Tag Archives: childhood

Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space

Bachelard The Poetics of SpacePost two of three on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space — if you need a refresher on phenomenology maybe read post one. I’m in Wales at the moment doing fieldwork — three interviews today, several hours on rural buses, and I sit in a corner room staring out over a line of cottages to the sea, the ceiling curving gently overhead… one cider and this level of tired and I realised I won’t be working on rewrites as I should.

So Bachelard it is.

Chapter 1.

the house.
from cellar to garret.
the significance of the hut.

… if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths.

I love this connection between home and the safety for dreaming…

Now my aim is clear: I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind. The binding principle in this integration is the daydream. Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere, at times opposing, at others, stimulating one another. In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing. Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul. It is the human being’s first world. Before he is ‘cast into the world,’ as claimed by certain hasty metaphysics, man is laid in the cradle of the house. And always, in our daydreams, the house is a large cradle. A concrete metaphysics cannot neglect this fact, this simple fact, all the more, since this fact is a value, an important value, to which we return in our daydreaming. Being is already a value. Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house. (6-7)

The way we read dreams, memories, selves, through the shape of the home, the way we can map ourselves onto them…

Of course, thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated. All our lives we come back to them in daydreams. A psychoanalyst should, therefore, turn his attenion to this simple localization of our memories. (8)

The way we can read space in the same way, but mediated through our own experience:

It therefore makes sense from our standpoint of a philosophy of literature and poetry to say that we “write a room,” “read a room,” or “read a house.” Thus, very quickly, at the very first word, at the first poetic overture, the reader who is “reading a room” leaves off reading and starts to think of some place in his own past. (14)

It is interesting to think about what it means for us, the depth to which we connect to the earliest spaces of our inhabitation.

But over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits. After twenty years, in spite of all the other anonymous stairways; we would recapture the reflexes of the “first stairway,” we would not stumble on that rather high step. The house’s entire being would open up, faithful to our own being. (14-15)

This emerged very strongly in the interviews/sessions that Clare Cooper-Marcus did with her respondents, and the ways in which people are forever responding to what they loved — or what they longed for — in these spaces of childhood.

In short, the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme. The word habit is too worn a words to express this passionate liaison of our bodies, which do not forget, with an unforgettable house. (15)

I like thinking too, about how childhood — and particularly the richness and freedom of it dreaming — can be usefully evoked by space:

It is on the plane of the daydream and not on that of facts that childhood remains alive and poetically useful within us. Through this permanent childhood, we maintain the poetry of the past. To inhabit oneirically the house we were born in means more than to inhabit it in memory; it means living in this house that is gone, the way we used to dream in it.  (16)

You know I liked this observation on poetry and its connection to dreaming — and in this context then, its connection to space and the freedom and magic of childhood.

And we should not forget that these dream values communicate poetically from soul to soul. To read poetry is essentially to daydream. (17)

But then, of course, he brings it all back to himself. White, European, male — a very different experience of home and of spaces than my own, yet of course treated as the norm. Of course, much of what is wrong with the world today can be traced to the greed, neuroses, and crazed power dreams of European men, so it is interesting to look at this sympathetic view of how they have grown up in and experienced space. Urban space:

But in addition to the intimate value of verticality, a house in a big city lacks cosmicity. For here, where houses are no longer set in natural surroundings, the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one. everything about it is mechanical and, on every side, intimate living flees. (27)

Home space, in a ‘normal’ European house:

To bring order to these images, I believe that we should consider two principal connecting themes: 1) a house is imagined as a vertical being. It rises upward. It differentiates itself in terms of its verticality. It is one of the appeals to our consciousness of verticality. 2) a house is imagined as a concentrated being. It appeals to our consciousness of centrality. (17)

cellar and attic…how many people never have those? I have no vertical themes, everything in this schema is thus thrown off. I do not feel myself to be oneirically incomplete — but suspect Bachelard might find me so. He writes:

By way of antithesis, I shall make a few remarks on dwellings that are oneirically incomplete. (26)

Like, you know, the hut. The dreams of the other and other problematic things:

“hut dream,” which is well-known to everyone who cherishes the legendary images of primitive houses. But in most hut dreams we hope to live elsewhere, far from the over-crowded house, far from city cares… the round house, the primitive hut, of prehistoric man …  (31)

‘I live in a round house’ I wrote in an essay once. These sentences are a bit calculated to make me roll my eyes. I hate this use of the ‘we’. While this next thing holds true for me:

We are hypnotized by solitude, hypnotized by the gaze of the solitary house; and the tie that binds us to it is so strong that we begin to dream of nothing but a solitary house in the night. (36-37)

I know those for whom solitude is terrifying. I wish we had better ways to write about these things.

What follows in chapter 2 is House and Universe — as illustrated from quotes drawn from literature…post three. I wanted to keep the rest together though, the meditations on very particular, intimate spaces within a house.

3 – Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes

I rather love that this is the title of Chapter 3. I rather love sentences like this one, that I have no affinity with whatsoever:

As is well know, the drawer metaphor, in addition to certain others, such as “ready-made garments,” is used by Bergson to convey the inadequacy of a philosophy of concept. (75)

This underlines for me the fact that some people have lived in a world of the intellect where they assumed that everyone was just like them. Throwing around Bergson. Seeing things in drawers that I never will. How curious.

These rapid remarks are intended to show that a metaphor should be no more than an accident of expression, and that it is dangerous to make a thought of it. A metaphor is a false image, since it does not possess the direct virtue of an image formed in spoken revery. (77)

I am unsure of this distinction, but like the reaction it provokes.

I will perhaps grant him one universal truth, and it is this:

Does there not exist a single dreamer of words who does not respond to the word wardrobe? . . . .  (78)

Because yes. Also yes to this:

…for psychoanalysis this is a clear sign … When we dream of locks and keys there’s nothing more to confess. But poetry extends well beyond psychoanalysis on every side. (84)

He ends with the effacing of dialectics! Again I felt that this sentence sparked a million contradictory thoughts, I am not sure what to do with any of them! But I liked that.

Chests, especially small caskets, over which we have more complete mastery, are objects that may be opened. … from the moment the casket is opened, dialectics no longer exist. the outside is effaced with one stroke, an atmosphere of novelty and surprise reigns. The outside has no more meaning. (85)

4 – Nests

For the world is a nest, and an immense power holds the inhabitants of the world in this nest. (104)

I do fucking love nests. A whole chapter on nests.

5 – shells

With nests, with shells — at the risk of wearying the reader — I have multiplied the images that seem to me to illustrate the function of inhabiting in elementary forms which may be too remotely imagined. Here one sense clearly that this is a mixed problem of imagination and observation. I have simply wanted to show that whenever life seeks to shelter, protect, cover or hide itself, the imagination sympathizes with the being that inhabits the protected space. The imagination experiences protection in all its nuances of security, from life in the most material of shells, to more subtle concealment through imitation of surfaces. (132)

I loved all of this.

6 – corners

I also really fucking love corners. Passageways leading to the unknown…just around the corner.

The point of departure of my reflections is the following: every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house. (136)

This evoked Alexander’s Pattern Language, or Cullen’s Concise Townscape. Though if I remember rightly, for them the magic of a corner was its mystery revealed through movement…I enjoyed the contrast with Bachelard’s vision of the corner:

That most sordid of all havens, the corner, deserves to be examined.

To begin with, the corner is a haven that ensures us one of the things we prize most highly — immobility. It is the sure place, the place next to my immobility. (137)

7 – miniature

Happy at being in a small space, he realizes an experience of topophilia; that is, once inside the miniature house, he sees its vast number of rooms; from the interior he discovers interior beauty. (149)

Ah, the brilliance of tiny rooms. There are some dialectics going on here too between inside and outside, but I’ll be damned if I quite know what they are in this example.

Thus the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world. The details of a thing can be the sign of a new world which, like all worlds, contains the attributes of greatness. (155)

There is, too, the quality and hours of workmanship that the miniature requires for its very existence:

I haven’t the advantage of actually seeing the works of the miniaturists of the Middle Ages, which was this great age of solitary patience. But I can well imagine this patience, which brings peace to one’s fingers. Indeed, we have only to imagine it for our souls to be bathed in peace. All small things must evolve slowly, and certainly a long period of leisure, in a quiet room, was needed to miniaturize the world. Also one must love space to describe it as minutely as though there were world molecules, to enclose an entire spectacle in a molecule of drawing. (159)

An attention to detail, an attention to space — what can we not learn by performing this, or at second best, describing it and learning from it?

Many a theorem of topo-analysis would have to be elucidated to determine the action of space upon us. For images cannot be measured. And even when they speak of space, they change in size. The slightest value extends, heightens, or multiplies them. Either the dreamer becomes the being of his image, absorbing all its space or he confines himself in a miniature version of his images. (173)

I don’t know what this last quote means at all, but I like it.

8 – Intimate Immensity

In this direction of daydreams of immensity, the real product is consciousness of enlargement. We feel that we have been promoted to the dignity of the admiring being. (184)

Ah, the awesomeness of bigness. We become greater than ourselves in admiration.

9 – the dialectics of inside and outside

Philosophers, when confronted with outside and inside, think in terms of being and non-being. Thus profound metaphysics is rooted in an implicit geometry which — whether we will or no — confers spatiality upon thought; if a metaphysician could not draw, what would he think? (212)

The spatiality of thought — what is not to like in that? There is a richness here that I would like to ruminate over, play around with. If I can find the time. I should have drunk more perhaps. But doors…gateways, of course there are volumes to be written about doors.

But how many daydreams we should have to analyse under the simple heading of Doors! For the door is an entire cosmos of the Half-open. In fact, it is one of its primal images, the very origin of a daydream that accumulates desires and temptations: the temptation to open up the ultimate depths of being, and the desire to conquer all reticent beings. (222)

10- The phenomonology of roundness

Philosophy makes us ripen quickly, and crystallizes us in a state of maturity. how, then, without “dephilosophizing” ourselves, may we hope to experience the shocks that being receives from new images, shocks which are always the phenomena of youthful being? (236)

This explains why we should read more philosophy… the final post, why we should read more literature.