Feels like Home- an odd phrase to be sure. When we say it, we seldom mean the literal place where we keep our possessions or receive our mail. Usually, we mean something else: something bigger; even mythic. Yes, a metaphor, but for what? Peace, Security, Wholeness? Maybe, but these terms are also abstract. What do they mean?
Home has always been one of literature's great themes- building a home, protecting one's home, leaving home. Odysseus’ sole mission was to return home.
Home has always been one of literature's great themes- building a home, protecting one's home, leaving home. Odysseus’ sole mission was to return home.
In the opening passage of her novel Damage, Josephine Hart writes:
There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives. Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone, onto its fluid contours, and are home.
Some find it in the place of their birth; others may leave a seaside town, parched, and find themselves refreshed in the desert. There are those born in rolling countryside who are really only at ease in the intense and busy loneliness of the city.
For some, the search is for the imprint of another; a child or a mother, a grandfather or a brother, a lover, a husband, a wife, or a foe.
We may go through our lives happy or unhappy, successful or unfulfilled, loved or unloved, without ever standing cold with the shock of recognition, without ever feeling the agony as the twisted iron in our soul unlocks itself and we slip at last into place.Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone… and are home. Here, Hart too is using the term "home" in a grand or mythic sense. When I read Hart's quote the first time, I was reminded of Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook. Most dismiss the story as pulp and maybe deservedly so, but there are a few interesting moments that caught my attention. The two main characters, Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams) fall in love but then eventually become estranged. At one point, Allie is even set to marry someone else. Despite this, Noah continues to rebuild a home he always envisioned living in with Allie. In doing so, he creates a room just for her where she can pursue her passion for painting. Shortly after seeing it, she laments the fact that she never paints anymore. She wants to, but for whatever reason, has stopped. We assume it’s because she has been busy or has simply forgotten- forgotten what’s important; essential. She’s reminded when Noah presents her with this room of one’s own. By Noah understanding this need, even when Allie has forgotten it, their relationship moves beyond mere attraction, even beyond affection, to perhaps the truest form of intimacy- recognition. It’s one thing to be desirable to another, but it’s something else to be known. The house Noah built is a home but also acts as home in the mythic sense we've been discussing. Noah and Allie rekindle their relationship and something “unlocks itself” as both “slip at last into place.”
When we think of love stories in general, we usually begin (and end) with sexual attraction or Eros. Certainly, it plays a role, but the deeper feeling of being understood goes much further than just physical attraction. C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves illustrates this distinction nicely. Lewis indeed writes about erotic love, but it’s actually his definition of friendship that I think best captures what it feels like to be "known" by another:
Friendship arises... when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure or (burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, 'What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’
We can imagine that among those early hunters and warriors single individuals- one in a century? one in a thousand years?- saw what the others did not; saw that the deer was beautiful as well as edible, that hunting was fun as well as necessary, dreamed that his gods might be not only powerful but holy. But as long as each of these percipient persons dies without finding a kindred soul, nothing (I suspect) will come of it; art or sport or spiritual religion will not be born.
It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision- it is then that Friendship is born. And instantly they stand together in immense solitude. Lewis, C.S. (1960; 1988). The Four Loves. (p. 65). Harvest/HBJ.When considering Lewis’ quote, it’s important not to be distracted or dismissive of the word “friend” or “friendship” within the context of romantic love. I remember as a teenager how often a phrase like “just friends” was used to define the seriousness of a relationship, or actually, the lack of seriousness. The phrase “strictly platonic” was similarly used, meaning- Yes, we may be spending a lot of time together, but, I assure you, nothing sexual is happening!
To fully appreciate Lewis’ definition of friendship, it’s important to
realize that the way I used the term “strictly platonic” as a teenager, was the exact opposite of what Plato actually meant. Yes, it was mostly accurate to say a relationship absent of sexual relations was "Platonic." However, adding “just” in front of the word Platonic is where the error occurred. On the contrary, Plato would describe a sexual relationship as a lesser, more diminutive form of intimacy. Strictly Platonic actually meant the relationship was so profound, so intimate, that it expanded beyond the physical realm and into a spiritual or transcendent one.
We can see a representation of this in Mike Nichol’s 1971 film Carnal Knowledge when Sandy (Art Garfunkel) is talking to his friend Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) about the intimacy he shares with his girlfriend, Susan (Candice Bergen). Sandy says, "She tells me thoughts I didn’t even know I had before she tells them to me. It’s unbelievable. I can talk to her."
Jonathan is so intrigued by Sandy's connection with Susan and their intimacy, that he actually seduces Susan to try and find it too. But there’s an interesting twist. The connection between Jonathan and Susan is just sexual. After a few months, Jonathan becomes angry. On the surface, it appears he's angry that she's still seeing Sandy. However, what actually bothers him is that despite having sex, they don't share the same level of intimacy she shares with Sandy:
Jonathan: Susan, I love you. Why can’t you be more with me like you are with Sandy? You know every mood of mine like you know every mood of his.When Jonathan demands that Susan tell him his thoughts, he is desperately seeking the Platonic ideal of intimacy that transcends sex.
Jonathan: How come?
Susan: I don’t know.
Jonathan: You don’t tell me thoughts I never knew I had.
Susan: Does he say I do that?
Jonathan: You do it all right, so do it with me.
Susan: I can’t.
Jonathan: You can do it with him. You can do it with me! Now tell me my thoughts.
Susan: I can’t.
Jonathan: Why can’t you?
Susan: I can’t with you.
Jonathan: This has gone far enough.
Susan: I can’t stand any more ultimatums.
Jonathan: This is the last one. Now, tonight you tell him about us, or tomorrow, I tell him. Look at me, Susan! Now tell me my goddamn thoughts!
Let’s now return to Lewis’ quote, and reconsider it within this context, suggesting that Lewis' description of friendship is akin to this Platonic ideal:
…when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure or (burden). The typical expression.. would be something like, 'What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’ It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision… And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude. Lewis, C.S. (1960; 1988). The Four Loves. (p. 65). Harvest/HBJ.Here Lewis describes what it feels like to not only have someone know your thoughts- but to know their thoughts as well.
One of my favorite illustrations of this type of recognition, of being known, is through Ben's (Dustin Hoffman) relationship with Elaine (Katherine Ross) in The Graduate, another film by Mike Nichols. Before this connection occurs though, Ben has an affair with Elaine's mother, Mrs. Robinson. Ben and Elaine's intimacy is all the more profound when contrasted with the meaningless and empty affair Ben has with her mother. Despite being sexually intimate, Ben and Mrs. Robinson are never able to even have a conversation. When they meet in the hotel room for the first time, Ben feels guilty and says: "Mrs. Robinson, I can't do this. This is terribly wrong. Can you imagine my parents, can you imagine what they would say if they saw us in this room? I think they deserve better than this." Mrs. Robinson doesn't play by the same rules though. She asks Ben if this is his first time, and says that just because he's "inadequate" in one area, doesn't mean he should be embarrassed. Ben neglects to see her game and gives in to prove that he is indeed adequate.
In another failed attempt to communicate, Ben is in bed with Mrs. Robinson and instead of making love, he asks her if they could talk for once. She is uninterested though and keeps turning off the light. He keeps pressing the issue until Mrs. Robinson reveals that she studied art in college but stopped when she became pregnant with Elaine and had to marry Mr. Robinson. For the first time in the movie, Ben verbally asserts himself and is able to control the conversation and persuade someone to talk to him, even if for a moment. However, the conversation, while being candid, never becomes intimate and eventually turns into an argument.
Similar to Jonathan’s relationship with Susan in Carnal Knowledge, the relationship is just sexual and while Ben isn't demanding like Jonathan, he does desire more. Interestingly, Ben’s misery may be greater- he isn’t asking Mrs. Robinson to tell him his thoughts; he's simply asking to hear hers.
The truth is, Ben is unable to communicate with anyone in the first half of the film. The opening scene shows him alone and stoic, while Simon and Garfunkle's "The Sounds of Silence" is playing in the background. The next scene is Ben's party; it's noisy and the faces of the people talking are shot at close-up, distorted angles. The garrulous conversations are steeped with patronizing advice and meaningless compliments. The scene is filled with confusion, forcing Ben to repeatedly retreat to his room to be alone. Later in the film, when Ben's father buys him some scuba equipment, Ben wears it, and unable to hear anyone, jumps into the water and sinks to the bottom of the pool. The camera slowly pans away, illustrating just how isolated and alone he really is.
Everything changes of course when Ben goes on a date with Elaine. It is set up by her father who of course doesn’t realize the affair Ben is having with his wife and Elaine’s mother. Ben, not wanting to be rude to Mr. Robinson, agrees to take Elaine on a date. Yet, to appease Mrs. Robinson who’s adamantly opposed to it, Ben sabotages the date from the start by taking Elaine to a burlesque show. Initially, Ben is oblivious or simply doesn’t care how Elaine feels about any of this, which is represented nicely by the fact that he keeps his sunglasses on while in the club. However, this changes after a woman comes over and starts dancing right above Elaine’s head. When Ben sees how all of it is affecting Elaine, and how humiliated she is, he takes off his sunglasses, pushes the dancer away, and then follows Elaine as she runs outside. This is the moment when everything in the film changes. As Ben apologizes, he's finally able to communicate with another human being and it’s thrilling to see it happen:
Can I tell you something? Listen, I just want to tell you one thing. I'm not like this. I hate myself like this.Elaine is receptive and the two go to a drive-in restaurant where they sit in Ben’s car and eat while continuing to talk. Ben continues their conversation:
I've had this feeling ever since I graduated. This compulsion that I have to be rude all the time. It's like I've been playing some kind of game, but the rules don't make any sense to me. They're being made up by all the wrong people. No, I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.This is really a remarkable scene in that for the first time in the film, something is released in Ben. He is finally able to talk to someone responsive and genuinely interested in what he is saying. Nichols cleverly juxtaposes these first moments of intimacy along with noise and confusion. When Ben and Elaine are talking outside of the club earlier, the camera is placed across the street, making Ben's confession to Elaine barely audible. Also at the drive-in diner, a car next to them is filled with kids playing loud music. When Ben asks them to turn it down, they actually turn the music up, forcing him to put the top up on his convertible and roll up his windows. Interestingly, Nichols keeps the camera outside of the car. As a result, we can't hear what Ben and Elaine are saying but can see them continuing to talk passionately, despite the distractions outside the car.
The scene outside of the club and the loud music from the car are symbolic of the chaos surrounding Ben up to that point in the film. Talking to Elaine though is a refuge, a safe place from this confusion which is illustrated when Ben puts the top up on his convertible- a place so personal, that the audience isn’t even allowed inside.
In the next scene, the top is down again and the viewer is welcomed back into the car as the two sit quietly outside Elaine's house. The silence is striking in how it contrasts so directly with the noise of the two previous scenes. Unlike the Sounds of Silence heard at the beginning of the film from being unable to communicate with another person, this is the silence, the deep breath, that occurs after a personal and meaningful conversation. Silence no longer illustrates Ben’s isolation, but instead punctuates the intimacy he is sharing with another person. The conversation with Elaine "eases like water over a stone" as Ben finally feels at home.
Thomas Wolfe thought a lot about the notion of home- that "internal landscape" we search for all our lives. In the title of his novel, Wolfe suggested that You Can’t Go Home Again. You may return to the physical location of your childhood home, but you can’t really return because everything will have changed. Instead of a stone castle surrounded by a magic forest, you’ll find a three-bedroom house and a small, square backyard. Of course, neither the house nor the backyard has changed- you have.
This inability to return home brings to mind Judaeo-Christianity's original home- Eden. Adam and Eve were home in paradise but eventually banished because of disobedience. Eden can also act as a metaphor for innocence itself- that brief time in childhood when every need is met, and one is naked without shame. Of course, this is only part of the story. Experience eventually (inevitably) finds its way into our garden, and once we eat from this tree of knowledge, our innocence is lost, never to return.
I began my essay by discussing how feels like home is an odd phrase. Maybe it’s odd because this feeling, whether we realize it or not, is sort of a compass or conscience guiding us. Are the people, things, or places that feel like home gentle reminders of our time in Eden? Reminders of what we once were; of what we hope we could be again?
Of course, we can't return to Eden, but maybe we can find a new home; one where innocence and experience both reside. Richard Rohr describes such a place this way:
The goal in sacred story is always to come back home, after getting the protagonist to leave home in the first place! A contradiction? A paradox? Yes, but now home has a whole new meaning, never imagined before. As always, it transcends but includes one's initial experience of home....
And so, like Odysseus, we leave from Ithaca and we come back to Ithaca, but now it is fully home, because all is included, and nothing wasted or hated; even the dark parts are used in our favor. All is forgiven. Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward (p. 87-88; 96). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
Maybe the people, things, and places that feel like home guide us to this new place. A new home where we finally understand:
We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploringWill be to arrive where we startedAnd know the place for the first time.Eliot, T.S. "The Four Quartets." Harcourt Publishing.