"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Search For Ancestry And Place–A Distracting Chimera

Nathaniel Hawthorne in The House of the Seven Gables begins with the tale of the Pyncheon family who settled Salem in the mid-1600s.  Colonel Pyncheon, the patriarch built his large and imposing house on the site of that of Matthew Maule who was executed in the infamous witch trials of the period. 

The old colonel was one of the most outspoken about Maule’s wizardry, and rumor had it that without his enthusiastic support, Maule might never have been sent to the gallows.  Generations of Pyncheons had lived in the house until Hawthorne’s story begins in the mid-19th century with the saga of Miss Hephzibah Pyncheon.

House of the Seven Gables

Hawthorne writes of the double edge of family legacy. There is something noble in the longevity of a great family, but such nobility has a corrosive effect as well.  Here he refers to the family’s ancestral land in Maine, thousands of acres of land legally secured but impossible to exploit:
This impalpable claim, therefore, resulted in nothing more solid than to cherish, from generation to generation, an absurd delusion of family importance, which all along characterized the Pyncheons. It caused the poorest member of the race to feel as if he inherited a kind of nobility, and might yet come into the possession of princely wealth to support it. In the better specimens of the breed, this peculiarity threw an ideal grace over the hard material of human life, without stealing away any truly valuable quality. In the baser sort, its effect was to increase the liability to sluggishness and dependence, and induce the victim of a shadowy hope to remit all self-effort, while awaiting the realization of his dreams.
Years and years after their claim had passed out of the public memory, the Pyncheons were accustomed to consult the Colonel's ancient map, which had been projected while Waldo County was still an unbroken wilderness. Where the old land surveyor had put down woods, lakes, and rivers, they marked out the cleared spaces, and dotted the villages and towns, and calculated the progressively increasing value of the territory, as if there were yet a prospect of its ultimately forming a princedom for themselves.
The Salem house is a symbol of Hawthorne’s ambivalence, for generations of both sharp-edged, canny descendants and ne’er-do-wells have resided in it.
In almost every generation, nevertheless, there happened to be some one descendant of the family gifted with a portion of the hard, keen sense, and practical energy, that had so remarkably distinguished the original founder. His character, indeed, might be traced all the way down, as distinctly as if the Colonel himself, a little diluted, had been gifted with a sort of intermittent immortality on earth.
At two or three epochs, when the fortunes of the family were low, this representative of hereditary qualities had made his appearance, and caused the traditionary gossips of the town to whisper among themselves, "Here is the old Pyncheon come again! Now the Seven Gables will be new-shingled!" From father to son, they clung to the ancestral house with singular tenacity of home attachment.
Image result for images Puritan men salem 17th century
Genealogy has become big business in the United States.  Ancestry websites, DNA testing facilities, and newly-opened archives have fueled the interest in finding out family origins and history.

Some of those who have begun to look into their past have done so for added legitimacy or validation.  There is a certain luster to a descendence from kings, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. Membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, the First Families of Virginia, or the exclusive Society of the Cincinnati might be assured.

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Others look for a different kind of social legitimacy – freedom from the legacy of slavery, the Inquisition, or the Salem witch trials.  Particularly if one has been committed to causes of racial and civil justice, then any genetic connection with Robespierre or John C. Calhoun would have to be explained away or justified.  A distant relative might not have been from the murderous side of the Robespierre family, but minor Jacobins who had been complicit but not eager to send aristocrats summarily to the guillotine.

A slave-owning past is the hardest to deal with, so defining of character it is in America.  It is one thing to have had relatives who shipped on in New Bedford to the four-masters of the Three Corner Trade, but who were only ships mates or seamen; another thing altogether to be a descendant of a Southern plantation owner.

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There are others who are interested in American or world history, and know that disaggregating the past and tracing lineage will mirror historical movements.  Tracing an ancestor who arrived in Virginia at the beginning of the 1600s, was influential in the settlement of its early colonies, and whose children and grandchildren made their way west to the Mississippi Delta and from there West is even more of an immediate and direct pursuit of chronology and social events than any academic research.

Most, however, are simply curious.  Who is in the family tree, where did they come from, where did they settle, and what did they become.

For some few Americans family history is about place.  It is especially impressive and meaningful for them to see the houses that their great-grandfathers built, that great-aunts and –uncles inherited, and to walk through the forests bought by ancestors in now protected land.  The coincidence of history and place is indelible and those who live at the juncture feel an almost spiritual link to their family and more generally to the pasts of all those who were neighbors and friends.

The number of descendants of Genghis Khan number in the hundreds of millions.  He fathered many children as he rode with his horsemen out of the steppes east to Japan and West to Europe. There is nothing artful or even memorable about this paternity and its subsequent lineage based on rape, and yet some still find a certain unique legitimacy in being related to one of the most recognizable, powerful, and ultimately important figures of history. 

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Why, then, is a historical past so important?  Why do many feel it necessary to recreate their own particular past noted with events, landings, settlements, achievements, and wealth? What is the actual value of a family tree or even less of a family tree growing in a uniquely preserved and protected environment? What exactly is the point?

Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described memorist.  The present is only momentary, the future only possible, but the past tangible, understandable, and defining.  We are the past, he said, and he spent his younger years in deliberately remembering and recording places, people, and events that he knew would be important later on.

Nabokov’s past is quite different from that of Hawthorne or of amateur genealogists who hope to reconstruct a past which give the meaningful architecture that their lives have been missing.  His past is subtle, profound, even metaphysical.  Living in the past is as much a philosophical statement of being as it a pleasant reverie.

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The meaning of life, contend theologians and moral philosophers, is not to focus on the secular events which have randomly shaped individuals – history – but on ones soul or moral core. 
Konstantin Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina dwelled on the issue of meaning from the time he was a young man (as did his alter ego, Tolstoy himself).  How could God have created such intelligent, insightful, creative, witty, and perceptive beings, let them live a few short decades on earth, and then consign them to the cold, hard ground of the steppes?

A focus on history necessarily blinders the individual by offering only temporal, impermanent, and ultimately meaningless parameters to life.  Not only will the amateur historian get lost in the tangle of battles, treaties, and engagements; but will come to view history as the be-all and end-all of existence.  Once anyone reaches that conclusion that the tendency to speculate based on history and current events is inevitable and inescapable. 

The world will end in a fiery Armageddon not of God’s creation but of predatory, ignorant, and selfish human beings.  Trends of history become self-prophesying because of the natural bias influencing observers.  With only a secular optic, there is no way to take a longer, wider, and more philosophical view of human history and physical evolution – particularly since history repeats itself in such predictable, cyclical, and unsurprising ways.

The concept of place and the unique role of individuals within it is a chimera, a social and psychological construct designed not because of any inherent value but an ascribed one.  Although it may seem to orient and ground individuals who have lost their moorings and their way, it does just the opposite.  It gives a false sense of purpose, meaning, and stability.

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