What Is the Feeling of Home? An Exploration of Place and Meaning

“All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home.”
Gaston Bachelard

Rainer Maria Rilke once excused himself for not writing to a friend by saying “I haven’t had that feeling of home in which to write.”

I have not written here in a while. I was lacking a feeling of home.

Except… what is a feeling of home? How does it affect my writing?

Do Rilke and I mean the same thing?

Engraving of Castle Howard published in "Vitruvius Britannicus" 1715, featured in "What is That Feeling of Home?" on the Examined Life.
Colen Campbell’s engraving of Castle Howard, published in “Vitruvius Britannicus” a publication that idealized Palladian-revival architecture of the early 18th century. This was, during this time, an “ideal house.” The Howard family still own and live on the grounds. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

There is a deep human need to “feel at home” that appears across languages and epochs.1

“To be rooted,” French philosopher Simone Weil wrote in 1942, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Weil avoided the word “home” (she was never so pedantic) but advocated for a sort of metaphysical shelter for our soul.

A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.

From Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots

Three decades later, fellow French philosopher Gaston Bachelard added that our need for “home” is a need for inhabited space including space we realize through imagination.

[A]ll really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home. […] the imagination functions in this direction whenever the human being has found the slightest shelter: we shall see the imagination build ‘walls’ of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection — or, just the contrary, tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the staunchest ramparts. In short, in the most interminable of dialectics, the sheltered being gives perceptible limits to his shelter. He experiences the house in its reality and in its virtuality, by means of thought and dreams.

From Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space

In 1845, American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau walked out of urban society to a distant wood where he constructed a four-walled building with a bed, chair, and fireplace. Thoreau’s physical and imaginative attachment to the space turned it from shelter to home.

I lingered most about the fireplace, as the most vital part of the house. Indeed, I worked so deliberately that though I commenced at the ground in the morning, a course of bricks […] served as my pillow at night; […] When I began to have a fire at evening, before I plastered my house, the chimney carried smoke particularly well, because of the numerous chinks between the boards. Yet I passed some cheerful evenings in that cool and airy apartment, surrounded by rough brown boards full of knots, and rafters with the bark on high overhead.

My house never pleased my eye so much after it was plastered, though I was obligated to confess that it was more comfortable. […] I now first began to inhabit my house, I may say, when I began to use it for warmth as well as shelter.

From Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

Engraving of Cliveden published in "Vitruvius Britannicus" 1715, featured in "What is That Feeling of Home?" on the Examined Life.
Colen Campbell’s engraving of Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire. Campbell’s book set a standard of design based on principles of balance, symmetry and Classical forms. Cliveden House is now a luxury hotel. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

It is indicative that Thoreau focused on the fireplace not simply for heat but for hearth.

The hearth is a symbol of calm, consistency, a knowable order, and a nurturing warmth. “My preferred working state is thermal,” notices legendary dance choreographer Twyla Tharp, “I need heat… it calls up the warmth of the hearth and home… which is all about feeling safe and secure.”2

“In our less communal age of central heating and separate rooms for each family member,” muses Stephen Fry in his witty and rascally retelling of Greek myths, “we did not lend the hearth quite the importance that our ancestors did.”

Of all the gods, Hestia […] is probably the least well known to us, perhaps because the realm that Zeus in his wisdom appropriated to her was the hearth. In our less communal age of central heating and separate rooms for each family member, we did not lend the hearth quite the importance that our ancestors did […]. Yet, even for us, the word stands for something more than just a fireplace.

We speak of ‘hearth and home’. The word ‘hearth’ shares its ancestry with ‘heart’, just as the modern Greek for ‘hearth’ is kardia, which also means ‘heart’. In ancient Greece the wider concept of hearth and home was expressed by oikos, which lives on for us today in words like ‘economics’ and ‘ecology’. The Latin for hearth is focus — which speaks for itself. It is a strange and wonderful thing that out of the words for fireplace we have spun ‘cardiologist’, ‘deep focus’ and ‘eco-warrior’. The essential meaning of centrality that connects them also reveals the significance of the hearth to the Greeks and the Romans, and consequently the important of Hestia, its presiding deity.

From Stephen Fry’s Mythos

The necessity of hearth as an aspect of the “feeling of home” becomes clear when we ask: What happens to a home without a hearth?

There is a clear case of unease and unrest in Robert Lowell’s mid-century writing.3

During the weekends I was at home much of the time. All day I used to look forward to the nights when my bedroom walls would once again vibrate, when I would awake with rapture to the rhythm of my parents arguing, arguing one another to exhaustion. Sometimes, without bathrobe or slippers, I would wriggle out into the cold hall on my belly and ambuscade myself behind the banister. I could often hear actual words. ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ Father would mumble. He was ‘back-sliding’ and ‘living in a fool’s paradise of habitual retarding and retarded do-nothing inertia.’ […] She was hysterical even in her calm […]. One night she said with murderous coolness, ‘Bobby and I are leaving for Papa’s.’ This was an ultimatum to force Father to sign a deed placing the Revere Street house in Mother’s name.

From Robert Lowell’s Life Studies

Lowell suffered complete alienation from the hearth of his childhood home; he is cold, dark, and surrounded by violence and chaos. That watchful child was toppled by depression even psychosis as an adult — both acute mental and emotional rootlessness.

Or consider the rootlessness of jazz singer Billie Holiday. Born when her mom was thirteen, Holiday lived with her mother at her mother’s job, then in a strict Catholic girls’ school, then a brothel, then in hotels while touring with the band (hotels that barred her entering through the front although she was the star singer), and, repeatedly, she “lived” in jail.

In each of these “homes,” Holiday is slapped with prejudice, trauma, and a complete lack of love and security. She also feels a constant reminder of her undesirable, unwanted, and misunderstood status as a poor, Black female.

You’re always under pressure. You can fight it but you can’t kick it. The only time I was free from this kind of pressure was when I was a call girl as a kid and I had white men as my customers. Nobody gave us any trouble. People can forgive people any damn thing if they did it for money.

From Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues

Comedian John Cleese called home “the place you do not have to strive.” Holiday, and the many millions who are rootless, disenfranchised, and alienated never had a place to stop striving.

“You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles,” warned Holiday, “but you can still be working on a plantation.”

Engraving of Blenheim Palace published in "Vitruvius Britannicus" 1715, featured in "What is That Feeling of Home?" on the Examined Life.
Colen Campbell’s engraving of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Blenheim is the seat of the Duke of Marlborough and birth and burial place of Winston Churchill. The Palace and its gardens, designed by Capability Jones, are still lived inhabited by the Spencer-Churchills and are a World Heritage Site. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

Holiday’s writings remind us that for many people, home is not and cannot be a physical space.

We see this with singers Patti Smith and artist Robert Mapplethorpe. When they were both young, poor, and mercurial, they created a home in the company of each other. In a nurturing embrace, their loneliness met. Smith writes: “In this space between us, home.”

Is there anyone in whose company you feel a feeling of home?

During war and throughout life, Roald Dahl put himself in a “feeling of home” by writing to his mother. His light lines (“There is nothing very wrong with me. I’ve merely had an extremely serious concussion”) and dancing prose (“All these things and many more I shall derive the greatest pleasure from doing”) seemed to say “The war might be raging out there, and there is a woefully inadequate plane waiting to take me skyward, but for this moment I’m with my mother. I’m next to the hearth.”

Dahl wrote to his mother each day he was in active duty.

Engraving of Longleate published in "Vitruvius Britannicus" 1715, featured in "What is That Feeling of Home?" on the Examined Life.
Engraving of Longleat House, Wiltshire, seat of the Marquesses of Bath. Today it offers a safari park. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

Lockdown has expanded what “home” means.

When I rethink “I wasn’t in the feeling of home,” what I meant — and likely Rilke as well — was “I haven’t been myself.” I haven’t been home within myself.

I think of “home” as less of a space and more of a feeling. In that way I inhabit myself.

That is a lovely thought. Let’s sit next to it.

Soothe yourself, hug yourself. You are, quite literally, home.