My seventh entry in the self-portrait marathon
My mother’s people gaze across at my father’s people in the narrow upstairs hallway of my parents’ house. It all seems amicable enough. Some were rich, some were poor, but most were somewhere in the middle. Both sides are dominated by people of German, English, and Dutch ancestry, with a little French Canadian and Irish thrown in. A discouragingly large number on both sides were teetotaling Methodists, but for all that, they don’t look any more sober than decorum required.
Aside from genealogists, most Americans don’t spend much time thinking about their ancestors. After all, we are descended from the disinherited and the violently dispossessed — or at the least, from people who believed in leaving the past behind. And we’re still that way, aren’t we? We think of our ancestors as forebears only, and believe them quite irretrievably dead and gone — perhaps to a better place from which they might occasionally cast a fond glance in our direction, but that’s all. They’re not expected to take an active interest in the affairs of their descendents, much less transmigrate back into the clan. Sometimes one of them might come back as a ghost, but that’s about it.
I think it’s important to remember how odd this belief about our ancestors makes us, how much of an exception to the general run of societies around the world. Combine that with our astonishing ignorance of history — even quite recent history — and I think it’s safe to say that we Americans are almost uniquely alienated from our roots. It goes along with our alienation from nature, I believe, and in some respects probably helps license the on-going commodification of what used to be thought of as Creation. In pre-modern Europe, the dead were buried in the churchyard at the center of the village, and had their day on the calendar (All Souls Day). Ancestor reverence formed a minor part of a complex system of traditional observances — including local saints’ days, rogations, feasts and fasts — which all together told people who they were and where they came from. Carnival rites linked bodily symbolism, both sacred and profane, with the cosmic drama of changing seasons and renewed fertility.
The Protestant Reformation did away with most of that, and the Industrial Revolution finished it off. The 19th-century bourgeois novel and 20th-century psychology invented the isolated, narrowly sexual and generally neurotic individual, and the Great Awakening and subsequent religious movements stressed a personal relationship with God or Jesus above all else. My Methodist ancestors seem, on the whole, content with this arrangement. They knew how to compose themselves for a photograph, wearing their Sunday best and meditating on eternity, or something else completely apart from daily life, for as long as it took the man with the box and the flash to capture their likenesses. They rest easy in their frames, smiling sardonically — if at all — at the thought that some lonely fool might someday long to re-enter those frozen moments.