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Home, Homelessness, and The Human Condition

dreaming of home
dreaming of home

By Samantha Hill

Wohl dem, der keine Heimat hat; er sieht sie noch im Traum.”
“Blessed is he who has no home; he sees it still in his dreams.”

— Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch

What does it mean to be “at home?”

Home is a dynamic concept in Hannah Arendt’s work. Throughout her writing, the concept home takes on different meanings in different contexts. Often, home is bound to its negative counterpart: homelessness.

The Human Condition forces us, along side of Arendt, to ask the question: What does it means to be at home in the world? “The world,” she writes, “the man-made home erected on earth and made of the material which earthly nature delivers into human hands, consists not of things that are consumed but of things that are used.” Nature and earth provide the materials that we use to build a ‘world of things,’ and it is this ‘world of things’ that creates the unique conditions for human life. The durability of the things we create allows us to make a home here, and it sustains us with the apparatus necessary to give form and meaning to daily life.

Arendt assures us, “But without being at home in the midst of things whose durability makes them fit for use and for erecting a world whose very permanence stands in direct contrast to life, this life would never be human.” The quality of durability is contrasted with the condition of human life, which is ever changing and impermanent. In this passage, it is the resilience of the things that we build in the world that allows us to be human, and offer us the assurance that we can contribute to the lasting artifice of the man-made world.

A house, which we most often associate with home, is a work of architecture. It is built to be durable and lasting; it is meant to provide us with a private refuge from the ‘world of things’. In discussing the public and private realms, Arendt speaks of home as the oikos in relationship to political life. “According to Greek thought, the human capacity for political organization is not only different from but stands in direct opposition to the natural association whose center is the home (oikiri) [sic] and the family.” The private space of home is necessary in order for the “second life” of bios politikos, “public life,” to exist. Here, we see it is not just home in the sense of being at home but also the physical necessity for a house that allows us to exist privately, and to emerge publicly.

In the modern world, Arendt argues, the ‘home’ is necessary to give shelter to the more intimate areas of life unsuitable for public appearance. “The intimacy of the heart, unlike the private household, has no objective tangible place in the world, nor can the society against which it protests and asserts itself be localized with the same certainty as public space.” For instance love, the intimacy of the heart, belongs to the private realm of human affairs and does not belong in the world; it cannot be shared in common. The private household, however, does have a place in the world, and its place is that of an artifice that gives shelter to private life and allows us to give shelter to our humaneness.

Home is not always bound to material structures or to the natural materials that allows us to create a ‘world of things’. For Arendt, home also means the elements of life that make daily life livable. In both “We Refugees” and the Denktagebuch (thought journal), we see a different valence of the idea of ‘home’ in Arendt’s writing. Here, her home is separated from its spatial, material conception and becomes a place to which she – and we – cannot return. Home exists in memory, in dream; it exists in the very states of loss and longing. The loss of home in these texts is related to a loss of the world and humanness. National Socialism collapsed the boundaries between public and private life, destroying all components of home—both the material and the immatertial.

In her essay “We Refugees,” which Arendt wrote in 1943 two years after she emigrated to the United States, home is spoken of as something lost. The unusually ironic essay reflects upon the condition of “refugees,” the number of Jewish people that committed suicide during and after the war, and the dichotomy between pariahs and parvenus. She writes:

“The story of our struggle has finally become known. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives. ” (“We Refugees”)

Home in this sense gestures back to the Latin habitus: the familiarity of patterns, the physical appearance of one’s self in the world, and the house as a material structure. Arendt’s list of losses reaches into the core of humaneness and what makes life livable in this world. We see that home is not so much a place as it comprises the things that give form, stability, and reliability to one’s daily life. It is language, it is the familiarity of a place, and it is the ability to express one’s feelings without hesitation.

In a poem from the Denktagebuch, written a few years later in 1946, Arendt reflects more ominously on the fragility of the structures that we commonly understand as home.

Ich weiss dass die Strassen zerstört sind.
Wo leuchtet die Wagenspur, die wunderbar unversehrte
aus antiken Trümmern hervor?

“Ich weiss, dass die Häuser gestürzt sind.
In sie traten wir in die Welt, wunderbar sicher, dass sie
beständiger als wir selbst.

“Ob der Mond, den wir diesmal vergassen,
in seinem beständigeren Licht
der Pferde Huferd noch mitträgt
wie ein Echo aus des Flusses schweigendem Gesicht?

“I know that the streets are destroyed.
Where shines the wagon tracks, wonderfully untouched
Out from Ancient ruins forth?

“I know that the houses have fallen.
In them we entered the world, wonderfully sure, that they
were sturdier than we.

“Whether the moon, we forgot this time,
in his steadier light
still carries soil from the horse’s hooves
like an echo from the river’s silent face?” (Translation Samantha Rose Hill, 2015)


Here, we see Arendt poetically struggling with the reality that those artifices that give durability to worldliness and humanness can be destroyed. It is the recognition that they aren’t sturdier than we. The world that we make is necessary for being human. It is a world shared in common through human creation that allows us to exist together, and affords us the promise of solitude. The durability of this man-made world—the language, the tradition, the buildings, and institutions—allows us to be together, to be human together. Just as the durability of the world of things is contrasted with the impermanence of human life, in this poem the artifices of worldliness—streets and houses—are contrasted with the undestroyed train tracks. Tracks that ironically remain as the something created that can bring beings together, or transport them towards death. We can create a durable world through things, but we can also destroy it.

How can the world exist if it cannot endure? If we cannot trust those things we thought more durable than ourselves, than what can we trust in the world? And if we cannot trust in the world, then how can we make a home here?

National Socialism and the invention of the atom bomb threatened the very existence not just of the world, but earth and humanity. How can we be human if we can no longer ensure the durability of the ‘world of things’?

In another poem from Arendt’s Denktagebuch, penned the same year, she writes:

Die Traurigkeit ist wie ein Licht im Herzen angezündet,
Die Dunkelheit is wie ein Schein, der unsere Nacht ergründet.
Wir brauchen nur das kleine Licht der Trauer zu entzünden,
Um durch die lange weite Nacht wie Schatten heimzufinden.
Beleuchtet ist der Wald, die Stadt, die Strasse und der Baum.
Wohl dem, der keine Heimat hat; er sieht sie noch im Traum.

“Mournfulness is like a flame lit in the heart,
Darkness is like a glow that leads us through the night.
We only need to ignite this small light of grief,
To find home, like shadows, across the long vast night.
The forest is illuminated, the city, the street, and the tree.
Blessed is he who has no home; he sees it still in his dreams.” (Translation Samantha Rose Hill 2015)


Home“, presented by the Morris-Jumel Mansion from March 20 – May 25, 2014.

Without the promise of durability in the world, how might find home? Find the home of our world shared in common, find the private room for retreat?

In this poem, it is our mournfulness and grief that guides us and points us, always searching, moved by those absences and spaces that enable a feeling for home. The condition of home as a world shared in common and the experience and feeling of home can exist beyond the fragility of material conditions. If anything is certain, it is that the streets keep being destroyed, the houses torn down—war, genocide, hatred, and violence are what seem to endure.

Featured image: Jessie Ellman’s “Dreaming of Home” (Source: White Moose)

Posted on 27 December 2015 | 8:00 pm

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