Sunday, April 11, 2004

The Poetics of Space and Easter

In trying to establish, finally, my long-since-announced pattern of Friday Music, Saturday Film, and Sunday Book entries, I've decided to right the ship with this entry.  I hope it won't turn too weird.
I am slowly working my way through Gaston Bachelard's 1958 book, The Poetics of Space.  The slowness is due in part to my workload and in part to the fact that, though Bachelard is by no means the most difficult reading there is, his ideas are of the sort that require a slow mental digestion.  Consider the task he has set for himself: how we experience space--specifically, the spaces in houses and other structures, such as birds' nests and animals' shells.  Note: NOT the objects themselves, but the spaces formed by them.  This is often the subject of poetry and narrative, he argues; thus "Poetics" as opposed to, say, "Phenomenology," which he says his work is.  So, then, a fusion of phenomenology and poetics, as we see in these passages from the Introduction:
Only phenomenology--that is to say, consideration of the onset of the image in an individual consciousness--can help us to restore the subjectivity of images and to measure their fullness, their strength and their transsubjectivity. [Yet t]hese subjectivities and transsubjectivities cannot be determined once and for all, for the poetic image is essentially variational, and not, as in the case of the concept, constitutive. . . . For a reader of poems, therefore, an appeal to a doctrine that bears the frequently misunderstood name of phenomenology risks falling on deaf ears.  And yet . . . the reader of poems is asked to consider an image not as an object and even less as the substitute for an object, but to sieze its specific reality. . . . In this domain of the creation of the poetic image by the poet, phenomenology, if one dare to say so, is a microscopic phenomenology.  As a result, this phenomenology will probably be strictly elementary. . . . To specify exactly what a phenomenology of the image can be, to specify that the image comes before thought, we should have to say that poetry, rather than being a phenomenology of the mind, is a phenomenology of the soul.  We should then have to collect documentation on the subject of the dreaming consciousness.  (xix-xx)
And off we follow Bachelard as he takes us into cellars, attics, corners, trunks, making us SEE these very familiar spaces as though we'd never really seen them before--and, of course, we haven't: they are spaces, after all.  They can only be experienced.
Which brings me to the Tomb, whose void we celebrate at Easter.  A former pastor of mine, in one of his Easter sermons, said that Easter is God's "Boo!", His big surprise.  But what shocks us is not Jesus' body, but its absence.  It is the space of the empty tomb that shocks, what is NOT there, that sets the mind to contemplating, Bachelard-like, this image that transcends language.  Jesus was delivered from death into life--and at no time other than Easter do we see and hear more clearly (and ironically) the pun in the phrase "from womb to tomb."  Jesus' tomb becomes the womb out of which not only He but all who believe in Him are born without a fear of death's power.
Back to Bachelard now: what is most impressive about his writing is his patient reading and obvious love of the poetry and narratives he's chosen.  He knows just how hard to push something; he doesn't overreach.  His tone is so modest, yet that modesty often leads his reader peering over the edge into a chasm of realization and catching his/her breath as s/he grasps the full significance of Bachelard's thought.  Or perhaps I'm overstating things a bit due to the time when I first started reading this book: I had just recently started reading House of Leaves, and it was quickly evident to me that Danielewski was more than a little indebted to Bachelard's work in terms of some of the themes he plays with in his novel.  For those interested in the intersection(s) between HoL and The Poetics of Space, have a look at this thread from the HoL forum:
this thread from the HoL forum. You might also find this other thread of interest as well, about the architect Peter Eisenmann.
Bachelard seems irrepressibly cheery as he discusses domestic spaces; if you read the first thread above, you'll see that I address that cheeriness and that, indeed, one way to understand how the horror works in HoL is as a sort of "what if" reading of Bachelard.  No matter, though.  Reading Bachelard is a magical experience.

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