Review – Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space

The cover art for the Penguin edition of Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space
The cover art for the Penguin edition of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space

This book – philosophical musings, abstracted opinion and also hilariously undisguised apathy for psychologists and scientists for their reductionist POV – is not so much philosophy, but an invitation to the reader to join him in his wanderings, and dream along with him. The only prerequisite needed here is your capacity to build sandcastles in the air.

Gaston Bachelard was highly unusual from other philosophers and scientists in his time. He was a critic of the Cartesian worldview which promoted a dualistic, non-reconcilatory and reductive way of reasoning, and argued that sensory perceptions were complimentary with intellectual deduction and reasoning, not at the expense of one or the other. He also pioneered the theory of the epistemiological break, which describes the history of science as occuring not in an expansion or build up on current scientific theories and assumptions, but as a complete breakaway, or demolishment of previous theories and assumptions that are the true culprits in preventing us from integrating new perceptions and perspectives. In other words, our own thought structures prevent us from seeing things in other perspectives, or from moving forward. We have to tear down our own existing beliefs, opinions and assumptions, in order for us to accept, reintegrate and rebuild our own structures of what we think we understand. For instance, we see this epistemological break happening in the theory of Copernican heliocentrism, which deviated massively from the widely held theory of Ptolemaic geocentrism a few centuries before.

‘And so the woodpecker enters into my sound world and i make a salutary image of him for my own use. In my Paris apartment, when a neighbour drives nails into the wall at an undue hour, I “naturalize” the noise by imagining that I am in my house in Dijon, where I have a garden. And finding everything I hear quite natural, I say to myself: ‘That’s my woodpecker at work in the acacia tree.’ This is my method for obtaining calm when things disturb me.’

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

In the Poetics of Space, Bachelard asks us to reexamine everything we see not through reducing things down to A + B = C, but through the enlargement of possibility; through our ability to dream. What if A + B could also be explained as the sum of (D + E + F + G), then divided by X? And it is here that we enter the realms of our poets, artists and writers who see and understand space through the exploration of imagery, envisioning it as much more than a purely theoretical idea.

Gaston Bachelard, the dude himself

A house is not so much a space for inhabitation, but also a hidey-hole for our personal experiences with the people that we inhabit with, and where we keep our earliest emotional and psychological furniture. Deviating from its abstract meaning of the void, we carry space inside us as a sacred temple of our being, and where we can retreat in times of distress and uncertainty. In each corner of this abstract house of our minds, we see the dreams that are familiar bedfellows at night, we experience the fears of the bogeyman underneath your bed – and we remember the lingering memory of your mother’s hand brushing against your forehead. When we climb down to the basement of nothingness, in the same way you descend into dreams every night, we get in touch with the deepest parts of our many-layered self. When we ascend to the attic of our high-flying fancies, in the same way you daydream at the back of your class as a kid – we see our hopes, aspirations and dreams of the future. Or, as you hide in a literal cosey corner with your book, sinking into the waters of that tasty plot, deeper and deeper into another embryonic world that slowly encloses around you…

‘He who buries a treasure buries himself with it. A secret is a grave, and it is not for nothing that a man who can be trusted with a secret boasts that he is ‘like the grave.’

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Bachelard also delights in escaping into the fleeting and epheremal beauty of poetry and fiction, as he examines Rilke, and other authors. ‘Words are clamor-filled shells. There’s many a story in the miniature of a single word!’ He also remarks on the introspective wonder and awe of immensity that pulls a person back into themselves, and mediates on the symbolic expression of shells as a metaphor of transformation, alternating between repression and vigorous expression – and also as a house for the soul. Bachelard even tries his hand at using imagery as therapy, imagining the noise of his neighbour’s DIY work to be the woodpecker’s incessant pecking in the acacia tree, as a way to calm himself down.

The book was rather difficult to understand in some chapters, especially The Dialectics of Inside and Outside and Intimate Immensity. I disagree with Bachelard on scientific objectivity removing all potential for imagination. I couldn’t help myself but think of cosy blanket castles when Bachelard recommends voiding all poetic imagery for coming to peace with one’s consciousness. I also yawned a lot, out of boredom and fatigue but also found myself patiently devouring word after word, in the solitary light of the muted lamp. And after two weeks of digestion, I’m now ready to move into the Bachelard-shaped shadow that this book has left.

I thought about how immensity plays a rewarding factor in shaping the concept of flow, where just the right amount of difficulty and enjoyment makes learning rewarding on its own terms. I think about building not only just a physical space to relax, but a mental space where I can rebuild and nourish myself, then spring out again refreshed; ready to take on the world. And I think about what Bachelard would have made of our post-pandemic world. How would he have responded in kind to our confinement and isolation? After reading so many reviews off the Internet, the subject of its study raises even more questions. Is it phenomenology? A ground-breaking architectural essay on art? An argument about the inevitable reduction present in scientific theory? Some white-bearded dude spouting abstract nonsense? I don’t know, but I love how it made me feel, and I love what it provoked in me. In its infinitude and logical respite, imagination and imagery are even more important in a world fragmented by ‘I know it is so, because I Googled it’, ‘I am correct and you are wrong’, by various -isms, by constantly forcing knowledge and meaning into neatly-shaped receptacles that once dismantled make no sense in experience.

‘Words—I often imagine this—are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. Common-sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in ‘foreign commerce’, on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers. To go upstairs in the word house is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down into 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. To mount and descend in the words themselves—this is a poet’s life. 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?’

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

I cleverly returned the book and forgot to take a photo of it, so have a large photo of the man himself – and of some quotes that in themselves are little rooms to retreat to. And to end this lengthy review in Bachelard’s words – ‘On May nights, when so many doors are closed, there is one that is just barely ajar. We have only to give it a very slight push! The hinges have been well-oiled. And our fate becomes visible.’

Review © Zelda Reville, quotes by Gaston Bachelard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s