The Poetics of Space

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9780143107521: The Poetics of Space
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Foreword

MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI

For you without imagination, who can matter-of-factly claim that you’re not the creative type—mind you, not proudly claim; for an imagination of ruin must burn beneath defiances against personal invention—then best put this book down and seek out instead some almanac of entertainment free from all such catalytic risks to a mind just mad enough to make out of one world another world.

Gaston Bachelard’s book—published originally in 1957 by Presses Universitaires de France as La poétique de l’espace—has as little to do with the House, Cellar and Garret, the Hut, Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes, not to mention Nests, Shells and even Roundness (these from chapter titles), as it has everything to do with how our comprehension of space, however confined or expansive, still affords an opportunity to encounter the boundaries of the self just as they are about to give way.

“The lock doesn’t exist that could resist absolute violence, and all locks are an invitation to thieves. A lock is a psychological threshold.” Yet despite saying so, Bachelard does not turn to violence nor does he keep the company of thieves. There aren’t even many locks. In fact it’s hard, over the course of even one reading, not to detect the warmth of that rare personality who unmakes a thief simply by making every article of interest available. Sit down. Stay awhile. Something to nibble on? Generosity of spirit abounds. Doors swing open. Thresholds offer little impediment. All are welcome. And in return, Bachelard asks of us only to dream. Or rather he gives us the chance to dream. For a chamber is no more a cage than reverie is an escape. Improbable discoveries wait at every border. As when Bachelard extends René Char’s invitation regarding

Discovery—not “hostile space”—concerns Bachelard. In the same way that Steve Erickson’s Days Between Stations and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day revive the sands of time as a medium intent on voyage, Bachelard gently addresses those settings we live in, and finally die in, with the lightness of why we live in the first place. Suddenly a chapter on miniatures offers a reflection on a hermit who while “watching his hour-glass without praying . . . heard the catastrophe of time.” The matter of prayer seems incidental to the anecdote, and yet throughout these pages there arises something meditative. Call it a calculus of emotional continuity or a music that only the grieving can know because they chose to carry on: what warms the hearth long after catastrophe has razed both hearth and home.

The Poetics of Space is one of those books in the tradition of Edmond Jabès’s The Book of Questions, Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, and Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. Whether portraiture of Sarah and Yukel; the designs poets inscribe upon each other; Sappho; the Kula exchange of necklaces and armshells, each of these aforementioned books becomes so much more: an indispensable guide for anyone set on becoming an artist.

Over the years I have discovered that it is not uncommon to mention Bachelard and hear in return a sigh of happy recognition. I have sat at tables crowded with journalists, graphic artists, urban planners, therapists, sculptors, and architects, all of whom carry some fond memory of their first encounter with The Poetics of Space.

The approval of architects seems the most obvious and at the same time the most odd. Despite the mention here of everything from floorboards to molding, names such as Isidore & Anthemius, Ictinus & Callicrates, da Vinci, Mansart, Gabriel, Soufflot, Garnier, Bartholdi, let alone Eiffel, Van Alen, Wright, Gaudí, Le Corbusier, or Pei, never appear. Instead the authorities vitalizing this work are Desbordes-Valmore, Caubère, Wahl, Caroutch, Poe, Barucoa, Morange, Clancier, Éluard, Milosz, Sand, Lafon, Duthil, Bosco, Monteiro, Proust, Spyridaki, Cazelles, Hartmann, Thoreau, Laroche, Guillaume, Bourdeillette, Richaud, Seghers, Supervielle, Wartz, Péguy, Rouffange, Vigée, Mallarmé, Bousquet, Goll, Ganzo, Shedrow, Valéry, Alexandre, Puel, Rouquier, Blanchard, Albert-Birot, de Boissy, Breton, Hugo, Bureau, Cadou, Patocchi, Rimbaud, Masson, Daumal, Vallès, Jouve, Guéguen, Baudelaire, Tardieu, Michaux, Pellerin, Barrault, Tzara, Rilke. Poets one and all. And why not? Just as stanza means “verse,” it also means “room.”

Though architecture prompted the recommendation, my own introduction to Bachelard came by way of poetry. A young woman I’d met one night in a roomy loft on Varick Street responded to my sonnets with news that in Italian her name meant “death”—A Non-Name Admittedly. Not that my interest was put off by this a.m. warning. Eventually I came to give her more than poems, including an early draft of my first novel. The seduction still failed and her stern advice to read Bachelard hardly seemed to make up for bruised desire. But what did I know? Thanks to love’s failure—and here, really, is a belated thanks to her decades due—a necessary revision was set in motion thanks to a young woman whose name meant nothing more.

Of course, sometimes nothing more can mean so much more. And these pages offer just that. After all, here is a thinker who urges the reader to discover an excess of association: “And how should one receive an exaggerated image, if not by exaggerating it a little more, by personalizing the exaggeration? . . . in prolonging exaggeration, we may have the good fortune to avoid the habits of reduction.” At every turn Bachelard encourages personal engagement: “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.” Or here: “Sometimes the house grows and spreads so that, in order to live in it, greater elasticity of daydreaming, a daydream that is less clearly outlined, are needed.” What would that have been like? To have had such a teacher who applauded you for letting your thoughts run wild? Encouraged you to live beyond gutters and margins, frames and apps, the limits of map and page? Well, this is that education.

Note how Bachelard’s Buddhistlike invocation creates out of the trap-of-the-corner a place to escape into the open of all that is not. Whether being there (être-là) or not there—or quoting Michaux, “en dedans-en dehors” (inside-outside)—by way of the house Bachelard grants access to the vastness of place while at the same time admitting within a vast inverse. Doors—ajar, in-between, mostly open—wait for us. Windows, however, seem less important, likely because of the way walls thin and nearly vanish. And I say “nearly” only because one senses that Bachelard believes that the invention of structure results in the transparency through which we need to view the world.

Above and beyond dwellings or even the inspirations of water and fire (see his Water and Dreams; The Psychoanalysis of Fire), image and language are central to Bachelard. He reveres image for its impact and the ecstasy it provokes just as he believes it is “the property of a naïve consciousness; in its expression, it is youthful language.” (We can only imagine with what reservation he would observe our present-day addictions to jpegs and gifs.) Language, on the other hand, recalls time just as it suspends the ordination of time:

We find ourselves experiencing in words, on the inside of words, secret movements of our own. Like friendship, words sometimes swell, at the dreamer’s will, in the loop of a syllable. While in other words, everything is calm, tight . . . Words—I often imagine this—are little houses, each with its cellar and garret . . . To go upstairs in the word house is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words.

For language is both image and text. The one tool we have capable of transcending both. Or as Bachelard so succinctly puts it, evoking childish delight over a discovery at the beach set against the immensity of ocean:

Perhaps the more clamor the better. That which we don’t know provokes what we just might conjure. Or as Bachelard writes it: “A lost symbolism begins to collect dreams again.”

What an inspiring pleasure then—with all this attention to paths and interiors leading to greater intimacies—to at the same time be reintroduced again and again to the outside. To suddenly discover D’Annunzio’s hares awake at dawn, running across “silvery frost” only to pause, ears alert, and by gaze alone “confer peace upon the entire universe.” And along with our own dreams of peace, ever beside such “animal peace,” to discover soon enough trees, many trees, beautiful trees.

Make no mistake: for all this dreaminess and natural calm, Bachelard is not without bite. From the outset he shows little patience for psychologists or psychiatrists. Though a philosopher himself, he calls the philosophy of his day a “cancerization of the linguistic tissue.” And yet in the final chapters he lets slip (a confession really) how if he “were a psychiatrist,” he would recommend a poem by Baudelaire to treat “anguish.” His squabble then is not with the purpose but rather the approach of a still-young profession. And of course, why not treat the power of great poems as something akin to “virtual ‘drugs’”? Many today would not disagree.

Regardless though of correct protocols, it is this enduring desire to heal that is the heart of The Poetics of Space and it makes of these pages something far beyond pages. As comfortable as Bachelard might be at a table of chemists and physicists, he could just as easily join a conversation between the ghosts of Carl Jung and James Hillman. His distaste is for what impedes in the name of dogma. He values the imagination because he recognizes that understanding without imagination is doctrine without growth. And without growth, what chance is there to engage the complexity that bounds us?

Culture gives us our collective dreams—on stage, on screen, online—but daydreams grant us each the collective possibility of oneself. Bachelard wants his readers to find the courage to pursue that private and very personal becoming no matter how strange and unfamiliar the outcome may prove—if only because he recognizes that what must allways deny us in the end must forever remain strange and unfamiliar, too. And so, as I see it, Bachelard extends to anyone with even a flicker of desire to fashion something beyond the pettiness of themselves this wish:

Introduction

Bachelard often praised imagination for its power of metamorphosis. One could hardly think of someone more open to constant transformation than the author of The Poetics of Space. Born into a family of shoemakers, Bachelard began his career as a postman in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France before working his way to a professorship at the Sorbonne. Far from remaining satisfied as a philosopher of science, when he got there he went on to embrace the life of the imaginary in all its forms: poetic, visual, psychological and elemental. There were many mansions in Bachelard’s mind and he occupied them all magnificently.

The house in which he took up ultimate residency was The Poetics of Space. This is a book that talks at length about homes. Or more precisely, their imaginary dimensions as underground cellars and dusty garrets, unlocked drawers and secret wardrobes, winding stairways and shadowy thresholds. For many years now, readers of all stripes have been attracted to Bachelard’s poetic haunts: artists and architects, philosophers and analysts, writers and scholars, each finding what resonates with his or her own professional and personal interests. For some it is the phenomenology of roundness, for others the experience of insideness and outsideness, for others again the dream power of childhood or the collective unconscious: the way, for example, his favorite image—the tree—amplifies from root and bole to leaf and branch, offering nests to all sorts of imaginary dwellers. Bachelard paints a vast canvas, his sense of perspective ranging from the most intimate interior to the most vital expanse, moving easily—as only poetic imagination can—between the micro- and macro-cosmos. Nothing is alien to the Bachelardian home, be it elemental, human or sacred. His imagination is endlessly hospitable. In reverie the “not” no longer functions. All are welcome.

 • • • 

This Penguin edition of The Poetics of Space is timely and commendable. Its republication fifty years after the first English edition in 1964 comes at a moment when contemporary society needs imagination more than ever. So much of our experience today is processed by digital communication networks and social media, leaving little room for inner spaces of reverie and meditation—the sorts of places that Bachelard cherishes and celebrates in his poetic revisiting of basements and attics, nests and shelters, closets and stairwells, cupboards and chests. The Poetics of Space is about hide-and-seek places where the mind can go on holiday for a while and think about nothing—which means everything. Havens where the soul can pause, in silence, and free itself to dream. And let things be. Now more than ever we have need for intimacy, secrets, sites of interiority and contemplation where we can practice what Baudelaire—one of Bachelard’s favorite poets—called the art of “fertile laziness” (la paresse féconde). Without such nooks and crannies to muse and mope, to linger and loiter, there is nowhere to begin anew. No place for rapt attention.

Amidst our culture of broadcast and bigness, Bachelard recommends that we rediscover the immense in the most intimate of things. In a world where Facebook and Twitter expose our most private thoughts to public view, and where so many places of work and habitation are featureless, climate-controlled and quarantined against surprise, Bachelard shows us ways of dwelling again in the flesh of space, of dreaming our homes as nests and shells, of reimaging hidden gardens and caverns where we can delve back into a world of natality, newness, beginning.

This book invites us to become readers and writers of our lives. And Bachelard is both. He is an author who loves reading, and no reader can enter the imaginary realms he opens up without falling in love with the world again. To follow Bachelard on his poetic meanderings is to be led through homescapes and landscapes of reverie and repose. It is to wander meditatively through new fields and forests of imagination where we revisit our experience as if it were the first day of creation. Rilke, another Bachelard favorite, has the artwork summon the reader with the words “Change your life.”1 Such change occurs, for Bachelard, when we re-enter the dwelling of the soul and intensify the transformation of being: “Our soul is an abode. And by remembering ‘houses’ and ‘rooms,’ we learn to ‘abide’ within ourselves.”2

Revue de presse :

Praise for Gaston Bachelard:

"[Bachelard] is neither a self-confessed and tortured atheist like Satre, nor, like Chardin, a heretic combining a belief in God with a proficiency in modern science. But, within the French context, he is almost as important as they are because he has a pseudo-religious force, without taking a stand on religion. To define him as briefly as possible – he is a philosopher, with a professional training in the sciences, who devoted most of the second phase of his career to promoting that aspect of human nature which often seems most inimical to science: the poetic imagination ..."
– J.G. Weightman,  The New York Times Review of Books

"[Bachelard] reminds me of skilled chess players who take the biggest pieces with pawns."
-Michel Foucault (trans.)

Praise for Mark Z. Danielewski's  House of Leaves:

"Any hope or fear that the experimental novel was an aberration of the twentieth century is dashed by the appearance of Mark Z. Danielewski's  House of Leaves, the first major experimental novel of the new millennium. And it's a monster. Dazzling."
- Washington Post Book World

"An intricate, erudite, and deeply frightening book." -  The Wall Street Journal

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