The Poetics of Space

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard is a profoundly attentive examination of how we inhabit different spaces and how these spaces affect our psyche.  I like to think of this book as a philosophical investigation of comfort, a topic which we rarely think seriously about despite the fact that we are constantly trying to obtain it. James Foster, a character in my novel One Hundred Stories Up, is a bookstore owner who is perpetually at work on a guide to living a satisfying life in the big city and Bachelard is one of his major influences. James’ thoughts on Bachelard echo my own, so instead of writing a standard review, I’d like to present two excerpts from my novel in which James reflects on The Poetics of Space. I have used italics to indicate what James has written and ordinary text to indicate descriptions of what James is doing or thinking.

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“James takes The Poetics of Space from the shelf and eases it open, not so much to read it but just to feel its presence in his hands.  He has quoted Bachelard dozens of times in his own manuscript, but how can he hope to capture the gentle progression of ideas, the way in which the book builds on itself even when it seems to wander off topic?  He wants to hand these ideas to strangers on the street, presenting them not as rarified concepts but as tools which anyone could pick up and use.

For this kind of work, James prefers unlined paper where his thoughts take shape more freely.  He writes the key quotations in large letters and lets other ideas accumulate around them like undergrowth.  “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.”  He fleshes it out a little, writing, Bachelard believes that we inhabit a room actively, identifying with the space around us, infusing it with something of ourselves.  Do you remember the intense pleasure to be found in forts built out of couch cushions?  I recall making a home for myself in a clump of old pines in a neighbour’s backyard.  There was a living room in that well of shadows, a great hall carpeted with dry, red needles.  The range and depth of tonality in these childhood refuges provide sustenance for later experiences.  James lifts his pen from the page and lets the familiar space coalesce around him, the vaulted ceilings and thick stone walls which his mind fashioned from the sound of the wind and the smell of sap.  Hoping to keep this flame alight, he selects the next quotation carefully, “Through dreams, the various dwelling places of our lives co-penetrate and retain the treasures of former days.”  Bachelard’s definition of dreaming is expansive; it includes daydreams, moments of nostalgia and the formative memories which resonate within feelings of comfort and well-being.  He quotes Bachelard quoting Rilke, carving out a generous handful of white space for the poem.

House, patch of meadow, oh evening light
Suddenly you acquire an almost human face
You are very near us, embracing and embraced.

He circles the last three words, his letters hurrying off into the margins as he writes, embracing and embraced, this double-movement is key to Bachelard’s notion of inhabited space.  Our homes embrace us, but we also embrace them, we live within our houses and they live within us.  Armed with this new sense of space, he moves on to Bachelard’s claim that “the space we love is unwilling to remain enclosed.  It deploys and appears to move elsewhere without difficulty; into other times, and on different planes of dreams and memory.”

He devotes a new sheet of paper to Bachelard’s discussion of cellars and garrets, quoting liberally, drawing out his idea that the rooms of our childhood home help to preserve subtle emotional tones.  This variety of spaces in our formative memories helps us to expand and differentiate our own personalities.  And the process works in two directions: real attics and basements become living metaphors which we can step into and exploit to our advantage, using them to shape our mood and mindset.  As he copies out a remark about “the increased intimacy of a house besieged by winter,” James etches the outline of a tiny bungalow onto the page, muting the sharp peak of its roof with a soft, round mass of snow.  I have learned to use this intimacy to help me focus.  In February, I cloister myself within a warmth of lamps and wood and I am at my most productive during those long, dark weeks.

On a third sheet of paper he quotes, “Great dreamers profess intimacy with the world.  They learned this intimacy, however, meditating on the house.”  My own parents, James writes, had a beautiful oriental rug upon which I would sit while building walls and towers out of wooden blocks.  In its shapes and swirls my young mind saw leaves and vines and wild animals and that particular intricacy of ornamentation still informs my experience of the city.  That’s the heart of it really, why he wants to be sure his readers understand Bachelard; he wants to take what Bachelard has done for the family home and extend it to the city as a whole.  His book is a series of metaphors which allow him to embrace and be embraced, poetic images which he inhabits whenever he goes walking.  And if basements and attics can help to expand and differentiate our personalities, how greatly we will be enriched by inhabiting the entire city in all its complexity!”

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Here is an excerpt from a more polished section of James’ manuscript which appears later in my novel:

Bachelard explains that “a home that has been experienced is not an inert box.”  The interior of a home exists within a human space which shrinks and surges, a space which has been slowly molded by the imagination’s involvement with objects and textures and pools of light.  If it is true that “inhabited space transcends geometrical space,” then we should learn to inhabit streets in the same way we inhabit our homes.  We must go out into our neighbourhoods, gathering up memories and weaving them into a sort of nest, covering the cold, rectangular blocks with a rough tangle of experiential twigs and straw.  Or perhaps it will be more accurate to say that we must dig a rabbit’s warren, a space which spreads like the thirsty roots of a tree, a space which is invisible from above, replete with secret lookouts and hidden chambers lined with soft, warm fur.  We are surely on the right track here for Bachelard himself has observed that every corner or secluded space “is the germ of a room, or a house.”

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I hope that these ideas have resonated within you in the same way they did for me and I encourage to try to pay attention to the role that your imagination plays in shaping your experience of different spaces.  If you do, then the next time you find yourself alone at a house party or sitting on a park bench beneath a tree, you may well be able to feel the way in which “the various dwelling places of our lives co-penetrate and retain the treasures of former days.”

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The Poetics of Space was originally published in 1958 in French.  Wikipedia says: “This book implicitly urges architects to base their work on the experiences it will engender rather than on abstract rationales that may or may not affect viewers and users of architecture. It is about the architecture of the imagination.”

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About Matthew Lie - Paehlke

Matthew Lie-Paehlke is a PhD student in Urban Planning at the University of Toronto.
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