Life-writing, literature, popular culture.
Shortly before Christmas, something strange happened: my Mum asked me a question I could not answer. “Where are you? Are you at home?”. I paused. “Where do you mean by home?”, I responded.
My Mum replied with a reassuring suggestion: she would always consider her house — the house in which I grew up — as my home. But I haven’t lived there for years. Did she mean my house is Sheffield, an archetypal Northern terrace that I’ve been renting since moving to the city last year? Did she mean the house in Stoke-on-Trent where my partner and three cats live, and where I lived myself before my new job took me away? I was confused. But in any case, the answer was easy: “No, Mum, I’m in the office.”
But where is home, and how do we construct it? How do we know when we’re there? How do we know when we’re not there? Big questions, and the default position of many (I suspect) would be to draw upon ideas of family, friends and community. Home is not a house. Home is where the heart is.
But I no longer live with any family member, and I no longer live with my partner and cats. Am I in a state of exile from home? Does home exist elsewhere, fragmented and mediated, only to be experienced through telephone calls and text messages, Facebook and Twitter? I can’t bring myself to answer “yes” to these questions; it would paint a picture far too bleak.
When I leave the office, I tell my new colleagues and friends that I’m going home. The tram takes me home. I complain that my home is cold; I complain that my home has a damp patch on the wall downstairs. Home is the leitmotif, the refrain that recurs as I talk about my rented terrace.
So, moving beyond this concept of home as a set of affective relationships, I want to ask: how do I construct a sense of home within the bricks and mortar of my new house? What is home-like, or homely, about my terrace? Or, to put it another way, what is un-home-like, or unhomely about my terrace? (And I’m not talking about the cold and damp…)
I have chosen my words carefully: homely and unhomely. Budding cultural theorists and psychoanalysts will recognise these terms from Sigmund Freud’s famous 1919 essay, ‘The Uncanny’. In the opening paragraphs, Freud explores the suggestive etymology of the word ‘uncanny’ (in German: ‘unheimlich’, also meaning ‘unhomely’). He does this to demonstrate the strange ambiguities that characterise this concept:
‘Unheimlich’ [unhomely/uncanny] is the opposite of ‘heimlich’ [homely].
‘Heimlich’ has two meanings: 1) something safe, familiar and known, but also 2) something secret or hidden [< this second definition might surprise you, but it makes more sense when you think of homeliness in terms of privacy, intimacy and containment].
We typically use ‘unheimlich’ to mean the opposite of the first definition only, but with its negative prefix (‘un’), we can also apply it to the second definition.
So ‘unheimlich’ = the unfamiliar, the unknown. But also, ‘unheimlich’ = the secret revealed, the hidden exposed, the known.
Confused? Don’t worry. It just goes to show there’s something distinctly uncanny about the uncanny. It contains within itself its own opposite: it is the familiar made unfamiliar, the known made strange. And so, it follows, there might be something uncanny or unheimlich about ideas of ‘homeliness’.
Does ‘home’ too contain within itself its own opposite? This is certainly my experience as I adjust to living in a new house. It is my home; it is known and familiar. And yet this house is also strange and unfamiliar: it makes noises (as all houses do); it has unexplored nooks and crannies; my things don’t yet have settled places. But as time goes by these unhomely details will soon become a part of what makes this house a home (as they already are…).
In my next post I will move from the general to the specific, examining the unhomely details that transform my terrace, my home, into an uncanny space. I will also consider how home-making might be considered an act of self-making, and will look more closely at the following un/homely things: sounds, sleep and stuff.