McMansions and the Extinguishing of Hestia

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Roughly two weeks ago I wrote two posts concerning the importance of myths in our lives (“Homo mythicus”) and briefly wrote on the characters of those myths–the gods, in an effort to situate the context from which future posts on “things mythical” would proceed (“Who are th gods anyway?). I had intended my next post in these regards to focus on Zeus, arguably one of the most famous (though not necessarily well-known) of all the gods–at least if you, like me, were raised in America. I haven’t set aside much time to enter the blogosphere as of late and while intending to write on Zeus, my mind changed today as I was driving home from work.

Nothing new about the ride itself, but there is a quaint little house on a relatively busy street in South Central Austin, Texas. I see it every day. It is small, it is old, and it is sandwiched between two much larger houses. Nor is this anything new in Austin–probably not new in a lot of places in America, especially in suburban areas. But I see more and more of this in urban environments–knocking down a small house to put up a big house.

So I got to thinking as I drove home…With such a small house, there remained much more “outside.” What of the larger houses I see popping up more throughout the city on a lot originally inhabited by a small house? More inside, less outside. I began to ponder the dialectic between “in” and “out”.

I remembered James Hillman, from whose perspective on mythology and psychology much of my thoughts on myths proceed, wrote a piece simply called “In.” So I figured I’d read what he had to say and as I continued on home I began to think about Hestia, Greek goddess of the home, of the hearth, she who is the “center of the Earth, the center of the home, and of our own personal center” (Paris 167, Emphasis mine).

So I pulled out my Hillman article wherein he quickly defines “in” as “the soul word” (9 emphasis original) as in being in love, in therapy, in a relationship, etc. We keep our feelings in. And of course, when I came home, I went “in” my house. There exists a particular topography, that is, a landscape, to “in-ness.” But this topography can be limiting as when I am “in” something, I am confined to that space.

Hillman does as Hillman does and explores in his essay the power, the god or goddess, who draws us and keeps us in. And who does he find? Hestia.

My follow-up post to “Homo Mythicus” was entitled “Who are the gods anyway?”

So who is Hestia? And how does Hestia relate to the phenomenon of McMansions? Or, what does the phenomenon of McMansions say about our relationship to Hestia?

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As mentioned, Hestia is the center–so with Hestia we are in the implied area of a topography–a landscape. Hestia is that landscapes center and, as Ginette Paris states, that landscape can include a geographical locale, the home, and our own personal centers. Hestia, the first of all the gods to be honored at Greek processions, was the hearth–that which brought families together and gave them warmth. Her space was sacred space where quarrels were prohibited. According to Plato, when the gods quarreled, only Hestia took no part.

After reading Hillman’s piece, I pulled some other books off the shelves: Ginette Paris’s Pagan Meditations and Facing the Gods, a volume edited by Hillman which includes an essay titled “Hestia: a Background of Psychological Focusing” by Barbara Kirksey.

Both works discuss Hestia in relationship to spatial metaphors. “Her image,” writes Kirksey, “is architectural” (104). So too does Paris relate Hestia to architecture, noting “modern architecture, such as it is, is dominated by male values” (169)–a point to which I will return. Modern architecture, moreover, “particularly in postwar America, is oriented outwards in such a way that most of the so-called ‘family homes’ are in fact anti-family…the façade is made to ‘be seen'” (170).

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So Hestia embodies sacred space, where people gather together and soul has a place. The value of Hestia in psychic life, writes Kirksey, is in her ability “to mediate soul by having a place to congregate” (105).

The house “is a psychic state,” Gaston Bachelard wrote in Poetics of Space (qtd. in Kirksey 105). What then do we make of Rollo May’s statement: “We Americans have little sense of sacredness of space” (qtd. in Kirksey 105)?

Paris’s statement is particularly apropos at this point: the facades, that is the outsides, of our modern architecture, is meant to be seen–in other words, the process of exteriorization is paramount when building (and purchasing) our houses. The interior is sacrificed in the name of the exterior.

“Hestia is found wherever the family finds its center” (Paris 170). Where does this center lie? In many homes, “the television set plays the role of Hestia” (ibid) and of course, of the hundreds of channels on tv, you can always “light” the perennial fireplace (hearth/Hestia)–if you don’t buy a fireplace dvd.

So if Hestia’s image is indeed architectural, what does the McMansion architectural fad have to say about a modern relation to sacred space and, by extension, soul? To begin to engage the question, a brief definition of McMansion, culled from Wikipedia: the McMansion

can be a large, new house in a subdivision of similarly large houses, which all seem mass-produced and lacking in distinguishing characteristics…It may seem too large for its lot and rarely has windows on the sides due to closely abutting upon the property boundaries, giving the appearance of crowding adjacent homes. A McMansion is either located in a newer, larger subdivision or replaces an existing, smaller structure in an older neighborhood…symmetrical structures on clear-cut lots…several bedrooms and bathrooms, and lavish interiors…The house often covers a larger portion of the lot than the construction it replaces. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McMansion).

Some key words and brief commentary before continuing on:

1)  Mass-produced, lacking distinguishing characteristics: homogenous, pack as much as can be packed in to a finite, clear-cut lot.

2) Too large for its lot: Too big for its britches. Lots of interior space, lack of exterior space in the form of backyards.

3) Little in the way of windows on the side: No invasion of privacy. That is, keep those boundaries firm.

4) Symmetrical structures on clear cut lots: Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries–nice and neat little lines.

5) Lots of rooms: Square and rectangular in shape of course.

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Returning to Paris’s comment in regards to the masculine domination of modern architecture. Take a look at the above picture. Nice, neat straight lines–a little curve, but the neighborhood is dominated by straight roads and nice normal looking houses. The use of the term normal here is purposeful, for our word “normal” is itself derived from architecture: a norma was a tool used to make right angles. What do you have when you put two normas together? A square. A nice little box to fit next to or on top of another nice and tidy little box. Categorizing, isolating, well-defined (dare I say confined?), like a nice little graph.

So what archetype, what god do we find exerting his influence? This is Apollo, the god of light, of purification (you don’t want to cross boundaries, let alone look inside your neighbor’s house), the god of our modern preoccupation with science, the intellect, rationality and reason. Apollo, the flinger of arrows, who, as the god of purity, never descends into the fray. He shoots from above. The picture above is itself an Apollonion perspective–looking from above. And in looking from above, we can might gain the big picture, but we lose the intimacy of contact. With Apollonion distance we may feel the warmth of the sun, but we lose the warmth of Hestia and in growing distant from Hestia, the principle of the center, we lose out on her ability to provide place for soul, for centering on family and ourselves.

If we were to forgo our Apollonion viewpoint and enter these houses, would we gain the Hestian? Probably not, for in exploring these houses, what do we have? Lots of rooms, all nice and square, all normal. Compartments. Boxes. Separated. Normal.

Look at the yards–and I use the term loosely here. Narrow strips of grass front and back: No place for the Aprhoditic gardens, no place for the Demeterian harvests of home-grown food. No place for the feminine. Boxes, lines straight as (Apollo’s) arrows.

But the masculinity of such architecture does not stop with Apollo. Houses are more and more “connected” through cyberspace and everybody’s favorite, the cell-phone. One can be “connected everywhere ‘outside'” (Hillman 19). Such means of connectivity with the outside is, according to Hillman, Hermes’s domain (19)–perhaps it should be no surprise then that “architecturally Hestia was paired with Hermes” (ibid.) for “He is of the outside, she of the inside” (ibid.) Thus with our ability to connect integrated within the household, Hermes has penetrated that which properly belongs to Hestia.

A kernel of danger in such an invasion, for as much as Hermes is the guide of souls, he is there “in those moments when one suddenly discovers one is not in control, when everything turns upsidedown” (Downing 54). Dangerous because without the centering capacity of Hestia, soul goes astray: “the soul can’t come home for there is no place for homecoming” (Kirksey 105).

Last but not least in regards to the masculinity of architecture, I consider the titanic quality of McMansions: too big, as the definition above states, for their lots. Lacking proportion and a sense of balance with the surroundings, we encounter the Titans. According to Paul Diel, the Titans, wild and untamed, are antagonists to spirit, to the divine. They embody our unsatisfied desires–our discontent. In Hesiod’s Theogony the Titans are buried under volcanoes, thus expression themselves through volcanic eruptions–our untamed rages, that is, and the revolt, according to Diel, of our earthly desires.

Though sticking with Greek myths in this post, I could easily mention the Norse giants, or jotuns, as they are in the Norse. The term “jotun” or related “etin” means to eat/consume. So even in the old Norse myths, these gigantic figures, like the Greek Titans were not only antagonistic to the divine realm, the realm of spirit, they are associated with consumption, the need to satisfy our desires, our discontent.

Can we see unsatisfied desires in the hugeness of McMansions? I think we can. With our modern consumer culture, we need to buy more and more. Thus we need bigger and bigger places to put what we buy. We buy because we think what we buy will satisfy our desires, that we will become content. But we buy more and more because we quickly learn that what we buy cannot satisfy our desires. Thus our houses grow bloated.

McMansions are a concretization of our hyper-rational, hyper-externalized culture of discontent and antagonism.

Why? Not to pick out an singular cause for such, but I would not hesitate to suggest such developments connect back to the loss of Hestia, the loss of the center. As stated above, modern society has sacrificed the internal for the external. We have extinguished the Hestia of the home. The loss of Hestian centeredness in ourselves has erupted in a decentered fragmentation of ourselves and we risk flying off, scattered…Without the center, there is no ease–there is dis-ease.

Our society, our culture, is dis-eased and we seek whatever to ameliorate such, just to make us feel a little better.

McMansions are ironic with their creation of so much interior space.

They are the literalization of our need for more interiority, our need to reconnect with Hestia, with sacred space, with the place where soul is engendered, where people come together in soul and for soul. Without it, without her and her warmth, we are cold and soulless.

 

 

 


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