Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Poetics of Space

I recently discovered Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space.   Such an absolute delight to find a book filled with so many little twists of insight that curl up from the page and make you dream of the shapes of smoke.  It's really a gem and I highly recommend it.

There's not much point in my trying to summarize the argument; despite how lucid Bachelard's philosophy is (the book really makes you want to read the bulk of his work in the philosophy of science) there really isn't one.  Suffice it to say that it's about how we experience spaces in general, and particularly intimate places -- about how we connect with space, as it were.  If there is something like a thesis, it would be that humans don't experience the world "as it is" but as it intertwines with a whole set of daydreamed images that run alongside it.  This might give you a clue as to what philosophical school you could slot him into, if you're into that sort of thing -- he considers himself a phenomenologist, something which I side with the late great Leszek Kolakowski in not knowing what the hell it's supposed to mean exactly.  But don't write him off just because you think you're a hard core Heideggerean or something.  The book is light on theory and heavy on poetic examples.

In fact, Bachelard mostly just uses the term phenomenology in order to distinguish himself from a psychologist or psychoanalyst, and not to align himself with a philosophical school  The key difference lies in how you approach the life of an image.  Psychologists and psychoanalysts try to explain an image by relating it to another image, and from there, back to the psychology or life or childhood or even cultural history, of the imaginer.  In other words, they try to explain the cause of the image, and hence to reduce it to a mere effect of something supposedly more real and fundamental.  They center their view on humanity as the creator of images, deny the reality of the image itself, and explain away the flower in the fertilizer.

Bachelard doesn't really disagree that this is one way to look at things (he did start off as a physicist after all), but he goes on to take seriously the being of images in themselves.  Words and images are things too, and they have a life of their own.  Maybe, like the Jewish mystics imagine, the white spaces are just as important as the black letters, and we humans are just the bees that keep the flowers blooming (unless we're the fertilizer). 

This actually brings up one of the ideas that most resonated me in this book, albeit through the metaphysical backdoor.  And that is: read generously!  People (myself very often included) are terrible readers.  Yes, I mean rushed and ADD and made stupid by the internet, though this type of reading may have some place for us worker bees.  But more than that, I mean that we so often read and think with some angle in mind.  We come to a text with so many preconceptions that we have to fight through layers and layers of dismissal before we can even hear it.  We find it so difficult to change our minds, to listen to new arguments or new facts and decide that perhaps we see it differently now.  Fearful even of the possibility, we show up spoiling for a fight.  We immediately fill ourselves with feigned outrage and petty critique before we even try to understand why someone might make that argument and what it might mean, regardless of whether we agree or not.  When I am reading well, I open up every book hoping to find a brand new treasure, and listen to every argument with the idea that there is some new side I have not weighed in the balance.  Which is probably why I contradict myself so much.

Bachelard critiques a similar type of haste in our approach to poetry.  We breeze through the mounting construction of an image without ever really living it.  It's only when we go slowly enough to genuinely feel the image, to really experience it, that we actually bring it into being.  This requires us to read slowly and generously, bending our mind into the shape asked by another until we recreate the same magic that they felt in putting it on paper.  It also requires us, as philosophers, to read reality generously, so to speak.  We have to explore the reality of an image in all its obvious power to move us, rather than reducing it to confusion and mere metaphor.  We have to suspend our desire to get to the bottom of things and grant reality to everything with an effect, no matter how superficial an image may seem at first.

But what exactly is an image?  How does it come into being and propagate?  Bachelard doesn't try to come up with a full theory of this, though his introduction does sketch out some interesting ideas about the image as the cutting edge of being or the place where life and being overflow themselves. Almost paradoxically, he calls this absolute creation of novelty a kind of reverberation, because the image comes into being and is lived anew each time it is truly experienced.  You are following the bouncing ball if you realize that this creates strange questions about the meaning of concepts like "cause" and "identity". 

The real beauty of the book, however, is in the wealth of images Bachelard waxes rhapsodic about.  It's a grand tour of French poetry in little snippets, with a commentator who draws out all kinds of interesting currents that run beneath.  Which is to say that I think it's well worth reading even if you have no special interest in philosophy  He begins with the images of shelter and solitude that constitute the basis of the house -- a lone lamp in the distance protectively enveloping the dreamer within.  Then he moves on to houses that open to the world; we don't close ourselves up in huts but open our windows to the universe.  And once he has covered the house as whole he goes back to examine the images we associate with all the tiny parts in several chapters on drawers, wardrobes, nests, shells, and corners.  Then gradually, towards the end, he works his way back around to more metaphysical speculation by examining the Alice In Wonderland quality of our relationship to miniatures and the strange way they open into immensity -- an apple becomes a model of the solar system.  And finally, we end with a long chapter on the dialectics of inside and outside and the brilliant observation that anything that marries these two opposites, fusing diversity into unity, seems somehow pleasingly round, even if it is a tree.  In fact, maybe Being is Round.  It's sure sounds fun to say.  Maybe after a few drinks you can even feel it.

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!

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