The weather has taken a turn for the worst. Thick snow has formed a restrictive boundary, stifling movement. Beyond the snow, ice has transpired, precluding all but the slowest of walks. And the outside is coming in, too. In the early hours, some of the colossal ice formations began to thaw, causing massive chunks of decomposed material to fall to the earth. Flashlights lit the white night. A strange, eerie thudding sound. But there was nothing, only a few parched sections of snow where the ice must have hit. Later that morning, the sounds reappeared, this time with greater intensity, as though the ice was emitting a death rattle.
In this geography of frost and ice, Bachelard finds warmth and tenderness. “We feel warm because it is cold out-of-doors,” he writes in The Poetics of Space. For him, the very condition of warmth is predicated on contradiction. For this reason, home—homecoming—is best suited to the winter months: “Winter is by far the oldest of seasons. Not only does it confer age upon our memories, taking us back to a remote past, but on snowy days, the house too is old” (41). Each December, I contend with Bachelard’s contradiction in a different way. Memory, time, place are all consumed in this dynamic aesthetic, each enriched by being in contact with their anonymous counterpart.
Outside, human life has adapted well to this white terrain. With cautious movements and contrived happiness, the falling snow dissolves boundaries between different lifeworlds. Human life regresses: the haggard smiles of adult faces exceed their allotted dosage, now resembling a musty shadow of a primitive childhood state. Over the grey and white blocks of sedimented materiality, cracks form and the soft skin surrounding the eyes of adult faces begin to sag against the white flesh of the world.
But all this is quite remote from Bachelard. True, we know from him that snow is constitutive of an immemorial memory, conferring a depth of presence upon the world. Snow is the centre, and the house is the axis through which the universe is channelled. Yet owing to Bachelard’s agoraphobic relation to the outside, for him, snow is only conceived as a thing pressing down and reinforcing the fortitude of the house. Never does he encounter the house as yielding to its own otherness: that is, as viewed from the outside. Indeed, at times he will go so far as to say that winter is a “simplified cosmos,” marking a “non-house,” which ultimately entails a “cosmic negation” (40-41).
What did Bachelard omit in this refusal to move beyond the inside? The same question can be asked by way of Bachelard’s cellar. Before it is “rationalised,” the cellar embodies the “dark entity” of the house, “the one that partakes of subterranean forces” (18). Unlike the attic, the cellar cannot be tamed nor mastered: “Darkness prevails both day and night.” Of the cellar’s relationship to the house up above, Bachelard says very little. The reason for this can be deduced from the cellar’s resistance to human desire: it is, after all, a place with a personality of its own, as evidenced by Bachelard’s claim that “even when we are carrying a lighted candle, we see shadows dancing on the walls.” From a human eye, however, this “buried madness” is only seen as an object of fear. In truth, however, what is “dark” about the houses is not its malign spirit but its anonymity—in Merleau-Ponty’s words, “no longer an interlocutor, but a resolutely silent Other.”
Given its tremendous power to create place, the question of what lies beneath snow has an irresistible pull to it. Lurking deep within the text, a tension is detectable in the sanguine prose Bachelard presents the reader with. On the one hand, all that is homely to the evocation of the snow scene depends on the cosmos being levelled down to a blank space for the dreams and memoires of the home to come alive. While the house is empowered by this transformation of the world to an empty tabula rasa, in the outside world, “snow covers all tracks, blurs the road, muffles every sound, conceals every colour” (40).
On the other hand, this dialectic has an uncanniness to it which Bachelard does not acknowledge. At first, the house in the winter is taken to be an ontological centre of intimacy. Yet this centre is not autonomous, but depends upon Bachelard’s contradictory union of warmth and coldness. As such, at the heart of the centre is an identity formed by its own immanent negation: gaining a “refinement of intimacy,” the house assimilates the “cosmic negation” of the “non-house” into its hearth. With this, Bachelard plants the seeds of home’s coldness and unfamiliarity in the midst of its apparent warmth and familiarity. But Bachelard’s attempt to curtail the outside from the inside with thick curtains is a short-term solution. As the “felicitous” orientation of Bachelard’s thought reaches it limit, this enclosure will expose itself to the horror, not of a house that no longer reciprocates the gaze of the dweller—but of a house that reciprocates the gaze of the dweller with different eyes. Out of this abject gaze, an aesthetic of the uncanny is founded, where the character of the house is proven to be fundamentally anonymous: an impersonal creaking in the middle of the night before subduing at the first sight of a white dawn.