Life-writing, literature, popular culture.
I had an overwhelming response to my last blog post on concepts of home and the uncanny. Away from the blog, it prompted Facebook comments, Tweets and face-to-face conversations (remember those?); it also prompted a long email from a reader about the various homes they had lived in. Here are a selection of choice responses (anonymised, as it’s an emotive issue):
1. I think that ‘home’ goes beyond the familiar and safe (one can become familiar with the workings and peculiarities of an office, but doesn’t make it a home) and is instead a reflection of where we feel most comfortable and relaxed.
2. Only a very small change — and it is almost by definition a very small change — turns a thing from familiar to deeply unsettling. As someone who has moved frequently, I almost always find that simply the act of taking pictures off a wall suddenly changes a space from loved to loathed. Once the walls are bare, I can’t wait to get out. Was it pictures that made it home, then? No, but bare walls suddenly interrupt my sense of identification and make it clear that this is not my space — and that my space, and my self, may be dangerously, vertiginously delicate.
3. Home for me is the place that comes up in my dreams (not as in an ideal…!) — I mean, the place that my subconscious puts me in when I’m asleep.
4. I find I’m constantly negotiating this question. It confronts me every time someone asks me ‘Where are you from?’ […] I think we can find a sort of homeliness in the way we move through the observations of our lives, in that we often narrate our identities through interior monologue, whether conscious or not.
5. Home is where the heart is. That is true. Is home still home when your heart is broken? The answer is, yes and no. ______ was my home, but it became a place of unimaginable pain overnight. I couldn’t stay, but my children couldn’t leave.
An astonishing range of responses, I’m sure you’ll agree. And I want to explore some of these ideas further as I turn now from concepts of the uncanny to the specific uncanniness of my house. I will peer and gaze at my rented terrace through three critical lenses: sound, sleep and stuff. These beautifully sibilant terms will, I hope, help to unpack the apparent fragility and mutability of home, not just as a space but as an idea.
Houses make noises. Noise also enters a house from the outside, seeping and creeping through doors, walls and windows. Noise is invasive and does not respect the sanctity of borders, bricks and mortar. I cannot stop these interior and exterior noises reaching my ear; they are ineluctable. I am not yet attuned to the noises belonging to my rented terrace and this makes it an uncanny space. The oven hood produces an insistent thud, like a constantly dripping tap, and at night I am often kept awake by creaking floorboards and clanging pipes as the house cools down and its elements contract. The effect is unsettling and I keep an ear half open at night. ‘What was that noise?’, I often ask myself. ‘Is someone else in the house?’ (‘Is it a ghost?’ — the haunted house, that example par excellence of the uncanny.)
I’ve not yet learned to ignore or disregard these noises. Me and my rented terrace are still in the early stages of our relationship, and we’re still out to impress. We’re still dating, making small talk and filling awkward silences (with thuds, creaks and clangs). I still make an effort to listen, to appear interested. As our commitment to each other grows, as we become a serious and steady couple, we’ll learn to co-exist in a state of mutual unhearing. Sure, the house will still make a noise, but it just won’t register. We’ll sit together in apparent silence, like an old married couple. The romance might be dead, but it’ll be home.
I like to sleep — it’s one of the few things I’m naturally good at. I’m still rather proficient, but it’s not so easy in this rented terrace. My chattering house and attendant ear are keeping me awake at night.
Don’t worry, I’m not sleep deprived. But disrupted or delayed sleep prevents those feelings of peace identified by several of my readers: ‘comfortable and relaxed’ (comment above); ‘feeling content’ (comment on Part 1); ‘cosy/comfortable/loving associations with the word home’ (comment on Part 1). As I learn not to hear my house, and as I become more used to being here alone, I anticipate better sleep.
So is home a state of unconsciousness, in various senses of the word? I had not considered the possibility raised by one of my readers that ‘home’ is where our dreams take us. In dreaming, does our unconscious mind return us to — and/or (re)create — the spaces we call home, spaces belonging to our past and our present. I confess my dreams are too often muddled to remember clearly, but the state of comfort and relaxation required for sleep — to drift into unconsciousness — is distinctly homely.
A house I can’t hear, and a space where I can switch off, go to sleep. Hmmm. Homeliness is looking distinctly like silence and the loss of agency or self. But this is rather uncanny, is it not? One of my readers suggests that space and self are both ‘delicate’ concepts, easily unsettled, and their relationship to sleep seems to bear this out. But though it’s an everyday experience, is not unconsciousness a rather big change. What then of the smaller changes noted by my reader? Let us turn to ‘stuff’ to consider this further…
Moving is stressful; it’s not fun. When I moved into my rented terrace I did not bring a lot of furniture (just a wardrobe and a hoard of Billy bookcases), but I did bring a lot of stuff. Books; mugs; books; DVDs; books; pictures; books; cutlery; books; CDs; books; a few stuffed toys, for sentimental reasons; and some more books. I have a lot of books. All this stuff is familiar and recognisably my own. It is the accumulated treasure and detritus of my 30+ years. Nothing could be more safe and better known than my well worn, well thumbed, well remembered things.
But in a new house they are suddenly out of context. My stuff sits on new shelves, in new cupboards and draws, arranged in new combinations. When I first moved in, I was acutely aware of the opportunity afforded by the blank canvas of my terrace and my stuff as the raw materials for a work of assemblage. I could (re)construct the spaces of my house to reflect the new, grown up ‘me’ — that mature, professional self that was sure to emerge in my new job. Arranging my stuff became an act of self-fashioning: neat, tidy, with the pretty and cool books at eye level.
For me, these arrangements were conspicuous, artificial. And I couldn’t find anything. But as time goes by my things are finding their own place. I’ve moved my bin and laundry basket; my toiletries have settled into a series of niches in the hierarchy of bathroom shelves; and my bedroom is often a mess despite my best efforts (– though not as messy as Tracey Emin’s bed, I hasten to add). My stuff is beginning to settle in this new context, like the contents of a breakfast cereal box settling in transit. As my house becomes a home, my stuff is becoming less conspicuous. No longer the projection of an imagined self, the arrangement of my things emerges from my (messy, disordered, slightly chaotic) life and self.
And that is why, I suppose, such a very small change can have such a big effect. As soon as the arrangements, the things, the noises, the behaviours (such as sleep) we associate with home are rendered conspicuous, are unsettled or changed, we experience the uncanny. Putting aside affective relationships (those loves and friendships that punctuate our lives), it is the forgetfulness of routine, the unhearing quality of long acquaintance, and the invisibility of the known that make a house a home.
Have you ever gone back to a house you used to live in long ago? Do these ghosts of houses past remain our homes? In memory, possibly. But in physical proximity, I think not. These houses are too strange, too discordant, and the encounter makes us too self-conscious, too aware.