The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
Beacon Press 1994; originally published in French as La Poetique de la Space (1958)
Contemplating Space, and the Essence of Being
I thank my lucky stars that I found this book a few months ago. I was feeling adrift philosophically at the time, and struggling with the concept of childhood and home. This angst (I will call it) was heightened by the fact that my 96 year old grandmother was dying, my last grandparent, in the home they had lived in since before I was born.
The knowledge that she would soon pass, and this place sacred to me would pass into another phase (I imagined the “new” people tearing down the house, the rickety barn; ripping out my beloved friends the olive tree, the lemon tree, and the orange tree that was planted after my christening). Thus I imagined a violent end to childhood, symbolized by an end to my physical connection to that place.
During a visit three weeks before Grandma passed, I found it difficult to reconcile the imagined and real childhood with the reality of the place now: run down, cluttered, populated with strangers (due to an unsettled schedule of caregivers). The quintessential furniture that had been moved out of place, when my grandfather lay dying in the living room. . . the living room had been the site where we unwrapped Christmas presents, played card games, read in the certainty of Grandma’s lap, and in later years as adults, drank brandy and admired the fire in the fireplace, immersed in each others’ company. The furniture out of place, a reminder of death and endings.
Is there any sadness deeper than loss? Childhood is inextricable from “place”, this period when our identity was formed as was our ability to speak, the memory of our first dreams, our first steps, our first relationships, and so on.
As soon as I read the title and synopsis of The Poetics of Space, I knew I had found a sympathetic friend in Bachelard, and with each chapter that I read, feel communion with an earthy, wise mind who understands the nature of our attachments to physical places that vacillate between epic and utterly intimate in our imaginations, forming their own time and context within the overall situation of our lives.
Bachelard began his career in the sciences, and made a name for himself as a specialist in the philosophy of science. Rather than continue writing on that subject, he unexpectedly produced the book The Psychoanalysis of Fire. He followed with titles such as Water and Dreams, Air and Dreams, and other texts on the concept of reverie. In other words, daydream, a subject Bachelard weaves throughout The Poetics of Space. Bachelard studied “the phenomenology of the imagination”.
In the introduction, Bachelard clarifies that he must break with “growing rationalism of contemporary science . . .. forget his learning and break with all his habits of philosophical research, if he wants to study the problems posed by the poetic imagination (Introduction; xv, 1964). He claims that “[t]he poet speaks on the threshold of being” (xvi) and that “[t]he poet does not confer the past of his image upon me, and yet his image immediately takes root in me”. He positions his study as an exploration into the “phenomenon of the poetic image when it emerges into the consciousness as a direct product of the heart, soul and being of man, apprehended in his actuality” (xviii).
What does this mean?
Bachelard is exploring the root of the poetic image, and he does so by writing about topics such as: the house (structure, and also significance of “the hut” in human experience and consciousness); the house in relation to the universe; intimate spaces such as drawers, chests and wardrobes.
My favorite chapters thus far, “nests” and “shells”, are unexpected. This is a book that, at times, I have to put the book down and laugh, struck by the brilliance, creativity, and deep flashes of insight from this nimble mind. I feel like Bachelard embodies a kindhearted and brilliant trickster, or a mischievous zen master, who has opened up the surface layers of existence so I can see, even temporarily, within, and gain insight into my own life.
Upcoming chapters on “corners”, “intimate immensity”, and “the dialectics of outside and inside” are delightful (in my impatience, I have read the epigraphs and skimmed the chapters). As an omnivorous reader, I see no problem with a circular route when reading a nonfiction text, and this habit points to why I will always read my favorite books “in hand” versus “in Kindle”.
I highly encourage you to read this book, and join in some way the philosophical exploration that is a great gift, and unique to humankind.