C. G. Christofides (essay date February 1961)
SOURCE: Christofides, C. G. “Gaston Bachelard's Phenomenology of the Imagination.” Romanic Review 52, no. 1 (February 1961): 36-47.
[In the following essay, Christofides attempts to define Bachelard's esthetic, calling it “a fruitful theoretical statement that has affinities with Symbolist, Surrealist and Existentialist work evoking insights which are partly contingent on the theories of contemporary psychology.”]
Gaston Bachelard's lifelong fecund and original investigations into the realm of the imaginary and the stuff of dreams reached a triumphal apogee in 1957 with the publication of a volume on the “poetics of space.”1 In a year that watched with exhilarating awe the penetration of space by a humanly-made satellite this was no science-fiction gimmick. It was the natural culmination of a work which for the last two decades had been leading the Sorbonne's philosopher of science not so much away from science as into the mystery of the creative act, the imagination which brings life to the material cause and the nature of oneiric experience.
None but the French academic and journalistic critics and a few literary linguists2 have paid any attention to this philosopher's main body of work, some of them dismissing it as revival of alchemy and magic. In the United States, references to his work can be found in four major articles, two of them by Professor Robert Champigny, himself a Sorbonne product.3 And in general, recognition is vaguely given to Bachelard for being the “philosopher of Surrealism,” and for having fathered the phenomenological critics Georges Poulet and Jean-Pierre Richard.4 It is the purpose of this article to seek an esthetic in the scientific and non-scientific writings of Gaston Bachelard. This esthetic is a fruitful theoretical statement that has affinities with Symbolist, Surrealist and Existentialist work, evoking insights which are partly contingent on the theories of contemporary psychology.
For Bachelard, science produces the Cartesian distinction between reason and imagination; he sees here the cleavage that his predecessor at the University of Paris, Léon Brunschvicg, saw between science and perception. Scientific experimentation, which shattered the world of air, earth, fire and water by no longer considering them basic elements of nature, demonstrated the erroneous methods of pre-science. Bachelard's speculations are born of the consideration that what science has destroyed is not error but poetic expansion. It is of little importance that a pre-scientific treatise on fire may tell nothing about fire's natural structure. What is important is revelation about the unconscious of its author, since the elements have never ceased to be fundamental symbols of the imagination. In primitive times, says Bachelard, art, song, caress must have been associated with utilitarian activity in an unbreakable fashion: man is a hand, a language.5 Poetry can rewed what science has put asunder. To avoid dehumanization, the philosopher must seek understanding in the realms of both science and poetry by seeing clearly the relationships between the two activities. After all, argues Bachelard, science does not yield absolute reality, since scientific reality is always open to revision. In its quest of the reasonable, science must constantly admit that which is not amenable to reason. If science were an absolute, it would become contended at a given point of achievement, instead of perpetually negating, in order to be able to affirm. Reality, then, can be seized only in the oscillation between the intuitive and the geometric spirit. Verification is never total; its fragments and generalizations continuously pose new problems, and scientific method must of necessity follow a dual path.6 At the stage of evolution where contemporary science finds itself, the scientist is faced with the renascent need of living and reliving the instant of objectivity, of being ceaselessly at the emerging state of desubjectivation which gives the supreme joy of moving from extroversion to introversion, within a spirit liberated psychoanalytically from the twin slaveries of subject and object.7
But, there is one source in man that is a constant, an absolute, one source that is literally creative (poetic): the source of dreams, images, illusions. “Nous avons la puissance de réveiller des sources,”8 says Bachelard in an admirable sentence. “L'humanité imageante est au delà de la nature naturante.”9 With Otto Rank, Bachelard would agree that it is not sufficient to see the importance of the irrational element in human life and point it out in rational terms, but that on the contrary it is necessary not only to live with it but to live it actually.10
The dream is no longer the Bergsonian “détente et chute d'un élan,” for oneiric imagination is a “faculté de surhumanité,” without which man is not really man.11 If in Bergson's philosophy to dream is to lose the sense of reality, in Bachelard's philosophy to lack the power of the unreal is to be neurotic.12 “L'imagination invente plus que des choses et des drames, elle invente de la vie nouvelle; elle invente de l'esprit nouveau; elle ouvre des yeux qui ont des types nouveaux de vision.”13 The spirit must be vision and poetry for reason to be revision and analysis. Dream is not smoke but fire.14 The cogito is an oneiric one. I dream, therefore I am. Dream (not reason or faith) will break the eternal silence of these infinite spaces. The method is that of the alchemist, for whom “tout intérieur est un ventre, un ventre qu'il faut ouvrir. … Avant l'expérience, pour l'inconscient qui rêve, il n'y a pas d'intérieur placide, tranquille, froid. Tout ce qui est caché germine.”15 In La Psychanalyse du feu, Bachelard wrote that he was setting out to show how dreaming ceaselessly treats primitive themes, works as a demiurgic soul—against logic and science.16 At a staggering, frightening pace, twentieth-century scientism took less than twenty years to trap Bachelard's vision experimentally. In the University of Chicago's Sleep Laboratory, Professor Nathaniel Kleitman and his associates, by means of an electro-encephalograph and small disk electrodes attached near the eyes and scalp of their subject, have succeeded in registering on moving graph paper the live, pulsating dream, before it has been transformed into memory.17 Science, which, in Sir James Jeans' words, can give very few indications as to the way in which consciousness apprehends the work of art,18 is gradually moving toward the substantiation of this aspect of Bachelard's conceptions. In Physics and Philosophy (1958), Nobel Prize-winning atomic scientist Werner Heisenberg succinctly and eloquently describes the new horizons revealed by Einsteinian science: “The philosophic thesis that all knowledge is ultimately founded in experience has in the end led to a postulate concerning the logical clarification of any statement about nature. Such a postulate may have seemed justified in the period of classical physics, but since quantum theory we have learned that it cannot be fulfilled” (p. 85).
Contemporary literary criticism, never to be outdone by contemporary scientism, accepts, in principle, the validity of Bachelard's probings. For René Wellek and Austin Warren, among the important literary motifs are the supernatural and the non-naturalist or irrational.19 Dorothy Sayers reprimands critics who, to the claim that archetypes bring forth unknown things, base their objection on the ground that these things are not to be found in their personal experience.20 The correctness of speaking of art as dream is admitted by De Witt Parker, because there is “creativeness” in dream.21 T. E. Hulme and Ezra Pound conceived the image as an analogy offered to the senses, expressing vision—the precise moment when a thing outward and objective transforms itself into a thing inward and subjective. T. S. Eliot's “heap of broken images,” in the Waste Land, is the objectification of a spiritual situation. Yeats' “unpurged images” in “Byzantium” must be purged to summon the work of art into being. “Most images today,” writes William York Tindall, “whether in poem or novel, are allowed to stand alone, teasing our understanding by nondiscursive relationship with what surrounds them.”22 This is the temperate, tolerant view, not distant from Professor Helmut Hatzfeld's: “The mark of genius is evident when the oneiric and the realistic style fuse by an interior necessity without any surrealist experimentation involved.”23
Margaret Gilman, in her imposing testament, The Idea of Poetry in France,24 has shown that before the middle of the nineteenth century Hugo is almost alone in insisting that the artist's act is to create and to resuscitate, and in defining imagination as the faculty that simultaneously makes images and explores the infinite.25 She might have added Baudelaire's “visionary” Balzac, who wrote in Séraphîta: “… comprends-tu que l'âme seule, élevée à sa toute puissance, résiste à peine, dans le rêve, aux dévorantes communications de l'Esprit?”26 Miss Gilman shows that the dichotomy between matter and form, feeling and reason, was the prevalent artistic attitude in France before Baudelaire. This attitude distrusted imagination, considered it an embellishing rather than an inspirational faculty. Finally, Baudelaire came to ally suggestion with imagination and to enthrone the claims of dream and contemplation, with the creation of correspondences between the horizontal and the transcendental, the inner and the outer worlds. (Imagination, wrote Baudelaire, is the most scientific of all faculties because it alone understands universal analogy.) Imagination and vision were fused with form to create the modernist esthetic.27 Miss Gilman quotes “a modern critic” (Bachelard): “Imagination is not the faculty of forming images of reality: it is the faculty of forming images which go beyond reality, which turn reality into song. It is a superhuman quality.”28 This is a formulation reminiscent of Malraux's moving, lyrical sentence on the last page of Les Voix du silence: “… mais il est beau que l'animal qui sait qu'il doit mourir, arrache à l'ironie des nébuleuses le chant des constellations, et qu'il le lance au hasard des siècles, auxquels il imposera des paroles inconnues.”
Two strange bedfellows,29 Thierry Maulnier and Henri Peyre, present the positivist rebuttal to activities of the order of Bachelard's investigations. Maulnier, not insensitively, points out that the content of poetry is verbal, not mental, and that its role is not in the vain undertaking of reproducing images formed in the consciousness of the poet, but rather in assembling and ordering words so as to endow them with an inexhaustible power of incantation.30 Needless to state this is neither revelatory nor original, if one remembers that when these lines were published, the Abbé Bremond had been dead for six years. Henri Peyre's abolition of the dominant esthetic of his times, if no more clarifying, is as damning as it is puzzling: “The sacrosanct phrases of modern pedants, ‘levels of meaning,’ ‘formal patterns,’ ‘symbols’ and, worst of all, ‘myth,’ which have marred much German and American fiction seem to have left not only critics but, more fortunately, novelists in France untainted.”31 Exit Bachelard. More important, out go Camus and scenes from the novels of Malraux, Mauriac and Bernanos. Indeed, Bachelard's most lasting achievement may well be his sincere effort to understand and explain what modern artistic sensibility has wrought: Nerval's organic, life-infusing function of dream, the dream which in Aurélia he called a second life; Baudelaire's “many other” images in “Le Cygne”; Verlaine's “beaux yeux derrière des voiles”; Rimbaud's chaotic reconstruction of a primitive world; Mallarmé's cigar smoke rings that abolish each other, leaving behind them but ashes; Valéry's “être” and “nonêtre”; René Clair's “unreal” cinematographic attempts; Cézanne's, Picasso's and Braque's decomposition and recomposition of their universe, not to reproduce what is visible but to render visible; Apollinaire, Cocteau, Giraudoux, Fargue, Eluard, Supervielle.32
In six books devoted to “material imagination,” two to earth,33 one to fire, air, water and space, Bachelard gradually abandons pre-scientific literature for imaginative literature, especially poetry. He traces poetic imagery to some of its unconscious archetypes, to show the tangibility of both dream and matter, and to advance the theory that the gap between mind and environment is bridged whether the image-making faculties take on an active or a passive direction—reveries of will or reveries of repose—but that the image perceived and the image created are two different psychic moments. Bachelard asks that to understand his work, traditional considerations of imagery as the effect of perception be forgotten. Imagination, then, becomes itself creator, no longer linking fragments of perceived reality, but preceding thought, not exhausted at the moment of the birth of the image (whose creation is the release of psychic tensions). Surrealism, or imagination in action, seeks the new image by virtue of a thrust of renewal. The awakened dream takes its flight in the face of the elements: the resistance of matter increases the reactive capacity of the subject's imaginary forces and excites the...
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