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Book Review of ‘The Poetics of Space’ by Gaston Bachelard, Penguin Books, 2014 Jubilee Edition

Book Review by K.S.Loganathan

Bachelard was a French philosopher whose lasting legacy is the poetic meaning of architectural form and structure. This classical work explores how houses evoke thoughts, memories, dreams, and intimacy in the dweller’s imagination, which are manifested in poetry, and at the same time, this imagination imbues the space with spirit and meaning. The memories of our former dwelling places are captured as daydreams that remain with us for all time. It is in the house of dream-memory that may be lost in the shadows of a distant past, that our childhood remains alive and poetically useful within us. Understanding the house is for him a way to understand the soul. He writes that while the poet has given daydreams literary dignity, it is his ambition to give oneirism a philosophical dignity as well.  Bachelard introduces the concept of topoanalysis, which he defines as the psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives.

If the house is a bit elaborate, it has a cellar and a garret, with one or two floors in between, nooks and corridors, wardrobes and corners, etc., A house that shines from the care it receives from its dwellers appears to have been rebuilt from the inside.  Its verticality ensures the polarity between the dark cellar, and the attic opening to the expanse of the sky outside; here there is dramatic tension between the terrestrial and the aerial. In a belfry daydream, a man on the tower watches other men in the distant square scurrying “like ants “. In contrast, in poetic imagery, a distant light in a hermit’s hut in the forest is the center of concentrated solitude in the night, even as the enclosed light keeps vigil on the far horizon.

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In ‘The Huchback of Notre Dame’, Hugo has encapsulated the roles of a building in a single sentence- For Quasimodo, the Notre Dame Cathedral had been successively, “egg, nest, house, country, and universe”. Pasternak talks of how ” we construct the world- an enormous nest, an agglomerate of earth and sky, of death and life, and of two sorts of time, one we can dispose of and one that is lacking”. In the desert and the deep sea, both time and space are under the domination of the image in the traveler’s mind. The house is a sort of airy structure that moves about in the breath of time. Schopenhauer said,”The world is my imagination”.

In support of his arguments,  Bachelard quotes verses from over ninety European poets, with critical comments particularly on Rainer Maria Rilke, Charles Baudelaire, and Henri Bosco. Bachelard sees the house as a sort of initial universe, asserting that “All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home”.                                                 

My views

As Richard Kearney notes in his introduction to the book, the advent of digital communication networks and social media have brought our most private thoughts into public view, and our work and living spaces have become featureless and unsurprising. Even Bachelard writes at the time (1958) that Parisian houses with rooms piled up one on top of the other, lack cosmicity, became artificial, and are bereft of intimate living. The idea that our interiority defines who we are and defines our exterior destiny is undergoing a profound change.

Readers of English literature will be well acquainted with Gothic castles, with their imposing architecture,  which are fascinating settings to dark histories, complex emotions, and supernatural phenomena. We are thus ready to accept the poetics of space as Bachelard lays it out. It requires patience from the reader. But as Kearney concludes,” Once you have entered the poetics of space, there is no going back. The home you revisit is never the same again”. 


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Aishwariya Laxmi

I’m Aishwariya. I’m passionate about writing, reading, marketing communications, books, blogging, poetry and editing. I’ve donned several hats, such as freelance journalist, copywriter, blogger and editor.


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