I am a linguist who loves literature and who is fascinated by science. I quantify randomness. I paint. I travel in a power wheelchair, hoping to capture the ordinary.

Monday, January 28, 2013


Hestia, Greek goddess of home and hearth

To Hestia
by Hesiod

Hestia, you who tend the holy house of the lord Apollo,
the Far-shooter at goodly Pytho,
with soft oil dripping ever from your locks, come now into this house,
come, having one mind with Zeus the all-wise
draw near, and withal bestow grace upon my song.

This weekend I watched The House (spoilers ahead), a Korean animated film in which old, traditional homes are guarded by and are one with spirits who must face their imminent deaths as new, modern condos replace old, dilapidated buildings that are full of  mold and cracks. (See photographs documenting this process here, along with some unfortunate sexist comments.) These building spirits harbor a certain affection and intimacy with home owners, so much so that a carefully kept home will respond kindly to the rhythms of its family. This is a sad story, so skip the next three paragraphs if you don't want to know.

The film makes a clear argument for valuing the soul over the bank account, and it offers a strong, if heavy-handed critique of classism in contemporary (Korean) society, the role of the government in exacerbating poverty and dependence, and the overvaluation of all that is modern. It is understood that the new buildings will have no spirits to guard them.

In "Modernization and contemporary culture in traditional Korea," Ito Abito explains:
Traditional Korean society manifested, as Takashi Akiba long ago pointed out, a rather sharp cleavage between the life-orientation of the upper-class yangban and that of ordinary commoners. The yangban, absolutizing Confucianism, looked down on or ignored folk religion, but the coexistence of the two strata was made possible by their division into two social ranks. The new life-orientation developed in the cities in connection with the rapid social change of recent years, however, has exercised a profound influence even on agricultural village society through the Semaeull movement and other media. Members of the rural elite, quick to respond to the modernization and industrialization policy of the central government, played a leading role in abolishing or discontinuing traditional belief and practice, some in token of symbolic support for modernization, others in token of loyalty to the Semaeull movement. This resulted, on the one hand, in the diffusion of the Semaeull movement throughout the country as a new spiritual movement and, on the other, in the rapid destruction of the basis for cultural identity that existed in the traditional culture.
In the film, as the houses are torn down, the spirits go with them, leaving only keepsakes: small trinkets in which their favorite memories are stored, visible only to those who hold the marble that connects the human and spirit worlds. In the end, this delicate glass ball is smashed by a government boot in the mud, and the spirits, in their dying moments, become invisible to our heartbroken protagonist, who had happened upon the marble in a brawl with a stray cat (who is, of course, the God of Land). She who once longed to live in a shiny new condo, is dragged silently away from the falling walls.

What struck me about this surprisingly—though accurately—pessimistic tale was its lovely portrayal of what it means to have a home. At one point, the girl and her house's spirit happen upon a homeless man in a box. The girl screams, taken aback by the man. The spirit looks and also screams, taken aback not by the man, but by the idea that a person should sleep somewhere where there was no house, no spirit to protect him.

Of course it went beyond the walls and ceiling: every little bit of the house, the old wallpaper, the worn floors, was infused with a sense of belonging, of safety. That, in my view, is why home matters so much. There are places that feel like that, and they are sacred. Buck claimed that "'home' in the full range and feeling of [Modern English] home is a conception that belongs distinctively to the word home and some of its Gmc. cognates and is not covered by any single word in most of the IE [Indo-European] languages" (Online Etymology Dictionary). In Spanish, the corresponding hogar has its roots in the Latin term for fire (compare modern Spanish fuego); indeed, the hearth was the old gathering place, the center of warmth and social life (Diccionario Etimológico).

We feel that way around certain people, too—at home, safe. In her article, "The orphans among us," Sarah Johnston contemplates what it meant to her to finally find a family, as an adult, when her own parents had never provided a safe place, a refuge:
It took a year and a half before I would see their daily call and not think, “Why are they calling?” I had no idea there were people who’d call you every day.
     Eventually I did. Eventually it became the most natural thing in the world. The Bible says that orphans are placed in families; and for a long time I believed in that and mistook having a family as the end, — the prize in and of itself.
     But what I have found — and what I pray the orphans among and inside us discover —is that being a part of a family, in time, stops erasing the pain of abandonment and starts being about the power of the future. It begins with an orphan and a family, but it ends with one trajectory being propelled into another.
The desire to be where we feel we belong is strong, and we are not alone among the species. Holly the cat recently became famous for her 190-mile journey on foot back to where she belonged.

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