“…the imagination, by virtue of its freshness and its own peculiar activity, can make what is familiar into what is strange. With a single poetic detail, the imagination confronts us with a new world. From then on, the detail takes precedence over the panorama, and a simple image, if it is new, will open up an entire world.”
Gaston Bachelard (1964) The Poetics of Space
This essay is about confined spaces that only reveal themselves to humans fleetingly (if at all). It is about the effect of noticing them and lingering to contemplate them. In spirit it follows in the footsteps of Gaston Bachelard’s meditations on the shelter-world of homes, shells and nests. But I will drift more towards man-made interstices, with the voids within walls, furniture and floors. Bachelard’s project was to enquire into the ways in which the creative unconscious and places of dwelling are linked in human minds and actions. I find myself drawn more towards the alienness of spaces that are non-human due to their size, location or other form of human inaccessibility. In what circumstances are these spaces noticed by us, and in what ways do we possess, know or colonise them?
Revealed by flames
Watching an old sofa burn earlier this week, it was the moment that the fabric panel beneath the arm rest rolled back in the face of the flames that caught my eye. For, in that unfurling, the inside of the sofa arm revealed itself to me as a cavity, a small cavern bounded by a wooden framework, iron springs and matting; an unknown hollow that I had spent many hours resting against. This was a place that had not seen daylight since it was enclosed by the upholsterer many decades ago. But for a few moments fresh air was able to rush into this once enclosed territory, flames then quickly following in air’s invasive wake, briefly filling this void with overwhelming heat and light before bringing about the collapse of the framing tiers of this now failing structure, and the extinction of this space.
This sofa’s fate was sealed by an incontinent cat. This furniture had to go, it couldn’t be passed on. So, it went by fire. During the life of this sofa this enclosed space was inhabited only by stale air, crumbs, dust mites, fleas (courtesy of our dog and cats) and perhaps holidaying viruses and bacteria migrating there from the surficial smear-strips of youthful residents or their guests. It was an alien ecology, a vibrant place (perhaps) for some life forms, but not a place of human habitation. It was, in human terms a ‘non-space’, a place beyond access, beyond the human everyday realm. I’d fleetingly glimpsed another world down the back of the sofa.
Looking in the wardrobe
We normally only venture inside our possessions when we are searching for something. A lost key causes us to explore coats, pockets and sofa crevices in a way quite out of keeping with our usual disregard for such locations. Briefly we pour over them intently, inspecting such cavities with unfamiliar intimacy, often with hesitancy. Contorted fingers venture tentatively beyond sight into foreign lands, fearing spiders, dirt or other unknowns. Then we withdraw once again from these spaces, they cannot be occupied permanently, the body and/or the mind could not stand it. To slide under a car or bed, to probe a sofa, cupboard or wall void, to climb into a wardrobe, attic or inspection chamber: all are challenging and thrilling, but they are temporary incursions. Daily human life could not be lived in these spaces.
And yet, occasionally humans do in extremis seek to dwell in such places: priests, fugitives and other refugees have all sought out spaces to dwell within the hidden portions of houses. In such situations the acquaintance with those spaces would energise otherwise liminal space. In a feint echo of this perhaps, hiding as a child, striving to suppress the sound of breathing whilst squeezed into the wardrobe you became strangely aware of the nature and features of that furniture. The grain on the door, the smell of the place, the occupation of this space by other stuff stored there and the resistance to your weight as it creaked to accommodate its new exceptional loading. For a few moments you might have glimpsed the sentinel-like essence of what it must be like to be a wardrobe. But then you stepped back into the real world, stood up straight and got on with being a human.
Human engagements with non-human space
Clearly we can never actually come to know what it’s like to be a wardrobe, or even what it’s like to be a creature whose natural habitat is such spaces. Yet fictions of miniaturisation, like The Borrowers, Mrs Pepperpot or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids embrace this alienness. The humans are for some reason shrunken, and find themselves exploring the familiar home-world in new ways. Everyday objects become functionally mutated. A shoe becomes a house or a boat, a puddle a lake. As a room becomes a continent, an alien landscape is glimpsed in all its now-apparent jeopardy. And then a full-size human appears and the mini-people have to flee the ‘giant’s’ footsteps, as that giant goes about his everyday engagement with mundane spaces and things. If the mini-people are lucky they will manage to reach the relative safety of a mouse-hole, and will enter the wall cavity.
These mini-people get to go where the full size humans cannot. To explore floor voids, cavity walls, rafters – to see a house from the truly-inside, to scurry sideways through a house like a mouse or a spider. I’m jealous. The closest I’ve come is in a videogame adaptation of Disney’s Ratatouille film, in which players get to venture, like a rodent Laura Croft amidst the cavity wall of a Parisian town house. To see the wall from the inside is to see the way that plaster oozes there in sensuous bulges through the lath strips. On the outside the plaster is all smooth and neat, but on the inside it is the epitome of disorder, irregularity and an excess of matter. The quest for epic smoothness on the exterior, requires this secret opposite effect inside the wall. There is something Dorian Gray-like in the banishment of imperfection from one zone into another. But this by-product effect isn’t meant to be seen by the human eye.
The authenticity of the invisible
And yet the invisble stuff seems important, or at least it does to me. I recall a recent work meeting. A gathering to view a nearly complete 3D virtual reality model of a house, designed for building surveying students to practice upon. During the meeting the presenter was keen to assure his audience that this simulation was a replica of a real house, and that the design of the model was one strictly shaped by adherence to ‘real world physics’ (which meant the students could not levitate, walk through walls or otherwise use super powers in their engagement with this place). But it was an abrogation of real world matter-detail that irked me. I asked whether it would be possible to lift up the floorboards, to search for the wiring, to observe the runs of the central heating system or the remnant traces of the gas lamp piping. ‘Um, no’ came the reply, ‘building surveyors don’t report on those systems’. So, that aspect of detail would be ignored, partly because in disciplinary terms it was considered irrelevant and partly because of the vast coding and data resource that would be entailed in depicting hidden features of the house that might never actually be searched for.
At the level of logic I understood, but at gut level this felt like a serious dent in the authenticity of this depiction of the house. Like an obsessive dolls house maker I felt the need to paint walls it would not be possible to see, to fully populate this model. To strive to include everything, even the invisble stuff. Eventually, a concession was offered. A few bounded zones of subsurface detail could be added, places where the students could chase out mold, damp or other building pathologies. Students would there have the equivalent of ‘dig here’ prompts, and could mine at those locations into the ‘relevant’ interior detail. This was a token nod to the invisible realm, but better than leaving the invisible entirely unrepresented.
The hidden portions of a house have always fascinated me. Pulling up a floorboard a few years ago I discovered fragments of a bell wire run in an attic bedroom, the remains of the maid calling apparatus. Then there was the time that I pulled up some floor boards in an old house and found a marble fireplace dumped below. Occasionally in fitful dreams I uncover unknown rooms beneath my known house. Bachelard tells me this is all quite normal, reading via Jung the cellar as disquieted unconscious, such that:
“If the dreamer’s house is in the city it is not unusual that the dream is one of dominating in depth the surrounding cellars. His abode wants the undergrounds of legendary fortified castles, where mysterious passages run under the enclosing walls, the ramparts and the moat put the heart of the castle into communication with the distant forest.” (20)
But Bachelard seems to be conflating two different drives here, and neither is what I feel. In Bachelard’s quote there is a concern with escape from the house, and with colonisation beyond its borders. But what drives me to pull up floorboards, or to look in the wardrobe, each so that I can sleep better at night is a desire to fully know the house that I’m in. I don’t want to escape or to invade next door. I just want to be fully connecting to my own home.
Rewiring, plumbing and exorcism
I’ve come to realise that there is something ritual in my floorboard-thing, and yet I usually end up looking into floors or walls for pragmatic DIY reasons. The soul-resting bit usually comes as an afterthought, a realisation that I know have made peace with an otherwise alien void space. It has become known, claimed. It is part now of my home, rather than a brooding alien presence within the fabric of my house. Yet this resulting purging effect does have a feel of solving (or at least salving) a haunting.
I’d imagine that those who may have experienced an actual infestation – a wasp nest or some other living, breathing and breeding alien presence within their home – would have that sense of release in even greater measure. The antagonistic pest co-resident banished at last from somewhere within the recesses of the home, must make the home feel fully known and possessed.
And perhaps to get rid of that alien presence a specialist was procured. Someone well versed in inspecting, reading and probing these non-human voids. Someone who knows the ways of these spaces, understands their ecology and/or the infrastructure that passes quietly through them. The humble pest exterminator, plumber or electrician is not so humble when viewed from this perspective, for these are the silent custodians of an arcane knowledge, the product of a daily acquaintance of many hundreds of homes’ hidden voids.
Were those professions more literary we might have legion of psychogeographically inclinded accounts of chasing pests, pipe and wire routes through these alien zones. We would be able to sit, read and marvel at the ingenuity and accumulated place-reading skills of those liminal technicians. We would hear tales of strange items, sensations, sounds and smells encountered in the deepest recesses of our homes. But sadly these technicians do not (to my knowledge at least) commit these thoughts to paper.