Friday, October 14, 2005

EinsteinFest: Without a Home

Homeless. Probably the first thought that springs to mind is of those who wander the streets of our cities, sometimes pushing a grocery cart, sometimes asking for spare change to buy a coffee, sometimes frightening us, not so much by their appearance but by the thought that with a little bad luck the face we see in front of us could be our own.

As we learned tonight at Stanley Corngold’s lecture 1905 – A Literary Response to Modernity at EinsteinFest, many of the literary figures of the time felt homeless. Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Robert Musil were indicative of that sense of being “without a home” in the face of Central European urbanization. Although each literary figure used slightly different imagery for the experience, there was a commonality which we can discern 100 years later. “We are never at home in our interpreted worlds,” Rilke would say.

Even though it would be anachronistic to use the phrase “existential angst” to describe the homelessness of those responding to modernity in 1905, I can’t help but feel some disdain for both those claiming homelessness in the face of modernity and for our own post-modern critics, like Corngold, who seem to take a puerile pleasure in repeating the claim of the turn-of-the-century literati that not only are they “without a home” but that the scientists of the same period were merely engaging in “high-level bookkeeping”. Maybe I’m being unfair to those famous writers, not to mention contemporary critics like Corngold and others. Maybe, but this is my blog after all!

Still, I’m reminded by the presence of those who have no place to call home other than the cityscape where they wander, as well as by some of the saints and sages throughout history, that there is the accident of homelessness and the choice of homelessness. Francis of Assisi and the historical Jesus both demonstrated a choice, even a mission, of intentional homelessness which by the very fact of their steadfast adherence challenged the power structures of their time. Forget the institutions which canonized and deified them after their death. The point still remains that their example, far more than the petty peeves of poets and pundits, sheds far more light on homelessness and humanity.

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