Levels for living

The flight from big-city living to the small town or suburb - at least from apartment life to the one-family house - isn't all sociology and economics, racism and status: sometimes it's simply a question of poetic necessity. As Gaston Bachelard keenly observes in The Poetics of Space, ''Skyscrapers have no cellars.''

'No cellars'' - why, of course!

And no attics, either. . . .

Suddenly I'm asking myself, How is a poetic sensibility supposed to thrive, imaginatively, without a cellar and attic at its disposal?

I'm able to face such questions these days, as I've recently moved from a New York City apartment to a big old-fashioned Midwestern house -- complete with gloomy basement and half-finished second floor, the latter a perfect writer's garret if ever there was one.

I suppose the move did have its economic and sociological side: but I'm more struck for the moment by the psycho-poetical thrill that comes with having stairs to climb after years of single-level living. Stair! Stairs up-attic and stairs down-cellar. . . . Fantastic! - both the getting-there and the being-there. Wonderplaces - one mere flight away. . . .

I admit I wasn't aware, in New York, that I was ''missing'' anything in not having basement and attic at hand; I'd never really thought about them much. But suddenly these upper- and lower-level spaces seem to fill my life the way that other people's lives have filled them -- to the brim. (You see, this attic and basement are those of the family home -- repositories of four generations' worth of this-and-that. We haven't lived here for four generations ourselves -- though the house is old enough -- but at least four generations of the family have contributed their furniture and boxes to the mix. And after 30 years of our occupancy it's quite a mix . . .)

I've already sorted through the boxes in the attic, imposing such order as I could; and I've poked about in the basement -- if not to my heart's content, at least enough to realize that both spaces add up to much more than the sum of their contents. The attic in particular reverberates with the hum of unseen lives and dreams -- not just of those who called this house their home over the years, but of multitudes everywhere who use the attic as a corner of the heart -- a place for the tangible tokens of life's intangibilities. If there's an Attic-Lovers Anonymous, an Association of the Friends of Memorabilia, I haven't heard of it; but I'm certain we're a multitude, however loosely linked.

For the sake of inclusivity, I suppose the organization ought to be the ABC Society: for those who are fond of Attics, Basements, and Cellars. But until its charter is written and signed, let me note a few ''first principles'' the membership would doubtless agree to:

* Attics are to cellars what memory is to the unconscious.

* Basements are for things we haven't found a use for yet; attics, for things we mean to use again one day.

* If the universe is indeed made up of fire and air, earth and water, the first two make an attic, the last two a cellar.

* Basements are for the overflow of outdoor life: attics for the overflow of indoor life.

* Cleaning an attic is an excuse for lingering; when cleaning a basement, the point is to get the job over as quickly as possible.

Finally, this thought, again from Bachelard: '' . . . it is possible, almost without comment, to oppose the rationality of the roof to the irrationality of the cellar . . . up near the roof all our thoughts are clear.''

I'd love to think he's right, and that having a room up under the eaves in which to think and read and write will therefore prove a boost to mental clarity; but that remains to be seen. In the meantime, I've begun to wonder just what takes the place of cellar and attic for those sandwiched up in the horizontals of apartment living; there must be something, and closets are clearly no imaginative substitute.

So far, the nearest I can come to identifying big-city equivalents of these Other-Level wonderspaces is this: the streets themselves -- alleys and curbsides -- are a city's collective basement; and for a collective attic there are always a city's museums. (The Smithsonian Institution is, in fact, sometimes referred to as ''the Nation's Attic''. . .)

These city spaces seem to qualify, at least vaguely, given the general principles mentioned above. And from what I'm discovering around our own house, the typical attic has its archival, museumlike treasures, however scaled down, while a good deal of what's in the basement would look just fine at curbside -- at least on trash-collecting day.

As a matter of fact, if I can just tear myself away from the pleasures of the attic long enough, I've got to go down-cellar sometime soon with a broom and bucket and some hefty plastic bags. . . .

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