Summary of The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
Bachelard takes us on a journey, from cellar to attic, to show how our perceptions of houses and other shelters shape our thoughts, memories and dreams. One of the best books on feng shui, environmental psychology, interior design and architecture and one of the best books that changed and transformed my life. A classic book – not suitable for speed reading.
“I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard was written in the last stages of Bachelard’s philosophical career and if focuses on the subjective perceptions of the house, its interior places and outdoor context. Bachelard’s reasons for writing this book is his philosophy on poetry. Poetry and metaphor are used to explain our relationship to space. The poetic imagery emerges into our consciousness as a direct result of the heart, soul and Being. Poets help us to discover the joy in looking, Bachelard suggests that image comes before thought. In this book, he expands his phenomenology of the soul, not the mind. In earlier work, he had tried to stay objective, true to science but he concluded that this approach was incomplete to explain the metaphysics of the subjectivity of imagination.
Bachelard proposes that any inhabited space that has a notion of a ‘home’, has a function of a shelter to comforts us and protect. He sees the house as a maternal figure or container in which we contain our memories. Bachelard explores psychologically different aspects and feature of houses. For example, he makes a distinction between a doorknob and a key. Although a doorknob is used to close and open doors, the key is perceived more often to close and the doorknob more often used to open.
Drawers, chests and wardrobes
Drawers, chests and wardrobes connote images of intimacy because these things might be where people hide their secrets. For Bachelard, the wardrobe is a centre of order, which stops the house from going into disorder. Small boxes and chests provide a need for secrecy and locks keep possessions guarded against thieves but are also an invitation to thieves. Our homes can be compared to animal’s shelters and as humans, we like to withdraw into corners because they give us a pleasure to do so – in a similar way as nests. So ultimately, a home has an image of rest, protection and quiet.
Shells are created by transcendental, fractal geometry with an innate order made perceptible. The little creatures that live in shells, retreat into own private corners, which provides assures immobility, shelter and space for meditation.
Bachelard suggests that in fairy tales the absurdity of making things miniature places the tale on a level of fantasy. Tiny things take us back to our childhood, due to the familiarity of toys and the idea of them coming to life.
Daydreaming helps us to contemplate grandeur and the mark of infinity. When we revere or admire things, such as a large forest full of tall impressive trees, we tend to exaggerate them to be immense and never-ending as a way of making sense of the infinite nature of the universe.
The dialectics of inside and outside
Philosophers tend to think of outside and inside in terms of being and non- being. Bachelard quotes, Hyppolite, saying ‘there is alienation and hostility between the two’. For Bachelard the notion of inside and outside makes everything take form, even infinity – as immanence.
The phenomenology of roundness
Bachelard uses Jaspers’ formula ‘das dasein is Rund’ which translates as ‘the being is round’. Images of roundness help us to collect ourselves and confirm our being intimately inside. Perfection is attributed to roundness. “everything round invites a caress”, and even the word ’round’ as pronounced makes one’s lips and breath become round and calm. My environmental psychology dissertation on shapes, confirms his initiative and philosophical finding.
To sum up, Bachelard’s study of intimate places is done with the natural wonder of a child – ‘to mount too high or descend too low is allowed in the case of poets, who bring earth and sky together. Must the philosopher alone be condemned by his peers always to live on the ground floor’? The structure of this books seems a bit random where he juxtapositions poetry, philosophy, psychology and science. He happily mixes science and the soul. This work focuses less on the practicality of houses, in favour of the innate value of homes. Once you read this book, you won’t see, hear and feel your home in the same way. This book can awaken you to the soul of your home.
Quotes from The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
“Rilke wrote: ‘These trees are magnificent, but even more magnificent is the sublime and moving space between them, as though with their growth it too increased.”
“We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images. Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.”
“We are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.”
“We must listen to poets.”
“The poetic image […] is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of any image, the distant past resounds with echoes.”
“It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.”
“When the image is new, the world is new.”
“A creature that hides and “withdraws into its shell,” is preparing a “way out.” This is true of the entire scale of metaphors, from the resurrection of a man in his grave, to the sudden outburst of one who has long been silent. If we remain at the heart of the image under consideration, we have the impression that, by staying in the motionlessness of its shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being.”
“Here is Menard’s own intimate forest: ‘Now I am traversed by bridle paths, under the seal of sun and shade…I live in great density…Shelter lures me. I slump down into the thick foliage…In the forest, I am my entire self. Everything is possible in my heart just as it is in the hiding places in ravines. Thickly wooded distance separates me from moral codes and cities.”
“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.”
“For a knowledge of intimacy, localization in the spaces of our intimacy is more urgent than determination of dates.”
“The philosophy of poetry must acknowledge that the poetic act has no past, at least no recent past, in which its preparation and appearance could be followed.”
“Daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.”
“In the theater of the past that is constituted by memory, the stage setting maintains the characters in their dominant roles . . . . And if we want to go beyond history, or even, while remaining in history, detach from our own history the always too contingent history of the persons who have encumbered it, we realize that the calendars of our lives can only be established in its imagery.”
“And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired, and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows instinctively that this space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when, henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams. These retreats have the value of a shell. And when we reach the very end of the labyrinths of sleep, when we attain to the regions of deep slumber, we may perhaps experience a type of repose that is pre-human; pre-human, in this case, approaching the immemorial. But in the daydream itself, the recollection of moments of confined, simple, shut-in space are experiences of heartwarming space, of a space that does not seek to become extended, but would like above all still to be possessed. In the past, the attic may have seemed too small, it may have seemed cold in winter and hot in summer. Now, however, in memory recaptured through daydreams, it is hard to say through what syncretism the attic is at once small and large, warm and cool, always comforting.”
“The poetic image is a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche.”
“Here the phenomenologist has nothing in common with the literary critic who, as has frequently been noted, judges a work that he could not create and, if we are to believe certain facile condemnations, would not want to create. A literary critic is a reader who is necessarily severe. By turning inside out like a glove an overworked complex that has become debased to the point of being part of the vocabulary of statesmen, we might say that the literary critic and the professor of rhetoric, who know-all and judge-all, readily go in for a simplex of superiority. As for me, being an addict of felicitous reading, I only read and re-read what I like, with a bit of reader’s pride mixed in with much enthusiasm.”
“Therefore, the places in which we have experienced day dreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as day-dreams these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all the time.”
“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…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.”
“Now my aim is clear: I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind. The binding principle in this integration is the daydream. Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere, at times opposing, at others, stimulating one another. In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing. Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul. It is the human being’s first world. Before he is “cast into the world,” as claimed by certain hasty meta-physics, man is laid in the cradle of the house. And always, in our daydreams, the house is a large cradle. A concrete metaphysics cannot neglect this fact, this simple fact, all the more, since this fact is a value, an important value, to which we return in our daydreaming. Being is already a value. Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house.”
“Actually, however, life begins less by reaching upward, than by turning upon itself. But what a marvelously insidious, subtle image of life a coiling vital principle would be! And how many dreams the leftward oriented shell, or one that did not conform to the rotation of its species, would inspire!”
“As I stood in contemplation of the garden of the wonders of space,” Milosz writes, “I had the feeling that I was looking into the ultimate depths, the most secret regions of my own being; and I smiled, because it had never occurred to me that I could be so pure, so great, so fair! My heart burst into singing with the song of grace of the universe. All these constellations are yours, they exist in you; outside your love they have no reality! How terrible the world seems to those who do not know themselves! When you felt so alone and abandoned in the presence of the sea, imagine what solitude the waters must have felt in the night, or the night’s own solitude in a universe without end!” And the poet continues this love duet between dreamer and world, making man and the world into two wedded creatures that are paradoxically united in the dialogue of their solitude.”
“All great, simple images reveal a psychic state. The house, even more than the landscape, is a “psychic state,” and even when reproduced as it appears from the outside, it bespeaks intimacy. Psychologists generally, and Francoise Minkowska in particular, together with those whom she has succeeded interesting in the subject, have studied the drawing of houses made by children, and even used them for testing. Indeed, the house-test has the advantage of welcoming spontaneity, for many children draw a house spontaneously while dreaming over their paper and pencil. To quote Anne Balif: “Asking a child to draw his house is asking him to reveal the deepest dream shelter he has found for his happiness. If he is happy, he will succeed in drawing a snug, protected house which is well built on deeply-rooted foundations.” It will have the right shape, and nearly always there will be some indication of its inner strength. In certain drawings, quite obviously, to quote Mme. Balif, “it is warm indoors, and there is a fire burning, such a big fire, in fact, that it can be seen coming out of the chimney.” When the house is happy, soft smoke rises in gay rings above the roof.
“Thus the dream house must possess every virtue. How ever spacious, it must also be a cottage, a dove-cote, a nest, a chrysalis. Intimacy needs the heart of a nest. Erasmus, his biographer tells us, was long “in finding a nook in his fine house in which he could put his little body with safety. He ended by confining himself to one room until he could breathe the parched air that was necessary to him.”
If the child is unhappy, however, the house bears traces of his distress. In this connection, I recall that Francoise Minkowska organized an unusually moving exhibition of drawings by Polish and Jewish children who had suffered the cruelties of the German occupation during the last war. One child, who had been hidden in a closet every time there was an alert, continued to draw narrow, cold, closed houses long after those evil times were over. These are what Mme. Minkowska calls “motionless” houses, houses that have become motionless in their rigidity. “This rigidity and motionlessness are present in the smoke as well as in the window curtains. The surrounding trees are quite straight and give the impression of standing guard over the house”. Mme. Minkowska knows that a live house is not really “motionless,” that, particularly, it integrates the movements by means of which one accedes to the door. Thus the path that leads to the house is often a climbing one. At times, even, it is inviting. In any case, it always possesses certain kinesthetic features. If we were making a Rorschach test, we should say that the house has “K.”
Often a simple detail suffices for Mme. Minkowska, a distinguished psychologist, to recognize the way the house functions. In one house, drawn by an eight-year-old child, she notes that there is ” a knob on the door; people go in the house, they live there.” It is not merely a constructed house, it is also a house that is “lived-in.” Quite obviously the door-knob has a functional significance. This is the kinesthetic sign, so frequently forgotten in the drawings of “tense” children.
Naturally, too, the door-knob could hardly be drawn in scale with the house, its function taking precedence over any question of size. For it expresses the function of opening, and only a logical mind could object that it is used to close as well as to open the door. In the domain of values, on the other hand, a key closes more often than it opens, whereas the door-knob opens more often than it closes. And the gesture of closing is always sharper, firmer, and briefer than that of opening. It is by weighing such fine points as these that, like Francoise Minkowska, one becomes a psychologist of houses.”