Gaston Bachelard on the Meditative Magic of Housework and How It Increases the Human Dignity of Everyday Objects
“Consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions.”
By Maria Popova
When faced with a poetic image, writes the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (June 27, 1884–October 19, 1962) in his 1957 classic The Poetics of Space (public library), “we are in the presence of a minuscule phenomenon of the shimmering consciousness.” Bachelard is himself the proprietor of a shimmering consciousness, but although he is one of the most wonderful — in the literal sense of “full of wonder” — minds of the twentieth century and a major influence for such luminaries as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, he remains thoroughly underappreciated.
Trained as a philosopher of science, Bachelard is palpably drawn to the Eastern spiritual traditions, his mind seemingly the self-contained scene of Einstein and Tagore’s famous conversation. There is a meditative quality to his writing, reflecting a deeply meditative mind. In his 1957 masterwork, he extends an invitation to embodied presence, triply timely amid our disembodied digital culture, and beckons the attention not by screaming but by seduction — nowhere more so than in the passages celebrating the enchantment of housework.
Three decades before Ursula K. Le Guin framed housekeeping as a “complex art [learned] only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice,” Bachelard writes:
[The] daydreams that accompany household activities … keep vigilant watch over the house, they link its immediate past to its immediate future, they are what maintains it in the security of being.
What confers this imaginative dignity upon housework, Bachelard argues, is the quality of attention we bring to its simple tasks:
How can housework be made into a creative activity?
The minute we apply a glimmer of consciousness to a mechanical gesture, or practice phenomenology while polishing a piece of old furniture, we sense new impressions come into being beneath this familiar domestic duty. For consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions.
Perhaps because he came from a family of shoemakers, Bachelard finds especial allure in the tactile transcendence of menial work:
How wonderful it is to really become once more the inventor of a mechanical action! And so, when [one] rubs a piece of furniture — even vicariously — when he puts a little fragrant wax on his table with the woolen cloth that lends warmth to everything it touches, he creates a new object; he increases the object’s human dignity; he registers this object officially as a member of the human household.
It bears noting that Bachelard’s use of “he” is what Le Guin calls “the generic he” in her spectacular essay on being a man. Here, too, “he” really means “she,” for it is the housewife — an inherently feminine archetype by both etymology and demographic distribution, especially in his era — that Bachelard celebrates as the chief practitioner of this creative activity:
Objects that are cherished in this way really are born of an intimate light, and they attain to a higher degree of reality than indifferent objects, or those that are defined by geometric reality. For they produce a new reality of being, and they take their place not only in an order but in a community of order. From one object in a room to another, housewifely care weaves the ties that unite a very ancient past to the new epoch. The housewife awakens furniture that was asleep.
Bachelard considers “women’s construction of the house through daily polishing” and writes:
If we attain to the limit at which dream becomes exaggerated, we experience a sort of consciousness of constructing the house, in the very pains we take to keep it alive, to give it all its essential clarity. A house that shines from the care it receives appears to have been rebuilt from the inside; it is as though it were new inside. In the intimate harmony of walls and furniture, it may be said that we become conscious of a house that is built by women, since men only know how to build a house from the outside, and they know little or nothing of the “wax” civilization.
We can sense how a human being can devote himself to things and make them his own by perfecting their beauty. A little more beautiful and we have something quite different.
By tending and attending to objects in this way, Bachelard argues, we reawaken to their beauty, essentially reimagining them and creating them anew:
Through housewifely care a house recovers not so much its originality as its origin. And what a great life it would be if, every morning, every object in the house could be made anew by our hands, could “issue” from our hands. In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh tells him that we should “retain something of the original character of a Robinson Crusoe.” Make and remake everything oneself, make a “supplementary gesture” toward each object, give another facet to the polished reflections, all of which are so many boons the imagination confers upon us by making us aware of the house’s inner growth. To have an active day I keep saying to myself, “Every morning I must give a thought to Saint Robinson.” … A dreamer can reconstruct the world from an object that he transforms magically through his care of it.
The Poetics of Space is an indispensable read in its entirety. Complement it with Bachelard’s followup, The Poetics of Reverie, then revisit the delightful 1935 proto-feminist children’s book The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework.
For a living testament to Bachelard’s faith in the worldbuilding capacity of housework, see Carol Devine and Wendy Trusler’s magnificent The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning.
Published June 1, 2015