The Meaning of Home, by John Berger

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English writer John Berger at his home near Paris, France, in January 2009. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

A highly regarded art critic, novelist, poet, essayist, and screenwriter, John Berger began his career as a painter in London. Among his best known works are Ways of Seeing (1972), a series of essays about the power of visual images, and G. (also 1972), an experimental novel which was awarded both the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.

In this passage from And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (1984), Berger draws on the writings of Mircea Eliade, a Romanian-born historian of religion, to offer an extended definition of home.

The Meaning of Home*

by John Berger

The term home (Old Norse Heimer, High German heim, Greek komi, meaning "village") has, since a long time, been taken over by two kinds of moralists, both dear to those who wield power. The notion of home became the keystone for a code of domestic morality, safeguarding the property (which included the women) of the family. Simultaneously the notion of homeland supplied a first article of faith for patriotism, persuading men to die in wars which often served no other interest except that of a minority of their ruling class. Both usages have hidden the original meaning.

Originally home meant the center of the world--not in a geographical, but in an ontological sense. Mircea Eliade has demonstrated how home was the place from which the world could be founded. A home was established, as he says, "at the heart of the real." In traditional societies, everything that made sense of the world was real; the surrounding chaos existed and was threatening, but it was threatening because it was unreal.

Without a home at the center of the real, one was not only shelterless, but also lost in nonbeing, in unreality. Without a home everything was fragmentation.

Home was the center of the world because it was the place where a vertical line crossed with a horizontal one. The vertical line was a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards to the underworld.

The horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places. Thus, at home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and to the dead of the underworld. This nearness promised access to both. And at the same time, one was at the starting point and, hopefully, the returning point of all terrestrial journeys.

Originally published in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, by John Berger (Pantheon Books, 1984).

Selected Works by John Berger

  • A Painter of Our Time, novel (1958)
  • Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing, essays (1962)
  • The Look of Things, essays (1972)
  • Ways of Seeing, essays (1972)
  • G., novel (1972)
  • Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, screenplay (1976)
  • Pig Earth, novel (1979)
  • The Sense of Sight, essays (1985)
  • Once in Europe, novel (1987)
  • Keeping a Rendezvous, essays (1991)
  • To the Wedding, novel (1995)
  • Photocopies, essays (1996)
  • Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, essays (2007)
  • From A to X, novel (2008)