Purple Magazine
— The Island Issue #35

an island of one’s own

ESSAY

text by EMANUELE COCCIA
artwork by SARAH ANN WEBER

They were everywhere and had disfigured the living room into a maze of cardboard, tape, and angst. I’ve always hated boxes — their color extinguishes all desire. I was about to pick up the first one when I was paralyzed by a cluster of confused memories. How many times had I repeated that same gesture? I paused for a moment and tried to count and remember the moves I had already made. Thirty.

It was July, and I had been living in Paris for three years. I had just two days to “close up my house.” Forty-eight hours to buy 80 boxes, assemble them, lock up my life — clothes, dishes, books, photos, memories — rent a van, load it, and then unload it again, deposit everything in the new apartment, exhume my life in a place I barely knew. I was moving to live with my then-partner. We were expecting a baby girl. We had sublet an apartment on the south side of town that belonged to a friend who had moved to Berkeley. We wanted to have time to quietly search for “our home.” To open a space where everything — the furniture, the walls, the objects, but also the feelings and affections — resembled what we wanted to be together. Moving is the profane and daily equivalent of what, in myths, is the universal judgement: the damned are separated from the elect, a border is drawn between the past and the present, and everything is done to coincide with the border between pain and happiness. These are rites of passage and metamorphosis.

We stayed in this temporary apartment for four months and found a home only a few weeks before moving, in the eastern suburbs of Paris, where many of the capital’s artists, designers, and young couples had migrated: the spaces were bigger, the parks greener, life resembled that of a provincial village.

We lived there for less than a year: I received an invitation to the United States, and we left for New York. When we returned to Europe, we found the same apartment on the outskirts of Paris, but again it was short-lived. After a year, my partner left me: I packed my life and my anxieties in a pile of cardboard boxes, I looked for a house, I went to live elsewhere.

But that wasn’t my last move. For years, I changed houses once a year on average, and seldom within the same city. Very often, the houses were in remote places in foreign countries, thousands of miles apart: in these cases, moving meant having to leave behind almost everything.
Not just the furniture.

I last moved two years ago. The apartment is located a few steps from the church of Saint-Germain, perched on top of a 17th-century building, the kind that, observed from the outside, seems to lean dangerously inward. Unlike the hôtels particuliers of the same period scattered throughout the city, it has nothing princely about it and shows all its age. The bas-relief plaques that adorn one of the walls of the inner courtyard, next to the wall invaded by ivy, are worn and grayed by rain and smog. In that same courtyard is the semi-open flight of stairs that leads me home, and even there the walls are marked by time; the wrinkles are visible but add a faded beauty. It’s the first time I’ve loved the place I live in so much.

Despite this attachment, it’s highly possible that I won’t be there for long. Yet if I exclude the anguish of soon having to find myself in front of boxes (there are 150 of them hibernating in the basement), I have no fear of moving again.

Over the years, door after door, I have opened and closed more than 30 houses. Thinking about it now, I’ve never tried to imagine them side by side: it would be like imagining a small area of a city made up of completely incompatible worlds. Inside them, each would be home to faces that would barely recognize each other.

Thirty collections of walls that collected, protected, and cradled what I considered mine each time — not in the sense of possession in the legal sense. Much of that “mine” was not tied to me by a relationship of ownership that I could have enforced in a court of law. It didn’t just refer to things: there were memories, feelings, experiences, and, above all, the lives of others: they never belonged to me, but they were also mine.

Thirty islands I lived in. Thirty spaces of different shapes and sizes that have said, in my place, “I.” None of these houses managed to find the right accent: I was never able to hear them as my voice. Each of them, for a few months or a few years, was my home, but in none of them did I sense definitively: I am home. As if I had been condemned to repeat, ad nauseam, the movement that some people succeed in perfectly from the first attempt: open a door, enter, never leave. And yet it’s precisely this repetition that has opened the doors to the idea of the home: it’s this involuntary domestic philandering that has forced me to study everything that makes a place a home and has allowed me to draw up its catalogue. Almost none of these traits has anything to do with architecture or design. A home is the moral fact par excellence: a psychic and material artifact that allows us to be in the world better than our nature allows us to be. Precisely for this reason, a theory of the home is the presupposition and fulfillment of moral theory: the disparate set of knowledge and stories that allows us to understand how to be happy with others, now and in the present. A home is just that: a first and never-final sketch of the overlap between our happiness and the world. It’s the place where all morality confesses that it cannot deal only with will and character, justice and happiness, actions and virtues, but must invest the world in its most humble, material dimensions: a theory of happiness and justice must necessarily become a theory of the passionate transformation of the world, of things, of matter. We are lives that need to manipulate and modify everything around us in order to be happy: it is not enough for us to know the world, and it is not enough to respect the rules of inner conduct. Science is not enough, and law is not enough. Home is just the name for this aggregate of techniques of adaptation between self and cosmos, a cosmic fold that makes psyche and matter, soul and world coincide for a moment.

It was in moving that I realized this. It sounds like a truism, but it is the act of moving that makes the house. And this is for a very trivial reason: we have always been strangers in front of the houses that we later loved and lived in. Every home is an island. We have to move in. We have
always entered the house from the outside. We are foreigners, also and above all, in front of our happiness: it is always illusory to think that it is inside us. If it were within us, we would not need to live, to experience, to meet others and become so indissolubly intertwined with the lives of others, to eat, to skin our knees and poison ourselves by getting too close to things. There is nothing natural about our happiness. Conversely, it is in the attempt to be happy that the work of self-manipulation and refinement that we call culture begins. We do not need to leave home and enter the city — in the political sphere — for happiness to become something cultural and artificial. It’s morality, i.e., happiness, that makes us cultural beings: lives committed to transforming themselves and everything around them in order to achieve a perfection greater than the one we have. It’s with the care for our happiness that culture begins. We are all strangers, and yet, each time, we manage to make a home for ourselves.
To build a form of happiness.

Moving in is the first moment, the moment of election. We imagine that houses exist before the people who live in them and that they are just waiting to be opened. And yet the walls and roofs, the closets, beds, tables, and clothes are not homes until after a very long and strange ceremony whose rules we all know, even if only unconsciously. Every house is born, first of all, through an act of election: a series of gestures through which we select a disparate and relatively incompatible set of objects, people, and walls and transform it into a privileged place — into our world. Not necessarily the one in which we stay the longest, but the one to which we return every day: the place of return. It’s an arbitrary election because there is nothing that naturally unites us to a space, to a set of objects, to a community of living beings. Even when it comes to our father and our mother: it always takes an enormous amount of psychic and material work, a study, an infinite series of expedients to be at home with them.

As a matter of fact, not even the election is enough: an even longer process of habituation is necessary, of transformation of the foreigner we were into a native — as if we were born there — and of the even more laborious one needed to transform that army of fragments of the world, each one coming from a different place and a different history, into something that tells our history, our past, and, above all, our future. The move demonstrates this: there are no houses, there is only homemaking. Only a very long minuet of mutual domestication of things and people. A house is the self-domestication of oneself in order to make oneself suitable for the world in which we live, and vice versa, the domestication of the world in order to transform it into a dress, a costume that adheres to us until it merges with our anatomy and our image.

This faculty of transforming ourselves into something connatural to what surrounds us and vice versa, of transforming the different into something that is inseparable from us, is perhaps the most secret and most fundamental of the powers that characterize our lives. It’s not something that comes to us from being human: all living things have it, and perhaps it’s simply the most basic force in what we call life. It begins with the first breath: compared with our mother’s womb, the world seems like a new home, and we have to gradually get used to it, to appropriate it, starting with our body, which changes consistency with childbirth.

Ancient Stoic philosophy came up with the term oikeiôsis: a beautiful word that means appropriation (in the double sense of making one’s own and making oneself appropriate to something), habituation (in the double sense of making oneself similar to oneself or making oneself similar to another), and domestication. The first impulse of the living, they wrote, is to take care of their bodies and their consciousness, until they become something intimate. To open our eyes, to begin to breathe, to move: to build intimacy with what we are. Getting used to ourselves. We never stop doing this, and, with time, we involve larger and larger fragments of the world. Houses are just an extended and augmented form of what we begin to do by breathing and opening our eyes as soon as we are born: building intimacy, assimilating ourselves to what is close to us, loving and polishing to such an extent that what we touch becomes our skin. We must speak of construction because intimacy, even intimacy with ourselves, is not a given, but an artifice. On the other hand, it’s a paradoxical artifice because it tends to produce its own disappearance. Intimacy is precisely this impossibility of distinguishing the natural and the artificial. The vertigo that allows us to discover in something that has accompanied us for years a trait of absolute novelty. And from this point of view, there’s no longer any difference between the body and the mind.After all, what we call the mind is precisely the effort of bodies to make themselves intimate (to the point of making them enter inside themselves, at least in the way of images and feelings) with all other bodies. Intimacy is the real name for what we call consciousness and care.

END

SARAH ANN WEBER, SPRING, 2020, OIL, WATERCOLOR, AND COLORED PENCIL ON PANEL, 60 X 48 INCHES SARAH ANN WEBER, THE SET UP, 2019, COLORED PENCIL ON PANEL, 20 1/2 X 24 1/2 INCHES

[Table of contents]

The Island Issue #35

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