The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

Joan Ockman

But any doctrine of the imaginary is necessarily a philosophy of excess.1

Three or four decades ago a book entitled The Poetics of Space could hardly fail to stir the architectural imagination. First published in French in 1957 and translated into English in 1964, Gaston Bachelard’s philosophical meditation on oneiric space appeared at a moment when phenomenology and the pursuit of symbolic and archetypal meanings in architecture seemed to open fertile ground within the desiccated culture of late modernism. “We are far removed from any reference to simple geometrical forms,” Bachelard wrote in a chapter entitled “House and Universe.” “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.”2 In lyrical chapters on the “topography of our intimate being”—of nests, drawers, shells, corners, miniatures, forests, and above all the house, with its vertical polarity of cellar and attic—he undertook a systematic study, or “topoanalysis,” of the “space we love.” Although Bachelard was specifically concerned with the psychodynamics of the literary image, architects saw in his excavation of the spatial imaginary a counter to both technoscientific positivism and abstract formalism, as well as an alternative to the schematicism of the other emerging intellectual tendency of the day, structuralism. In his book Existence, Space and Architecture (1971), Christian Norberg-Schulz, the most prolific and long-term proponent of a phenomenological architecture, asserted that “further research on architectural space is dependent upon a better understanding of existential space,” citing Bachelard’s Poetics of Space together with Otto Friedrich Bollnow’s Mensch und Raum (1963), the chapter on space in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception (1962; original French, 1945), and two key works by Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1962; German, 1927) and the essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” (1971; German, 1954), as fundamental texts.3

Yet if Bachelard’s phenomenological orientation was already evident before the Second World War, the philosophy of science—the subject of his initial formation—remained a central preoccupation throughout his career. To read only The Poetics of Space is therefore to miss his originality with respect to the philosophical tradition from which he emerged, as well as the historical specificity of his development. One must consider his work on the creative imagination together with his writings on science and rationality to appreciate the dialectic that informs his thought. Indeed, in a rereading of Bachelard today, it is the interrelationship between science and poetry, experiment and experience, that seems to have the most radical potential, while his well-known vision of the oneiric house, with its rather nostalgic and essentialist world view, comes across as historically dated.

In his own time, Bachelard (1884–1962) was a remarkable intellectual figure, reputedly a reader of six books a day, and author of twenty-three at the time of his death, not counting his scores of essays, prefaces, and posthumous fragments. At the Sorbonne, where he occupied the chair of history and philosophy of science from 1940 to 1955, he was a beloved pedagogue whose flowing beard, earthy accents, and elevated flights of thought made him something of a guru. Born into a family of modest shopkeepers and shoemakers in a provincial town in the idyllic countryside of Champagne about 200 miles southeast of Paris, he initially intended to pursue a career in engineering. After three years in the trenches of the First World War, however, he changed his sights to philosophy, eventually moving to Paris, where he obtained a doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1927 with two dissertations, one on the acquisition of scientific knowledge by approximation and the other on the thermodynamics of solids. Over the next decade he produced eight more volumes dealing with the epistemology of knowledge in various sciences, becoming increasingly preoccupied with the dangers of a priori thinking and questions of objectivity and experimental evidence. In L’Expérience de l’espace dans la physique contemporaine (1937), confronting the philosophical implications of Einstein’s monumental breakthrough in physics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Bachelard took up the contradictions between Descartes’s and Newton’s concepts of physical space as empirical, locational, and stable, and the abstract, counterexperiential constructs of space-time being theorized by 20th-century microphysics.

But Bachelard’s inquiry into the revolutionary character of the new scientific mind little prepared his colleagues for the unconventional turn his work was to take at the end of the 1930s. Influenced by psychoanalysis and surrealism, two books, The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938) and Lautréamont (1939), signaled a shift in his focus from physical science to the phenomena of consciousness, from “the axis of objectivization” to “that of subjectivity.” With The Psychoanalysis of Fire—a book in which Bachelard set out to “question everything,” “to escape from the rigidity of mental habits formed by contact with familiar experiences”4—he initiated a series of investigations into the psychic meanings of the four cosmic elements, conceived as constituting the repertory of poetic reverie, the “material imagination.” The project of discerning a loi des quatre éléments would preoccupy him until his death, resulting in a suite of remarkable volumes on fire, earth, air, and water.5 In Lautréamont,another excursion into the domain of depth psychology—more Jungian than Freudian, as noted by Deleuze and Guattari, admirers of the book6—Bachelard set out to study the phenomenology of aggression in the wild, “animalizing” imagery of the 19th-century Uruguayan poet Isidore Ducasse, author of Les Chants de Maldoror, one of the sacred texts of the surrealists (and later of the Cobra group, on whom Bachelard was to be deeply influential).

As Bachelard acknowledged in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, “The axes of poetry and of science are opposed to one another from the outset. All that philosophy can hope to accomplish is to make poetry and science complementary, to unite them as two well-defined opposites.”7 Yet what profoundly links Bachelard’s philosophy of knowledge to his poetics of the imagination, his scientific epistemology to his study of psychic phenomena, is his concern with how creative thought comes into being. Like Michel Foucault after him (and anticipating Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the paradigm shift), Bachelard directed epistemological inquiry away from the continuities within systems of knowledge toward the obstacles and events that interrupt the continuum, thereby forcing new ideas to appear and altering the course of thought. Bachelard’s concept of the epistemological obstacle—a concept Foucault would assimilate in The Archaeology of Knowledge—was an attempt to demonstrate how knowledge incorporates its own history of errors and divagations. The “epistemological profile” of any scientific idea included the multiple obstacles that had to be negated or transcended dialectically—and thus absorbed—in the process of arriving at more rational levels of knowledge. Countering the codification of universal systems of thought and the formation of collective mentalities, as Foucault would put it, were events and thresholds that suspended the linear advancement of knowledge, forcing thought into discontinuous rhythms and transforming or displacing concepts along novel avenues of inquiry.8 For Bachelard as for Foucault, such epistemological obstacles played a crucial and creative function in the history of thought. Scientific inquiry therefore had to remain nonteleological and open to the possibility of such reorderings and reversals. In this way, modern rationalism would be a transcendent rationalism, “surrationalism.” “If one doesn’t put one’s reason at stake in an experiment,” writes Bachelard in “Le Surrationalisme” (1936), “the experiment is not worth attempting.”9

For Bachelard, the role played by the epistemological obstacle in experimental science is exactly paralleled by that of the poetic image in literary language. In Bachelard’s view, the authentically poetic image emerges from a form of forgetting or not-knowing that “is not ignorance but a difficult transcendence of knowledge.” As such, it “constantly surpasses its origins.” Hence, neither history nor psychology can ever fully determine or explain it. As he puts it in The Poetics of Space—underscoring the irony in the title of his earlier book on fire—the problem with psychoanalysis (just as with Marxist interpretations of history) is that it seeks to explain the flower by the fertilizer.10 For Bachelard, the poetic image “has no past; it is not under the sway of some inner drive, nor is it a measure of the pressures the poet sustains in the course of his early life… . The trait proper to the image is suddenness and brevity: it springs up in language like the sudden springing forth of language itself.”11 Bachelard’s notion of the role played by chance and mutability in the emergence of the poetic image is virtually identical to the creative principle of the surrealists. For Bachelard, surrealism is related to realism as surrationalism is to rationalism.

Explicit in his ontology of the poetic image, as in surrealist literature and art, is a critique of the ocular privilege accorded by Enlightenment philosophy to geometry and visual evidence. Despite its perceptual sophistication, the eye cannot necessarily go beyond a description of surface: “Sight says too many things at the same time. Being does not see itself. Perhaps it listens to itself.”12 Space, for Bachelard, is not primarily a container of three-dimensional objects. For this reason the phenomenology of dwelling has little to do with an analysis of “architecture” or design as such: “it is not a question of describing houses, or enumerating their picturesque features and analyzing for which reasons they are comfortable.”13 Rather, space is the abode of human consciousness, and the problem for the phenomenologist is to study how it accommodates consciousness—or the half-dreaming consciousness Bachelard calls reverie. In this sense, any “application” of Bachelard’s ideas to architecture requires a cautious approach at best. Indeed, Bachelard would undoubtedly argue that almost everything we know about architecture as a historical discipline stands in the way of everything we can know about the poetics of dwelling.

But precisely from the standpoint of clinging to traditional modes of thought, Bachelard’s vision of the oneiric house—influential as it has been on a certain sector of architectural discourse since the ’60s—itself seems to constitute a blind spot or epistemological obstacle. His radical will to question all received ideas and experience, his concept of the dynamism of the creative imagination, and his post-Newtonian philosophy of science contradict a conception of dwelling rooted in the soil of the preindustrial French countryside. It is no coincidence that Bachelard first evokes this atavistic dream world—“a house that comes forth from the earth, that lives rooted in its black earth”—in his book La Terre et les rêveries du repos, published in 1948, just after the Second World War.14 Bachelard’s recourse to the poetics of “felicitous space” would seem to be a way of countering an encroaching modernity. His antipathy to 20th-century urbanism and technology receives its strongest expression inThe Poetics of Space:

In Paris there are no houses, and the inhabitants of the big city live in superimposed boxes… . They have no roots and, what is quite unthinkable for a dweller of houses, skyscrapers have no cellars. From the street to the roof, the rooms pile up one on top of the other, while the tent of a horizonless sky encloses the entire city. But the height of city buildings is a purely exterior one. Elevators do away with the heroism of stair climbing so that there is no longer any virtue in living up near the sky. Home has become mere horizontality. The different rooms that compose living quarters jammed into one floor all lack one of the fundamental principles for distinguishing and classifying the values of intimacy.

But in addition to the intimate nature of verticality, a house in a big city lacks cosmicity. For here, where houses are no longer set in natural surroundings, the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one. Everything about it is mechanical and, on every side, intimate living flees.15

Bachelard’s evocation of the rustic abode in Champagne is almost exactly contemporary with Heidegger’s paean to the peasant hut in the Black Forest.16 Henri Lefebvre, who admired both philosophers, was among the first to point out the shared aura of nostalgia that suffuses their poetics of dwelling. The “special, still sacred, quasi-religious and in fact almost absolute space” that both Bachelard and Heidegger associate with the idea of house reflects “the terrible urban reality that the twentieth century has instituted.”17 The reverie of a maternal, womblike, and stable home, sheltering and remote, is, as Anthony Vidler has suggested more recently,18 a symptomatic response to the experience of an unheimlich modernity.

From this perspective, the work of Foucault begins—consciously—where Bachelard leaves off. Instead of Bachelard’s timeless reverie of felicitous space, Foucault prefers to confront the “coefficient of adversity” in the phenomenology of human habitation, addressing questions of historicity and power in relation to spatial discourse and institutions. The Poetics of Space thus leads, at least by one route, to Foucault’s seminal essay of 1967 on heterotopia, in which Foucault suggestively proposes to shift the problematic of Bachelardian topoanalysis from intimate space to “other spaces”—spaces of crisis, deviance, exclusion, and illusion; in other words, to heterotopoanalysis.19

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