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 university teacher at Dijon, he heard one of his students refer to “M. Bachelard’s pasteurized universe.” This, he says, was a revelation to him of the sterilization with which he was threatened, so he determined to put the microbes of life back into his thinking.
His first attempt was The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938), which was followed in rapid succession by many other volumes about earth, air, fire, and water. The Poetics of Space (1958) was one of the last, but two years later came La flamme d’une chandelle, which is almost an autobiographical prose-poem on the theme of the spiritual value of candlelight as opposed to the sexual, generative force of fire. Somewhere between 1938 and 1958, he shifted the emphasis from a psychoanalytical, to a phenomenological, approach on the ground that the working of the imagination, in its most general sense, is a function of perception rather than of the constitution of the individual psyche. He proceeds as if the imagination operated in the same way in everyone and were reducible to a series of principles. Although he does not claim scientific validity for these principles, he states them confidently and backs them up with innumerable quotations from a wide range of literary sources, as if he were expounding objective truth and supporting it with evidence.
Until recently, my acquaintance with Bachelard was limited to some of these books on the imagination, and I have always been struck by their strongly subjective nature, which contradicts their objective assumptions. It was not clear to me—and I was still uncertain after reading Northrop Frye’s introduction to The Psychoanalysis of Fire and Etienne Gilson’s preface to The Poetics of Space—how Bachelard reconciled this imaginative adventurousness with his scientific training. Having now read one or two of his technical works. I think I see the connection. He is constantly pointing out that science is not “realistic” in any simple sense. Matter, the “object” which science studies, long ago ceased to be dully materialistic. Science runs counter to common-sense; it is a rationalistic construction, the cumulative product of intellectual progress, and now far beyond the grasp of any individual mind. Moveover, science offers us no final version of “reality,” only provisional recipes which work, although we may not understand how they manage to do so; the wave-particle dualism is a case in point. A scientist who clings too closely to “realistic” assumptions is in danger of not being bold enough or paradoxical enough to enter into the implications of his work and, indeed, it often happens that a scientist’s philosophy of science rests on assumptions that are outdated by his actual discoveries. “Science does not get the philosophy it deserves.”
Since the rationalistic construction of science is infinitely complex and perpetually unfinished, it does not offer a stable home for the imagination. Therefore, says Bachelard—and it is here that he makes his jump—we should return with a clear conscience to pre-scientific categories, from which we cannot, in any case, tree ourselves. We all feel, inevitably, that the sun rises and sets, that the four essential elements are earth, air, fire, and water, that flame is an image of passion, and so on. This is the stuff of poetry and always will be. Let us recognize the fact and “make the images happy.” The way to do this is to accept them willingly as the subject-matter of our day-dreams, and to cultivate day-dreaming as a healthy exercise of the psyche.
Perhaps Bachelard’s most original feature is his insistence on what he calls le rêve or la rêverie, and takes care to distinguish from the different sort of dreaming which occurs during sleep. As far as I have been able to ascertain, he never stops to define day-dreaming in so many words, but since such books as The Psychoanalysis of Fire and The Poetics of Space are presumably the products of his own day-dreams, we can deduce from them that he means letting the mind dwell consciously or half-consciously on all those sensations of depth, shape, movement, texture, color, etc., which go to make up a harmonious relationship with the outside world, and by means of which material creation penetrates to the depth of our being. These sensations have been expressed articulately—but usually in fragmentary form—by poets, alchemists, ancient philosophers, and certain novelists and essayists. Bachelard, the modern scientific philosopher, tries to systematize them and urges other thinkers to follow suit.
His attraction is that he proposes an optimistic hygiene, which seems to be within everyone’s scope, and is directly concerned with the intangibles of aesthetic experience. His development of this hygiene is, in many respects, subtle, but the basic idea is quite simple and can be illustrated by an obvious example arrived at by combining statements from both books. In The Psychoanalysis of Fire he dwells at length on the importance of having an open fire—and, what is more, a wood fire—in one’s livingroom; fire is not merely itself; it is an image of vitality and sexuality and therefore our eyes need to dwell on a fire when we are sitting in a state of creative musing. In The Poetics of Space, he stresses the importance of having a house with both a cellar and an attic; the cellar corresponds to the dark, unconscious forces within us, while the attic is an image of elevation and spirituality, and we need to have the double reflection of our being in the area we occupy. It follows that no-one should live in an apartment on the flat in a centrally-heated block. If we do live in such an apartment, or in some other unsuitable dwelling, we have to day-dream about the ideal house of our imagination. And wherever we are, we must day-dream, and should willingly day-dream, about those flames, spaces, corners, oceans, etc. that are needed to redress our psychological balance. In this sense, there is no opposition between dreaming and living; dreaming is living and perhaps the better part of it. At this point, two quotations immediately come to mind and one is staggered that Bachelard, with his mania for quotations, should not use them: “We are such stuff…” and “vida es sueño.”
Some hard-headed readers, comfortably ensconced in their centrally-heated apartments, will probably dismiss all this as another outburst of naïve naturism. I am inclined to do so myself, but then I reflect that after twenty-five years of living in apartments and dreaming of houses, I have at last managed the down payment on a Victorian house in Hampstead with a cellar and an attic, and that I stoke the kitchen stove each morning with unfailing relish. When it rains, I can sense the water on every tile and slate. The drains are blocked for the moment and I feel like sending for the doctor as well as the plumber. This house—however doubtful its aesthetic quality—represents, then, the solidification of a quarter of a century of day-dreams, and I am not so much living in it as dreaming it, as if it were an extension of myself. In this respect, I must admit that Bachelard has got me taped, and I imagine that his naïve naturism is true for a great many other people as well, although the details may vary a good deal more from one person to another than he supposes. For instance, like him I was brought up in the country by candlelight and with iron pots set on an open fire but, unlike him, I have no wish to return to these particular, primitive realities. I suspect that each of us works out his own version of “nature” and tries to order his life and dreams accordingly. Had Bachelard been born fifty years later, he might well have evolved some poeticization of central-heating as vertebrated fire and of the motor-car as a sleek, mobile shell.
I grant that we all day-dream and behave, to some extent, according to our day-dreams, but my doubts about the perfect validity of day-dreaming as he advocates it are prompted by two main factors. In the first place, in both the books under review, he quotes frequently from poets, both obscure and famous, and although the quotations illustrate the points he is dealing with, they are for the most part surprisingly indifferent as poetry. There must obviously be much more to poetry than simply getting the day-dreaming point right, and I seriously question Bachelard’s literary judgment both as a critic and as a writer of near prose-poetry himself. Secondly, I think he wobbles on the question of whether day-dreaming is in the last resort allied to, or opposed to, intellectual investigation. At times, he seems to want to believe that the play of the imagination acts as a stimulus to discovery, both by refreshing the mind and leading it along certain paths. At other times, he points out how often imaginative patterns hinder scientific advance because they amount to a kind of pre-scientific animism which short-circuits thought into poetic contemplation. The emphasis he gives to this second attitude proves that he is, in fact, very far from being Sir Charles’s ideal man, combining the two cultures. The difficulty is not mentioned in either The Psychoanalysis of Fire or The Poetics of Space, but it is clearly stated in Le matérialisme rationnel (1953) and La flamme d’une chandelle (1961). In the first, he says that oneirocism and intellectualism are inevitably unstable polarities; oneiric values and intellectual values are bound to remain in conflict. La flamme d’une chandelle ends with a curious passage in which the elderly philosopher, having indulged his passion for day-dreaming in so many volumes, longs to return to the severity of intellectual work:
When a little album illustrating the chiaroscuro of the psyche of a dreamer is nearing completion, there returns a longing for severely ordered thoughts. In following my candle-romanticism, I have expressed only half my life…After so many day-dreams, I feel an urgent need to learn more…to study some book, a difficult book, a book that always remains a little too difficult for me. When braced to deal with a rigorously organized book, the mind constructs and reconstructs itself. All intellectual becoming, the whole future of thought, lies in a reconstruction of the mind.
The happy day-dreamer is also, then, a guilty day-dreamer, who wants to “wake-up” again to intellectualism. It is as if the aesthetic quality of his day-dreams, and the literature which nourishes them, did not correspond to the full span of his waking mind. Modifying his phrase about science not getting the philosophy it deserves, we might ask whether his scientific mind got the literature it deserved or had an astringent enough view of the intellectual quality of the best literature. Perhaps he quotes so many minor poets, because they and he are still in the aftermath of Symbolist dreaminess. One part of his mind is attuned to Einstein and Heisenberg; the other may be not so far removed from Maeterlinck.
April 30, 1964