Friday, December 12, 2014

`Beyond the Door'

This is from Andrew Lytle’s memoir, A Wake for the Living (1975): 

“In the courthouse a man did his public business; at home his private business. The private and public acts were separate and so defined the individual in all his parts. The front door is the symbol for both, and like a good symbol it has its literal meaning.” 

Lytle (1902-1995) was the last of the Southern Agrarians, a contributor to I’ll Take My Stand (1930), a novelist and critic, and a histrionically ornery Tennessean. No doubt he was outraged by that most odious shard of sixties bumper-sticker wisdom: “All politics is personal.” Such thinking helped erase the public/private distinction, emboldened the do-gooders and busy-bodies, and overturned the most precious of rights – the right to be left alone. In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson gives four nuances of meaning for privacy: 1.) “State of being secret; secrecy.” 2.) “Retirement; retreat.” 3.) “Privity; joint knowledge; great familiarity. Privacy in this sense is improper.” 4.) “Taciturnity.” Contemporary usage is a mingling of the first and second, though the politics-is-personal crowd has taken the third, with its suggestion of sexual intimacy, and made it exhibitionistically public. One can only wish they were taciturn. 

The sense of discretion suggested by Lytle implies not fear or timidity, or the implication that we have something to hide, but rather, confidence, an ease with one’s values and self. One respects the privacy of others and expects it in return. The Louisiana poet David Middleton dedicated his second collection, Beyond the Chandeleurs (1999) to Lytle: “for all who live in the given world, especially Andrew Lytle, who took `the long view’ and loved the permanent things.” He also dedicates a poem to him in that volume, “The South,” which includes these lines: “Down here great Sherman suns burned up / The sweetest fields our Aprils bring, / Gay daisies blazed with buttercups, / The cavaliers of spring.” It would be a mistake to confuse Lytle’s defense of privacy with a revival of slavery or The-South-Shall-Rise-Again nostalgia. He’s talking about something bigger, deeper and more ancient and important. 

One of Middleton’s epigraphs to his most recent collection, The Fiddler of Driskill Hill (2013) is drawn from “The Hind Tit,” Lytle’s contribution to I’ll Take My Stand: “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.” In the final line of a poem written “for the Agrarians,” “The Planters,” Middleton pledges to protect “The unsurrendered ground, our proper home.” For the first time, while rereading I’ll Take My Stand, I thought not of “Dixie” but of Yeats’ lines from “Coole Park, 1929”: “Here, traveller, scholar, poet, take your stand / When all those rooms and passages are gone.” Lytle continues the passage quoted earlier from his family memoir: 

“What went on behind the door was domestic and intimate. Before it lay the world, and the division the threshold made was known to all and respected. Beyond the door decorum demanded circumspection and regard. Our grandfathers knew that to confuse the two was to return to chaos, that frightening view just behind Paradise. Not to know the difference between the public thing, the res publica, and the intimate is to surrender that delicate balance of order which alone makes the state a servant and not the people the servant of the state.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Interesting ground Mr Kurp. It does beg the question, though, of the nature of blog writing and the place of that in the privacy debate. Presumably you write behind your front door but, by definition, for the public domain. How public is the internet? You invite comment from all and sundry and also moderate it. There's a lot to be said here.