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I wrote on the image of the threshold a few months ago, and I have been wanting ever since to supplement this discussion with a few passages from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.  There is much that I would like to explore in these passages, but I will not take the space and the time that I would like.  Even so, this post will be much too long.  I apologize in advance.

In a section on the image of the door, Bachelard says this: “Outside and inside are both intimate spaces; they are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility. If there exists a borderline surface between such an inside and outside, this surface is painful on both sides.”  Though he does not use the word ‘threshold’ explicitly here, his language of the borderline surface between the inside and the outside of the door is clearly linked to this idea, and the connotations of this passage lead me in two directions.

The first and most obvious direction is to the passage that I quoted from Heidegger in my earlier post, or, more exactly, to the passage that I was too lazy to quote in that post but eventually included as a comment at the request of one of my readers.  However, since it is a particularly significant passage for me, and since I will be referring to it very closely here, I will quote it properly this time.

The section comes from an essay called “Language”, which can be found in Poetry, Language, and Thought. In it, Heidegger is discussing a poem by Georg Trakl called “A Winter Evening”, and he is analysing the line where Trakl says, “Pain has turned the threshold to stone.”  The larger passage reads as follows:

“The threshold is the ground-beam that bears the doorway as a whole. It sustains the middle in which the two, the outside and the inside, penetrate each other. The threshold bears the between. What goes out and goes in, in the between, is joined in the between’s dependability. The dependability of the middle must never yield either way. The settling of the between needs something that can endure, and is in this sense hard. The threshold, as the settlement of the between, is hard because pain has petrified it. But the pain that became appropriated to stone did not harden into the threshold to congeal there. The pain presences unflagging in the threshold, as pain.”

The relation between this passage and Bachelard’s is in the pain that they both ascribe to the space between the inside and the outside, though their description of this pain is not identical.  Bachelard says that the pain is on both sides of the borderline surface, a pain that derives from the readiness of the inside and the outside to be reversed, from their readiness to have their hostility exchanged.  His interest is in how the inside and the outside of the doorway relate to one another as exchangeable and reversible intimacies, rather than on the between of their exchange itself.  In fact, he is not even willing to say definitively whether there is such a between.  “If,” he says, “there exists a borderline surface,” and only then, under the sign of this hesitation, does he suggest that such a surface must be “painful on both sides.”

In contrast, Heidegger insists absolutely on this space of the between, saying that its dependability is what in fact enables the outside and the inside to relate as such.  While he is like Bachelard in affirming the interchangeability of the outside and the inside, which he describes as penetrating each other, and while he is also like Bachelard in assuming the pain that this interpenetration produces, he does not share Bachelard’s hesitation to name the between of this relation precisely as the between.

Bachelard’s understanding of the between also differs from Heideggers’ in that it seems to be produced by the reversal of the inside and the outside, by the exchange of their hostilities, where Heidegger seems to say that the between precedes the relation of the inside and the outside.  His between is characterized by its dependability, by its injunction not yield in either direction, in its capacity to settle into the threshold.  This between, far from being provisional or dependant on the relation between the inside and the outside, is the dependable space that makes this relation possible.

In fact, in Heidegger’s terms, Bachelard is not describing the threshold at all, but the between which is sustained by the threshold and which settles into the threshold, because it requires the hardness and endurance that it provides.  In Heidegger’s terms, Bachelard has no threshold, only a between, which perhaps explains why Bachelard’s between remains so tentative, marked only by the pain that it suffers on both sides, because his between lacks the ground of a threshold to bear and support it.

The second direction that Bachelard’s passage leads me is to Jacques Derrida and his work on the relation between hostility and hospitality.  Derrida argues that these two things are inseparable, going so far as to join them together with the neologism ‘hostipitality’.  Derrida touches on this idea in several places, including an essay called “Hostipitality” that can be found in Acts of Religion, a chapter on absolute hospitality in The Politics of Friendship, and a short work called On Hospitality.

It is Bachelard’s phrase about the inside and the outside being always ready to exchange their hostility that reminds me of Derrida’s idea of hostipitality.  There is in his words the idea of an openness of the one to the absolutely other, of the inside to the outside, of the outside to the inside, a readiness to be reversed, to be interpenetrated, even though this exchange, this giving of the one to the other, this openness of the one to the other, this hospitality, is also, always, a hostility.  The inside and outside are ready to exchange their unavoidable hostility like the gift of hospitality, there, right there, at the door, on the threshold, in the between.

It is because of these Derridean overtones that I find Bachelard’s words to evocative, I think:  “They are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility.”  The possibility of a true hospitality finds profound expression here.

There is much more that I would like to say, but I have already written more than enough, so I will just include two further quotations from Bachelard.  Treat them as an envoi.

“How many daydreams we should have to analyze under the simple heading of doors, for the door is an entire cosmos of the half-open. In fact, it is one of its primal images, the very origin of a daydream that accumulates desires and temptations: the temptation to open up the ultimate depths of being, and the desire to conquer all reticent beings. The door schematizes two strong possibilities, which sharply classify two types of daydream. At times, it is closed, bolted, padlocked. At others, it is open, that is to say, wide open.”

“There are two beings in a door; a door awakens in us a two-way dream, that is doubly symbolical.”

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard relates an anecdote about the dramatist and poet Jean-Francois Ducis.  Apparently, at the age of seventy, having wanted a country house all of his life, Ducis decided to construct one for himself in his imagination.  He even went so far as to write poems about this place, and he is said to have taken pleasure in it as if it actually existed.

I have myself imagined houses in this way more than once, have dreamed of them also, until I could find my way through their rooms and their corridors as well as my own home.  The houses of my imagination are always stone, old stone, and they are always larger within than they are without.  When they are approached from the road, they seem the merest cottages, with small lighted windows and thatched roofs, but their doors always open onto vastness, long hallways and stretching staircases, dark corners and grand halls.  There are always gardens around them and libraries within them.  They are always warmed by fireplaces and lit by candles.  Their centre is always a broad, rough, wooden, kitchen table.

I found many of these elements in Bachelard’s description of the home, just as I have found them in other houses in other books over the years: Vane’s house in George MacDonald’s Lilith, Badger’s house in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the professor’s house in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Athelny house in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, among others.  These houses resonate with the houses of my imagination.  They are the houses where I feel at home.

I have been revelling in Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, his exploration of intimate space, and one of the images that has resonated with me most is that of the house as tree. Speaking of the cellar, he says, “The house, the cellar, the deep earth, achieve totality through depth. The house has become a natural being whose fate is bound to that of the mountains and of the waters that plough the land. The enormous stone plant it has become would not flourish if it did not have subterranean water at its base.”  Then, later, while exploring the image of the garret, he adds, “The well rooted house likes to have a branch that is sensitive to the wind, or an attic that can hear the rustle of leaves.”

My appreciation of this image is not solely based on the conjunction of two things that I love: the house and the tree. It is also based on the aptness of these two things in conjunction. The house, as Bachelard assures his readers throughout the book, is not still, is not dead, is not immobile, not if it truly inhabited. The image of the house as tree recognizes, however, though Bachelard does not make this explicit, that the life of the house is not an animal life. It grows and moves and changes and lives with the slow deliberation of trees. This is not a growth that we ourselves can experience. We can merely inhabit it.

It is in this sense that homes take root beneath us. It is in this sense that they seek deep subterranean waters. It is in this sense also that, once rooted, they can have branches that are sensitive to the wind, can have the whole sky as their terrace. This is an image that I have lived myself. It is an image that I am, even now, inhabiting.

My friend James Shelley has just recently posted on how community gardening has given him an appreciation of the role played by fertility dieties in agriculural societies.  Though anthropology is not exactly my area of expertise, and though I am wary of drawing conclusions from anthropological generalizations in any case, I think that there is something significant in the relation that he is recognizing between the physical labour of farming and spiritual practice of religion.  In fact, I am inclined to extend this relation to other aspects of the home as well, to cooking, to building, to eating, to storytelling, to sewing, to all the activities that should form a spiritual practise for us but often do not.  It seems to me that as we engage in these things more fully, as we participate in them more intimately, we begin to understand the spiritual significance that these things once had.

As James recognizes, it is only in our affluent society that we can afford to be separated from these things, by technology, by the labour of others, by space and by time, only in this kind of society that we can seriously believe that the activities of the home and garden are not in fact spiritual in nature.  It is only because of this affluence that we become subject to the illusion that these things are merely physical and mundane.

To use the language of classical mythology, there can be no dryads so long as trees are merely for shading our patio sets, no nyads so long as rivers are merely for feeding ducks.  There can be no Pomona when the garden is just one more way to impress the neighbours, no Lares or Penates when the house is just the place where I sleep between work and amusement.

The local gods and godesses only appear when we become concerned with them, when we begin to love the trees and the rivers, the garden and the home. When I grow the tree from seed or from cutting, when I nurse the tree from a sapling, when I eat of its fruit and sleep in its shade, when I watch it grow year by year, then I discover that a spirit inhabits the dance of its branches.  When I wade in the water of the river, when I clean garbage from it with my own hands, when I watch the tadpoles and the minnows increase as the water grows cleaner, then I discover that a god stirs its waters.  When I plant what feeds me, build what shelters me, cook what nourishes me, sew what clothes me, then, and perhaps only then, I discover the gods of home and garden, the little deities that make the work of the home and the garden into a spiritual practise.

This is the last time that I will write about Georges Perec.  I promise.  Well, it is the last time that I will write about Species of Spaces anyway, unless, of course, something reminds me of it, or unless another writer mentions it, or unless it is really relevant to something else that I am writing.  Otherwise, this is it.  I swear it.

Perec includes a section in Species of Spaces that he entitles “A Space Without a Use”, in which he tries to conceive of a room that is not simply unused, but that is “absolutely and intentionally useless,” a “functionless space” that “would serve for nothing, relate to nothing.”  Of course, nothing can be useless in this sense, since even an empty room or a corner serves a structural or architectural function, and Perec concludes that is “impossible to follow this idea through to the end,” because language itself is “unsuited to describing this nothing, this void.”  The problem, he implies, is that a space cannot be useless once it has become the subject of language, and that it is impossible to conceive of a space that is beyond language, because conception requires language.  The only space that would truly be without a use, therefore, would be the one that I do not know and therefore do not subject to language.

I was fascinated by this passage because I have discovered such a room in my own house.  Let me tell the story.  It will only take a minute.  When my wife and I were looking to buy our house, almost two years ago now, we did what most prospective homebuyers do.  We toured the place during the open house.  We arranged a second private tour.  We had an inspector and a contractor go through with us on a third occasion, and we found little that we did not expect.  Six months later, we moved in, and we have since had electricians, plumbers, and contractors of all descriptions doing work in every nook of the house, and we still found nothing out of the ordinary.

This fall, however, as I was removing the old sheets and pillows and upholstery that the previous owners had been using as insulation in the downstairs windows and joist spaces, I discovered that there was a window in our cold cellar.  I knew from its location that it should look out under the front porch, but I thought it odd that anyone would want a view of a crawlspace, so I pulled out the remaining mouldy fabric, and I opened the window.  There, beneath the porch, was an entire room, perhaps 10 by 18 feet and the full height of our 9 foot basement.  It had only a dirt floor, and some of the soil had been mounded up near the window so that people could easily enter and exit the room.  Scraps of carpet and wood provided some evidence that it had been used as a children’s fort at some point.  It was otherwise empty.

Until that moment, until I discovered what was there, the room was useless to me in exactly the way that Perec describes.  It was not useless altogether of course.  It had served an architectural purpose for the house’s designers and builders.  It had also served an imaginative and recreational purpose for some children at one point or another.  For me, however, who had not known that it even existed, it was entirely without use, that is, until I happened upon it and began to consider what it might have been and what it might be yet.

There is a sort of loss in this for me, the loss of something that I did not know I had until it had gone, the loss of something that I think Perec is articulating in his search for a space without a use.  What I have lost is something that might best be called the unknown or the unnamed, at least as these things appear in the small scale of my house.  Before I had found the hidden room, I did not even know that such a thing existed.  Now that I have found it, I have lost the potential to find it again.  I have lost its waiting to be discovered, though I knew nothing of this until its discovery.  I discovered what was hidden only at the cost of losing its hiddenness, as is the case with the unknown and the unnamed in every case. I can never possess the hidden, the unnamed, the useless, the unknown.  I always discover them too soon and too late.

There may be other things to find, of course.  Perhaps there is a stairway to hidden catacombs beneath my garage, or perhaps their are secret tunnels beneath my eaves, but I do not want to find them.  I want there always to be the possibility that I have not found everything, that I have not uncovered every hiddenness or explored every mystery, even in such a small thing as my house.  I want there always to be spaces that escape the uses to which I would subject them.

Home is not a place for walking on water.  It does not give itself to miracles of this sort.  It is a place for wading deeply, up to the neck, until its crests pass over us and we breathe the still necessary air of the world, only in gasps, between its warm and uterine swells.  This is its miracle, that we find ourselves submerged in it, like a womb, and yet we do not drown.

My mother gave me Tim Lilburn’s Going Home for my birthday in October, and I have only just now finished it.  Though I began reading it almost immediately, and though I returned to it several times during the intervening months, I never seemed to make any progress in it.  I enjoyed it when I was actually reading, but something else always needed to be read or done, and there was a month or so over Christmas when I lacked the inclination to read anything philosophical at all, and my appetite even since then has too often been for other sorts of reading, so I moved through it only haltingly, episodically, in fits and starts.

For all of this interruption, or perhaps even because of it, I found myself reflecting often on Lilburn’s ideas, even when I had not actually been reading the book for a week or more.  I resonated with his attempt to recover the role of desire through his readings of Platonic philosophy and patristic theology, the subjects of the book’s first two sections respectively.  I resonated even more with the third and final section, which was comprised of reflections, often narrative, often lyrical, on Lilburn’s experience of returning to Saskatchewan and of trying to find, or create, or encounter in it, a home.

Not surprisingly, considering my interest in the idea of home, this last section was the most profound for me, particularly as it situated Lilburn’s earlier ideas of desire into a particular life, a particular location, a particular landscape.  Plato had his desire, it seems to say, and Cassian had his, but here is mine.  Let me introduce you to its climate, and its contours, and its careen.  Let me enact for you also the desire that I have been trying to articulate.  Let me show you the home that is the object of my own yearning, this thing that escapes articulation in any language except the language of the erotic.

Confronted by the place to which he has returned, Lilburn’s response is a kind of lostness, a desire to be at home in a place that he no longer recognizes as home.  “I had done nothing,” he says, “to educate myself to be someone who could live with facility, familiarity, where he was born.”  He describes this placelessness as resulting from a lack of desire.  “We are not craning, not small, not hurt by desire,” he says, “We are disastrously kept, healed of a saving disquiet – so how can we be where we are?”

Confronted by homelessness, by placelessness, by unfamiliarity, Lilburn embarks on a practise that physically reconnects him with the place of home.  He describes digging in the Saskatchewan dirt to build a root cellar, walking through the landscape, taking the earth into his hands and passing over it with his feet.  “Being in a place demands a practise,” he says. “It is not tourism or romanticism: things are not laid on, nor are they occultly given: here the practise is putting yourself out there and walking.”  Elsewhere, he describes this tactile practise of a place and its history almost mystically, saying, “We need to find our own way to take this place into our mouth; we must re-say our past in such a way that it will gather us here.”  This language and this practise are the language and practise of desire, a desire to be at home where one is.

Interestingly, at least to me, some of Lilburn’s language of a desire for home comes very close to the language used by George MacDonald in his novel Lilith.  Though written more than a century earlier, MacDonald’s book is concerned with some of the same issues.  His protagonist, a man named Vane, finds himself in another world, asking much the same questions as Lilburn: Where am I, and Where is home?  Mr. Raven, who appears as both a raven and as man and who guides Vane through this new world, also responds to these questions in much the same way as Lilburn does.  “The only way to come to know where you are,” he says, “is to begin to make yourself at home,” and the only way to make yourself at home is “by doing something.”  His solution to Vane’s homelessness is also a practise of place, an activity that the place demands in order to make it a home.

For Vane, this activity will eventually take the form of returning water to the barren landscape, but he initially resists Raven’s council, choosing to ignore the practise that has been presented to him.  It is only after his own plans have brought about disaster and left him still rootless that he realizes for himself what Raven had told him from the beginning. Reflecting on his situation, he says to himself, “I had not yet, by doing something in it, made anywhere into a place,” and it is this realization that returns him to the task that was initially set for him.

There are, of course, as many divergences as parallels between the texts of Lilburn and MacDonald, and it would do both of them an injustice to emphasize their similarities too strongly, but I appreciate how they serve to reinforce one another in at least this one respect.  They remind me that home is never merely granted to me, that it does not come preconstructed, even if, at the same time, it is never merely created by me either.  On the contrary, home is always a matter of taking the place where I am, with its inhabitants and its history and its topography, and putting it into my mouth, holding it in my hands, walking it with my feet, doing in it what my desire for it requires of me.  Home, as the object of my desire, is only ever this practise, and nothing else.

I find myself using a distinction lately that reflects the change in how I am coming to understand the idea of labour, the distinction between the homemade and the handmade.  Though these two terms are often used almost synonymously, I think that it is perhaps necessary to use them distinctly to describe those things that are made in the place of the home and those things that are made by means of the hands, because these things are not always the same, even if they are often related.

To me, the homemade is the more easily defined of the two terms, and it is also the one that is most practically defensible.  The food that I prepare and the things that I create at home are often of a higher quality or of a lower cost or of a more exact variety than their mass produced counterparts.  I can make a toy castle for my kids that is better than anything I could buy commercially.  I can make bread more cheaply than I can buy it.  I can make tomato sauce exactly how I like it.  There are many practical reasons why I would choose to make things in my home, to cultivate the practice of the homemade.

The handmade, however, at least in the sense that I mean it, is not so easily defined, because there is much that we now do in the home that is no longer done by hand.  We may make bread at home, but it will probably be with a breadmaking machine.  We may do carpentry at home, but it will probably be with a whole assortment of power tools.  We may garden at home, but it will probably be with powered mowers and trimmers and other mechanized tools.  None of this is essentially wrong, of course, and I am a proponent of anything that will get people participating more active in the home, but I would argue that there is a real if not always articulable difference between these things and the things that I actually make with my hands.

I cannot demonstrate this difference.  It is something that I only experience, something that I discover in the practise of using my hands.  It is something that I can only call spiritual, despite all charges of idealism and romanticism, about feeling the dough or the wood or the earth in my hands, between my fingers.  This tactility, this tangibility, this physicality, this intimacy, this is what I mean by handmade.  It is something that can apply, for me, only to the things that I have made myself, with my own hands.  It refers to the creation of something that literally has my sweat in it, something that has actually gotten beneath my fingernails, something that I have come to know by touch and even by taste.

Yet, this intimate contact with labour is something that many people find profoundly uncomfortable, at least once they pass a certain age.  My young children are still very willing to bury their hands in the cookie dough, but even the teenagers I teach are already mistrustful of getting anything on their hands.  Somewhere in the intervening years they have learned that it is unsanitary, undignified, and immature to abandon themselves to this kind of tactility, and most adults are far worse.  They have lost the capacity for connecting tangibly with the objects of their labour, at least in the context of the home.

I am not proposing that we abandon all mechanized tools, of course, but I am suggesting that there is something physically different about these tools that separates them from hand tools, and that there is something even about tools as such that physically separates them from the work that I do with my bare hands.  This difference is one of tactility, of tangibility, but it necessarily produces a difference in spirit also, something that I can neither satisfactorily define nor reasonably ignore.

There are times that I feel acutely the lack of something for the simple reason that I am lacking so little else.

I am currently at my Mother’s place on Manitoulin Island.  I have had for dinner a very nice roast beef and several bottles of very nice wine.  I have had a bonfire with my eldest son, where I toasted marshmallows that he smeared all over his gloves.  Now that he is asleep, I am drinking hot, mulled apple cider that has been cut amply with apricot brandy, and I am settling into the silence.

I want my pipe.

Elexander van Elsas wrote a post several weeks ago on having a home on the web, and I have been reflecting ever since on the idea of what it means to have a home or to be at home on the internet. I may return to some of the directions this thinking has taken me, but I realized last night that there may be a more fundamental problem with thinking about home on the web that must be confronted before we I can even begin to address the kinds of issues that van Elsas is raising: that is, the internet is not actually a virtual space at all.

Let me explain my logic here.  The temptation to think of locality on the web in terms of home is a direct result of understanding the internet as a whole in terms of locality and spacialization in the first place, complete with metaphors of domains, homepages, navigation, and hosting. The web, however, is not a space that I can inhabit, not even virtually, because the web is a physical space, not a virtual one. It consists of physical networks that relay physical patterns of energy between physical machines. The web as virtual space does not actually exist apart from this physical infrastructure, not until the point where a machine uses the information it has received over this network to create the illusion of a space on a monitor. This virtual space that the machine creates can exist only on the monitor. It exists nowhere else except the monitor. Even seemingly interactive spaces like social media sites and massively multiplayer gaming environments do not exist as virtual spaces on the web, but only in the physical space of the web and in the virtual space of the monitor. The web’s existence as a virtual space is always and only a product of the monitor.

What this means is that the current language of the internet, which relies heavily on metaphors of space and territory, is in fact highly misleading. It implies that the web is a virtual space that I enter and explore, concealing the fact that the web is actually a physical space that I cannot enter but that I use as a tool to create a virtual space at the point of the monitor. I cannot inhabit the web, even and especially in a virtual sense, because it does not exist as a virtual space except as I construct it for myself as such.  Rather than entering the web in any way, I always remain essentially external to it, requesting information from it, creating virtuality with it.

To speak of a home on the web is, therefore, strictly speaking, impossible.  I can only speak of a provisional and temporary home that I create for myself at the point of the monitor so that I may make use of the physical infrastructure of the internet, but this home will always remain entirely distinct from the web, however much it may depend on the web to construct itself.  Understood in this way, the primary change that the web enables in regard to home is not the ability to maintain a personal space within a larger virtual sphere, but the ability to replicate, to recreate, my virtual home wherever I have access to the necessary technology.  My home on the web, recreated for me each time I sit down at my monitor, is now capable of appearing in my physical home, in my workplace, or, as at this particular moment, at a public library in rural Ontario.  Far from creating a stable though virtual home that I can access from anywhere I go, the web forces me to recreate my virtual home everywhere I go, which is perhaps another reason why van Elsas should feel like a refugee.