Gaston Bachelard

The Poetics of Space

“Memories are motionless, the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are.”

What are the limits of empathy? What are the boundaries of our self? What color is the darkness of our soul? Where does fear exist?

The Poetics of Space, the seminal work of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (June 27, 1884 – October 16, 1962), mixes poetics, illusion, and common images to localize some of our most abstract self-concepts.

I should like to give the name of topoanalysis to this auxiliary of psychoanalysis. Topoanalysis, then, would be the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives. In the theater of the past that is constituted by memory, the state setting maintains the characters in their dominant roles.

"Occulus" by Isobel Egan featured in Gaston Bachelard's "The Poetics of Space" in The Examined Life Library.
“Occulus” by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Bachelard’s preferred sites are quite intimate and known—thus accessible—to any person reading his work. A home, something Bachelard argued we created wherever we went (and which I argue is often a misleading memory), is his primary image.

The great function of poetry is to give us back the situations of our dreams. The house we were born in is more than the embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting place for daydreaming. And often the resting place particularized the daydream.

Bachelard’s “topoanlysis” went beyond simple metaphor and worked through what he called “poetic space.” Where metaphor (our imagination is like a house) falls flat, the poetic image (our imagination exists in a form we know as a house) flexes to meet our complex psychoanalytic needs.1

Porcelain walls by Irish ceramist, Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Bachelard also explores the microspaces within the image; corners, nests, drawers, cupboards, cellars, and attics all figure in his analysis. From his section on corners:

And every retreat on the part of the soul possesses, in my opinion, figures of havens. That most sordid of all havens, the corner, deserves to be examined. To withdraw into one’s corner is undoubtedly a meager expression. But despite its meagerness, it has numerous images, some, perhaps of great antiquity, images that are psychologically primitive.

To read and enjoy Bachelard’s work takes a great deal of patience and mental visualization. For example, his statement that a poet will “seek warmth and the quiet life in the arms of a curve” had me picture Allen Ginsberg on a swing. It takes special conjecture to move further.

One has only to look at pictures of ammonites to realize that, as early as the Mesozoic Age, mollusks constructed their shells according to the teachings of a transcendental geometry […] A poet naturally understands this esthetic category of life.

Novelist Penelope Lively would have loved that; she collected ammonites, not for the transcendental curves but because they housed her memories.

Bachelard’s work reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov, who often turned abstract concepts into physical entities— “existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Or Rebecca Solnit, whose memory narratives often expand across ice fields and scramble up trees and reconfigure our imagined space.

In What Is a Wall?, I approach from the other direction, starting with a poetic image and extracting the psychoanalysis.

The Shape and Space of Memory
“Palisade” by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I don’t want to mislead you. The Poetics of Space doesn’t answer the questions I proposed above. But it does provide tools to help visualize and “place” certain feelings and imaginations.2 The Poetics of Space is about cultivating, housing, storing, protecting, and accessing the imagination and the emotions tied to imagination.

When Irish ceramic artist Isobel Egan says her porcelain structures are about memory, I know exactly what she means. (Bachelard influenced her work.)

Why does it matter? Why do we need to localize, contain, or even imagine things like memory? For understanding. A different facet of anything helps us gain perspective—literally—and, thus, understand notions that might otherwise overwhelm and be ignored.3

Bachelard’s writing expands one’s thinking and illuminates many other authors. Read it alongside Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s study of the aesthetics of shadow, the the poetry of Walt Whitman, whose vision conceives a universe in his most immediate space of himself, or Jackie Morris’ illustrations that deliver us back to the scope and scene of dreams.