On mental morphology


In the Czech Surrealist tradition, “morphologie mentale” is applied to the meshing of subjective experience with an external topography, so that particular external landmarks (such as houses, staircases, or trees) are integrated into one’s psyche, and affect its formation in the same way that certain vital experiences can.

“…human consciousness is not so much determined by various childhood deprivations and traumas, but rather by the landscape in which a person has lived and the objects that they might have touched. Many years ago, the Surrealists even tried, with the help of questionnaires, to prove that the way a landscape is formed, the number of corners a house has and how crookedly a tree grows outside the window, have as much effect on the psyche as the upbringing. The Surrealists called this imprint of the external (a collection of measurable quantity, dimensions, tone and colour) onto the spiritual microcosm of a person mental morphology.”[1]

The intertwining of the interior and exterior world in the poetic imagination is also the theme of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics Of Space. In this phenomenological approach to understanding the poetic significance of dwellings Bachelard explores the role of imagination in the shaping of our experience of various intimate and familiar environments. He shows us that the interweaving of early childhood experience (marked by daydreams) and the space in which these products of imagination come to life is so intimate it often erases the division between interior and exterior, between objectivity and subjectivity, creating thus a seamless landscape inhabited by the imagination, a unique poetic, yet also concrete, form that connects the various elements of an individual’s life in a network of associations, memories and dreams.

This concept is evocatively described by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “I never saw this strange dwelling again. Indeed, as I see it now, the way it appeared to my child’s eye, it is not a building, but is quite dissolved and distributed inside me: here one room, there another, and here a bit of a corridor which, however, does not connect the two rooms, but is conserved in me in fragmentary form. Thus the whole thing is scattered about inside me, the rooms, the stairs that descend with such ceremonious slowness, others, narrow cages that mounted in a spiral movement…”[2]

Childhood houses, with their rooms and staircases, thus gain a significance that reaches far beyond any utilitarian function or sentimental value. According to Bachelard they do not represent aspects of one’s childhood, they are its building blocks and in our psyche they are not assembled in a way that is faithful to an external reality, but their structure corresponds to the imaginative projection, that draws its own spatial narrative: “Home itself is made up of layers of passages that are voyages of habitation. It is not a static notion but a site of transito. More than simply a point of departure and return, it is a site of continual transformation.”[3]

This is an excerpt from my PhD thesis.
Images by Tereza Stehlikova
Child Waiting

[1] Václav Cílek, ‘On Morphology of the Non-Human’, Artesian, 2 (2009), p.41

[2] Rainer Maria Rilke, cited in Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space, p.57

[3] Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion, p.103

5 thoughts on “On mental morphology

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  1. Strange enough, not only a child’s mind gets imprinted with the landscape it grows to know, but as they age – old people often regress into those landscapes looking for meaning (when dementia is involved), for security.
    I’m intrigued by Cilia’s words, but I think the concepts of space transforms into basic routines of the consciousness and the thinking process. Nevertheless, the traumas poison the consciousness. As a CPTSD surviver, in my experience, the traumas and deprivation fragment and break that inside landscape, that mind, that thinking – leaving a puzzle behind with not quite fitting pieces.

    1. Luckily I think there is. It’s a learning process. A new narrative makes sense, traveling too – I used to travel to landscapes that resonated with me, hoping to connect back to my former self. What seems to work is finding some new kind of sense, and the narrative is part of that.

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