To Speak of Our Roads

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard makes this intriguing statement: “Each one of us should speak of his roads, his crossroads, his roadside benches; each one of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadows.”

He says this as he is discussing the image of the road, as he tries to articulate how the road appears to the one who imagines, to the one who daydreams, to the one who remembers the past like a dream.  He argues that those who dream the road, dream it as something dynamic and active, something that carries them along with its own pace and its own cadence. and he cites George Sand and Jean Wahl and Henry David Thoreau as being among those who have dreamed of the road in this way.

I am arrested by this image of the road.  For whatever reason, perhaps because the automobile distances me from it, or perhaps because I am conditioned to overlook it as mere infrastructure, the road has remained almost exclusively an object for me.  It has played an intellectual role in the sense of being the space beyond my door that nevertheless leads to my door, the space of encounter and of invitation, the space of the other, but it has never existed for me in itself, as image, as dynamic and active participant in the journey and in the encounter.

Bachelard’s attention to the road in this respect returns me to Michel de Certeau’s discussion of walking in The Practise of Everyday Life, where he argues that walking a space, discovering its by-ways and shortcuts, in fact recreates that space for us according to its own contours, in opposition to the spacial structures that are imposed on us.  Though de Certeau’s understanding of walking is much more explicitly political, and though it does not itself raise the idea of the road as image, it seems to me that his roads are perhaps open to the kinds of imagining that Bachelard is describing.  Perhaps the recreation of space through walking is not exclusively a function of following the informal paths but a function of following all of its roads and paths with an attention to where they are taking us, with a concern for what they allow us to imagine.

This kind of space, these kinds of roads, would indeed be worth speaking about, would indeed be worth mapping, as Bachelard describes, but I am not sure how to begin such a project.  I could write a detailed catalogue of the places that I walk, something in the mode of Georges Perec, but I am not sure that this would do justice to the imagistic element that Bachelard is describing.  I could also write a moment by moment account of my walking, producing something closer to James Joyce’s Ullysses, but this does not seem quite right either. Of course, it is possible that there is no form that is adequate to this speaking, at least not in every case, so I will offer only the following few lines as the barest gesture to speaking about the roads that draw me along:

The city’s roads turn ever inward,
Draw us through their intimate places,
Give us dreams of an unremembered history.

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3 comments
  1. Curtis said:

    I like this post Luke, it has allowed me to take an image that has floated through my mind when being poetical, a concept about roads being rivers that I have mulled over and never finally recorded in any of my poems. It has been a negative image, but mostly it has always been an idea of roads as channels and rivers, sometimes even made of murcury and molten stuff, that ‘the rivers of the streets carry us away.’ I don’t know if it will change in connotation, I have always considered it, for the poetic purpose to be a negative thing, something dangerous, and harmful, but that may not be negative, and still very true.At any rate I will leave you with this:

    The road goes ever on and on,
    Down from the door where it began,
    Now far ahead the road has gone,
    and I must follow if I can,
    Pursuing it with eager feet,
    Until it joins some larger way,
    Where many paths and errands meet,
    and whither then I cannot say.

    Don’t ask me why, but other than the one ring poem, this is the only LOTRs article I actively remember in its entirety off the top of my head.

  2. Curtis,

    There is certainly a risk in letting the road carry us away, because we may come to ourselves we may find that it has taken us where we did not expect, and it is always possible that it will take as where we can not return. This risk, however, is also the condition of possibility.

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