O little town of Nowheresville

In a culture that has lost any sense of words as (potentially) living things – as spells, or as vessels for the spirit (Word) – proverbs decay into cliches. For the word-artist, struggling against the tide, some of these cliches may still possess a certain buoyancy.

This morning, reading in Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution about the necessity of duration to life, for some reason a phrase popped into my head: going nowhere fast! (The exclamation point is endemic.) Like most phrases invented to make conversation interesting, it partakes of hyperbole and humor: since it is already nonsensical to go nowhere, to do so rapidly connotes true desperation and/or imbecility. Where is this ‘nowhere’? Someone like me, living ‘way out in the country, can be said to live in the middle of it. Cities are never described this way, but small towns and suburbs might be. Where then is ‘somewhere’? Over the rainbow, perhaps?

The no-place that is unlike home, Utopia, More’s coinage: so often taken to mean Eutopia, when in fact Dystopia is almost inevitably the consequence of such abstract idealism. The most successful utopias, Martin Buber found in his brief historical survey Paths in Utopia, are those based on a shared belief-system that acknowledges ultimate indebtedness to something Other. A contemporary reader can’t help feeling rather disappointed in the irony and naivete of Buber’s crowning example, the one with which he concludes his survey: the Israeli kibbutz. Of course, a North American (particularly a Pennsylvanian!) can hardly afford to be smug about folks whose eagerness to build more perfect communities blinded them to the fact of usurpation. We are all going nowhere in a hurry!

Is it too much to ask that the stranger, the unsavory foreigner in our midst, be seen as an image of the divine perfection we seek? But this would require us to come to terms with the always-unsatisfactory realities of the present, rather than the over-the-rainbow dreaminess of a land where nothing ever dies. This was the Buddha’s great discovery: existence is inherently unsatisfactory!* Compared to any preconceived notion that privileges our own comfort/gratification, yes. That is why salvation must be sought in the present moment, right here and now.

Let’s remember, then – whether we believe in it or not – the significance of the Christian myth that so many are presently involved in reliving as best they can. Bethlehem is, in the Bible, the quintessential nothing little town in the middle of nowhere. And, as if that isn’t enough, the messiah has to be born in a barn yet! An in-between place, neither wild nor civilized. Where all manner of outlandish gifts and visitors may be received.

*According to scholars of Pali, this is a much better translation of the first of the Four Noble Truths than the traditional, “Life is suffering.”

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