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.

Bachelard’s “house and universe?

If Bachelard had limited his “house image? to just our house, his theories would have limited value to most readers. His second chapter “house and universe? extends the image, or metaphor:

Rilke has furnished many proofs to which we shall often refer of his cognizance of the drama that attaches to the dwellings of men. At whatever dialectical pole the dreamer stands, whether in the house or in the universe, the dialectics become dynamic. House and space are not merely two juxtaposed elements of space. In the reign of the imagination, they awaken daydreams in each other, that are opposed. Rilke is ready to concede that the old house is “inured” by its trials. The house capitalizes its victories over the hurricanes. And since, in all research concerning the imagination, we must leave the realm of facts behind, we know perfectly that we feel calmer and more confident when in the old home, in the house we were born in, than we do in the houses on streets where we have only lived as transients.

“House? and “space? become opposing dialectical poles. Our sense of house, though I’d prefer the term “home,? offers us the safety we need to explore the universe. Safe at home we dream of far-flung adventures; far away from home, battered by our experiences, we dream of returning safely to home, or, at the very least, comfort ourselves with a little home cooking.

He asserts self and house are so closely linked that we tend to personify the house :

And so, faced with the bestial hostility of the storm and the hurricane, the house’s virtues of protection and resistance are transposed into human virtues. The house acquires the physical and moral energy of a human body. It braces itself to receive the downpour, it girds its loins. When forced to do so, it bends with the blast, confident that it will right itself again in time, while continuing to deny any temporary defeats. Such a house as this invites mankind to heroism of cosmic proportions. It is an instrument with which to confront the cosmos. And the metaphysical systems according to which man is “cast into the world” might meditate concretely upon the house that is cast into the hurricane, defying the anger of heaven itself.

In other words, the qualities we admire in a person are precisely the same qualities we admire in a home, and vice-versa, probably no mere coincidence since a strong, happy home is essential in raising strong, resilient adults.
There seems little doubt that a sense of home lies at that most literary of feelings, nostalgia:

If we go from these images, which are all light and shimmer, to images that insist and force us to remember farther back into our past, we shall have to take lessons from poets. For how forcefully they prove to us that the houses that were lost forever continue to live on in us; that they insist in us in order to live again, as though they expected us to give them a supplement of living. How much better we should live in the old house today! How suddenly our memories assume a living possibility of being! We consider the past, and a sort of remorse at not having lived profoundly enough in the old house fills our hearts, comes up from the past, overwhelms us. Rilke2 expresses this poignant regret in unforgettable lines which we painfully make our own, not. so much for their expression as for their dramatic depth of feeling:

o nostalgie des lieux qui n’étaient point
Assez aimés a l’heure passagere
Que je voudrais leur rendre de loin
Le geste oublié, l’action supplémentaire.

(Oh longing for places that were not
Cherished enough in that fleeting hour
How I long to make good from far
The forgotten gesture, the additional act.)

Though I much prefer living in the moment, even the future, it’s hard to imagine anyone who could live their entire life without some regrets or longing for the past, certainly not I. In fact, with Christmas fast approaching I’ve been spending time trying to make sure that this year’s Christmas measure up to those imaginary Christmases I had in my childhood.

Not only is our memory of our childhood home an integral part of out view of the past, it plays a part in our dreams of the future:

Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home. Late in life, with indomitable courage, we continue to say that we are going to do what we have not yet done: we are going to build a house. This dream house may be merely a dream of ownership, the embodiment of everything that is considered convenient, comfortable, healthy, sound, desirable, by other people. It must therefore satisfy both pride and reason, two irreconcilable terms. If these dreams are realized, they no longer belong in the domain of this study, but in that of the psychology of projects. However, as I have said many times, for me, a project is short range oneirism, and while it gives free play to the mind, the soul does not find in it its vital expression. Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts serious, sad thoughts and not to dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.

Perhaps in reaction against my childhood homes which were various short-term rentals from small shacks to mansion-like older homes, I’ve always put a lot of work into my home, particularly into the yard. I can’t image a home ever done, particularly the yard.

The chapter closes on a slightly different note, a domestic one:

Objects that are cherished in this way really are born of an intimate light, and they attain to a higher degree of reality than indifferent objects, or those that are defined by geometric reality. For they produce a new reality of being, and they take their place not only in an order but in a community of order. From one object in a room to another, housewifely care weaves the ties that unite a very ancient past to the new epoch. The housewife awakens furniture that was asleep.

If we attain to the limit at which dream becomes exaggerated, we experience a sort of consciousness of constructing the house, in the very pains we take to keep it alive, to give it all its essential clarity. A house that shines from the care it receives appears to have been rebuilt from the inside; it is as though it were new inside. In the intimate harmony of walls and furniture, it may be said that we become conscious of a house that is built by women, since men only know how to build a house from the outside, and they know little or nothing of the “wax” civilization.

I’ll have to admit that the hardest part of leaving the last two homes I’ve lived in, both of which I owned for nearly 17 years, was leaving behind the work I had done at each of them, though equally important were the memories invested there. I’ve always found it difficult to think of the homes I’ve owned as “investments.? No amount of cash could ever be as valuable as the time I’ve spent trying to create the home I wanted to live in.

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.

When Good Technology Goes Bad

I had big plans today to write two entries on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, one for today and one for tomorrow since I plan on driving down to a lunch in Vancouver on Tuesday.

I’d already finished reading the book, had significant quotes underlined, and had even given considerable thought to what I wanted to say about the book. So, early this morning I placed the book on my trusty, old HP scanner and cranked up Hamrick’s venerable VueScan.

Nothing, despite the fact I hadn’t even turned off the scanner since successfully scanning several pages last week.

So, I restarted the scanner and my computer, usually guaranteed to start the scanner. More nothing, though the scanner did show up in the System Profiler.

Since there have been some significant system updates since I last scanned, I decided to upload the latest version of Vuescan to see if that would make a difference. It didn’t. I, did, however, have to update my registration in order to make the update work. Turns out I must have been in Vancouver when I originally purchased the software, so I had to hunt down the original receipt in order to figure out what my email address and zip code was way back then. I love Hamrick’s liberal upgrade policy, but I don’t love having to overcome an aging memory.

In the end it made no difference. It still wouldn’t scan. I tried to figure out if it was the scanner itself that was bad or the converter to convert it from SCSI to FireWire that was the source of the problem. After several attempts, I quit trying to figure that out.

I finally decided that the HP scanner I bought somewhere back in the dark ages when I was still teaching, one that hasn’t been supported by HP for years and years must have paid for itself by now, particularly since I could get a decent scanner for $100 and even better one for $200.

Of course, that meant doing research online and then driving across town to Tacoma’s local CompUSA, which, needless to say, didn’t have the one that I decided was the best buy for the money in stock.

I ended up buying an Epson Perfection 4490 for $200 and managed to get it set up and working without too much more hassle. Unless I die while driving to Vancouver tomorrow, it may even turn out to be a good investment. I don’t have to restart my computer every time I want to use it. I can actually scan directly into OmniPage Pro rather than having to scan into a separate file and then open those scans in Omnipage.

Considering how slowly I type, luckily about the same speed I think, I doubt I would ever have been willing to start a “poetry blog? without my scanner, but there are times when the technological hassle seems more bother than it’s worth, unless you look far enough into the future to average out the time spent when things seem to go bad.