by Chet Raymo
“I believe I mentioned here a year or two ago how so many of my current dreams are set in the house and city I grew up in - 4106 Anderson Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Never in any of the other places I have lived, including this house in New England in which I have spent the great majority of my adult life. No. Always the white colonial on Anderson Avenue and a distorted but recognizable Chattanooga.
These dreams are becoming more common. So much so that I wonder to what extent this phenomenon is shared by others in my age cohort, and what it might mean? Why are my deepest, earliest memories surfacing now in my dreams? Have the memories that have been maintained the longest burned themselves most tenaciously into my neural circuits? Or is it the opposite? Do these dreams represent the oldest and most fragile memories popping out of existence, like bubbles from champagne?
If these childhood memories do in fact dominate my unconsciousness, to what extent have they provided an unsuspected armature for my conscious thinking over the years? Maybe the way we view and understand the world is subtly constrained by the space-time structures that first impressed themselves on our developing brains.
I'm sure there must be some relevant literature out there, and maybe some of you can guide me to it. There is Piaget, of course. Perhaps more interesting is Gaston Bachelard's "The Poetics of Space." Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) was a French philosopher of eclectic interests. Like most French philosophers of his generation his prose is difficult (although not as opaque as the post-moderns who followed him). Although trained in the philosophy of science, he gave most of his attention to "reveries." Science and poetry were necessary and irreducible complements in his understanding of the world, the yang and yin, the animus and anima, of the knowing self. His thought has a certain playfulness, a "shifting character," a willingness to bounce around gleefully, as opposed to stern adherence to dogma.
In "The Poetics of Space," Bachelard emphasizes the importance of the house we were born in, and the psychological significance of cellar and attic, nooks and corners, stairways up and stairways down, drawers and wardrobes. "The house we were born in is physically inscribed in us," he writes. It is a group of organic habits. After twenty years, in spite of all the other anonymous stairways, we would recapture the reflexes of the "first stairway," we would not stumble on that rather high step. The house's entire being would open up, faithful to our own being. We would push the door that creaks with the same gesture, we would find our way in the dark to the distant attic. The feel of the tiniest latch has remained in our hands.
It is space, not time, that imposes itself most forcefully upon our imaginations, says Bachelard. Memories are motionless, like fossils fixed in stone. Localization - those first spaces of our childhood - is more lasting than duration. I'm not sure what to make of all this, but it has a ring of truth. If it's true, it must have a neurological basis. It seems to be a field ripe for research, both scientific and literary."