The controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger transformed a common German word “Gestell” or “lattice work” into a metaphysical paradox which, on the one hand, is that which motivates or underpins the will, as if an inner drive, but which, on the other hand, is something “outside” which draws out the will and gives it form.
Is there a peculiar Southern Gestell: that which motivates from within but also that which draws from without? The word “peculiar” gives the question a unique flavor because is denotation is “that which is special or particular” and its connotation is “that which is odd.” The South presents itself as both: special and odd. The etymology of “peculiar” reveals a deep agrarian foundation. It is an ancient term “peculium” which means “property in cattle,” the very foundation of wealth.
This peculiar Southern Gestell can be apprehended, if not fully comprehended, by those who have the requisite sensibilities or the metaphorical apophenia for such insight.
Southerners, at least the remnant who are still “Southern,” understand that there is a transcendent metaphysical Reality which draws to Itself (one side of Heidegger’s paradox) and demands a response in duty, obligation and responsibility. It is not a coincidence that Robert E. Lee understood “duty” to be the most sublime word in our language. It is the counterpose to the Enlightenment notion of “rights.” The Southerner understand that the Cosmos is a tragedy, a tragedy which begins with the hamartia of the Fall and which finds it resolution in the catharsis of the crucified Christ. Our lives are lived out in this tension field between the Fall and Redemption. We know intuitively that God’s wrath, curse and judgment are working their way through the cosmic timeline while His grace, mercy and redemption are making their way on the same course, both vortexing onto the suffering Christ who embraces the Cross. The Southerner understands that, as the poet stated in “The Dream of the Rood,” the Cross is both Victory-Beam and Doom-Beacon. For the thief on the right of Christ who embraced His righteousness, the Cross was a Victory-Beam; for the thief on the left who rejected His righteousness, the Cross was a Doom-Beacon. Although this metaphysical orientation gets weaker with each generation, Flannery O’Connor comment is likely still valid: the South is at least Christ-haunted.
A corollary to the apprehension of the Divine is hierarchy which means “holy order” and not “pecking order.” The Cosmos manifests itself in hierarchy, from galaxies to bee hives, right down to chickens where it can indeed become a “pecking order.” Each echelon of the hierarchy has unique duties with the requisite authority and power to carry them out, duties which are not to be usurped or overthrown by another echelon of the hierarchy. These echelons of duty within the hierarchy are the manifestation of subsidiary in which the most local have the highest duty, the most local being the family and the Christian parish. Along with them in the Saxon tradition which is one of many traditions in the Southern Gestell is the office of the sheriff. The sheriff is the Saxon “scirgerefa” or “count of the county.” So, at the most local echelon and most important echelon of subsidiary are the sheriff, the bishop (pastor) and the father responsible for community, parish and family.
The Southerner understands that real wealth resides in the earth, in its soil, from which we get all essential sustenance. He understands that although the thorns and thistles of the curse are plagues on his toil, the spirit of Eden is still there; and with its fruit, bread and wine, gifts from the earth in which we have agency, we connect with the Divine in the Eucharist. Here, Heidegger’s paradox of the Gestell proves to be an appropriate metaphor. The Southerner knows, deep in his bones, that the way back to Eden is through the Cross; and that becomes his orientation, be his walk ever so imperfect.
Robert Peters was born in the town of Natchitoches, Louisiana, the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase Territory. He was, however, reared in the Republic of Pollock situated in the eastern march of Grant Parish, carved out of Winn Parish and Rapides Parish for the purposes of looting by carpetbaggers, a fact betrayed by the name.