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February 18, 2021
By Anne-Marie Turcotte

"I became lucid, with an impersonal lucidity. I sensed I was at the heart of a mysterious peace, where everything miraculously took shape without my being surprised. I saw clearly that I was rising, and that I was free. I had an ease of soul that allowed me to think all and to believe all. I could do all, without risk. Without understanding it, I saw that the lofty thought that lived in this house was now entering me, had become my substance. And I no longer sought its meaning, because it was my own self. From now on, I whispered, in this state of the soul’s ethereal life, it is of my self that I must ask the secret of this place. And I stretched out on the bed, where the true sleep of my fathers enveloped."
― Henri Bosco, Malicroix

I understood my first book today. I’m 45. OK, this may sound a little strange… but let me walk you through this. Apparently, it’s not all that uncommon… Plus, I’m exaggerating a little…actually I’m at 3 books that I now understand…Understanding a book can mean different things, but I like how Gaston Bachelard puts it –   better than to reflect on a book’s proposition, it is to allow yourself to dream about it.

It all happened in a very short time span…a week or so…but I must admit, it took a lot of work to get there. Really. I’m happy I didn’t give up. It was all worth it.

Everybody that knows me, knows that I am a book binger. My house is filled with books. There are piles of books everywhere. I go through books at such a fast pace it’s nauseating. I put a lot of thoughts into making my book piles. I choose authors and books and place them as if I was planning a dinner party. Sometimes, I make a book do penance. That happens when a book makes me angry. Unfortunately, this happens a lot. I then squeeze the offender between 2 books, hoping that it will spark a discussion between the authors. I’m secretly wishing they will tear each other apart. Now that I think about it, it might not the best way to plan a dinner party… wanting to shame an author into taking it all back…but what should they take back exactly? I think I get angry at books because they scare me. Now, I understand that my relationship with books sort of mirrors my way of relating to people. I sometimes have to let books rest until time passes by, and I’m finally ready to accept them and dream about their propositions.

“The poetic image […] is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of any image, the distant past resounds with echoes.”
― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

I research Inuit youth’s experiences in relation to the built environment. It was while reading Bachelard (The Poetic of Space) for whom artists, especially poets, are born phenomenologists, that I learned about the poetic image.

Bachelard uses the house as a tool for analysis of human souls. He initiates a phenomenology of architecture by looking at intimate spaces which are rich in human experiences. These experiences often escape understanding because they are hidden and protected. Nonetheless, houses integrate thoughts, memories and dreams because they are huge cradles that allow our memories to take refuge. Bachelard explains it in terms of salient images with which we share a deep physical understanding. The poetic image is not a simple metaphor, it is an embodied understanding.

Intuitively, the poetic image appeared to me as a possible fertile ground to undertake my PhD research. I travelled for more than 15 years working with Inuit youth in Nunavik. The image of broken windows had always struck me as something particular. Odd and strange, the broken windows that I kept seeing felt sad, but I couldn’t help appreciating their oneiric beauty. This image I kept seeing, of houses with broken windows covered by plywood, leaving no room for light to peek through piqued my curiosity. In Nunavik, windowpanes are only delivered by seaway during summer months. The breaking of windows is the most common form of property destruction and close to 2000 windows must be replaced every year. These images of buildings baring the marks of scarification resonated with me and appeared to me as filled with texture and meaning. When I first put together my research project on Inuit youth breaking windows, I was told that perhaps, it wasn’t the best subject for a PhD dissertation… but I had read Bachelard who had initiated me to the phenomenology of imagination. I was also acquainted with the works of ethno-psychiatrist Devereux for whom the self cannot be subtracted from the understanding equation and must serve as data that is indissociable from the researcher’s quest, so I knew my intuition meant something. What I seek to understand may appear fuzzy. It’s like something peeking through heavy fog. It slowly gets clearer as you get closer to it and becomes a perceptible image and a felt sensation.

I believe that intuition and a creative mind are necessary to the research process. As Concordia Public Scholars, there are some things that we agreed to do. Writing blog posts is one of them. There is this thing though… these are strange times…writing a thesis is by itself is a lonely task, but writing in the context of a worldwide pandemic, when the university and coffee shops are closed amplify the feeling of isolation. When I take strolls to clear my mind, the usually busy streets filled with people roaming around are replaced by dead silence and closed down stores. Due to the pandemic, my relationship to space had to be renegotiated. Spaces that were my safe haven to write are not accessible anymore. I write home, while sitting on my bed drinking coffee. I experience my own domestic space in an entirely new way.  I find it extremely difficult to write to a point where it is unthinkable to do things that do not directly contribute to my research. Therefore, I thought I could use writing this blog post as a writing exercise and as an opportunity to read Bachelard and put in the time to really listen to his proposition…

“We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images. Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.”
― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

I still remember when I didn’t know how to read. I would watch my mother read, intrigued by that object that would absorb all of her attention. Mom, mom, MOM!!! She wouldn’t budge. What was that magical thing that happened between her face and this object she held in her hands? I would try to mimic her, grab a book, but nothing happened. I couldn’t wait to start school and finally be in on that strange thing that I couldn’t grasp. I started school but learning how to read was a slow process. The burst of excitement of some magic spell revealing its secrets to me didn’t happen as I had anticipated…but I wasn’t going to give up. I would stay in my bed, light lit, reading books that my parents would buy for me. My mother, brother and sister were sleeping in their rooms. But I was holding fort. My light would stay turned on until I would fall asleep, exhausted. My father who worked late hours at the hospital would turn off my light as he came back home. Of course, these are memories. Things might not have happened exactly how I recollect them. Nonetheless, memories are important because they are filed with meanings that often escape our consciousness.

Now my aim is clear: I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind. The binding principle in this integration is the daydream. Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere, at times opposing, at others, stimulating one another. 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 meta-physics, man is laid in the cradle of the house. And always, in our daydreams, the house is a large cradle. A concrete metaphysics cannot neglect this fact, this simple fact, all the more, since this fact is a value, an important value, to which we return in our daydreaming. Being is already a value. Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house.”
― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

In the Poetic of Space (1964), Bachelard explores the meaning of domestic spaces. To do so, he uses excerpts from the works of poets or writers whose prose caresses poetry. The thing is, great writers have this ability to capture what is for most, imperceptible. Poets have this way of writing that allows the reader to feel and dream. A well written piece allows you to capture the reality of an image, a poetic image, which includes a sort of physical and emotional commitment. Bachelard sees poetry as a phenomenon born out of freedom. He considers poets and painters as phenomenologists. For Bachelard, the phenomenological experience consists of a doublet of resonance and reverberation through which we are allowed to really appropriate ourselves parts of knowledges.

One particular passage of Bachelard really resonated with me. It is when he illustrates the attraction of spaces of intimacy through a light shining from a window in Henry Bosco’s novel, Hyacinthe. That light intrigued me. I rarely allow myself to read fiction or poetry. I have so many scientific articles to read. But this time, I thought it was really necessary. I wanted to get to the bottom of this. While a symbol of vigil from a house far away in the dark, this light had also the paradoxical effects of comforting and reinforcing the feeling of solitude of a lonely man who kept waiting for it to light up every night, while he looked through his window.

This light was calling me too. So, I went and picked up Bosco’s Hyacinthe from the library (I returned to the library 2 days later and bought the entire selection of his books, but that’s an entirely different story) and started reading…searching for the meaning of this light…it turns out that Bosco’s writing is filled with textures of affect…and the emotions I experience reading his book were both feelings of solitude and joy. These feelings were mixed with extreme excitation from experiencing contradictory feelings emerging from reading about 2 houses facing each other and a man reflecting on a light coming from the opposing house’s window.

“Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home. Late in life, with indomitable courage, we continue to say that we are going to do what we have not yet done: we are going to build a house. This dream house may be merely a dream of ownership, the embodiment of everything that is considered convenient, comfortable, healthy, sound, desirable, by other people. It must therefore satisfy both pride and reason, two irreconcilable terms.”
― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

While I was doing fieldwork in Nunavik, I had difficulties sleeping. The mayor of the community I was in had graciously offered me to live in a teacher’s house that was empty for the summer. I lived all alone in a duplex with no direct neighbour. Used to my noisy downtown condo, I wasn’t familiar to the unidentifiable sounds and crackling of house noise. It made me feel very anxious and the loud winds made me imagine neighbours that weren’t there. I had no phone, no television and no internet. I was also very tired after my days of working with kids at the local youth centre. I often laid down on the floor, unable to move or sleep. Devereux understood anxiety as a source of creativeness and good science. The use of methodology serves to alleviate the possible researcher’s projections, but Devereux warns his readers that it can also give them a false sense of objectiveness which blinds them from their distortions and biases. Let me tell you that while I understand that anxiety is part of the process, it is not always easy to find the strength to question this anxiety, find its source and use it as motor rather than a self-destruction tool.

While pursuing my fieldwork, an elder asked me one day to come along with him on a tour to show me all the buildings and quarters of his community. At one point, he told me that perhaps I was in the wrong community to conduct my research because, according to him, people didn’t really break windows in his hometown. Of course, there was the occasional incident where one was broken, but not like in other communities. We then came across a new building that was being built as a teacher’s residence. All the windows were covered with bars and mesh. When I asked him why where all the windows protected like that, he answered me, unbothered: “so that people don’t break the windows.”

I still think a lot about this day and what that elder said to me. There are things that you don’t talk about, especially to strangers. Some things cannot be put into words. A lot of meaning resides in the unsaid. How can you address complex experiences relating to injured houses and bad memories? My fieldwork has taught me that I must be patient. Methodology and theory are important, but the true complexity of lived experience is often overwhelming. Bachelard concentrate on the joy inhabiting a space can bring. While Bachelard’s book addresses the exhilarations brought by homes, Bosco’s work goes deeper into salient feelings of solitude as well as fear and curiosity linked to new encounters. But one thing is certain, triangulating the reading of the Poetic of Space, Hyacinthe and From Anxiety to Method makes for a great dinner party. I’m just happy I was able to sit down with Bachelard, Bosco and Devereux and hear them talk until the early hours of morning. My book piles now appear softer to me. They make me less anxious. I now have a lot of affection for them. They now appear as more appeasing and inviting.

About the author

Anne-Marie Turcotte is a PhD candidate in the Social and Cultural Analysis Program. She has worked with Nunavimmiut youth for more than 16 years and her doctoral research, which takes a look at youth’s relationship with their built environment, is conducted in collaboration with the Nunavik Youth Houses Association. A Vanier Scholar, she also has an MA in Knowledge Brokering from the Institut national de la recherche scientifique and a BSc in Anthropology from the Université de Montréal. She co-leads the best Concordia scientific podcast project, a working group from the Concordia Ethnography Lab.

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