Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ideas of home, and homelessness

Back from Banff, I'm being "disciplined" and working in a focused way on my book on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics, arguing that for Woolf the "autonomous work of art" and "political art" are not an antithesis, but that an author's use of an engaging and sometimes puzzling form forces the reader to bridge the gap between the work of art's autonomy and the political and social world it critiques.  There's no "message"; rather, there are puzzling moments that encourage the reader's reflection.  There's a fairly long philosophical tradition, beginning in the twentieth century with the work of Gadamer and Adorno and continuing in the twenty-first with the work of Scarry, Nussbaum, Donaghue,and Jusdanis, for this conception of the autonomous work of art. I think the upshot of all this theory is that autonomy provides both the writer and the reader with the most freedom.  The writer doesn't need to come up with answers or tow a party line, but only to ask how it is in the world.  And the reader is only urged to reflect and consider, to bring their own knowledge, context, and experience to bear upon the human questions.

Working on Woolf is not "being disciplined" because this is what the University expects me to do.  It's being disciplined because it's hard work balancing all I know about aesthetics (and, at my age, remembering all I know about aesthetics), all other critics have said about Woolf's novels and essays, and my vision of the work itself.  It requires a kind of single-minded focus.  And frankly, I want to get it done.  It's the last big project of my academic career.

And then there's the matter of timing.  After working on Soul Weather flat out at Banff, I needed some time away from the novel to think both deeply and freely about my characters and about the questions I have decided to explore in my own novel.  And frankly, thinking about how Woolf examines and critiques her culture without sending a "message" provides a lesson for the novelist, urging me to keep questions, not answers, top of mind as I work on Soul Weather, leaving my readers free to consider their own answers to the problems posed by this particular historical moment.

That free and deep thinking takes place in life's interstices--those moments when you think you're doing something else, like quilting or taking a walk with your daughter on a lovely fall day.  Veronica and I walked the Marsh Route around White Butte Trails east of Regina last Friday, and the smell of leaves and desultory conversation about what we'd cook for Thanksgiving prompted me from time to time to think about ideas of home.  I found myself considering "home" from Dirk's point of view.  I could see Dirk toward the end of the novel concluding that home may be as much about time as about space.  It's true, he thought, using my brain to do his thinking, that we think of home as a place because our memories are so physical:  the fall of light in the kitchen on an October afternoon mingling with the smell of a turkey that's nearly done, and the sound of family and friends talking in the next room; the feel of the linen napkins we inherited from Grandma and the texture and smell and taste of Grandma's pumpkin pie, which a daughter now makes.

But maybe "home" is also a time, Dirk thought, still using my brain, a time in our own lives and growth when we finally feel at home in our own skin and our own histories, a time when we've made peace with our mistakes and losses and decided that they're now a part of ourselves that we actually rather like.  A time when the past, the present, and the future seem to exist in comfortable harmony, when a sense of adventure mingles with a sense of being grounded.  Given that Soul Weather is trying to query and problematize the idea of home, I rather liked what Dirk was thinking.

And then I began to read Jack Layton's Homelessness:  How to End the National Crisis, as much for research as out of respect for this remarkable and hopeful man.  Layton must as some level understand rhetoric, for us realizes that it's going to take both statistics and moving portraits of real homeless people to allow us to see that there's no "stereotypical" homeless person.  While fifty years ago we might not have been far off concluding that many homeless people are single male alcoholics, the economy of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries have made homelessness a much wider problem that involves families as well. 

Here are some startling, admittedly selected facts:
  • Homeless people have a death rate 8 to 10 times higher than those who are housed.
  • It costs significantly more to house a homeless person than to provide them with a secure and stable roof over their heads.  In Toronto, keeping them in a shelter costs about $1990 a month;  subsidizing their rent costs about $700 a month; providing them with affordable housing costs about $200.  This doesn't include the enormous costs to a health care system trying to deal with the problems caused by stressful, overcrowded conditions in shelters or the even worse conditions for those "living rough."  Nor does it put a dollar amount on the struggle of the homeless person to survive and to keep some dignity and spirit intact. 
  • Only about 3% of people lose their housing because of mental illness. 
  • On the other hand, depression is widely experienced by the homeless.  You try not having any privacy.  Try not having a "home" in a culture that so stridently values success and equates success with a large house and two-car garage.  Try panhandling to get enough money for a coffee so you can have access to a washroom where you can go to the bathroom and clean up a little.  Here's the one that got to me:  you try not sleeping well, either on the street or in a shelter, for weeks on end and see if you don't become depressed.
  • Most people are catapulted onto the streets by poverty: by unemployment or by low wages in communities with a high cost of housing. Others find the street a safer option than an abusive partner or parent.
  • Climate change is only making it harder for the homeless:  more people are now dying of heat-related causes than of cold.
At one point, Canada was considered by the United Nations to be a leader in providing housing for those living on society's margins.  We're now a scandal, particularly since we have the world's 8th largest economy.

Homelessness is not a choice, as politicians perhaps like to think.  Nor are the homeless simply the "undeserving" rather than the "deserving" poor--a distinction that Charles Dickens questioned back in the middle of the nineteenth century in works like A Christmas Carol, but which still remains robust among politicians who think that a free market will fix everything.   "Homelessness is a political phenomenon" Jack Layton writes "--if we understand politics to be, among other things, the process that determines the allocation of our resources.  Housing is one of these resources.  Has out society determined that its resources will be distributed so that some community members have no housing?" (29).

So it's a good thing I'm working on Virginia Woolf, thinking about the autonomous work of art, blogging about homelessness, and letting my thinking about home settle for a while before I return to Soul Weather.  I like Dirk's idea about "home" being temporal as well as spatial.  But Layton's book makes me realize that there's more to it than that.  I need to discover how to let the reader see these other facets of home and homelessness without giving the reader a message.  But I don't need to be quite so true to my aesthetic ideals in a blog.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.  Appreciate home.

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