Encountering heterotopias

‘More often than not, heterotopias are connected with temporal discontinuities; that is, they open onto what might be called … heterochronias. The heterotopia begins to function fully when people are in a kind of absolute break with their traditional time…’

My  encounters with heterotopias – cemeteries

Of the many examples I could recall, I think especially of exploring the small, compact Cimetière Marin on the promontory of Bonifacio at the southern tip of Corsica. Perched on the cliff’s edge, the cemetery appears like a small town, containing immaculate family mausoleums, like small houses or villas, with doors leading onto narrow enclosed streets.

The similarities between a city and the grand cemeteries of Paris, such as Père Lachaise, have often been reflected upon, but here the similarities and differences were more intense, exacerbated by the cemetery’s positioning on the edge of an island and its miniature scale. I once caught a family having a picnic just outside the main gate, a temporary emplacement, outside the permanent monuments to the dead.

The mirroring of death and life seemed to encapsulate an aspect of what Foucault calls ‘heterochronia’, emphasising both the accretion and precariousness of time. I felt that heterotopia might be as much to do with time as space.

Louis Aragon’s encounter with heterotopias – public baths

In  Louis Aragon’s early work Le Paysan de Paris (1926) he observes places and spaces of a soon to be demolished Passage de l’Opéra. These ‘secrets’ of Paris include hairdressing salons, tailors, curious shops and so on but what is striking is how many of the places  that he particularly dwells upon relate to Foucault’s account of heterotopia, including: public baths, theatres, brothels and later in the book, gardens and parks. Here he is on Baths:

A strong bond exists in our minds between Baths and sensual pleasure: this immemorial notion contributes to the mystery of these public establishments which many would never venture to visit, so great is the superstition of contagious diseases, and so widespread the conviction that the bathtubs prostituted here are dangerous sirens luring visitors into their traps of leprous enamel and stained tin-plate. Thus, the atmosphere of these temples devoted to a dubious cult is partly that of a brothel, partly that of a place where magic rites are performed.

He evokes enchanted worlds that mark out a certain family of heterotopia that may have  not completely disappeared…..

The recently restored Piscine Pailleron in the 19th arrondissement, Paris.

 Georges Simenon’s encounter with heterotopias – brothels

A passage from Georges Simenon’s Les Fiancailles de M. Hire (1933,) translated by Anna Moschovkis as The Engagement, seems to chime with Faubion’s description of heterotopia as both brighter and darker than other spaces. Here a space of illumination, enchanted and unreal, holding dark secrets:


Men loitered alongside fence, mostly Arabs, all of them looking in the same direction, toward a glow that illuminated a rectangle of side-walk  It was the only glimmer of light on the street, which made it seem enchanted. It shone out of a large, unusual house covered entirely in glazed tiles, like the ones at delicatessens. It was white, and glimmered in the moonlight.


A second door opened automatically; with a click he was transported into a fully lit room, into a veritable bath of light – so vivid, so abundant, so radiant that it didn’t seem real.


Brassaï At Suzy’s, rue Gregoire-Tours. 1932.

Photograph by Brassai of the Latin Quarter bordello in Paris called “Suzy”.  Brassai says it “was one of the discreet houses that guaranteed the anonymity of its guests. Even priests got in and out without being recognized.”

Jean Genet’s encounter with heterotopias – penal colonies

In Miracle of the Rose, Genet castigates certain liberal journalists for suggesting that all penal homes for children should be closed:

…. they fail to realise that if they were, the children would set them up again. Those inhuman kids would create courts of miracles… and perform their secret, complicated rites in the teeth of well-meaning journalists .

Genet even suggests that the Mettray penal colony was a ‘paradise’.

Genet did in later life come to view Mettray as exploitative, but he was also reported to have said to Jouhandeau, the diarist and novelist:

‘prison isn’t prison, it’s escape, it’s freedom. There you can escape the trivial and return to the essential’.

As Genet recounts:

The prison lived like a cathedral at midnight of Christmas eve. We were carrying on the tradition of the monks who went about their business at night, in silence.

Marge Piercy’s encounter with heterotopias – mental hospitals

Connie in Woman on the Edge of Time:

At odd moments, the better days, the mental hospital reminded her of being in college those almost two years she had before she got knocked up. The similarity lay in the serious conversations, the leisure to argue about God and Sex and the State and the Good….Outside, whole days of her life would leak by and she wouldn’t have one good thoughtful conversation (1979: 86).


Clive Barker’s encounter with heterotopias – carpets

In ‘Weaveworld’ – Barker’s dark  adult fantasy (in widest sense of word) –  a carpet comes to life, opening up a world with puzzling juxtapositions, throwing together geographical zones:

‘in defiance of all laws geological or climatic, as if by a God whose taste was for contradiction’.

From one perspective it is just an ordinary carpet, but the space has been made to conceal and protect a gate into a garden of memories, of dreams, of enchantment, of imagination… where ‘nothing was fixed: where magic ruled’ .

Why a carpet?

‘What’s more easily overlooked than the thing you’re standing on.’

Clive Barker says the novel captures the sense:

‘…..that there is a home which is even more fundamental than the home where you were born, that maybe we have, prenatally, an image of Eden, or of a perfect place, or a place where we may be perfectible’.

It is a place where the conventions and clichés of our world, for example the binaries of gender, are thoroughly undermined.


June 2017

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