The Odyssey is not actually about a journey. It is an epic about a man trying to regain his home. A short calculation should prove this point : The first of twenty chapters introduces the theme of homecoming and refers to it twenty times. Nine chapters are dedicated to Ulysses’ journey, but only during one of these does he travel; the following eight chapters he spends with a generous host and manages to tell the story of his wanderings in three brief sections. The last third serves to prepare his victory over the suitors who have been occupying his home for twenty years.
What kind of home is it that the story refers to? More than just a family nucleus, “home” in the Odyssey is constructed as a political notion: a sphere of power and influence connected with Ulysses’ fathers through generations; the land became part of Ulysses’ (political and physical) body as he represents the (physical and political) body of his land. To return means to escape from being literally “Nobody” (as he calls himself to disguise his identity when fighting with the Cyclops) in order to become a leader again.
Today the epic seems to be read in a paradoxical way: instead of focussing on the reconstruction and repetition of “home rules”, the journey and individual encounters of the hero are highlighted, as if the “journey itself had become the destination”. This is quite a comfortable reading to defend a contemporary nomadic subject that entered the never-ending circle of self-movement modernist progress proclaimed. Still we come to a philosophical or kinetic halt in postmodernism. Peter Sloterdijk commenting on traffic jams: “Where unleashed self-movement leads to a halt or a whirl, the beginning of a transitional experience emerges, in which the modern active changes to the postmodern passive.” But isn’t it the movement itself that turns us into passive passengers? Liberated into a liberal sphere, do we feel at home in endlessly passing the de-politicized global territory?
Let’s take a step back and ask which notion of home and territory we might be talking about today. When once asked “what home is” to me, my first answer was:
“(..) a tricky ground carved by our desire to mark an intimate space in which we can act as “ourselves”, with all our history and need of belonging. Tricky in the sense that our imagination becomes naturalized when attaching our needs and memories and phantasies to a certain site and place. If we think home as real environment it can be taken away easily – by bulldozers or patriotism or other kinds of forces. If taken away, if blurred by passing time, paradoxically the notion of home might get stronger and clearer. It is a construction work we share with other animals … Maybe home is about temperature, too.”
This homemade definition corresponds in a strange and unforeseen way with the abstract machine of thought Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari use to introduce a concept of home and territory that might equally derive from bird songs or children’s songs .:
A song marks a circle of sound, the outer line of a territory, which – far from being static and geographically bound – is defined as a “step in between”. Deleuze and Guattari draw their own circles of thought by describing territorialisation as an active moment when elements become expressive and proper qualities emerge that find objectivity in the territory they draw. A refrain, for example, has this expressive quality: it draws a territory and develops into motifs and counterpoints. In a free but precise transposition the musical character of “motif / counterpoint” is paraphrased by rhythmic spatial terms: “internal impulse / external circumstance”, “rhythmic character/ melodic landscape”. The imagination of “territory” expands, discerns inner and outer aspects. As the third aspect of the same process territorialisation unleashes something else: a route to deterritorialisation, a passage to another territorial assemblage.
The epic of the Odyssey might be able to draw circles of repetitive refrains (the one of homecoming being possibly the strongest), but its hero only jumps from one circle to another (from one black hole into another, from Scylla to Charybdis). Guided by the goddess Athena, Ulysses – her helpless performer – finds no way to express his own (name, land, power) till he finally gets permission to step into the circle of power and transform his house into a battlefield. In other words, sending arrows and spears into his hall, he deterritorialises the assemblage of “home” immediately into a black hole of total punishment and destruction (a scene we will remember again when watching “Ghost Dog” and “Dogville” and all the other underdogs of mafia movie history).
Here we come to a dead end.
It’s best to change direction and move on to a new site, a new relation between house and home and territory.
First site: Praça Onze, Rio de Janeiro, around 1915. Entering Tia Ciata’s house in the evening, you might get immediately stuck in the ballroom, where musicians, politicians, neighbours and visionaries meet and listen to improvised songs. If you follow the long dark corridor, you will reach the kitchen, dinner hall, pantry, heart of conversations, rumours and specialities from Bahia. But wait: there is still the garden in the backyard, a fertile ground for jamming and dancing, for Samba and Candomblé, its ritual objects hidden in a small wooden shed in the very last corner of the territory .. The front side and back side, the entrance hall and garden lot – they belong to the same festivity, yet different events. Not that these aspects of concert, conversation, dance, dinner and ritual could be separated completely. Visitors might mix them up, if they knew how to read the house. Its architectural body serves more as a kind of bond for moving centres and rhythmic sound. Permissive membranes between different territories fold one into the other: the representative, the cultural, the ritual, the convivial, the excessive… Though none of them is directly attached to the house itself, they can only come into being (can only be territorialized) in the intense gatherings, the crowded corridor, the hidden garden.
House (1): construction site for a temporary present home based on a collective act and attitude.
House (2): architectural body transformed by certain rhythms and circles of sound.
Second site: Rue Fleurus, Paris, around the same time. First, some friends came to dinner at Gertrude Stein’s and Alice B. Toklas’s apartment. They looked at paintings by Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, they looked at walls covered with frames and messages and they brought more friends who brought more friends who drank a lot of tea and listened to Gertrude and Alice. A Saturday evening tea party, an intellectual jam session divided in two: (gay) men and (unmarried) women around Gertrude, (married) women around Alice.
“Her apartment was the most fascinating place in all Paris because everybody went there” said Janet Flanner , she was also from the Left Bank and she went there and Picasso and Fernande, they all went there and Sylvia Beach and Natalie Barney and Pavel Tchelitchew and Allan Tanner and all the other writers and composers and painters and undiscovered talents who went there – their motive: the paintings; their real motive: the presence of thoughts evoked and articulated by its majestic centre Gertrude Stein, marked and objectified by the framed painting in all their abundance. If Gertrude and Alice gave the motive, the internal impulse, then the walls built the melodic landscape, the external circumstances, the counterpoint that attracts the listener even before the leading (and often laughing) voice can be heard.
Home (1): marking of inside and outside, intimately strange in the presence of thoughts.
Home (2): a counterpoint/melodic landscape that gives impulse to motives, attracts and turns one territorial assemblage into another.
Last Site: West 21st Street, New York, around seventy years later. A crowded ballroom with an improvised stage in the centre. The house of Extravaganza walks . To perform the real woman, the real soldier, the real beauty, the real drag. To belong to a “house” means to get a new name, a new mother, a new gang that walks with you in the streets half dancing, half cheating, half vogueing. Your house is a performance, an expression of proper qualities, of colours, gestures, steps that might cause you trouble in the straight white world but bring fame in the ballroom, the only home zone left after you leave your first family as teenager. “How very important it is, when chaos threatens, to draw an inflatable, portable territory. If need be, I’ll put my territory on my own body, I’ll territorialise myself”
House (3): a physical and mental performance of lived belonging
Home (3): a transcoding passage between different milieus, a deterritorialisation of your body by putting your territory on your body
And now? The sites might have had the potential to create a territory (by singing, thinking, vogueing), a home beyond individual landmarks. But how can we set up another route of deterritorialisation if we try it again on our own? We need one for the road, a refrain to be hummed (we don’t need another hero). Some cover version or fake translation, that is what we need right now.
Bettina Wind, March 2008
(Written on the train between Vienna and Berlin, in the Swiss café, at home in Berlin)