Friday, November 10, 2006

`Passionate Parochialism'

In his biography of Karl Kraus, Edward Timms praises the “passionate parochialism” of the great Viennese satirist. Kraus is unimaginable without the Vienna of Freud and Wittgenstein, a hothouse of late 19th- and early 20th-century culture. For 37 years, Kraus almost single-handedly wrote, edited and published Die Fackel (The Torch), a newspaper that savaged the hypocrisy and corruption of the city. Timms’ use of “parochialism,” normally a term of contempt, implies that the local, the geographically specific, can fuel creativity and wit, and need not imply backwardness or benighted provinciality. It also implies that Vienna, like New York, Paris or any megalopolis, is as likely to prove itself “parochial” as Montpelier, Ohio, or Utopia, Texas.

“Parochial” originally meant “of a diocese,” and shared an etymology with “parish.” The word is from the Greek – “para,” meaning “near,” and “oikos,” meaning “house” – near the house, in the neighborhood, local. It shifted from ecclesiastical usage to a more general and ultimately negative connotation. Today, except in the context of “parochial schools,” the words implies unenlightened, unsophisticated. This says something, I suppose, about the secularization of Western culture but, taking a cue from Timms, I’d like to reclaim “parochial” as a neutral or even laudatory term. Who is more “parochial” (the last time I’ll use quotes) than Thoreau, who bragged that he traveled much in Concord? Or Faulkner?

Guy Davenport (of Lexington, Ky.), in his essay (first published by the Asphodel Book Shop of Cleveland, Ohio, with a cover photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard of Lexington, Ky.) on the poet Jonathan Williams (of Scaly Mountain, N.C.), said, “There is no American capital; there never has been. We have a network instead. A French poet may plausibly know all other French poets by living in Paris. The smallest of American towns contains major poets, and all other kinds of artists. In no other country does such a distribution of mind appear.”

Davenport noted that Flannery O’Connor and Oliver Hardy lived in Milledgeville, Ga., and Eudora Welty lived in Jackson, Miss. Cleveland, my home town, once was home to Hart Crane, Sherwood Anderson and Charles Burchfield. In her essay “The Regional Writer,” O’Connor said:

“The best American fiction has always been regional. The ascendancy passed roughly from New England to the Midwest to the South; it has passed to and stayed longest wherever there has been a shared past, a sense of alikeness, and the possibility of reading a small history in a universal light.”

That’s a concise redefinition of parochial, in the sense I intend: “reading a small history in a universal light.” That’s Faulkner in an elegantly phrased nutshell. Davenport, in the 1969 essay cited above, said, “If you know where Charles Ruggles lives, Ray Bradbury, Michael McClure, or Edward Dorn, you may count yourself learned indeed.” And very parochial.

1 comment:

Nancy Ruth said...

An excellent post. My husband's retirement lifetime project is collecting and writing about fiction and autobiography set in Maine. He has about 4000 titles already. To resurrect the word parochial is a worthy goal.