from big cities to beach boulevards and small town basement bars // nomadism as a cure for existential anxiety

The topic of my Masters thesis is a feeling that is associated with existential anxiety and often in both psychology and philosophy considered an inevitable part of human life: not feeling at home in the world. I’ll skip elaborating on the theories behind that feeling here because I’ve been writing about it all summer and felt it for 95% of my adult life, but instead would like to talk a little bit about its opposite, because even in an anxiety-filled world it is possible to feel a different way.

Not feeling at home in the world,  or the uncanny feeling, is that weird moment we all get sometimes when something familiar looks odd, existence itself feels suddenly absurd or even a word you repeat ceases to look like a real word. Looking at familiar things too closely reveals how strange and unfamiliar they in fact are, and accodring to philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, this feeling discloses some fundamental information about the world. In this mood you distance yourself from the everyday mode where you take things for granted. It is possibly only in this mode that you can truly become aware of the wrongs and injustices of the world. After sufficient education and reflection it might switch on somewhat permanently, as though you’re stuck in an unending Brechtian verfremdungseffekt-drama and can’t feel involved with anything anymore because at every turn you wonder why things are as they are and why you feel like a complete outsider in the world and why nobody else seems to see how strange everything is. Recently a family member told me I must’ve become wiser after a year of postgrad study of philosophy, and I regretted to tell them I’d only become a little more cynical, and aware of how much there is in the world that I don’t understand, and how utterly I lack any practical skills because at the end of the day being able to discuss the implications of affective ontological reality isn’t going to pay the rent.

Yet despite all this, I felt the opposite of the uncanny feeling just the other day. Uncanny literally means unhomely, so its opposite would be “homely” although this word must be considered through a more complex set of associations than just feeling that you are comfortable and in a safe, familiar place. The homely feeling is one where life feels meaningful, but not in the sense that there is a set goal that makes life meaningful, as when one in bad faith believes that career progress, maximum financial profit, home ownership, marriage and children are predetermined goals everyone should strive for and are the meaning of life universally. In contrast, in the homely feeling, you are perfectly aware that the world is what it is, with its finitudes, uncertainties, evils and shortcomings, and that you are free to create your own life to the extent based on your possibilities and circumstances, and knowing all this still feel that being alive is in itself worthwhile. For some lucky it might be a permanent state of mind, while for most of us it’s a fleeting but wonderful feeling often prompted by a good experience, good company, good food and wine.

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Personally, I’ve only ever had a proper homely feeling in the sense described above when I’ve been travelling. Just last Friday I felt that way when I was all by myself in a small town in Italy where nobody spoke English, and I was learning my way around a new place in a language I barely spoke. The novelty of the experience and the language barrier would, you might think, act as an imaginary wall between my self and the world, and make me feel like a stranger  in a strange town, but it turned out to be the opposite. I’ve rarely felt that level of connection with other people, the world and my sense of self. Every human interaction I had on Friday, despite the limited ability to express myself, was genuine and warm. I felt that the people I met saw me as the kind of person I want to see myself as, and was perfectly comfortable in my skin the way I haven’t been in a very long time. Eventually this comfort dissolved my usual excessive self-awareness, and I stopped worrying about how I come across and focused instead on other people and the world around me, and learnt and noticed things on a whole different level than is possible when stuck inside your own head. How strange that I would feel so at home in a place that was as different from my official place of residence as is possible to be.

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Yet it’s not that suprising, come to think of it. The uncanny feeling is paradoxical because you often get that overwhelmingly unfamiliar feeling about things that are already familiar, perhaps too much so. Maybe places aren’t meant to be familiar. My Nordic ancestors would travel around in search of food, shelter and warmer weather, and throughout human history it has been the norm for tribes to move around. It is strange and sad that in recent years possessiveness of one’s claimed living space and fear of difference has led to such resistance of even the simple human courtesy of giving refuge to people whose home is at war. I believe the presence of foreigners in a place one considers home causes anxiety in many because they expect a certain spatial reality to remain familiar but the presence of people Othered by cultural norms uncannily reminds that nothing is or can stay familiar. Only change is real. Movement of peoples and the chaning of the world is the only truth about homeliness, and the homely feeling must be found by other means than by controlling one’s own physical location.

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When things make more sense on the move, I believe it’s residue of a nomadic ancestry, a past when things were simpler on the whole and the constant becoming of finite and time-bound existence was mirrored in the unending physical relocation through space. It may no longer be possible to fully return to this, but to accept that location is as transient as time and then to live through the anxiety that this realisation causes is a good step to take on the road to true existential freedom.

 

The Subtle Beauty of Domestic Aesthetics

Over the past few days I’ve enjoyed three works, of film, theatre and creative non-fiction respectively, all of which had one thing in common: a preoccupation with domestic objects. Following this unexpected conflux of images from various sources, the role of domestic imagery and paraphernalia, both as theatrical setting and as part of one’s everyday life, is on the top of my mind right now. There is much philosophy out there about the fusing of the human being with smartphones, smartwatches and robotic arms into a cyborg; that is not of my interest or specialisation, apart from mocking people who are so addicted to their stupidphones they panic when they can’t find a plug socket or WiFi signal. No, I’m more interested in bed sheets and saucepans, picture frames and pencil cases: items that are by no means extensions of our body or our communicative faculties, but still an inseparable part of our existence. The first item in the domesticity-Zeitgeist was Ettore Scola’s 1977 film Una giornata particolare, an overall uncomfortable piece of cinema with Hitler’s actual recorded voice constantly in the background and Sophia Loren’s uninvited sexual advances towards Marcello Mastroianni, but a beautifully filmed work of art with exceptional camera angles and fantastic aesthetic harmony. One of the most beautiful scenes portrays the main characters folding bed sheets. (TW: Sophia’s character gets rapey at 4mins 30sec of the video.)

The way this films deals with the domestic space is accentuated by the fact that there is a major bit of action going on well outside of it. Hitler is visiting Italy and almost everyone is out to catch a glimpse of him, except the main characters. The main action is suggested through Hitler’s speech on the radio, but the visuals are attached to the supposedly docile and uneventful home environment, which in this instance does turn out to be quite eventful. The main appeal is, however, that it’s simply interesting to see how another person lives, how they fold their sheets and wash their plates, what kinds of coffee cups and photo albums they have in their home. You know the feeling when you visit the house of a new friend and find out what kind of a mug they drink their morning coffee from and what shampoo they use, and the friendship suddenly feels more intimate? This is because a person is not just a body and a personality, but a complete and complicated existence, and everything from their morning routine to the organisation of their linen cupboard is part of this existence; as are the places they visit, books they read and other existences they interact with. This idea is at the heart of Heidegger’s dismantling of the subject-object polarity of traditional philosophy. Rather than me being a subject and my coffee cup being an object, my existence at the moment of drinking is the experience of drinking coffee. I’m attracted to this aspect of existential philosophy because it takes attention away from the individualistic cult of personality, and is closer to the yogic thinking of the Orient, where all is connected. And as Sartre wrote later, “existence precedes essence,” which can be an incredibly liberating and empowering thought if you look at it right.

On Tuesday I saw Old Vic’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker.

 

This was also no comfortable performance to watch (poor Jenkins!) but again, I immensely enjoyed the multitude of props on the stage. The focus of much of the dialogue is explicitly on domesticity, although in many cases the talk about decorating and building and vacuuming is in order to conceal something that is much harder to talk about. Since I respect the existential wellbeing of my readers and wish no excess anguish on anyone, I’m not going to recommend anyone seeing a Pinter play live, but if you’re interested it’s still running another few weeks. One of the characters, Aston (played by Daniel Mays), is constantly fixing a plug or looking for another appliance to buy, although his place is already crammed with paraphernalia, including a loose sink and an idle gas stove. Aston keeps talking about building a shed in the garden but never shows any genuine attempt to do so; same goes for fixing the leaking ceiling. The sheer volume of stuff in his living space is a perfect visual representation for the disturbances in his mind and the traumas from his past.

And in theme with all this, I’ve been reading Marie Kondo’s bestselling self-help book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s been out a few years already and the author has been an international celebrity for a while, so I doubt I’ll have much new to say about her ideas, but it has been fascinating to read her book alongside thinking about the portrayal of domestic space in art, and reading Heidegger’s philosophy of being-in-the-world and the role of objects in it. The most striking aspect of this book is animistic thinking, which involves treating clothes and handbags as living beings. For example, Kondo reveals her habit of thanking her handbag at the end of the day for the hard work of carrying her stuff, and emptying it in order to let it rest. I don’t have a huge problem with personification or animism, but I was horrified at the suggestion of the effort of emptying my bag at the end of the day. Doesn’t she realise how much stuff I carry around every day? Right now my bag is crammed with several notebooks, a few paperback Nietzsches and Marcuses, the empty Tupperware that carried my lunch, innumerable pens and pencils, various cosmetic products, an umbrella, an extra scarf in case it gets colder in the evening, keys, wallet and phone. I’m going to need all of them tomorrow anyway (except the Tupperware which I’ll wash, of course), and where would I put all of it at home? Student budget rental rooms have limited space, OK? But on the other hand, I really love the idea of showing extra respect to possessions, and another thing Kondo recommends and that happens when emptying a bag is paying attention to your things and being aware of what you have. I can think of one very tangible benefit of knowing what is in your bag at all times, because once (about 15 years ago, and I’ve learnt my lesson since) I left a banana at the bottom of a backpack for a rather long time. I’ll leave the details to your imagination. It is also beneficial to have an idea of what you own in general and to actually use the things you own rather than leave them to mold in storage or dust at the bottom of a cupboard. Many practical reasons for this are listed in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, such as finding important documents more easily and avoiding needlessly buying a new item because you can’t find the one you already have, but if we consider everything one owns and does an inseparable part of their existence, that gives added power to the theory, because you wouldn’t want your existence to include clothes you don’t wear, boxes whose contents are a mystery, or a hoard of broken gadgets like poor Aston in The Caretaker.

I have a complex relationship with possessions as I have previously written here and here. On one hand, I like having lots of different clothes, owning books because I can’t write ideas and comments on library copies, and my hobbies require lots of materials and equipment. On the other hand, I want to live an eco-friendly life in a tidy, minimalist space. My compromise so far has been to buy everything second-hand, and to donate my old things to charity shops at an equal rate. My existence has been in a constant flux with three international moves in the last seven years, and I have only a few things left that I have owned for several years. I still have a pocket mirror I bought when I was 11 years old–I’ve dropped and nearly lost it several times but it’s still fine so I’ve never needed to buy a new one. I have a t-shirt that once was black and my Mum’s but is now a faded grey and stretched out, but I love it and have no intention of letting go of it for as long as it’s in one piece. Other precious items that have survived many overseas flights are a Ganesha statue I bought as a hippie teenager in Cape Town; a collection of e.e.cummings’ poetry I received as a gift from an important poet mentor; and a framed photo from c. 1960 where my late grandparents are smiling as a happy young couple with my Mum and two aunts as toddlers at their feet. These few, small, easy-to-move things I will hold onto for as long as I can; everything else is expendable. Everything else is expended, indeed, as electronics need upgrading, fashions change, passports and bank cards are renewed–and the spring clean inspiration sets its eye on everything that I no longer want as part of my existence.

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I’m quite happy to consider the contents of my bookshelf part of my existence. Being and Time is the thick brown-backed one.

What I’m getting at with this long-winded chatter is that domestic space and the things in it are interesting and relevant, and as setting and characterisation device in film and theatre, an immensely useful way of conveying information. The one time I had a play I’d written performed for the public, practicalities such as limited space on the bus forced me to realise the play with minimalistic setting: literally four chairs and a box. The script had involved a piano, a dining table and various objects which were all available in the rehearsal space, but when they couldn’t be taken to the final performance venue, the characters’ relationships with the objects the actors had to mime became more important. It was great in the sense that it brought out something very interesting in the actors and highlighted movement and dialogue, but if I get to do it again I will fill the stage with stuff with at least as much significance as the coffee grinder in Una giornata particolare. The items on the stage are not mere props; they are the characters’ world that is as much part of their existence as the body of the actor portraying them.