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One of the most contemplative pieces of theory around
on 16 June 2004
French cultural theory is known for its wordiness and complexity, and yet in 'The Poetics of Space', Bachelard largely transcends these potential pitfalls and instead produces a meditative, poetic book that was not what I expected. It is still theory, and so not a light read, but the daydreams and thoughts this book inspires whilst reading make it far from an arduous text. What makes this book special is its amazingly straightforward subject matter: the spaces in which we live - cellars, corners, wardrobes, shells - and reading it makes you wonder why there has been so little theoretical consideration of such an important aspect of human life. The synthesis of theory, literature and architecture in this book is an unusual one, but fascinating in its originality.
Bachelard approaches philosophy from the angle of poetry, using a number of different poets and writers to illustrate and expand upon his discussion of how people experience and think about the spaces we inhabit. Quite a different tack from most theory, but as he writes, "How much philosophers would learn, if they would consent to read the poets!" I'm not a fan of poetry, but I'll certainly be following up on a few poets quoted, especially Rilke - Bachelard discusses their work with real insight. Nonetheless, he writes phenomenology rather than literary criticism, yet the extensive use of quotation does not feel at all extraneous to his argument. 'The Poetics of Space' is perhaps aesthetic philosphy that integrates creativity and thought better than anything else I've read.
Why not five stars? It takes a little while to get into Bachelard's style, and the theory-dense introduction is not the easiest of openings. Nonetheless, as you acclimatise to his way of thought, the book gets better and better; the penultimate chapter on "intimate immensity" is a beautiful consideration of human fascination with deserts and the sea. I think it is a book I will be coming back to, and I suspect it will reveal itself more with each reading.