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.
Great post Amber – really enjoyed reading it & felt a kindred spirit in your christmas dilemma. I’ve always had issues with feeling ‘at home’ since I had divorced parents growing up and a very active grandmother so plenty of ‘houses’ on offer; moving away to university gave me a sense of independence I’d yet to enjoy & led me to dub stoke-on-trent as ‘home’ and plymouth as ‘home-home’, which most people seemed to understand. Despite my several second homes in stoke over the years, ‘home’ still seemed a superficial label and I felt empathy with those birds that experience ‘zugunruhe’ (roughly translated as ‘migratory unrest’ or that sense of restlessness associated with not being in the right place). I’ve lately come to realise that I feel most ‘at home’ with my partner – whether this be at mine, his or his parent’s house; to me being ‘at home’ means feeling content, and that is something I’ve found in another person, not bricks and mortar. Looking forward to Part Two!
Really enjoyed this, Amber! I’ve often found myself struggling between whether to still call my parents house home, or whether after three years of living in Sheffield, it is more appropriate to consider this my home. My traditional idea of ‘home is where the heart is’ draws me to the house and village I grew up in, and where my parents still live, rather than the different flat/houses I’ve rented per year at University, but I’ve spent the vast majority of the last three years in Sheffield and very comfortably refer to it as ‘home’. I’ve never settled or felt fully comfortable in a flat or house I’ve lived in here, so the cosy/comfortable/loving associations with the word ‘home’ have never really applied here the same as my parent’s house. Can, perhaps, the city you live in, the people you surround yourself with, your job, your colleagues and friends, have more impact on your concept of ‘home’ than the physical building you live in?
Kaz – I think it’s a mixture surely? I call wherever I’m not ‘home’, so in Sheffield I refer to Bristol and vice versa. I’d definitely argue that my parents’ house – the one I grew up in – feels like a childhood home, but then I go back and it’s not quite the same as it always was; things always change. Don’t people keep changing their idea of home as they grow up, my ‘childhood home’, my ‘university home’ etc? I guess if you end up living where you grew up, it doesn’t make much of a difference, but I put a lot of store by the saying ‘home is where your hang your hat’ – a brief stopping point in your life, somewhere to sleep and eat and rest. If it’s got a television though, so much the better.
How did I miss this! This is absolutely lovely and thank you for writing it!
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