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4.1 out of 5 stars34
4.1 out of 5 stars
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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.
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on 1 November 1997
The Poetics of Space is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. It is to be taken slowly - the author's primary idea is that people crave spaces that inspire them to daydream. The style of the book is one that inspires daydreams itself; you will suddenly find that you have placed the book in your lap and you were off daydreaming! Poetics of Space is a methodical, carefully argued book which tells us that we read spaces like we read a book. There is a distinct psychology to each type of space - attics, cellars, the forest, and nests are just some of the spaces examined. The author was chair of the Philosophy department at the Sorbonne. For most of his life, he examined the philosophy of science, but in his later years he turned to artistic reverie as his main subject. The book is written with thought, love, and passion and is a tour-de-force. Highly recommended to those who enjoy poetry, philosophy, architecture or art.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 December 2011
Bachelard is attempting something so difficult it is no wonder this is a very demanding read. Having spent a lifetime doing "proper" philosophy, he realises that the analytical, critical approach used, not just by science but by philosophy, literary criticism and most writing about the arts, has been destroying our ability to appreciate and understand precisely that which makes much of human experience worthwhile. Here he seeks to deal with image and idea, imagination and poetry, without analysing them to death. It is like appreciating the butterfly as the air bears it amongst the flowers, rather than poisoning it and pinning it to a board.

Using poetry and contemplating our familiar spaces, Bachelard focuses our attention on the everyday, that which is usually taken for granted. But he is not trying to analyse our responses so much as induce us to understand how differently we can, if encouraged, see the world. Bachelard focuses our attention on ways of thinking that are non-linear, on the resonances of the poetic imagination. Because academics are accustomed to using the terminology of the intellect; analysis, criticism, taxonomy; it is a struggle to convey what he is driving at. Though I am used to reading philosophy, I confess I found Bachelard's language at times painfully opaque. His train of thought will be laid out in such a way that one is excited, eager to follow him forward. Then one encounters several sentences which, though they are grammatical, convey no graspable sense; they use irreconcilable words in an order that has no conceivable meaning. Is this Bachelard being extremely clever, and me rather dim? Would this make perfect sense in the original French, to a Francophone reader? Is the problem in fact one of translation?

Unfortunately, though I can read a little French, this level of text is way beyond me, so I'll never know unless another translation is made. This translation is by Maria Jolas, an ambiguous name; I find myself asking if the publishers have committed the error of commissioning a translation from, rather than into, the translator's mother tongue. W. G. Sebald, though fluent in English, insisted on writing in German and having his works translated by a mother tongue English speaker, lest their subtlety be lost. I cannot believe that English has no sensible words and phrases which will translate Bachelard's ideas.

I am wary, moreover, because where French text is published alongside English, the translations seem to me to be flawed. In chapter 3, for example, "armoire" is repeatedly translated as 'wardrobe', though it is quite clear from context and sense that Bachelard means 'linen cupboard'. Later, a stanza of verse by Jules Supervielle is translated as follows:

Je churche dans les coffres qui m'entourent brutalement
Mettant des tenebres sens dessus dessous
Dans les caisses profondes, profondes
Comme si elles n'etaient plus de ce monde

Roughly I search in coffers that surround me
Putting disarray in the darkness
Of cases that are deep, deep
As though they had departed this life.

Now, I am have mere schoolboy French, but I read this verse as

Roughly I search in the coffers which surround me
Turning darknesses topsy-turvy
In the chests so deep, deep
As if they were no longer of this world

Which is both more literal and more poetic.

The text does get easier as the chapters progress, and one also gets used to the translator's English, so persevere. You have to read on, hoping the context will illuminate, re-read hoping familiarity will shed a light, and finally you sometimes pass by, trusting that the meaning will sink in by poetic osmosis. In the end, you'll be surprised how much does.

I would like to have given this book 5 stars; it clearly deserves them. But only the most highly motivated reader can cope with such a high level of linguistic obtuseness. Readers who are unused to handling complex ideas will find it impenetrable. This is a book not just for philosphers but for poets and artists. In a very real way, Bachelard's question is "what is art and how does it move us?". Be ready let him lead you; trying too hard to get to grips with his meaning is like catching the soap in the bath; the harder you try to grasp it, the harder it will ping away.

Books which would be of interest to some readers of this include 18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields and Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in 20th Century English Painting
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on 11 May 2008
This book literally dragged me through my third year and I'm sure had I read it in year one my work would have had much more substance and depth. Many books recommended in the first few years of an architecture degree are split into practical tips on drawing, basic construction and work of other architects and they're treaties; hardly any works discuss conceptual meanings of space and how the subtleties of decisions one makes in a design or layout affect experience and character. A wonderfully written book (the only downside is its pretty intense), easy to have on you all the time, room in the margin for scribbles & like nothing you will have read before. This book opened my eyes to what architecture is, and should be.
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on 1 August 2007
The author has treated a very difficult subject with such sensitivity and clarity of thought, taking the reader through the various dimensions and aspects of intimate space. As a professional geographer, I would have called it intimate 'place' not 'space', but place has a particular meaning in the English language that is hard to translate into French (the same is true in reverse). I think this might have worked to the advantage of the author in that it forced him to be very clear about what he means. I'd recommend the book to anyone interested in the meaning of home. Super read deserving 6 stars
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on 17 March 2008
This book had totally captured my imagination and has become the inspiration for my artwork. How we look at the spaces of everyday items has evoked memories long hidden in the subconscious. It has opened my eyes to the simplest of spaces that I live, sleep and daydream in. I can't recommend this book highly enough to make you appreciate the things you may take for granted and enter homes and rooms with an awakened consciousness.
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on 11 October 2009
a must read for any aspiring artist... you must be patient to read this, and you must find the "space" to absorb it.
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on 15 June 2012
"More than 80,000 copies sold..." says the blurb; it doesn't say how many were read to the end.
Bachelard's notion here (si je comprends bien, naturellement) is that we experience art like we experience the world and that therefore the phenomenon of emergence that establishes the nature of all things applies as much to poetry as it does to an apple. This book is a composite review of how poetry (which is to say French poetry... plus Rilke, Milosz and a few Gallic, `poetic novelists') deals with the topic of space.
Starting with domestic space (ie houses - `the chief benefit of a house is that it protects the dreamer') Bachelard moves to rooms, wardrobes, nests, shells, confines and expanses. Each topic is treated didactically (...there are those, after all, who might rather regard the chief benefit of a house to be the context that it affords for visitors) but is nonetheless studiously supported by tellingly abstruse citations from literature.
Thus: `the objective study of subjective experience'.
The book is pleasantly discursive and inately wayward but - as a text which has influenced a generation of fine art students - it is also worryingly pompous and effete. From the start Bachelard points out that he is not a Psychologist (a species that is worthy of attention, but essentially inferior); he is a Phenomenologist: a creature allied to (but essentially superior to) a Philosopher who is uniquely qualified to ponder Poets.
For Bachelard, a man fossilised in academic mud, vocation is everything. Baudelaire is a `Poet' and singularly a `Poet'. As an entity his order is as different from a postman as a whale is from a flea.
This rigid categorisation of experience soon becomes unexpectedly (...given Gaston's chatty tone) depressing; just as his `insights' soon start to grate. A nest is `evidence of a cosmic situation' (...isn't any thing?); `In the realm of images, there can be no contradiction' (...would Escher agree?).
The arch-prissiness waxes towards the end of the book, until Bachelard insightfully points out that "at times" the sound of a letter defines the thought attached to a word ( if no poetry reader had ever before contemplated euphonics) and innocently undermines the translated nature of this English text.
As you reach the conclusion (having been promised several other books on ideas that have occurred to this phenomenal Phenomenologist) you realise that Bachelard is not, actually, a Phenomenologist at all. He's a book. A kind of literary hygroscopy has occurred. All that arduous copyism, all that filtering and selective grooming of words have reified him into the kind of inflexible, dessicant, poisonous text that Plato famously feared would result from the `invention' of writing.
Which - to be human for just a moment - seems incredibly sad.
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on 25 March 1999
I was asked to read this book before going to university and therefore saw reading it as more of an obstacle to be overcome than an experience to be enjoyed. The book is exquisite, a true pleasure to read and will tell you more about the spaces you live in, and with, then you realised you already knew.
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on 27 April 2014
Great addition to education of conceptual installation and an insight in to a level of conceptual thinking of instalative spaces this is a corner stone of conceptual art education
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