The Psychoanalysis of Fire
by Gaston Bachelard, translated by Alan C.M. Ross
Beacon, 284 pp., $3.95
The Poetics of Space
by Gaston Bachelard, translated by Maria Jolas
Orion, 241 pp., $6.00
When he died last year at the age of seventy-nine, Gaston Bachelard had some thirty books to his credit but, so far as I know, these are the only two available as yet in translation. The explanation for his neglect by Anglo-American publishers is, no doubt, that half his output consists of quite difficult works on the history and philosophy of science, while the other half, although much easier to read, is the sort of writing which appeals less to the general public than to other writers, particularly critics and essayists. With them, on its home ground, it has been so effective that Bachelard started a fashion in modern French literature. Once you have become acquainted with his approach and style, you find echoes of them everywhere, and not only in such avowed admirers as the critics, Roland Barthes and Jean-Pierre Richard. His vocabulary colors literary conversations and the literary reviews. He has not, to date, achieved the international fame of Sartre or Teilhard de Chardin, perhaps because he never dealt specifically with the ultimate metaphysical problems. He is neither a self-confessed and tortured atheist like Sartre, nor, like Chardin, a heretic combining a belief in God with proficiency in modern science. But, within the French context, he is almost as important as they are, because he has a pseudo-religious force, without taking a stand on religion. To define him as briefly as possibly—he is a philosopher, with a professional training in the sciences, who devoted most of the second phase of his career to promoting that aspect of human nature which often seems most inimical to science: the poetic imagination.
I doubt whether he ever heard of the great transatlantic debate about the “two cultures,” but he looks, at first sight, like Sir Charles Snow’s ideal man. A bright pupil of humble origins, he worked himself up by gradual stages until he was appointed to a chair at the Sorbonne at the age of fifty-six. Thereafter, he was a genial, bearded sage with an equal mastery of scientific and literary themes, who kept his local accent and was not afraid to be personal, and even homespun, in his writing and in his behavior. A colleague of his once assured me that, even in Paris, he retained the peasant habit of having thick vegetable soup for breakfast. As he was an early riser, he would put the soup in his pottery hot-water-bottle the night before, so that he had only to take the bottle out of his bed and empty it, before settling down to his meditations. Even if this anecdote is an invention, it is ben trovato; one can easily imagine a Bachelardian chapter on the significance of the soup kept at blood heat all night inside the stone egg, and then absorbed by the body with which it has exchanged its warmth.
He himself has given an account of how he came to extend his field beyond the strictly scientific. In his earlier days as a …