Houses as emotional spaces

    We experience our first moments of true spatial and creative awareness in the house and the house as a space continues to be a symbol of not only where  and how we live but also the way we establish and maintain relationships. On a recent visit to my in-laws my wife, my son and I split our time between my wife’s mothers house and her fathers. Each house was nice, each was well maintained and each offered all the generally recognized needs of comfortable habitation. But only one house felt emotional right, the house belonging to my mother in law. I imagine this was primarily due to the fact that I see  my wife’s familial world, a world I entered into late through her eyes and I define that world in part around the way she reacts to those surroundings in relation to my familial experience.  In the case of her mother’s house my wife’s spatial awareness and the  emotional experience it generated required a lifetime of mother a daughter interactions to which I was able to gain a small measure of access, just enough to recognize that home as being familiar. Even though it was not the home of my own childhood and indeed was not even the home of my wife’s childhood. The reason for this is because that house was allowed to become a cradle of sorts carrying  memories that were not native to the actual, physical space it represented. For my wife  it was akin to actually visiting her childhood home. It was this emotional connection that I was able to connect with. My childhood was a happy one and because it was happy I could recognize the reverberations of my wife’s own happy recollections inside a house that was a symbolic as well a literal emotional cradle. The space could become a stand in for my own childhood home as easily as it became hers.

   By contrast her father’s house was cold and distant. The relationship she has with her father was never a good one. He was remote, difficult and too often at odds with what is required of a happy childhood. This is not say that he was a bad man, but he was man who could never allow himself to be a good father.  His house was the nicer of the two houses, newer and cleaner but there was nothing to tie it to any emotional past. It stood as a solitary point in a static, unchanging now. The only items to suggest that the house and by extension those who dwell within have an existence outside of the present moment was the presence of a very few photographs on the mantle, my son being among them. But they looked out of place, almost as if they were staged and the people within the frames were not real people, just actors playing the role of an absent family. Inside my wife’s fathers house  the smiling faces in those photographs were transformed into disjointed, disconnected figures and their presence only magnified the general sensation I felt of not really belonging and for that matter of not wanting to belong.  That house was cold because it lacked a connection to the past and because it did not present any dreams forward towards the future. Much of this was owing to my wife’s way of understanding and defining her surroundings, which is to say the way she defines the places of her father with sensations of distance, ambivalence and lack of positive emotional connection.  But for me , coming from a family with very few instances of divorce and with a childhood that was never split between two separate and opposing worlds the feeling was magnified into a true sense of unhappiness and unease. Despite the fact that my father-in-law’s house was in all respects a nice house, with nice furnishings and nice conversation by nice people I could not escape the sense of hollowness permeating the space. It was as if I were suddenly made aware that something of great importance, something central to my life even was missing. It was the phantom itch from a missing emotional appendage that did not pass until we were leaving.

   Houses are much more than the sum of their parts. Houses collect emotions and store them up if they are old and if they are new the house quickly absorbs  memories and emotions of those who commit some part of themselves to the space within the walls. A house can carry a sense of dread or joy or of confusion . But the way we respond is more than what the house represents.  We bring our own emotional responses inside and these mingle freely with what is already there or in some cases are over powered. There may be no such thing as ghosts but a house can certainly be haunted.

Further consideration…

Read Gaston Bachelard “The Poetics of Space”


1: The house in children’s literature as physical space, as character and as symbol. The house in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “ The Secret Garden” function as all three but mostly it is used as a symbol of the cloying unhappiness within the house as contrasted with  the expanding happiness the garden brings about.

2: The House at Pooh Corner: Here houses are used as a way to further define characters in relation to the larger community of Christopher Robbins playthings. Thus Owls house is not simply the house where Owl lives but is an extension of Owl’s nature or to put it differently, a physical representation of Owls non-physical emotional and intellectual quintessence. The chairs, cabinets, lighting, interior spaces,even the ephemera are like an anatomical chart tracing Owl’s psychological makeup and his emotional characteristics.

3: The Houses of Harry Potter’s world play an important though often overlooked role.  Our first introduction to Harry potter and the way we will identify him over the course the whole story is the boy in relation to a house, or more accurately a space within a house. He is the boy who lives in the cupboard under the stairs. The space was neither up nor down but a middle ground in relation to the Dursleys larger house on Privet Drive. Everything we learn about Harry Potter in the ensuing story is informed by this initial focus loci. By contrast Ron Weasley’s house which is called the burrow (indicating a place of warmth, safety and crowdedness)  is frantic with action going on all the time, from games and family discussions to secret meetings and life and death struggles. The burrow is a place of positive energy very much unlike the cupboard under the stairs. It is also a space that allows Harry a sense of belonging. A much darker place is the foreboding home of Sirius Black Number 12 Grimauld Place (a play on the words Grim old Place) and grim it is indeed. This house represents the legacy of a line of pure blood, racist and class conscious wizards rendered impotent by their affiliation with negative emotions and dark deeds. After Sirius Black escapes Azkaban he takes refuge there and it becomes another kind of prison. The resident house elf (a slave who is committed to honoring the desolation of the place) is like a living manifestation of the stored up emotional. This space is dark and dismal and dusty despite it belonging to a family of great wealth and one time prominence. As an emotional space it is neither static as is was Harry’s first address nor positive as is the burrow. It is a place forever locked in illusory the past. Evidence of this is houses most prominent feature a large family tree fresco done in magic with the figures of disgraced family members literally blasted away. The family tree is a vestige of the past, a symbol of the house as a repository of negative emotions. It is little wonder that Harry, the boy who longs to connect to anything from his past, the same boy who was seduced by a mirror that shows glimpses of the past was happy to abandon it. Because it was a place of such unhappiness and even torment; a place that offered neither comfort or emotional ease it was easy to let it go. Number 12 Grimauld Place was a liminal gateway marking the point in time when harry had to set aside his childhood and fully embrace the darkness that lie ahead.

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