By B.D. McClay
In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, a middle-aged woman named Glory returns to her father’s house after a disappointing teaching career and a failed engagement. To be back in her childhood home is not easy for her. Her father is old and dying, and she desires to hide all trace of her failures from him. His illness is not the only reason her return presents peculiar difficulties, however: every object in it is also too charged with the memory of her childhood for her to bear easily the weight of living there.
Early on in the novel, however, she seeks out some particular objects from her past—her books—and cannot find them:
She knew there had to be Shakespeare and Dickens around the house, Mark Twain had to be somewhere. Kipling was on the dresser in Luke and Teddy’s room, as he always was, but she hated Kipling. Finally she asked her father what had become of the books she liked to read; he made a phone call, and within two weeks six boxes arrived from six addresses, full of the good old books . . . .
Initially, in these books Glory seeks to forget her present, which is why the book she initially takes up and reads is not one of the good old books, but a modern-day tearjerker. If she reads it, she reasons, she will able to weep without looking at her own life. As the novel continues, however, she discards the tearjerker. What she really needs is to look at her present and her past without flinching, something the tearjerker cannot help her to do. She needs different books.
The books she misses and summons back to herself are not distinguished merely by their erstwhile presence in her childhood home. If that were all, the Kipling would be enough to produce the necessary nostalgia. They are instead also part of a greater past, a shared childhood if you will, something wider and deeper than her own particular childhood. Like the Bible, which Glory reads every day, the books stand for a past that is both peculiarly her own and yet also held in common. To become free, she must center herself in that past, instead of fearing it.
The return to the old books has a strange complement in what she cannot return to—her broken engagement—because she destroyed all of her old love letters. Now no longer angry, the destruction of those letters fills her with regret; not because she is still in love (she is not), but because she has made her past being-in-love unintelligible to herself. That past self has now become another person.
Glory’s ability to return to her past—having left, she has returned—distinguishes her from her brother, Jack, another adult failure who has returned home. He is haunted by his past, having committed one deed both terrible and—in a sense—unforgivable, and then many smaller deeds terrible in their own way. Jack constantly disowns himself, spending his whole life trying to escape his past. When he finally desires to confront it, his task is made harder by the fragmentation of his self; there is no place he can return to, because there is no place he really ever was.
“Where are you from?” is the seeming-innocuous question of my adult life that I hope, one day, to leave behind. There is no place I could honestly claim to be from: not the place I live, nor the place I was born, nor the place I left when I went to college. If I leave the place I live today, it will not be to return, but to go somewhere new. And if I go back to those other places, it will only be as a visitor. This lack of a single place in which to hold my history has never really bothered me, except when asked the question.
But “homecoming,” the word and the subsequent event, forced me to think about it for a little while. I had a kind of wariness about returning. If I have a home, it certainly could not be said to be my college, a place where I was essentially a tourist and where only a handful of people might still remember me. Also, I have a hatred of nostalgia, but a treacherous affection for the bricks of Annapolis.
So I read Home, thinking it might give me the proper attitude toward a homecoming. I had read Gilead, one of Robinson’s other books, and remembered it as a meditation on time—how it goes only one way, so to speak. So I thought Home would probably tell me something about the necessity of leaving, or the impossibility of returning to the past, and that would be the proper message to carry with me in my travels. “Keep on leaving.”
Instead, Home gave me the opposite answer: if you want to do anything, if you want to go anywhere, you must stay firmly planted in the place that you have come from. This answer was not only quite different from the one I expected, but also not really the answer that I wanted. And it raised a puzzle for me, which was whether or not this qualified as a place I came from, or just a place I’d been.
But by that time, I had already bought my train tickets. So Home and I went to Annapolis together.
St. John’s College has a curious relationship to its own sense of place. I grew very familiar, once upon a time, with the tour guides who inform the passing crowds that St. John’s College, Annapolis is the “third oldest college in America”—which is true, but we were also an entirely different institution then, and then a different institution after that. Eventually we became what we are today. Thus there is a continuity indicated by the oldness of the buildings that doesn’t really exist; they owe their oldness to pasts we have destroyed. For the students of that first St. John’s College, I suppose there were still homecomings even when the New Program arrived. But they probably did not feel much at home.
The Santa Fe campus is different, as it was always intended to be the place that it is and has never been anything but St. John’s College. That is the other curious thing, however, about St. John’s and its place: it can exist in two places. It could, conceivably, add a third place to itself, so long as certain things continued to be held in common. The things held in common can really be astoundingly little—a form of an education, a handful of books, and a few shared words—for St. John’s to establish itself somewhere.
I also know people who think St. John’s could uproot itself, exist in no place or in an altogether new place, and it wouldn’t matter so long as those things were carried with us. That would make St. John’s, like myself, in some sense placeless. Or, rather, its own place really exists in that shared past and that shared home, the good old books.
They might be right, though I wonder about it myself. The body matters, even if it’s secondary to the soul. It is important to have a place, an existence that you can point to, kick with your foot if need be. Like the distinction between reading a book over reading a summary of that book, or having a real conversation with a person over having a conversation with them in your head, an embodied place with a history you share is greater than carrying around an idea of a college in your heart.
For even though we borrow our oldness, in a sense, what was special about the place of St. John’s, as I knew it, was how recognizable it was, immediately so, when I looked into its past. I read the Iliad at the same time and in the same manner as somebody thirty years ago; they probably were doing the same as somebody thirty years before them. One becomes aware that you are participating in the same activity some figure like Jacob Klein participated in years ago—quite possibly in the same place, depending what you’re doing. It is an institution with an intense memory of itself, a memory that is at time overwhelming, but always beautiful.
Even in that old promotional film, The St. John’s Story, what’s startling is not that things are different, but that everything’s the same: the rooms are the same, the chalkboards are the same, the chairs are the same, the people are the same, the books mentioned are the same, and the conversations are the same. The same is true of satirical takes on don rags and freshman lab from 1974—I know all of these people.
That doesn’t mean nothing has changed. Plenty has changed. The point is that nothing that was changed altered the recognition of what I see—people in the past occupying the same place as myself, doing the same things as myself, with an awareness that what I recognize in the past will hopefully open up and begin to encompass the people occupying that space in the future. There we are, so to speak, all reading the Iliad.
So it seems that one aspect of any return is the place you step into, a place that needs to exist out beyond you, because the place represents something that cuts across the time separating you from your past. That much is in a certain sense obvious. But the place itself is not enough; that was what I took from Home. Your home could be rendered unrecognizable to you in some sense by the simple accident of a few misplaced books.
The question left unanswered, I suppose, by Home and by homecoming, is whether the books alone could constitute a home.
A key observation in Home, I think, is that we may leave our points of origin only so that we can return to them. That observation is not an encouragement to nostalgia, because nostalgia represents a return that only goes halfway, refusing to look squarely at the past or at the present. A return to the past is always difficult, even and perhaps especially if that past was a happy one. A genuine look at one’s past always brings up self-knowledge, and true self-knowledge is never pleasant—or at least it has never been pleasant for me.
Thus, the traditional message of a book like Home would be that one must be wary of the past, that Jack’s problem is his inability to let go of the past and change and move on. The sibling that can leave the family home represents a kind of vitality; the one that stays, an entombment. But Robinson turns that around: Jack’s problem is his inability to stay, to recognize his past. He needs to stop letting go, and begin holding on.
In the end, unable to bear the presence of his past, Jack flees—two days before the forgiveness he had ceased to hope for arrives to save him. Glory, knowing he is probably gone forever, nonetheless chooses to preserve their childhood home for him, precisely as it was, so that he will have a place to return to—if he needs it. Her staying is her triumph, not her loss; she has the strength to bear the past, something none of her siblings seem to have.
A constant refrain at St. John’s is the need for estrangement, that is, the ability to look at something seen many times as if never seen before. What stands between the object we see and our truly seeing an object is a mass of assumptions, half-memories, and half-knowledge. Part of liberal education involves clearing those things aside to look at the object as if for the first time—a liberation from our opinions, if you will, but also from our history.
In Home, Robinson attacks that problem from another direction: to truly look at something, be aware of all the times you have seen it before. The challenge is still to look at something truly and not superficially, but everything else has been turned around. Home seems to suggest that a true look can come only from a radical familiarity, not a radical estrangement. The only true judgment, perhaps, is the judgment that comes from the eyes of love.
Familiarity and estrangement could be a part of the same motion; just as one leaves the past only to return, one becomes familiar to become estranged to become once again familiar. For estrangement is not a resting place and this kind of familiarity cannot be gained without a willingness to re-encounter things already encountered. Ideally, perhaps, there is not even a motion from estrangement to familiarity; rather, the challenge is to see both sides in each experience at once.
But if you can only hold one side in view: err on the side of love.
My initial hope, back when I began thinking about this subject, was to end this series of meditations with the following statement: I came from the place where I, in a sense, gave birth to myself—over the course of four years, four essays, over a hundred books, and countless conversations. Having committed this remarkable feat of self-generation, I would require no return, being the sole and ultimate source of my self. In my self is my beginning. End meditation.
But one cannot, in fact, give birth to oneself. Not even metaphorically.
The story of my own homecoming went like this: I went. I did everything I liked and nothing that I disliked. Then I got back on a train. My wariness was not really justified. And I was glad I went, because it is good to be in a place you were.
I probably would not have registered for homecoming, except that there were seminars and the idea of a seminar had become very appealing to me. I ended up choosing a seminar on a book that I instinctively hated. The initial minutes of seminar were, I thought, a little uneasy—we all needed to have a set interpretation. Then we began to ask questions, and it became a seminar. While I did not in fact cease to hate the book, I did begin to appreciate it.
It probably helped that I was in my old freshman math classroom, and that I knew the tutor, and that I had such a strong reaction to the book. Still, the motion undergone in that classroom seemed like the exchanging of estrangement for familiarity; from the discomfort of a thing half-remembered to the admission of not knowing to something fully known.
So a new ending—a little pat, but not untrue—could go like this: liberal education is a homecoming itself, and you return, so to speak, back to that homecoming in returning to the place of your education. The visible sign of an invisible home.
That’s not a bad ending. But I would actually like to end this piece with an invitation to further thought. I took my title from the poem “East Coker,” and I think I’ll also give it the last word, since it has a lot to say about place and time. And home:
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered. . . .
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
May we all have such homecomings.
You can contact the author of this piece at firstname.lastname@example.org.