs, it's possible for anyone, male or female, to do a little photo matting or manipulation, or even to do none of that, and safely display just about anything. Before long, someone might even look. It's not, however, the looking that matters. It's the showing. (This looks like a kindred spirit. It just goes to show that I'm more of a cliche than I thought, but so is everyone else.)

What, though, is missing? Why am I fighting a rearguard action, myself? What is it that preoccupies those of us, "between two worlds, the one dying, the other overpoweringly preborn?" I have my own elegy, here, because there is every bit as much lost between the promenade and as there is between the code of hospitality and the hospitality industry. Something is gained. Of that we have proof and no doubt. However, there is no person in place. Just as the hotel porter now is compelled by productive code rather than ethical code, so the gawker is compelled by an interior and non-social impulse. The person who looks is looking privately, and the object of the gaze never gets the benefit or penalty of the display. The person who displays does so privately, and she or he never gets the interaction and negotiation that is part of the prom.

Puppies learn from their litters how hard to bite when at play. Adopt a puppy too soon, and the dog will bite too hard or not learn how to play. There is a reason beyond reproduction that we don't want to be homely: it is a social and cultural education. Similarly, there is a reason we want the last homely home to welcome travelers, and why we punish with the Erinyes those who demand payment for doing what is their duty. The human interaction, unforced and yet impelled (and I could do "impulsion and compulsion" as a chapter title), is necessary and not merely a luxury tax.


The Geogre said...

Before anyone thinks I'm hankering for that there village green, I'm not.

I have no idea whatever what the answer is to this thing. I just look at how we used to behave, how we behave now, and try to figure out why we're unhappy and compensating in this particular way. I figure that, if we understand the disease, we'll know how to treat the symptoms.

The Geogre said...

Pictures: majestic house in Freemont, North Carolina, demolished house in Georgia, the Plaza Hotel in NYC with an IM Pei thing sticking into the frame and holding fingers over its head, a highway sign I got from the web and cropped, filtered, and changed, and a high rise of apartments on the east side of NYC, revealing a sign that had previously been covered up by a demolished building.