In my previous post, I promised that I would continue my homeliness-chatter. So, here we go.
What does it mean to feel at home? As written earlier, “mastering” one’s surroundings is an important part of feeling at home. If everything you do, and everywhere you go involves insecurity and being in “survival mode”, you might feel intensely alive and alert, but not at home. I experienced this on a first-hand basis last week, when I was riding happily home from the Green School through the jungle on my bicycle. Suddenly two big, very loudly barking dogs came running furiously towards me. I totally panicked, and started riding as fast as I could, only to experience the dogs following me, trying to snap at my feet. When I finally shook them off, my heart was pounding and my hands shaking. I surely felt alive, but most certainly not at home.
Such experiences remind me that I am still not in a place, where I am fully in control of my surroundings or feel 100% comfortable.
By the above anecdote of me fleeing ferocious street dogs through the jungle on my bicycle, I am not suggesting that full control and being familiar with everything in your environment is a precondition for feeling at home. Not at all.
And this notion actually reminds me a lot of the sublime aesthetic experience, which I have previously touched upon.
Having a sublime experience involves being shaken up and challenged, but it doesn’t include feeling threatened. In the English philosopher Edmund Burke’s important treatise on the division between the beautiful and the sublime from 1757, Burke encourages the reader to picture a wanderer climbing a steep mountainside, in order to explain the sublime aesthetic experience. After a while, the wanderer reaches the top, and he is met by a breathtaking view. But suddenly, dark, threatening clouds appear on the horizon. The wanderer seeks refuge in a rock-side cave, from which he can safely observe the scene unfolding outside. And so the storm hits. Rain, hail, and lighting erupt from the sky. The wanderer senses danger. The situation is overwhelming and sensuously intense. But, at once, the threat seems to dissipate, as the wanderer realises that he is not really in any physical danger; he is sheltered by the cave, and the storm will eventually pass. Instead of being alarmed, the wanderer is now able to experience the power of nature as fascinating. And he feels a great sense of relief and calmness. His senses, which only moments ago were in a state of high alert, are beginning to pleasantly intensify, and he feels alive and present.
There is one thing that is very important to notice when reading this anecdote (as opposed to my cycling-like-mad-through-the-jungle story); the sublime aesthetic experience involves intensified senses, challenges and even being forcefully pulled out of one’s comfort zone, but it doesn’t involve danger nor a feeling of being genuinely threatened.
A similar way of explaining the sublime aesthetic experience, although through art, can be found in American artist Walter de Maria (1935-2013) amazing piece of Land Art “The Lightning field”. The artwork is located in the desert in New Mexico, in an area known for its forceful thunderstorms. It consists of 400 stainless steel poles set up in a grid-like pattern on a vast, empty plateau. Due to the height of the poles they attract lightening strikes, and hence intensify the already powerful storms in the area. In order to experience the artwork you travel with a small group of spectators to the remote area, and are protected by the safety of the vehicle or an onsite shelter, as the natural spectacle unfolds.
The distance, which is created between the viewer and the object in “The Lightening Field” is a crucial part of the aesthetic experience. Not because aesthetic experiences involves beautifying alienation, but because the aesthetic distance to extreme, challenging, thought-provoking experiences is needed in order for us to experience them as meaningful. And, in order to allow for them to alter our world-perspective, shake us up, challenge our assumptions, or whatever they are meant to do.
I have discovered that I need sublime aesthetic experiences in order to feel at home. Because homeliness is not only linked to security and comfort. Homeliness also concerns feeling vital and present, and being challenged and pulled out of one’s comfort zone.
In my perspective, homeliness is connected to finding the perfect balance (or the golden mean) between excess and deficiency. Neither feeling threatened nor drowsy and in lack of challenges makes you feel at home.
I previously wrote about Aristotle’s golden mean. The golden mean indicates that leading a good and virtuous life involves balancing between extremes. For example, courage is the balance between recklessness and cowardice, truthfulness is the balance between being boastful and self-deprecating, and being spirited means balancing between being boisterous and melancholic.
In accordance with Aristotle, homeliness is the golden mean between comfort and alertness. It involves balancing being addicted to the “used-to” and the fear of the unknown.