I have recently started a new day job which has transformed my understanding of London. London, it transpires, looks like any other city I have seen from the top of a tall building when looked at from the top of a tall building. One of the chief most impressive aspects of London from a height is the height from which it is viewed. The other cities that I have seen from great heights have all had views that looked out across deserts which is why it struck me as a shame to view London (for viewing’s sake) from a great height. London is a charming, rambling, low-rise city to rival any other. It’s alleyways, nooks, churches are villages ossified into urbanity and are delightful because London is a place of so much narrative. To exchange London’s many stories – which reveal themselves best by feel through the soles of the shoes – for viewing from a great height (many ‘stories’) seems at first to disentangle oneself from the narratives of London and to view the city only for its bricks and mortar, impressive though much of that is.
I say these personal things by way of introduction to Gaston Bachelard’s sublime piece of literary, architectural and philosophical investigation: The Poetics of Space. Through this book he explores the psychological world that exists in the objects we, as a species, bring into being – their roots in nature and their reflections in literature: “wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed, without these “objects” and a few others in equally high favour, our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy…a wardrobe’s inner space is also intimate space, space which is not open to everybody.”
In marshalling his arguments, which are both whimsical and carefully made, he calls on Rimbaud, on Spyridaki, on Caubere, on Michelet on a whole new palette of continental writers for the English reader to discover and to luxuriate. He tackles the house, first as a whole (‘the significance of the hut’) and then through a series of objects and psychological experiences: ‘nests’, ‘shells’, ‘corners’, ‘miniature’, ‘intimate immensity’ and finally ‘the dialectics of inside and outside’. This is a book that has shot to the head of my favourite books in a very short space of time. For anyone who has lived in a house, or a home, who has imagined as a child the existence of other beings inhabiting space with them, the presence in a wardrobe, a door handle, a cupboard of personality that is greater than the materials from which it is made then this book is a delightful meditation on the nature of those areas of the world that are to many comforting and largely unconsidered. By interpreting the house, by giving it narrative coherence Bachelard not only draws out the beauty of the most simple aspects of the spaces we inhabit, but gives his readers the tools with which to beautify the world they live in, to better understand how to make a home and why to live a life. The book is the antithesis of the Ikea catalogue. In Bachelard’s world the home stems first from the imagination and then from material objects. It is a place of perfection and beauty through self-restraint and not uncontrolled expenditure.
As he says of nests:
“when we examine a nest, we place ourselves at the origin of confidence in the world, we receive a beginning of confidence, an urge toward cosmic confidence. Would a bird build its nest if it did not have its instinct for confidence in the world? If we heed this call and make an absolute refuge of such a precarious shelter as a nest – paradoxically no doubt but in the very impetus of the imagination – we return to the sources of the oneiric house. Our house, apprehended in its dream potentiality, becomes a nest in the world, and we shall live there in complete confidence if, in our dreams, we really participate in the sense of security of our first home.”
Perhaps then, it is wrong to say that there is no narrative in height, my aversion to the height is to other places, other things, a rejection of something other than the height of the building which is, objectively, impressive – certainly someone has dreamed the building and burrowed deep and reached high to raise it from a dream into an edifice in concrete and glass – in my heart I know I am at root a creature of the ground and the sea.
You can buy the book here.