Spaces, places and where we live

Good old Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher who wrote about houses having souls. I was thinking about him recently as I prepared to rent my house to Gordon and Teca, a missionary couple from Brazil, and their family. For four months they will be living in my house, and I will be living in an…undisclosed location. Okay, it’s Debbie’s house.

Gaston Bachelard

Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher who wrote about the poetics of space. Image from speakmnemosyne on

I first encountered the writings of Bachelard in 1997 when I was taking a graduate seminar at George Mason University on literature and spaces. We were assigned readings from Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space,” a 1958 treatise on the phenomenology of houses. Phenomenology is just a fancy word to describe the study of experience or consciousness.

According to “The Cultural Studies Reader,” “The house is, for Bachelard, the quintessential phenomenological object, meaning that this is the place in which the personal experience reaches its epitome. Bachelard sees the house as a sort of initial universe, asserting that ‘all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home.’”

To quote Bachelard:

In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing. Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul. It is the human being’s first world. Before he is “cast into the world,” as claimed by certain hasty metaphysics, man is laid in the cradle of the house…Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house.

In short, the house is the most intimate of all spaces. It “protects the daydreamer,” and therefore to understand the house is to understand the soul.

To give up my house, then—that space I’ve called my home for the past 15 years and also made into my office—is a pretty heavy phenomenological change!

So much of our psyche is tied up in our feelings about the houses we grew up in and all the houses we have lived in since. Breaking up with them, as the song says, is hard to do.

I remember my professor at George Mason saying that before you move out of a house, you should walk into every room and embrace the house one last time. “What kind of New Age bunk is that,” I thought. But when it came time to sell my house in West Springfield, I deliberately and slowing walked through each room the night before closing and tried my best to embrace it. I have to say, I felt a certain release and closure.

This week, as I’ve adjusted to my new home-away-from-home, a certain “doneness” has settled in. I’ve felt a sense of finality, a feeling of completion, a peaceful calmness. For weeks leading up to my moving out, I rushed to patch, paint and clean. I worried about all those things that go into making a house look presentable.

In my mind, all of that is over, behind me, and now it’s time to move ahead. I feel relief. And, eerily, I do not miss my house—at least not yet.

I am lucky to be sharing a space with someone special, and I guess that helps, too. Let’s hope the blissfulness that Bachelard says we associate with houses lasts!

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