Bachelard’s “nests and shells”

Personally, I think the essence of Bachelard’s book is found in the first two chapters, but he extends his metaphor throughout the rest of his work, exploring the phenomena of shelter in greater and greater detail.

He suggests that the idea of shelter is a primal instinct:

With nests and, above all, shells, we shall find a whole series of images that I am going to try to characterize as primal images; images that bring out the primitiveness in us.

The nesting image seems like a natural, since primitive homes, small as they were, must have served primarily as a safe haven for very young children since it’s unlikely they could confine older children for long:

A nest, like any other image of rest and quiet, is immediately associated with the image of a simple house. When we pass from the image of a nest to the image of a house, and vice versa, it can only be in an atmosphere of simplicity. Van Gogh, who painted numerous nests, as well as numerous peasant cottages, wrote to his brother: “The cottage, with its thatched roof, made me think of a wren’s nest.”‘ For a painter, it is probably twice as interesting if, while painting a nest, he dreams of a cottage and, while painting a cottage, he dreams of a nest. It is as though one dreamed twice, in two registers, when one dreams of an image duster such as this. For the simplest image is doubled; it is itself and something else than itself. Van Gogh’s thatched cottages are overladen with thatch. Thick, coarsely plaited straw emphasizes the will to provide shelter by extending well beyond the walls. Indeed, in this instance, among all the shelter virtues, the roof is the dominant evidence. Under the roof’s covering the walls are of earth and stone. The openings are low. A thatched cottage is set on the ground like a nest in a field.

It’s probably not entirely coincidental that baby bassinets are often made of straw-like material lined with soft, fleecy blankets since it’s one of the first thing prospective parents buy when they get the nesting instinct. Who can resist nestling; I certainly loved it when Zoe nestled in my arms on my recent visit to Colorado. It’s hard to say who felt most secure— the child or the grandpa.

A less intuitive metaphor, but perhaps an even more thought-provoking one is that of the shell as a form of shelter:

Moreover, these facts of the imagination are related to allegories of very ancient origin. Jurgis Baltrusaitis recalls (bc. cit. p. 57) that “as late as the Carolingian epoch, burial grounds often contained snail shellsan allegory of a grave in which man will awaken.” And in Le bestiaire du Christ, p. 922, Charbonneaux-Lassay writes: “Taken as a whole, with both its hard covering and its sentient organism, the shell, for the Ancients, was the symbol of the human being in its entirety, body and soul. In fact, ancient symbolics used the shell as a symbol for the human body, which encloses the soul in an outside envelope, while the soul quickens the entire being, represented by the organism of the mollusk. Thus, they said, the body becomes lifeless when the soul has left it, in the same way that the shell becomes incapable of moving when it is separated from the part that gives it life.”

This certainly gives added dimension to the cliché he’s “just a shell of his former self,? doesn’t it? Is our home our shell, a living extension of ourselves to protect us from our environment?

In essence, Bachelard attempts to show the many way artists empathize with man’s attempts to find security in an uncertain world, a vital role in a postmodern world which seems anything but secure:

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 senses 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. As the poet Noel Arnaud expresses it, being seeks dissimulation in similarity.’ To be in safety under cover of a color is carrying the tranquility of inhabiting to the point of culmination, not to say, imprudence. Shade, too, can be inhabited.