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Baucis and Philemon in the 21st Century: Notes on Living Small

CHT449010 Philemon and Baucis, from an edition of the Metamorphoses of Ovid, published in Paris in 1619, (engraving) by Matheus (Mathieu), Jean (c.1592-1672); Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France; (add.info.: Old Couple celebrated for their devotion to each other and for their welcome and hospitality to Jupiter and Mercury disguised as poor travellers; their reward from the gods was to be given the gift of dying at the same time and being transformed into an interwining pair of trees, an oak and a linden;); Archives Charmet; French, out of copyright

I live in the nation with the highest rates of personal consumption and energy use ever seen on earth, and I live small. But it isn’t an intentional experiment, like no-impact, no-plastic, all-local, Tiny House, zero-waste, or any of the others that periodically make waves now. I didn’t decide to start living small one day and rearrange my life to fit a programme. It happened because, as the memoirist Vivian Gornick says of living alone, ‘I said yes to this and no to that’ and at some point found myself in this situation.

Even though I’ve adopted a number of now-familiar lifestyle habits to limit my consumption of goods and energy, that’s somewhat incidental. I’ve also made some ‘small’ choices less trumpeted by sustainability advocates: I have stayed in one place for a long time, which requires far fewer resources than the constant uprooting common here in the US (where we change our homes on average once every four years). My place happens to be urban, so I’m lucky that, at least in this country, it’s easier to be resource-efficient in the city than the suburbs or the countryside. I should say that this is not to be confused with ‘self-sufficient’ (whatever that actually means – there’s a whole other essay there). The vast infrastructure that sustains me is profoundly wasteful; I’ve just limited my demands upon it somewhat.

I also own no real estate, no home or land. (Individual property tenure is possibly the most anti-ecological type of tenure ever invented, notwithstanding the hash some societies have made of attempts at large-scale collective tenure.) I live in a rented flat; the same flat I’ve lived in for over 20 years. I live with my husband, who had been there for 15 years before I met him, in the city where he was born. We have two rooms, a kitchen, and bath. We have no yard, laundry machines, or dishwasher, no children, no pets, and no car.

In fact, outside of this country our lifestyle isn’t particularly exceptional. To this day, millions of people live as we do in urban areas around the world, although it’s somewhat rare to be our age and not to have children. At the same time many others, urban or rural, have even fewer possessions than we and have had to work harder for those they have.

And to be honest, none of this really came about because of an ecological awareness on our part. It had more to do with a lack of personal ambition, and a feeling of alienation toward the drivers of what is called ambition. So what does living small really mean, in this context?

The Principle of Expansion

What it really means in my experience is that some aspects of your life may simply roll to a stop, long before you are old. And they are precisely those that most people centre their whole lives upon, notably here in the US, but actually now almost anywhere in the world, in whatever social class. Human life today is based on a principle of constant expansion. For the great majority born poor, expansion is essential for sheer survival. For the rest, it’s merely the only way life is understood to have meaning or purpose.

In societies where a majority has already obtained basic physical comforts, additional resources are sought to position one’s children to obtain even more, and to maintain and improve one’s own acquisitions indefinitely. People also dream of having jobs in which they can advance, ideally becoming experts or receiving plaudits in some field, but basically always earning more. Others dream of starting businesses that could grow sufficiently to be sold at a profit when they wish to retire. Those who are already rich dream of expanding their empires.

Such desires may be costly in every respect, or generate inordinate amounts of waste, but they are invariably said to have social benefit, regardless of waste or cost.

My husband and I have none of those aspirations to guide us. We both do jobs that require some skill but are not central to our idea of who we are and simply enable us to survive. (It’s safe to guess that this is also true for the vast majority of working people in the world, whether they dream of doing something different or not.) We have the satisfaction of knowing that our jobs are socially useful; many don’t, or the value is dubious. But neither of us works full-time, or has a much greater income now than we did ten years ago. We don’t need to strive for more because our needs are already more than met.

We find pleasurable things to do with the extra time and money we have, like taking trips to visit new places or distant friends. My husband plays music and occasionally entertains our friends or performs at local events. He volunteers at a local school. I have time to study, write and garden (I grow fruits and vegetables in an elderly neighbour’s yard, and in turn, she gets her weeds pulled and hedges trimmed by me). We go for long walks, in places where the unbuilt world still holds some sway, when we can. And in a city that is a magnet for artists there are always cultural activities – sometimes involving people we know, an added pleasure.

Even so, we spend a lot of time alone in our flat. That’s mostly pleasant too: there are books to read, films to watch, meals to cook and enjoy. Living small, it turns out, is also living slow.

I’m content with this life, overall. It fits us, like comfortable clothing. It feels oddly like what people actually mean when they talk about freedom.

But I have to admit to an underlying unease – a sense that the engine of aspiration and expansion pushing others constantly forward is stalled in our case. The future, at least until we are too old to work, which is still a long way off, looks much like the present.

And then? Well, even if you spend most of your fullness of life preparing for your old age, even if you have children and a great deal of money – nothing guarantees you an old age at all. Much less one as untroubled and full of pleasures as the possible life you sacrificed to obtain that elusive future.

But all around us the world crashes, shrieks, moans, bleeds. It is filled with striving.

Freedom is a Ghost Town

It can feel a bit lonely living as we do. We are both outriders in our birth families, with whom we are not close. They value children, accumulation, and achievement, so our choices are odd and even troubling to them. Our friends may be iconoclasts in some ways, but they are still largely occupied with the demands of complex family and professional lives, and property ownership.

We still meet other people who don’t fit in: artists, intellectuals without portfolio, or sometimes just interesting drifters. But more and more as we age, those few true bohemians we encounter are elderly and marginal, and seem a bit lost. Many aren’t inclined to sociability, although they may have time for it. Their air of depression or bitterness comes perhaps from being almost invisible to society at large and having no acknowledged place in it. Their gifts ignored, their ideas not heard; their example of personal freedom not much followed.

In a society where the ideal of freedom is invoked unceasingly with longing and awe, you can discover that freedom, when you actually get there, is a ghost town.

My husband and I were radicals who dreamed of building a different society, and spent years engaged in efforts to do so. But the times went careering away from most of our hopes, and we drifted out of movement structures and politics as they became increasingly abstract, repressive, and irrelevant to our day-to-day lives. Our experience of them in this highly isolate society was also, ironically, antithetical to relationships of practical mutual support or ‘community’ (a word that often seems as emptied out by idealisation as freedom).

We have not made a separate peace; we have not deserted our core beliefs. But we have taken a quieter way of living them out.

My lifetime has seen utterly unprecedented human population growth and decimation of the non-human world. Like much else in my life, childlessness was never a wholly rationalised or altruistic choice; it was primarily the result of pursuing a shifting and mutual notion of personal happiness. But I now have the unexpected realisation that, at least within the context of this time and place, it may have a wider worth – as a tiny legacy to fellow humans and other living things. I am more convinced of this when I read about the concern capitalist economists have begun to express that many of the world’s countries are already under ‘replacement fertility’. All the more satisfying to me since their model – the one my husband and I spent all of our adult lives opposing – is entirely founded upon the principle of expansion.

All around us, people seem desperate to simplify their lives, make them less stressful, hectic, expensive. They speak longingly of the beauty of living day to day. But even those with the opportunity to choose such a life would be likely to find its realities daunting. Many are no longer able to simplify much in any case; their choices were made, their paths laid out long ago. It’s much harder to divest yourself of family obligations, major possessions, or a high-powered career than never to have had them in the first place. Given the pressures to conform, belong, or simply exist, it’s understandable why people today would end up living mainly for the future.

And there are even older forces at work on all of us than the principle of expansion. There is a kind of heroic ideal with which we are instilled, and in reality, living day to day is very anti-heroic.

Baucis and Philemon

That idea of heroism struck me, as I cast around looking for some representation of our living-small ethos in myth or folktale. I think we choose the models for our personal lives based not so much on rational self-interest, as the economists would have it, as on mythic archetypes we often don’t even recognise, since they arose long ago in societies that are no longer extant. The hero and the quest (or conquest) is probably the essential myth underlying personal ambition and the expansionist paradigm.

But what about my husband and me? Of the many mythic tales, heroic, tragic, triumphant, or catastrophic, there is only one I know of whose characters seem exemplary and worthy of emulation to me. They are Baucis and Philemon, an old childless couple who are the archetypes of friendship and hospitality in ancient Greek myth. They live in a town whose other inhabitants are all too busy or suspicious to offer food and lodging to several of the gods who come to visit them in disguise. When they die they are rewarded for their uncompelled generosity by being transformed into an oak and a linden tree, eternally entwined.

I discovered through reading Marshall Berman’s critique of modernity, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, that Goethe makes use of this story in his poetic tragedy Faust. But he uses it in a different way, which is also, as Berman describes, a metaphor of modern civilisation. Faust, as part of his deal with Mephistopheles, gets enormous power to shape the world. He becomes, late in the story, a kind of developer. He wants to build a tremendous industrial operation that he feels will benefit mankind, on a stretch of coast where Baucis and Philemon happen to be among the few inhabitants. He needs to evict them to get the land. He hires men to do it for him, and tells them to do whatever they must and not to inform him of the details. So the hired men kill the old couple and Faust gets the land.

It’s an extreme metaphor for the kind of frenzied dislocation that’s actually been taking place in our home city as money and people with big ideas about making more of it come sweeping through, uprooting anything that’s in their way. Elderly and disabled people are the majority of those long-term tenants evicted in this most recent wave, which we have so far escaped, for no logical reason. The Faustian bargain is not destructive to Faust alone.

The Limits of Civilisation, the Abundance in Limits

As much as human striving has debilitated our global habitat, that habitat is resilient and it’s evident that it could rebound if the engines of human expansion slowed or stopped. But we are caught in a destructive tangle of consequences that first began to ensnare us tens of thousands of years ago.

We are an ambitious and clever species, even though ever fewer of us now have the skills that were once needed for our survival, and ever more are dependent upon tools we don’t even know how to improve or repair. Like Faust, archetype of the civilised man, we want to believe our actions are motivated not by mere expansion, ‘the ideology of the cancer cell,’ as the naturalist Edward Abbey called it, but by a desire to improve our surroundings. Yet every attempt we have made to ‘improve’ living systems rather than respecting their constraints and — as an increasing number of scientists have come to acknowledge — their irreducible complexity, has produced larger and more dangerous unintended consequences, at a minimum. In his provocative overview of the history of our species, Sapiens, Yuval Harari makes the case that we may have worsened things in every sense, even for ourselves, except our sheer numbers. And perhaps those of a few other species, most of whom we have enslaved for food.

And now, of course, for the first time in our history, our unintended consequences are global in scope.

Even with the Faustian powers of science and technology in its hands, today’s global civilisation has been unable to free itself of the bargain with Mephistopheles. It is still on the path that specialised, hierarchical civilisations have followed since they first appeared. The only societies that have been ‘sustainable’ throughout the ten-thousand-year rise and fall of civilisations are non-hierarchical, place-based, limited-group societies. Where living small is not a catchphrase.

So I feel a bittersweet gladness in having, by a combination of chance and choice, found my way to a smaller life. What was once serendipitous has become my ideal. Small is truly beautiful to me, for all I have said to qualify it. I’ve discovered (as have many before me) that when you impose or accept limits on certain aspects of life, you are gifted with unsought abundances. Above all I’ve been given time, which, when you think of it, is life itself.

I would say my husband and I have been lucky, in a peculiar way. Our ‘freedom’ is highly contingent, and our living small is too. But it still seems better to be living this way now by some semblance of choice than because the way is compelled. Compelled as it was in the past that our civilisation is annihilating — compelled as it may one day be again, in a barely recognisable landscape of the future.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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