|A House People
By John Bedell
Claude Levi-Strauss, in one of his fits of classification, declared that half of humanity is composed of "house people." I don't generally think much of such grand schemes, but as I read about Levi-Strauss's "house people" the other day it struck me how perfectly some of his account applies to the American middle class in the early 21st century. For example, he says that among people who place great value on their houses there will also be a great emphasis on the marital bond, and the group of husband, wife, and children will be the essential family unit. I've been thinking about this because my wife and I have been spending most of our time lately trying to buy a house, epitomizing the centrality of both the marriage bond and the house in our society.
To ponder the ethnography of humans and their houses as one inspects bathrooms and peers into basements lends a certain depth to the operation, lifting it beyond the mundane. This is one of the main reasons to read anthropology: To be able to see one's activities as part of ancient and noble human traditions, and to place the trivial acts of one's own time within the spectrum of human behavior.
This is not to say that the operation of buying a suburban house in America is the same as what people in other times and places have done, or that we value our houses in the same way. Not at all. In fact, I think there is much that we could learn about the business of living in houses from some of the world's other house peoples. Take, for example, the Zafimaniry, a group of about 20,000 slash-and-burn cultivators who live in the highlands of eastern Madagascar and have a marvelous complex of rituals related to their houses and their marriages.
According to Maurice Bloch, the British anthropologist who has been studying the Zafimaniry for 30 years, the acts of marrying and house-building are for them one and the same. Zafimaniry children, Bloch tells us, become sexually active in their early teens, in a loose and promiscuous way. After the age of 16 or so they come under increasing pressure to choose one partner and settle down, which most do some time before they are 20. Now, in this society there obviously isn't much place for wedding rituals focused on deflowering the bride, and the Zafimaniry have none. Instead, a Zafimaniry wedding is a celebration of the couple's taking up housekeeping together; their way of asking if you are married is to say, "Have you obtained a house and hearth?"
The first step in solemnifying the couple's relationship is for the husband-to-be and his male relatives to obtain timber for the central posts of their future house. These posts must be made from the hardest and most durable wood, because they are supposed to last for generations. When the wood has been procured, the men choose a house site near the house of the husband's parents and set up three posts. Around these three posts they construct a flimsy house made of reed mats, and within it they set up the hearth, a ring of stones that will be the wife's special place in the house, just as the central post will be the husband's. On the appointed day, the husband's family goes in procession to the bride's house and escorts her family back to the new, flimsily built house. The bride brings with her a trousseau of sorts, gifts from her parents, the most important parts of which are a large cook pot and a wooden spoon. When the families have gathered, the bride cooks a meal for them on her new hearth with her new bridal cook pot. The meal consists mainly of taro, the essential staple of Zafimaniry life. They eat together, and then the families go home, leaving the husband and wife in their new house.
A lovely ritual, I think, but to the Zafimaniry this ceremony does not complete the marriage. No, for them the installation of the new couple in their new house is just a beginning. Over time, as the couple have children together and generally come to be seen as a fixture in the community, they gradually replace the flimsy mats of which their house was first built with carved wooden boards. Only when the house is fully clad in wood, which can take decades, is the marriage completely "hardened". At that time there will be more celebrations and rituals, attended, if all goes well, by the children and grandchildren of the original couple. The house of carved wood will be declared an "ancestor house" and will become the focus of religious activity for the whole lineage. Many things can go wrong along the way to this ideal conclusion: infertility, which almost always leads to divorce; premature death; poverty; fire; war. Only the lucky see their marriages completed and their houses fully built.
I dream of such luck. I dream that I, too, might one day convert my house into a place of beauty and see my marriage endure as a model for my grandchildren. For I am a house person--the place that means the most to me is my home, and my life is focused on the people who share it with me.
June 29, 2002
Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than
-- Charles Dickens