Although he held a prominent chair of philosophy at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris, the French thinker and writer Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) never allowed himself to become molded by the traditional ways of academic thinking. He remained a free mind, unfettered by conventions. According to his contemporary, the philosopher and historian of philosophy Étienne Gilson, Bachelard was a man “deeply rooted in the soil of everyday life” and lived in “intimate relation with the concrete realities of nature.” He rose to the top from humble provincial origins; was both admired and envied by the intellectual elite. His students, to whom he was generously devoted, loved him dearly, and his neighbours chiefly knew him as “an old man fond of choosing his own cut of meat at the market or of buying his own fish.”
In 1958, Bachelard published La Poétique de l’Espace – The Poetics of Space – a densely lyrical, almost magical book on our experience of architecture. In it, he courses through the realms we inhabit – indoor and outdoor. He registers the significance of old tower and peasant hut, the smallest casket and the shadiest corner. This passionate journey through space is also an exploration of the recesses of the psyche, the hallways of the mind. The enterprise demanded an ‘unlearning’ of the very rationalistic mode of thinking Bachelard had assumed in the capacity of a philosopher of science. The poetic imagination, unlike science, is independent of causality. Bachelard had to learn to be receptive to images of poetry at whichever moment they appeared.
The house is a shelter, Bachelard maintains, without which the human would be a dispersed figure. The house collects and contains past, present and future; it integrates thoughts and memories and desires – all this it does by allowing the human to “daydream”. The house we were born in, Bachelard writes, “is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams.” Each one of its nooks and crannies was a resting-place for daydreaming.
The scholar admits that “every house is first a geometical object of planes and right angles”, but asks his reader to ponder “how such rectilinearity so welcomes human complexity, idiosyncrasy, how the house adapts to its inhabitants”. Influence is mutual – the house makes an impression on the human and the human makes an impression on the house. The house is the human’s first universe. How the human experiences and makes sense of this first universe determines their relationship with larger space later, with the whole cosmos. Bachelard writes on how the house leaves its mark on us:
…over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits. After twenty years, in spite of all the other anonymous stairways; we would recapture the reflexes of the “first stairway,” we would not stumble on that rather high step. The house’s entire being would open up, faithful to our own being. We would push the door that creaks with the same gesture, we would find our way in the dark to the distant attic. The feel of the tiniest latch has remained in our hands.
Conversely, a house that has been once experienced no longer remains an inert box – “inhabited space transcends geometrical space.” The house, as it protects and gives form to human lives, acquires a personality and psychology of its own. Bachelard explains:
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.
The house functions around two axes of existence: 1). A house is a vertical entity, running between the polarities of attic and cellar and 2). A house is a concentrated entity containing numerous objects and shapes, each invested with a heavy and specific meaning. The roof upon the attic tells its raison d’être right away. It keeps one safe from rain and sun. But the cellar – the basement – is not easy to rationalise. It is more mysterious. Here’s where – in the subterranean depths – secrets are hidden, projects prepared. What about wardrobes and drawers and chests? They are repositories of intimacy. Caskets? –
The casket contains the things that are unforgettable, unforgettable for us, but also unforgettable for those to whom we are going to give our treasures. Here the past, the present and a future are condensed. Thus the casket is memory of what is immemorial.
And corners – where the punished naughty child is sent to stand alone? They are havens that ensure us one of the things we prize most highly – immobility. A corner is the sure place, the place next to one’s immobility. The corner is a sort of half-box, part walls, part door.
Towards the end, after talking about nests and shells, Bachelard reflects on the relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces, between here and there. The dialectic of sharp division is misguided and harmful. He says:
Being is alternately condensation that disperses with a burst, and dispersion that flows back to a center. Outside and inside are both intimate – they are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility. If there exists a border-line surface between such an inside and outside, this surface is painful on both sides.
Finally, Bachelard thinks about roundness – the quality of our planet, the shape of “heaven’s dome” – he tries to make sense of the shape. He finds a kind of revelation in the tree. He quotes the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
Tree always in the center / Of all that surrounds it / Tree feasting upon Heaven’s great dome.
One day it will see God / And so, to be sure, / It develops its being in roundness / And holds out ripe arms to Him.
Tree that perhaps / Thinks innerly / Tree that dominates self / Slowly giving itself / The form that eliminates / Hazards of wind!
Bachelard responds to the poem with an abstract but intriguing interpretation:
I shall never find a better document for a phenomenology of a being which is at once established in its roundness and developing in it. Rilke’s tree propagates in green spheres a roundness that is a victory over accidents of form and the capricious events of mobility. Here becoming has countless forms, countless leaves, but being is subject to no dispersion: if I could ever succeed in grouping together all the images of being, all the multiple, changing images that, in spite of everything, illustrate permanence of being, Rilke’s tree would open an important chapter in my album of concrete metaphysics.
The reader may not immediately understand such passages (this wonderful book is full of such moments). But the writing will surely grow on the mind.
A lecture from Vanderbilt University in which Professor of Art Marilyn Murphy discusses the work of several contemporary Nashville artists with national reputations that, in part, relates to Bachelard’s work: