I’ve been gently navigating my way through Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space for a time now. In it, he writes about writing and he writes about walls. The human experience is made up of walls, both physical and conceptual; big walls, tiny walls, walls to keep things in, to keep things out, to keep things safe, to keep things private. Doors and hinges and keys and corners and locks, indeed we are “human beings, great dreamers of locks” (95). We search constantly for containers, whether for our most precious belongings or our most sacred thoughts. Because we crave intimacy, and intimacy is dependent on privacy. Nothing public is sacred.
So much time and effort has been spent throughout the millennia creating different kinds of walls to facilitate daily life: the large, strong walls for public spaces and places of worship, the smaller walls for houses, the still smaller walls for rooms, the even smaller walls of dressers and jewelry boxes and perfume bottles. We divide up the vastness of the world to claim our own little space to fill with what is just our own.
Bachelard in one chapter writes specifically about the significance that we give drawers, wardrobes, chests and caskets (by which he is referring to jewel boxes, not coffins), both as physical objects and also as words. He describes the evocative nature of seeing a wardrobe or even just reading about one. He writes:
“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 favor, our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy…. But words carry with them obligations. Only an indigent soul would put just anything in a wardrobe. To put just anything, just any way, in just any piece of furniture, is the mark of unusual weakness in the function of inhabiting.”
We learn early in our lives that if something is precious, you must keep it safe and that usually means placing it inside something else, whether it is jewelry in a safe, family photos in a frame, your worldly belongings inside a house with a door with a lock. Walls, whether of a building or of a box, are for establishing privacy, distinguishing between mine and ours. Walls and closed doors lend a sense of value, a sense that something worth protecting is on the other side. They arouse the imagination, for “[t]hat which we don’t know provokes what we might just conjure” (Danielewski, xv); a closed door begs the question of what is behind it. And in this way, the door, the wardrobe, the container too becomes precious, because it is more than just itself. It is guarding something else.
In a sense, our words work in this same way. We divide up the vastness of thought into strings of related ideas and place them inside the particular words that we pick to express ourselves. In the foreword to The Poetics of Space, Mark Z. Danielewski writes, “language is both image and text. The one tool we have capable of transcending both…evoking childish delight over a discovery at the beach set against the immensity of the ocean” (xiii). Our words are the little rocks and seashells that can only suggest the contents of the depths of the human mind. In this way, language is limited. We do not yet have all the words to capture the complexity of certain thoughts; as of yet, you still can’t truthfully describe the feeling of heartbreak to someone who has never had their heart broken, just as you can’t describe the sensation of being in love to someone who has never fallen in love themselves. We can poke and prod and use metaphors and get awfully close, but a flood of emotion can still overwhelm language. Words are delicate and at times imperfect containers for thoughts.
Thankfully, language is constantly evolving, but so too is our search for more and new and better vessels for bringing our most precious musings into full and truthful expression. The human mind is the original container; it is the most private and intimate place we have. Our world is a reflection of our efforts to replicate that intimate space here with tangible, real objects. We sculpt and our hands create a structure that contains a thought. We sing and the song becomes a container. We dance and our body becomes a wardrobe. A painting becomes a chest of drawers.
All quotations taken from:
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Featuring Foreword by Mark
Z. Danielewski and Introduction by Richard Kearney. New York: Penguin Group,