Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space

I suspect Mike recommended Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space because I’ve spent much of the last three years rediscovering the place where I grew up while at the same time exploring poetry in the kind of depth I was unable to do while teaching and trying to help raise two kids.

I’d probably rather be reading poetry than either Yuan’s or Bachelard’s book, but both provide an interesting perspective on our sense of place and space, one that compliments my exploration of local works, poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. The INTP in me wants to know why some people become devoted to a place while others in the same family long to spend their lives in far-away places.

Not only that, but I wonder if the love of a particular place influences the types of art that we respond to. In other words, has my love of the Pacific Northwest also fueled my love for Northwest Indian Art? Has the Pacific Northwest been heavily influenced by Asian art because of economic ties or because of geographical similarities?

Yuan’s book explored space and place from multiple outlooks, while Bachelard focuses his exploration from a literary perspective, particularly a poetic perspective. It seems tome that the heart of the book is the first chapter entitled “the house, from cellar to garret, the significance of the hut.? My first reaction was that none of my homes ever had a cellar, much less a garret.

Despite that, like most people I identify with the central idea he introduces here:

For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word. If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty. Authors of books on “the humble home” often mention this feature of the poetics of space. But this mention is much too succinct. Finding little to describe in the humble home, they spend little time there; so they describe it as it actually is, without really experiencing its primitiveness, a primitiveness which belongs to all, rich and poor alike, if they are willing to dream.

Indeed, here we touch upon a converse whose images we shall have to explore: all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home. In the course of this work, we shall see that the imagination functions in this direction whenever the human being has found the slightest shelter: we shall see the imagination build “walls” of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection or, just the contrary, tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the staunchest ramparts. In short, in the most interminable of dialectics, the sheltered being gives perceptible limits to his shelter. He experiences the house in its reality and in its virtuality, by means of thought and dreams. It is no longer in its positive aspects that the house is really “lived,” nor is it only in the passing hour that we recognize its benefits. An entire past comes to dwell in a new house. The old saying: “We bring our lares with us” has many variations. And the daydream deepens to the point where an immemorial domain opens up for the dreamer of a home beyond man’s earliest memory. The house, like fire and water, will permit me, later in this work, to recall flashes of daydreams that illuminate the synthesis of immemorial and recollected. In this remote region, memory and imagination remain associated, each one working for their mutual deepening. In the order of values, they both constitute a community of memory and image. Thus the house is not experienced from day to day only, on the thread of a narrative, or in the telling of our own story. Through dreams, the various dwelling places in our lives copenetrate and retain the treasures of former days.

I suspect Bachelard is right that we compare almost everywhere we stay to our previous “home,” or “homes.” After working all day on a campsite, it’s common to say, “Ah, all the comforts of home.” Has anyone ever moved into a new home and not compared it favorably or unfavorably with previous homes? It seems likely that argument with a spouse over colors, furniture arrangement, or a myriad of other house details are often the result of different visions of what constitutes a home.

Though I’m not sure I’d agree that:

The great function of poetry is to give us back the situations of our dreams. The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting place for daydreaming. And often the resting place particularized the daydream. Our habits of a particular daydream were acquired there. The house, the bedroom, the garret in which we were alone, furnished the frame work for an interminable dream, one that poetry alone, through the creation of a poetic work, could succeed in achieving completely. If we give their function of shelter for dreams to all of these places of retreat, we may say, as I pointed out in an earlier work,’ that there exists for each one of us an oneiric house, a house of dream memory, that is lost in the shadow of a beyond of the real past.

Some of my favorite poems are ones in which the poet recreates part of his childhood memories, memories invariably tied to his home. Although I can think of more childhood fables or novels that focused on a home than I can poems, the idea of “home” plays an important part is many of my favorite novels.

When it comes to poetry, the theme of the hermit’s hut is central to some of my favorite poetry, though It’s not the poetry that Bachelard cites in his work:

The hermit’s hut is a theme which needs no variations, for at the simplest mention of it, “phenomenological reverberation” obliterates all mediocre resonances. The hermit’s hut is an engraving that would suffer from any exaggeration of picturesqueness. Its truth must derive from the intensity of its essence, which is the essence of the verb “to inhabit.” The hut immediately becomes centralized solitude, for in the land of legend, there exists no adjoining hut. And although geographers may bring back photographs of hut villages from their travels in distant lands, our legendary past transcends everything that has been seen, even everything that we have experienced personally. The image leads us on towards extreme solitude. The hermit is alone before God. His hut, therefore, is just the opposite of the monastery. And there radiates about this centralized solitude a universe of meditation and prayer, a universe outside the universe. The hut can receive none of the riches “of this world.” It possesses the felicity of intense poverty; indeed, it is one of the glories of poverty; as destitution increases it gives us access to absolute refuge.

With the exception of some English Romantic poetry, I’m unaware of any poems in the American or European tradition that use this theme. However, it is a dominant theme in much of the Chinese and Japanese poetry I’ve been reading in the last three or four years. It’s part of the Taoist, Ch’an Buddhism, or Zen Buddhism tradition, though Bachelard certainly never mentions any poetry outside the European tradition. I suspect my feelings about what a home should look and feel like have derived from this tradition, particularly the appeal of simplicity.

That said, I would still I agree that

Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly. Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color. Consequently it is not until late in life that we really revere an image, when we discover that its roots plunge well beyond the history that is fixed in our memories. In the realm of absolute imagination, we remain young late in life. But we must lose our earthly Paradise in order actually to live in it, to experience it in the reality of its images, in the absolute sublimation that transcends all passion. A poet meditating upon the life of a great poet, that is, Victor Emile Michelet meditating upon the life of Villiers de l’Isle Adam, wrote: “Alas! we have to grow old to conquer youth, to free it from its fetters and live according to its original impulse.”

Any image of “home” is greater than the summation of all the personal homes we have ever lived in. It is made up of our personal experiences AND our cultural and literary history, even if our personal idea of home is at odds with the cultural definition. Indeed, much of what we associate with home may have little or nothing to do with actual buildings.