The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
Gaston Bachelard was a man of science. He had written more than a dozen books on the philosophy of science and physics when, quite without warning, he suddenly published a book called The Psychoanalysis of Fire. That book was the first sign of his defection from the realm of scientific rationalism to the world of poetry. In December I knew none of this. I was simply scanning the architecture section at HPB when I came across this title: The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places. It seemed a little bit magical.
The book is, above all, a defense of poetry. Bachelard delves into many of the various aspects of House and its “oneiric form” as he calls it, and follows his study of houses with a few chapters on inhabited space more generally. But throughout the book, he philosophizes as a poet writing to scientists, justifying the nuance of poetry to his erstwhile colleagues. For him, poetry transcends knowledge. It reaches the depths of the mind before it disturbs the surface. And it does this through its use of the Image: simple, almost prehistoric concepts that somehow evoke feelings in every human soul. When they are spoken, they need no lengthy explanation, because an understanding of them predates our comprehension of logic or science. The house is such an image. In analyzing the organization of a house, Bachelard aims to plot the human mind.
He is quite the dreamer. (And he uses the word “oneiric” frequently, which was a new word for me. It means “of or relating to dreaming.”) I can’t sum the book up into a strict flow of ideas because… can you ever do that with dreams? I’ll just touch on the parts that most interested me.
He begins with discussing House as FORM, which throws back to Plato. Bachelard says the ideal house requires “verticality”- that is, attic and cellar- to allow its inhabitants to fully daydream. (I wondered about this, and my first question was “what about hobbit holes?”) I do not know what the inhabitants are meant to dream about. I don’t think Bachelard would prescribe that, but he thinks it’s very important that they be able to do it. The geometric structure of houses influences the mind, as do their settings in nature (or lack of). Bachelard isn’t entirely sure what to say about cities because he thinks city dwellings (for example, skyscrapers in Paris) lose magic and are less conducive to dreaming when inhabitants live in one-level “rooms”. Also this quote: “Elevators do away with the heroism of stair climbing so that there is no longer any virtue in living up near the sky.” Bachelard’s idealism is endearing. He believes houses need some element of the natural. “Where houses are no longer set in natural surroundings,” he says, “the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one. Everything about it is mechanical and, on every side, intimate living flees.” However, he claims that the natural can be imagined with good effect, interestingly. He suggests turning traffic noises into a rumbling storm or the sounds of the ocean using one’s imagination.
In chapter 2, B talks chiefly of the image of the house, how it must be a lived-in image to communicate full feeling, and how its creation (or imagining) reveals much about the architect or dreamer. Envisioning a house makes us all poets? The fascinating thing to me is his concept of contrast: in a massive, undulating universe, the house lends boundaries to the imagination and gives it a Center. With frequent quotations from Baudelaire etc. to support him, Bachelard says, “Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.” For example, storms bestow more significance upon shelters. This quote also helps to elucidate: “Well-determined centers of reverie are means of communication between men who dream as surely as well-defined concepts are means of communication between men who think.” The form/image of House is (should be?) a well-determined center. That center exerts gravitational force. “The house remodels man,” B says starkly.
He acknowledges the physical geometry of a house honestly, but really shies away from strict physical analysis. Once he said, “We are tempted to analyze this rationally,” which I thought was funny. But he’s just such a poet about it all– constantly harping on transcendence. “To give unreality to an image attached to a strong reality,” he says, “is in the spirit of poetry.” And look at this: “An immense cosmic house is a potential of every dream of houses. Wind radiates from its center and gulls fly from its windows. A house that is as dynamic as this allows the poet to inhabit the universe. Or, to put it differently, the universe comes to inhabit his house.” He never apologizes for passages like this. In a later chapter he says, “Exaggeration is always at the summit of any living image.”
B is always talking about the Image vs the Metaphor. I think by this he means that a metaphor is too objective to allow for the “feel” of a thing. In ch 5 on shells, he gets deep into shells as an image: what the thought of them evokes, etc. This section gave me serious throwbacks to my study of epistemology. Again, if an image communicates the “feel” of a thing through poetic sensitivity, images enlighten because in seeing we begin to see from and gain new perspective. And perspective leads to appreciation. Essentially, real sight breeds knowledge and real knowledge breeds love. One of my favorite novels is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and this concept of understanding turning into love reminds me of a quote from the protagonist when he’s having a bit of a crisis involving his purpose:
“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”
In chapter 7, which is about the concept of Miniature, Bachelard gets deeper into images and nearly becomes philosopher Michael Polanyi. While reading the chapter I kept thinking of P’s theory of tacit knowing. Bachelard reverences the transcendence of imagination: “The imagination does not want to end in a diagram that summarizes acquired learning.” Imagination is what takes learning to the next level of loving. This connects to all the epistemic philosophy I’ve read in the last 3 years! He says as well, “Daydream is not geometrical. The dreamer commits himself absolutely.” Perhaps it is that commitment that makes Bachelard so value dreams. They require your whole soul, which B longs to give? Which we all do, or ought? I do wonder, though, why Bachelard is so loathe to diagram. Perhaps his imagination was squelched by the particular scientific community of his day. But I think of scientists like Einstein who clearly valued imagination, and it confuses me why Bachelard seems eager to distance himself from all data and definition. He says at one point, “To verify images kills them, and it is always more enriching to imagine than to experience.” That seems very extreme.
The chapter on miniature was a high point of the book for me. Especially the section where he says poets can use imagination to change the size of things, making large out of small and vice versa. If vastness is infinite and if smallness is infinite, the two infinities have much in common in their extremes. B quotes Paul Claudel on microscopes vs telescopes: “Just as we see little spiders or certain insect larvae hidden like precious stones in their cotton and satin pouches, in the same way, I was shown an entire nestful of still embarrassed suns in the cold folds of the nebula.” To close the paragraph after that beautiful quote, Bachelard simply asserts, “If a poet looks through a microscope or a telescope, he always sees the same thing.”
In the following chapter, B moves on to write about immensity, essentially claiming that immensity has its root, not in the exterior universe, but in our own souls and our capacity to think vast thoughts. I thought a lot about the power of surroundings and physical environment in this section, especially due to this quote: “The exterior spectacle helps intimate grandeur to unfold.” As has become more and more evident to me due to urban design/development, WHERE you are affects how you think and ultimately changes WHO you are. “The two kinds of space, intimate space and exterior space, keep encouraging each other, as it were, in their growth.” Yes, exactly.
Pause for this concept: “voluptuousness that pervades high places.” ……….thank you.
One of the most memorable parts of the chapter on immensity was the story of Philippe Diolé, a psychologist and deep-sea diver. After years of love for the ocean, Diolé chose to travel through the Sahara desert and found there a similar feeling of weightlessness as what he experienced in water. But what strikes me most is why Diolé exchanged water for sand. Bachelard asked the question and said Diolé answered, “as a poet would. He knows that each new contact with the cosmos renews our inner being, and that every new cosmos is open to us when we have freed ourselves from the ties of a former sensitivity… And by changing space, by leaving the space of one’s usual sensibilities, one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating.” Expanding your surroundings expands YOU. This seems oddly contradictory to Bachelard’s earlier tirade against experience. Perhaps earlier he meant to rebel against the graphing table and the drawing board rather than life experience. Because he ends this chapter so: “But poems are human realities; it is not enough to resort to “impressions” in order to explain them. They must be lived in their poetic immensity.”
Bachelard concludes his book with studies of outside/inside and the concept of “roundness”. I got a little lost in this part and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m not intelligent enough to get what he’s saying or if he’s actually going down confusing rabbit trails for no reason! There were several haunting ideas, however. At one point he poses this question, seemingly unconnected to the overarching point of his book: “And where is the root of silence? Is it a distinction of non-being, or a domination of being?” I think this did flow logically in Bachelard’s mind. Once started on the concept of contrasts begun with the discussion of Miniature vs Immensity and continued with Outside vs Inside, he couldn’t stick to physical examples or even to those spatial subjects. For him, everything is connected poetically. Immensity to Miniature, Outside to Inside, Fullness to Emptiness, Noise to Silence. Everything is connected, and everything finds significance when considered against its counterpart. When you look at it long enough, through the continually surprised eyes of poetic sensitivity, everything begins to look like different facets of the same crystal. Or, to bring us back around to the beginning, different rooms of the same house.