“One might say that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.
Far from the immensities of sea and land, merely through memory, we can recapture, by means of meditation, the resonances of this contemplation of grandeur. But is this really memory? Isn’t imagination alone able to enlarge indefinitely the images of immensity? In point of fact, daydreaming, from the very first second, is an entirely constituted state. We do not see it start, and yet it always starts the same way, that is, it flees the object nearby and right away it is far off, elsewhere, in the space of elsewhere
When this elsewhere is in natural surroundings, that is, when it is not lodged in the houses of the past, it is immense. And one might say that daydream is original contemplation.” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Gaston Bachelard is a French poet, philosopher, scientist and phenomenologist who wrote the book The Poetics of Space, a phenomenological interrogation into the meaning of spaces which preoccupy poetry. Intimate spaces such as a house, a drawer, a night dresser, and spaces of wide expansion such as vistas and woods. For Bachelard this direct relation of poetry to reality intensifies the reality of perceived objects, ‘imagination augments the values of reality’, Bachelard asserts that poetry is directed, at one and the same time, both inwards and outwards, figuratively linking ideas of inside and outside which is so familiar to anyone dealing with the theory of space.
Discovering the work of Bachelard and his use of poetry and the poetic image to examine our way of being in the world, our lived space, provides for me a stark but welcome contrast to the common understanding of space as Euclidean, an empty, inert distance that gains life only through the projections of human subjects. Euclidean space is characterised by boundaries between insides and outsides, however Bachelard gives primacy to a living space that is simultaneously inside and outside.
Central to the work is the phenomenological object of the house/home. Bachelard determines that the house has both unity and complexity, it is made out of memories and experiences, each room stirs different sensations and yet it promotes a unified, intimate experience of living. Home objects for Bachelard are charged with mental experience, and with every habitual action we open endless dimensions of our existence.
Bachelard and the Poetics of Space might at first seem like touchy-feely, metaphysical conjecture, and he has certainly been criticized by many for being overly nostalgic, romantic or subjective, yet the house is not ‘his’ house, it is, as Bachelard asserts, our own ‘corner of the world’, our lived space:
“We should therefore have to say how we inhabit our vital space, in accord with all the dialectics of life, how we take root, day after day, in a ‘corner of the world.” Gaston Bachelard.
For Bachelard, the phenomenological way of knowing involves creative imagination. The term imagination does not refer to an activity of a thinking subject, but, rather, to an embodied relational state of openness. It is through imagination that we live space, a space which, in contrast to the void of abstract space, is full of possibilities.
The phenomenological methodology of Bachelard has significant implications for empirical research and his work has inspired the work of Foucault, Serres and Althusser. In modern culture The Poetics of Space has become essential reading for architecture students, a field I’m quite interested in. Architects Bernard Tschumi and Peter Zumthor have employed such philosophical theories and inquiries in their design concepts, stating:
Bachelard’s critical assessment of memory in relation to the experience of space served as a reminder of an extensive, interesting and essential number of variables that we can consider in the conception of space in the architectural realm. Our mental reasoning, considering the social and physical spaces that surround us and also our memory, our past experiences, both formal and non-formal knowledge will help us create the truth of space, our truth of space, the poetics of space. (Rossi 2009).