Thursday, 15 September 2011

Our Fathers’ House - A short fable...

Our family - one might almost say dynasty - had been established centuries ago - the origins almost lost in the mists of time. But by the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, the dynasty was firmly established in Rome and with offshoots across Europe.

One of the ways in which the family retained its identity was through architecture. All over Europe, the Family Houses were modeled on the one in Rome. Over time, of course, and with variations in local materials and habitats, local styles were introduced, but always maintaining the clear inspiration, structure and shape of the Roman Mother House. Among the dominant themes of the style were a stress on the vertical, to point to our destiny, an emphasis on the aesthetics of beauty, to stir our souls, and a degree of mystery, to remind us that we don’t know everything.

Somewhere around the 15th century, some pointed out that their local house - and even the Roman Mother House - sometimes leaked, that parts of it were uncomfortable and of dubious origin. Some set about suggesting some modest improvements, but others decided we didn’t need all to live in Houses. We could build our own huts as we saw fit. Many moved out, and became known as the Separated.

Where the Separated were in the majority, they even attacked the local House and tore it apart, revealing in some cases a terrible hatred of everything related to the family from which they were seceding. There was also some lamentable counter-attacking by members of the family and this feuding lasted for generations.

In response to this, the Roman Mother House called a meeting of the Heads of Houses around Europe. They agreed that the Roman Mother House should be tidied up, and that other Houses should conform to it, to ensure they were really fit for purpose. However, they also recognised that some local variations had been around for centuries and were certainly sound, so they did not impose uniformity on these, out of respect for local culture and tradition - and the fact that these Houses were time-hallowed. But of course, even with these variations, the fundamental structure and layout of these Houses corresponded to the Roman Mother House.

By the middle of the 20th century, there were once more a few leaks and draughty corners. There were some lumber rooms that hadn’t been used for ages - indeed it wasn’t clear if they had ever had a use. There was also an urgent desire to reach out to the Separated.

Another meeting of the Heads of Houses from all around the world was convened, and these agreed that the Roman House should be brought up-to-date. They envisaged repairs, a bit of re-decoration, to make the place more weather-proof, more welcoming and lighter, and so on - but nothing too drastic: they explicitly said that nothing should be changed unless the sure and certain good of the family required it. In response to requests from some European countries, they allowed for the possibility of some horizontal structures, though Vertical was to remain the guiding principle.

They then handed over the practical details to a committee, and family members the world over awaited the repairs and refurbishment with eager anticipation.

However, to the astonishment of many, including my parents, what the committee came up with was a totally new building, as an annexe to the House. Where the old had stressed the vertical, the new stressed the horizontal, ‘to emphasise the sense of family,’ (it seemed that the permission for the horizontal had somewhere in the process been taken as outlawing the vertical); where the old had built upwards to the skies, the new was low-level, to be more like the huts and hovels of the Separated (some of whom had in fact been consulted about the design); where the old had seemed mysterious, the new was functional, so it needed no explanation. Where the old had an aesthetic of beauty, the new had an aesthetic of ease, ‘so that everyone can participate.’

The colours were simple and warm, to invite people in - but failed to allow for much reflection once inside; the furnishings were practical, but ugly; the sense of mystery was replaced with a sense of the everyday; the candles with fluorescent lights.

There was no longer a Banqueting Hall, where we could have high feasts and listen to the Family History told by a venerable Story Teller. Instead, there was a large communal kitchen where we were expected to eat in groups, chatting amongst ourselves. Many said that it felt more like a Separated Hut than a House. The Head of the House in England, on seeing the new Roman Model for the first time, declared it fit for women and children, but added, prophetically perhaps, that the men would not feel at home there.

Moreover, the Old House was suddenly declared dangerous, and all were banned from using it. All over the world, Heads of Family, some from a sense of enthusiasm, some reluctantly but loyally, set about building in the new pre-fabricated style. Skips appeared outside, and were soon filed with countless heirlooms that the renovators laughingly threw in, saying they were no longer needed, and merely reflected ancient superstitions.

The new library was found to contain mainly new books. Even the complete Shakespeare had been re-written. Macbeth, Lear, Romeo and Hamlet were nowhere to be seen, as ‘they were too gloomy and nobody would want to read stuff like that any more.’ The comedies remained, but in modern English to make them more accessible. There was Much Ado about Nothing, but Twelfth Night or What You Will had (for some inscrutable reason) become Twelfth Night or the Nearest Sunday. But for the most part, the new Library was full of glossy picture books, and dense modern texts translated from German.

A huge educational programme was put in place for the Heads of Houses, to help them to understand how much better the New was than the Old. Their love of the Old was a personal, sentimental thing: in order to accommodate people today, and also to accomplish a rapprochement with the Separated, the New was essential.

When ordinary family members raised questions or expressed their concerns, they were told not to be so resistant to change, and that the Heads of Houses had ordered these changes. When they pointed out that new building was not the renovation originally agreed in Rome, they were vilified. The newly educated Heads were keen to demonstrate their new learning, and gathered around them others who were enthusiastic about the project, and drove the changes through.

Those who loved the Old Houses suffered a lot at this time. They had grown up exploring every nook and cranny of those dusty lumber rooms that ‘served no practical purpose.’ They had understood the language of the vertical, and had responded to the call of the mysterious. This was their home, a central part of their identity as family members. It pained them to see the skips being carted away full of ‘worthless junk’ that felt to them like their patrimony - and to hear the dismissive laughter of the renovators.

In the English-speaking world, in particular, there was a fashion for long, low windows, to give a simpler view of the world. Those who complained that these limited our view of the sky were ignored or laughed to scorn.

Many, through obedience and love, tried to learn to love the New, and some succeeded. Others suffered on in the New, and many who no longer felt at home in the New Houses moved out. The promised reinvigoration of the worldwide family failed to materialise. The Separated moved further away, rather than closer. The children, who were meant to be especially catered for by the New Houses, left in alarming numbers.

But recently, the new Head of the Roman House has taken action. He has declared that it was mistaken ever to think the Old Houses were unsafe: they may be used again (some local Heads of House in various countries disagree with him, and still maintain the Old to be dangerous - but curiously many of the children have been scampering around exploring the Old and discovering their dusty rooms with delight); the Roman Head has also declared that the vertical is indeed an important principle, and he has implemented a programme of replacing the constricting horizontal windows with vertical ones in the English-speaking world.

He has made it clear that the benefits of the New can be incorporated into the Old, to lessen the draughts and so on; but likewise that the wisdom of the traditions and experience of previous generations made manifest in the Old should be incorporated into the New.

And paradoxically, it is those who so welcomed the change to the New who are resisting this development; and those who are too young to remember it who are delighting in exploring their patrimony in the Old. But perhaps those suffering the most now are those who grew up loving the Old, and through obedience and re-education applied themselves to the New, turning their back on the Old and loyally standing up for the New whenever it was criticised. To expect them to do a second volte-face is perhaps to ask too much - but to allow them to block the restoration of the Old is even more problematic.

And yet, somewhere above the door of Houses both old and New, the family motto, too often ignored, remains: In all things, charity.


Mater mari said...


umblepie said...

Great post, thank you.

umblepie said...

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Brian Crowe

Ben Trovato said...

Thanks for the comments - glad you like the fable!

Ben Trovato said...

And thanks for the plug, Umblepie - much appreciated!

Chris (Longmont, CO) said...

I have been lurking here for a few weeks, and I have to say that I really like this post. Thank you.

Left-footer said...

Briiliant analogy, beautifully followed through. Linking and tweeting.

Thank you.