Already in Westphal’s original description of agoraphobia, the critical issue is not the objective features of space—openness or closeness—but the relational distance to home. As Westphal’s patient leaves the confines of his zone of safety, so his body opens up to a different way of being. Now, movement is stifled and vertiginousness, the very materiality of the world suffering from a lack of reality. Into this abyssal unreality, open space becomes problematic, not because of the space, as such. But instead, because certain aspects of the environment serve to divide the home from the non-home. Crossing the square—the archetypal agoraphobic motif—the danger is not of the square itself, nor even of the public eyes that descend upon the agoraphobe. To be sure, all of these things contribute to the agoraphobe’s concern, but the kernel of his anxiety is the question of how he finds his way back in the world. The abysmal quality of the agoraphobic world centres on the pathological need to be orientated at all times, where only disorientation and distance are possible.The fear begins as soon as the houses leading to an open area increase their distance from him. ... A feeling of insecurity appears, as if he were no longer walking secure, and he perceives the cobble stones melting together. ... The condition improves by merely approaching houses again.(Carl Westphal 1871).
Of the relation between orientation and the uncanny, Freud writes: “The better oriented he was in the world around him, the less likely he would be to find the objects and occurrences in it uncanny” (Freud 2003, 125). For the body of the agoraphobe, orientation is only possible within a severely constricted world, around which the home is not only the centre of physical life, but also the centre of all that is real. No wonder, then, that outside the home, the agoraphobe feels his world turn unreal. In the high vaulted aisles of city streets and across the populated avenues that divide the space into atomised segments, the agoraphobe’s body loses its grip on the world. That there is such a world outside of his home, for him, is an affront to his ontological reality.
Far from “mere neurosis,” the sense of impending doom is entirely consistent with the affective energy he has implanted into a small spatial canvas on this planet, which he will term “home.” Only now, that home has become less the framework against which he projects himself into the world, and more the barrier that prohibits the world from entering him. The agoraphobe’s topophilia is equally topophilic. In his love and hate of place, what he is ultimately lacking is the resources to find home, not simply in the immediate place beyond his frontier of safety, but within the world itself.
To speak of “distance,” therefore, is to speak of an ontological homesickness. It is a homesickness, not only in the agoraphobe’s failure to dwell in place (as Kirsten Jacobson has it), but also a failure of being in place. At no point is the agoraphobe truly present, spatially or for that matter temporally. Even—especially—within the interior of his own home, he is paradoxically, the most distant from home. Why? Because home is a relational way of being-in-the-world, rather than an attachment to a specific site. In the place he knows as home, this relational imbalance is amplified. Seeking at all times to be swallowed by the materiality of the homeworld, he thus conceives of himself in terms of a subject with no agency, whose only salvation is the sickness he is able to nourish behind the borders of the closed home.