Reading Space 0 Comments

In my childhood I used to descend into the subterranean levels of my family’s holiday home in the Philippine mountains. Down there the incandescent light bulbs always seemed dimmer, less able to illuminate the shoulder-width corridors that led to the myriad tenants’ rooms I was too wary to explore. Down there I seemed to always find myself hastening, quickening the shifting of my legs towards somewhere else – to the exit leading to the greenery, to the stairway from which I came – anywhere but there. It was as though I could never return to the safety of the ground level again, caught in the clutches of imagined catacomb-demons.

But I had also treaded the winding steps that brought me to the second storey of the same house. Although not entirely an attic, it contained what were to my nascent mind various items of ‘treasure’: unused bed sheets that smelled of pinewood; the odd cockroach egg, which, mind you, I never touched; packs of yellowing playing cards abandoned in the far-right corners of unlocked drawers. There, where I could stumble upon and revisit ostensibly magical paraphernalia, where firewood crackled as I watched from a balcony, where I could examine guests as they entered and egressed, I felt like things were less sinister, safer.

I often wondered what it was that made me ill-at-ease in the depths, the bowels, of that monolith of a dwelling. Was it all a product of my mind, a fabrication borne of juvenile mental wanderings? Or could it be attributed to something more abstract, something about the socially formed symbolisms of ‘up’ and ‘down’? It is, after all, preferable to ‘ascend to great heights’ and to ‘reach for the stars’, than to ‘stoop to another’s [lower] level’ and ‘plunge into a pit of despair’. One must aspire towards ‘elevated’ things, like reason and art, avoiding the ‘base’ temptations of promiscuity and intoxication.

It was through Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which delves into how this and other aspects of place are employed as literary signifiers, that I better understood the sentiments I felt for certain parts of that house. In the book Bachelard skilfully interweaves phenomenological and psychoanalytic theories with textual analyses to posit that the experience of space is significantly influential in the creative imagination. And while Bachelard’s predilection towards being literary diminishes the argumentative rigour of his oeuvre at times, his book still offers a fascinating way by which corners, storeys, cupboards and ‘the outside’ (among others) can be perceived – both in literature and in life.

I highly recommend it to those of you interested in phenomenology/philosophy, literature and architecture.

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