In the introduction to perhaps his greatest work, The Poetics of Space, (translated beautifully from french into english by Maria Jolas) the twentieth century french philosopher Gaston Bachelard describes himself as an “addict of felicitous reading […] I only read and re-read what I like.” (p. xxv) And I loved that confession, because it is by exactly that way of reading that I was led back, this morning to this book…and it was as though I had never read it before.
Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) was one of Europe’s leading philosophers, and for many years chaired the philosophy department of the Sorbonne in Paris. As a young philosopher, his attention was focused primarily on the philosophy of science (physics in particular: one of his earliest of many scholarly books is entitled The Experience of Space in Contemporary Physics) But his interests and investigations soon began moving outside of the established molds. More specifically, his thinking and writing soon shifted away from considerations of reason and science to investigations of the metaphysics of the imagination; to the philosophy of art, aesthetics, and the poetic imagination in particular. Which is where his interest and writing remained concentrated for the rest of his 30-year-or-so career.
The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938) was the first book representing this departure, followed by a number of books in which he took on other elements (Water and Dreams, Air and Reverie, The Earth and the Reveries of the Will, and others. As he gradually became more involved in poetics, and with the question of the nature and function of reverie itself, his later books reflected that specific focus, and included both The Poetics of Space (1958) and The Poetics of Reverie (1960).
Along the way, as Bachelard’s dive into poetics deepened, he began to question the very definition and function of rational thought, challenging even its “givens.” Il faut donc distinguer entre la raison qui invente à contre courant et celle qui systématise après coup (“We must therefore distinguish between the kind of reason that goes [invents/creates] against the current, and the one that systematizes afterwards”), Bachelard wrote, and called for a “return to rationality its function as a force for turbulence and aggression.” A rescue, that is (at least as I think I understand Bachelard’s thinking) from a cold and distant rationality to the kind of passionate, engaged rationality that is the realm of the poetic; a kind of rationality that for which he coined the term “surrationalism.”
But I am starting into the weeds here…as I was afraid I would if I even started to write about Bachelard (because it is so, so fun to get into, those weeds). So, back to The Poetics of Space, specifically.
So what is the book about? It’s hard for me to describe (more about why that is in a minute), so I am going to just quote the publisher’s description (from the 2014 Penguin Classics edition) for the basic gloss:
This lyrical journey takes as its premise the emergence of the poetic image and finds an ideal metaphor in the intimate spaces of our homes. Guiding us through a stream of meditations on poetry, art, and the blooming of consciousness itself, Bachelard examines the domestic places that shape and hold our dreams and memories. Houses and rooms; cellars and attics; drawers, chests, and wardrobes; nests and shells; nooks and corners: No space is too vast or too small to be filled by our thoughts and our reveries. In Bachelard’s enchanting spaces, “We are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.”
Probably for good reason (to invite as wide as possible a readership) the list of “containers” in the description above (which reflect several of the 10 chapter titles) left out my favorites, so I’ll add them here: Chapter 8: “Intimate Immensity,” Chapter 9: “The Dialectics of Inside and Outside” and Chapter 10: “The Phenomenology of Roundness.”
And as I reentered the text itself this morning, I realized why it is so hard to write about Bachelard’s ideas (which I have made attempts before to do): it is precisely because of the way the lyricism and poetic density of Bachelard’s philosophical writing about poetics itself enacts and embodies, in language, exactly what he is writing about. How to say this? In the way Bachelard enters into the very “space” (a space of reverie) about which he writes, and writes from it as much as about it, he invites the reader into that space also. So that a reader comes to an understanding of what he is writing “about” from the inside-out also…which makes it difficult to “describe” from without, without completely betraying it. It’s like trying to describe what a piece of music “means:” it means what it is.
So instead of trying to do that, I am going to simply share below some favorite passages from Bachelard’s lengthy Introduction, most of which passages are less about the specific focus of the text to follow as they are about his poetics in general (especially the nature and function of the “poetic image”). I love the way these passages and short quotes reverberate and shimmer with the ideas they present (and Bachelard is all about reverberation and shimmer). In how they stand alone, and in how they engage the imagination, they are as good an introduction as any, I think, to Bachelard’s thought, and his writing.
“The poetic image is a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche”
“In this reverberation, the poetic image will have a sonority of being. The poet speaks on the threshold of being”
“At the level of the poetic image, the duality of subject and object is iridescent, shimmering, unceasingly active in its inversions.”
“The poet, in the novelty of [her] images, is always the origin of language.”
“To specify that the image comes before thought, we should have to say that poetry, rather than being a phenomenology of the mind, is a phenomenology of the soul.”
Then, in a long reverie on the paintings of George Rouault, he writes,
“The soul possesses an inner light, the light that an inner vision knows and expresses in the work of brilliant colors […]. [A] painter […] knows from what heat source the light comes. He experiences the intimate meaning of the passion for red. At the core of such painting, there is a soul in combat– the fauvism, the wildness, is interior. Painting like this is therefore a phenomenon of the soul. The oeuvre must redeem an impassioned soul.”
And finally, the title (of this post) quote…which, come to think of it, probably tells you all you need to know about the specific premise of The Poetics of Space :
“Our soul is an abode”