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Consciousness rejuvenates everything
Or, how a French philosopher is making me a better housewife
Having survived our first illness of the school season—and knowing there are countless more to come—my loins have been girded, and I am ready to return to some prior thinking about housekeeping.
Specifically, I am interested in increasing the human dignity of our homes: our furniture, household objects, and the very structures we maintain.
Midway through The Poetics of Space, Bachelard dives into this mystical work of housekeeping—this act of creation, as he sees it. Whenever we care for our home and our possessions, he claims, we bring them to life. They become more real to us.
This may sound silly to American ears, conditioned as we are to view most things (and even animals) as inert, disposable, and replaceable, but to much of the rest of the world, this is a very natural worldview indeed. (Of course we ought to care for our homes as if they were living things!) I am not advocating for wholesale animism, and no, I don’t think my toaster has a conscience, but a healthy dose of mysticism could reanimate the way we think about and care for our homes.
Bachelard, to set the stage (emphasis added):
“But 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. It even dominates memory. How wonderful it is to really become one more the inventor of a mechanical action! And so, when a poet 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.”
I love this, and I feel it so much, when I am really in the zone of housekeeping. I don’t always get to this enviable flow state, but when I am dusting and wiping down the baseboards (once a quarter, maybe), I suddenly care for the baseboards: I am interested in the work they are doing, in the work they will continue to do, and I am further motivated to continue to care for them.
The philosopher continues:
“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.”
I can’t even begin to tell you how much Gaston GETS ME. Caring for things in our homes places them “not only in an order but in a community of order.” I aspire to this deeply. I may never achieve it, but I appreciate it as a goal.
I’ve also felt this in my own home and in others’ homes, and it has nothing to do with decor or grandeur or architecture or quantity of labeled bins. You can sense and feel the difference between a home that is lived in and cared for from one that isn’t. The neglected home feels abandoned, even if people are living in it. It is lifeless, even as it holds living beings. I have felt this in studio apartments and in grand mansions (fwiw, I contend it’s much more likely to feel this lifelessness in grand mansions, which are spiritual deserts, but that is another newsletter for another, spicier time).
Bachelard, writing in the 1950s, attributes this life-giving/home-making to women, but of course, men today participate more and more (huzzah):
“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.”
(*The “wax civilization” is an allusion to a cited paragraph from Rilke, in which the poet gets REALLY INTO waxing his table. It’s great. So Bachelard contradicts himself a teeny bit here, because at least one man, by his own admission, the great Rainer Maria Rilke, gets jazzed about taking care of his home.)
When I think about household chores from this animistic Bachelardian worldview, I find that there are a few positive consequences.
I am less upset about doing the same chore over and over
Much in the same way that you have to keep watering your houseplants or keep taking your dog out for a walk, I can view my home and its objects as living things that need regular attention. They change as we do; of course I should consider them as needing frequent upkeep.
This seems like a silly point, but it’s helpful to me, when I feel irritated to rediscover muddy grout on the hateful tile floor in the kitchen or dust on the basement blinds YET AGAIN (didn’t I dust them… last year…).
I want to buy less (and buy better quality when I do)
This is always the mantra of those “minimalist home” books written by white women who wear wide straw hats and talk ad nauseam about how they gave up paper towels, but I have found that this well-intended message doesn’t become real unless you change your thinking about chores and cleaning up.
I can tell myself to “buy less” until I’m blue in the face, but that commitment doesn’t actually change my behavior unless I start doing chores with this mindset. Why?
If I’m not doing the Bachelardian work of enlivening my furniture and treating my walls as if they were animate, then I am not really caring for them. If I fail to appreciate that old basket for the work it is continuing to do, holding my children’s extraordinary number of tiny shoes, I am tempted to think that perhaps I need another one. If I fail to mend that rip in the duvet, I am tempted to just buy a quick replacement. If I do not take care of the rugs so that they will last decades, then I treat them as disposable. (*We can actually HAVE rugs now that we do not have German shepherds. Seriously. If you have dogs, don’t get rugs. Ruining the rugs is a dog’s number-one house priority.)
In short, if I fail to do chores in this enlivening mindset, then I’m back on Amazon and ordering some more plastic stuff from China (that I may already own, and definitely don’t need).
The Bachelardian housekeeping worldview means that if I do bring things into my home, they should be beautiful and lasting; they should bring joy and utility; they should inspire caregiving; they should be, in other words, a delight to care for, and in that delight, they keep me from buying something to replace them.
I rehearse a liturgy of gratitude
The most valuable benefit: a chorus of thanksgiving.
I am not pretending to be Proverbs 31 Barbie (ew), but acting like my house has a heartbeat makes me feel immensely grateful to have a house at all. It is a joy to take care of it, them, these things, this community of order that I constantly have to set right to serve my family and anyone else who graces our threshold.
I’ve wrung a lot of personal meaning out of this odd little French book, but I hope I continue to keep some of these principles alive in my home for a good while yet.
Meanwhile, please enjoy this sweet/sad photo of sick Felix, taking an opportunity to nap on the go:
He is doing much better, as are we all.
Now, go forth and practice phenomenology while polishing a piece of old furniture!