A Not So Simple Introduction

If you love poetry, and obviously I do, it’s hard not to love Bachelard’s introduction to The Poetics of Space because he argues that poetry lies at the very heart of creativity, if not the essence of the human soul. I’d like to believe everything he says is true, but in my heart I have some real reservations about several of his assertions even if others seem right on the mark.

A Platonist at heart, I tend to believe in Jungian archetypes, but I’ve never heard the interpretation Bachelard offers here:

Later, when I shall have occasion to mention the relation of a new poetic image to an archetype lying dormant in the depths of the unconscious, I shall have to make it understood that this relation is not, properly speaking, a causal one. The poetic image is not subject to an inner thrust. It is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of an image, the distant past resounds with echoes, and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away. Because of its novelty and its action, the poetic image has an entity and a dynamism of its own; it is referable to a direct ontology.

This, of course, seems just the opposite of Jungian psychology which defines an archetype as “a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.? Is the poet merely responsible for discovering an archetype, or is Bachelard actually suggesting that the poet is responsible for establishing an archetype? I suspect Bachelard would argue that an archetype can’t exist until it is put into words; thus, particular poets have invented the archetypes that are a part of literature.

As I’ve noted before, reading poetry is about as close as I come to formal religion, and I look to it for spiritual enlightenment. Still, I have some problems going along with this argument:

In many circumstances we are obliged to acknowledge that poetry is a commitment of the soul. A consciousness associated with the soul is more relaxed, less intentionalized than a consciousness associated with the phenomena of the mind. Forces are manifested in poems that do not pass through the circuits of knowledge. The dialectics of inspiration and talent become clear if we consider their two poles: the soul and the mind. In my opinion, soul and mind are indispensable for studying the phenomena of the poetic image in their various nuances, above all, for following the evolution of poetic images from the original state of revery to that of execution. In fact, in a future work, I plan to concentrate particularly on poetic revery as a phenomenology of the soul. In itself, revery constitutes a psychic condition that is too frequently confused with dream. But when it is a question of poetic revery, of revery that derives pleasure not only from itself, but also prepares poetic pleasure for other souls, one realizes that one is no longer drifting into somnolence. The mind is able to relax, but in poetic revery the soul keeps watch, with no tension, calmed and active. To compose a finished, well-constructed poem, the mind is obliged to make projects that prefigure it.

This certainly offers a very different interpretation to my earlier comment on daydreaming, doesn’t it? It’s clear Bachelard attaches a different meaning to daydreaming then the one I’ve been accustomed to.

I certainly agree with Bachelard’s argument that poetry, at least good poetry, resonates with the reader:

The resonances are dispersed on the different planes of our life in the world, while the repercussions invite us to give greater depth to our own existence. In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own. The reverberations bring about a change of being. It is as though the poet’s being were our being. The multiplicity of resonances then issues from the reverberations’ unity of being. Or, to put it more simply, this is an impression that all impassioned poetry-lovers know well: the poem possesses us entirely. This grip that poetry acquires on our very being bears a phenomenological mark that is unmistakable. The exuberance and depth of a poem are always phenomena of the resonance-reverberation doublet. It is as though the poem, through its exuberance, awakened new depths in us. In order to ascertain the psychological action of a poem, we should therefore have to follow the two perspectives of phenomenological analysis, towards the outpourings of the mind and towards the profundities of the soul.

The more a poem resonates and reverberates with its readers, the greater it is. The greatest poems help to define us and to determine how we see the world. Of course, I would argue that all great art does this, whether it’s a famous painting like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,? Picasso’s “Guernica,? or a famous movie, not just poetry.

I also think that great poems like this can create permanent changes in us:

After the original reverberation, we are able to experience resonances, sentimental repercussions, reminders of our past. But the image has touched the depths before it stirs the surface. And this is also true of a simple experience of reading. The image offered us by reading the poem now becomes really our own. It takes root in us. It has been given us by another, but we begin to have the impression that we could have created it, that we should have created it. It becomes a new being in our language, expressing us by making us what it expresses; in other words, it is at once a becoming of expression, and a becoming of our being. Here expression creates being.

To the extent that we internalize it, we make the poem ours and share in its creation, and out own creation.

Bachelard’s distinction between the phenomenologist and the literary critic is a good one:

Here the phenomenologist has nothing in common with the literary critic who, as has frequently been noted, judges a work that he could not create and, if we are to believe certain facile condemnations, would not want to create. A literary critic is a reader who is necessarily severe. By turning inside out like a glove an overworked complex that has become debased to the point of being part of the vocabulary of statesmen, we might say that the literary critic and the professor of rhetoric, who know-all and judge-all, readily go in for a simplex of superiority. As for me, being an addict of felicitous reading, I only read and re-read what I like, with a bit of reader’s pride mixed in with much enthusiasm.

Of course, that’s precisely the way I feel when I write about poetry here. I have no desire to be a literary critic. I am a poetry aficionado searching for poems to love, not a critic.

Bachelard’s “intimate immensity”

Considering that Bachelard begins his book discussing the significance of the house, it seems rather remarkable that he ends up discussing “immensity,” “vastness,” and meditation, very different kinds of space. Though I’m confused how some of these topics fit together, his discussion always manages to remain thought-provoking.

Is “immensity” really a “ philosophical category of daydream”?

One might say that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.

Far from the immensities of sea and land, merely through memory, we can recapture, by means of meditation, the resonances of this contemplation of grandeur. But is this really memory? Isn’t imagination alone able to enlarge indefinitely the images of immensity? In point of fact, daydreaming, from the very first second, is an entirely constituted state. We do not see it start, and yet it always starts the same way, that is, it flees the object nearby and right away it is far off, elsewhere, in the space of elsewhere.

When this elsewhere is in natural surroundings, that is, when it is not lodged in the houses of the past, it is immense. And one might say that daydream is original contemplation.

If we could analyze impressions and images of immensity, or what immensity contributes to an image, we should soon enter into a region of the purest sort of phenomenology a phenomenology without phenomena; or, stated less paradoxically, one that, in order to know the productive flow of images, need not wait for the phenomena of the imagination to take form and become stabilized in completed images. In other words, since immense is not an object, a phenomenology of immense would refer us directly to our imagining consciousness. In analyzing images of immensity, we should realize within ourselves the pure being of pure imagination. It then becomes clear that works of art are the byproducts of this existentialism of the imagining being. In this direction of daydreams of immensity, the real product is consciousness of enlargement. We feel that we have been promoted to the dignity of the admiring being.

Some of the connections he makes here seem more like sleight-of-hand than rational connections, but I’m still willing to see where this line of thought leads. It might help if I better understood what he means by “daydreams,” because what I associate with daydreaming (i.e. not paying attention to what’s happening around you) is invariably influenced by my years of teaching. I would not normally associate it with meditation, which seems nearly the opposite, a very directed kind of self-awareness.

The most interesting conjecture, for me at least, is that “works of art are the byproducts” of “consciousness of enlargement.” The idea that actual works of art are not the main focus of artists, but, rather, merely a means of seeking enlightenment is certainly an intriguing idea.

Bachelard argues that our perception of “immensity” is more the result of an “inner immensity” than an external immensity:

However paradoxical this may seem, it is often this inner immensity that gives their real meaning to certain expressions concerning the visible world. To take a precise example, we might make a detailed examination of what is meant by the immensity of the forest. For this “immensity” originates in a body of impressions which, in reality, have little connection with geographical information. We do not have to be long in the woods to experience the always rather anxious impression of “going deeper and deeper” into a limitless world. Soon, if we do not know where we are going, we no longer know where we are. It would be easy to furnish literary documents that would be so many variations on the theme of this limitless world, which is a primary attribute of the forest. But the following passage, marked with rare psychological depth, from Marcault and Thérèse Brosse’s excellent work, will help us to determine the main theme: “Forests, especially, with the mystery of their space prolonged indefinitely beyond the veil of tree trunks and leaves, space that is veiled for our eyes, but transparent to action, are veritable psychological transcendents.”

Personal experience certainly confirms that it doesn’t take a large number of trees to give a sense of immensity. Wander very deeply into an Olympic rainforest and the lack of trails and sheer density of trees and shrubs will immediately have you believing that you’ve wandered into an immense forest, even though you have no way to confirm that.

It’s not too far from this admission to arguing that “grandeur does not come from the spectacle witnessed, but from the unfathomable depths of vast thoughts.”

It is no exaggeration to say that, for Baudelaire, the word vast is a metaphysical argument by means of which the vast world and vast thoughts are united. But actually this grandeur is most active in the realm of intimate space. For this grandeur does not come from the spectacle witnessed, but from the unfathomable depths of vast thoughts. In his Journaux intimes (loc. cit., p. 29) Baudelaire writes: “In certain almost supernatural inner states, the depth of life is entirely revealed in the spectacle, however ordinary, that we have before our eyes, and which becomes the symbol of it.” Here we have a passage that designates the phenomenological direction I myself pursue. The exterior spectacle helps intimate grandeur unfold.

The word vast, for Baudelaire, is also the word that expresses the highest degree of synthesis. In order to learn the difference between the discursive ventures of the mind and the powers of the spirit, we must meditate upon the following thought,’ “the lyrical spirit takes strides that are as vast as synthesis while the novelist’s mind delights in analysis.”

I wouldn’t deny that for any word there is an inner state which gives that word meaning. I’m just not sure that is the same as saying even an “ordinary spectacle” can evoke a sense of grandeur. If that’s true, couldn’t one argue that such words have no real meaning?

Bachelard argues that poets help us to expand our intimate space to meet that outer immensity:

Poets help us discover within ourselves such joy in looking that sometimes, in the presence of a perfectly familiar object, we experience an extension of our intimate space. Let us listen to Rilke, for instance, give its existence of immensity to a tree he is looking at.

(Space, outside ourselves, invades and ravishes things:
If you want to achieve the existence of a tree,
Invest it with inner space, this space
That has its being in you. Surround it with compulsions,
It knows no bounds, and only really becomes a tree
If it takes its place in the heart of your renunciation.)

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough Rilke to truly understand this, but it seems true that a tree only has meaning to the extent that we give it meaning. The more we love trees, the more meaning a particular tree will have.

It seems clear that only someone who understands the nature of tree can create a great bonsai.

Do Bonsai only have appeal to those who already love trees? Does viewing an outstanding bonsai gives us a greater appreciation of trees?

Interestingly enough, Bachelard asserts that it is through “immensity” that intimate space and world space blend.

It would seem, then, that it is through their “immensity” that these two kinds of space the space of intimacy and world space blend. When human solitude deepens, then the two immensities touch and become identical. In one of Rilke’s letters, we see him straining toward “the unlimited solitude that makes a lifetime of each day, toward communion with the universe, in a word, space, the invisible space that man can live in nevertheless, and which surrounds him with countless presences.”

This coexistence of things in a space to which we add consciousness of our own existence, is a very concrete thing. Leibnitz’s theme of space as a place inhabited by coexistants has found its poet in Rilke. In this coexistentialism every object invested with intimate space becomes the center of all space. For each object, distance is the present, the horizon exists as much as the center.

This sounds similar to the Buddhist concept of awareness. Is “solitude” the same as meditation? Does a greater inward awareness allow one to become one with “all space?”

Bachelard’s Miniature

Despite the fact that Bachelard’s chapter entitled “miniature? is my favorite chapter after the first two, it irritates me in several ways. This chapter, more than any other, shows Bachelard’s provincialism, his unwillingness to look outside his own culture for examples to support his theories, since as he says here:

Unfortunately, being, as I am, a philosopher who plies his trade at home, I haven’t the advantage of actually seeing the works of the miniaturists of the Middle Ages, which was the great age of solitary patience. But I can well imagine this patience, which brings peace to one’s fingers. Indeed, we have only to imagine it for our souls to be bathed in peace. All small things must evolve slowly, and certainly a long period of leisure, in a quiet room, was needed to miniaturize the world. Also one must love space to describe it as minutely as though there were world molecules, to enclose an entire spectacle in a molecule of drawing. In this feat there is an important dialectics of the intuition which always sees big and work, which is hostile to flights of fancy. Intuitionists, in fact, take in everything at one glance, while details reveal themselves and patiently take their places, one after the other, with the discursive impishness of the clever miniaturist. It is as though the miniaturist challenged the intuitionist philosopher’s lazy contemplation, as though he said to him: “You would not have seen that! Take the time needed to see all these little things that cannot be seen all together.” In looking at a miniature, unflagging attention is required to integrate all the detail.

For instance, I would have loved to hear what he would say about Bonzai, or the associated miniature carvings that often accompany Bonzai.

Still, since I am fond of microscopes and macro-photography, it would be impossible not to identify with:

The man with the magnifying glass takes the world as though it were quite new to him. If he were to tell us of the discoveries he has made, he would furnish us with documents of pure phenomenology, in which discovery of the world, or entry into the world, would be more than just a worn out word, more than a word that has become tarnished through over frequent philosophical use. A philosopher often describes his “entry into the world,” his “being in the world,” using a familiar object as symbol. He will describe his ink bottle phenomenologically, and a paltry thing becomes the janitor of the wide world.

The man with the magnifying glass quite simply bars the everyday world. He is a fresh eye before a new object. The botanist’s magnifying glass is youth recaptured. It gives him back the enlarging gaze of a child. With this glass in his hand, he returns to the garden,

les enfants regardent grand

(where children see enlarged)

Thus the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire World. The details of a thing can be the sign of a new world which, like all worlds, contains the attributes of greatness.

Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness.

It’s impossible to spend hours building an accurate model without seeing the real thing with new eyes. Whenever I fly, I’m struck by how much the real world below looks like the train sets my younger brother used to lavish so much attention on.

Nor could I agree more with:

In reality, as we shall see later, especially when we examine images of immenseness, tiny and immense are compatible. A poet is always ready to see large and small. For instance, thanks to the image, a man like Paul Claudel, in his cosmogony was quick to assimilate the vocabulary if not the thinking of contemporary science. The following lines are from his Cinq grandes odes (p.i8o): “Just as we see little spiders or certain insect larvae hidden like precious stones in their cotton and satin pouches, “In the same way, I was shown an entire nestful of still embarrassed suns in the cold folds of the nebula.”

If a poet looks through a microscope or a telescope, he always sees the same thing.

It’s impossible for me to look at photos taken through electron-microscopes and not be inspired for it’s a whole new way of seeing the world, nearly as enlightening as seeing the first shots of earth taken from outer space. For many of my generation, seeing that blue ball floating in space was a mind-altering experience,an “A hah? moment.

I’ve never been in a belfry-tower, but I’ve often felt exactly the way Bachelard describes here when descending from the mountains or from high on the Columbia River Gorge:

From the solitude of a belfry-tower, a man watches other men “running about? on the distant square bleached white by the summer sun. The men look “the size of flies? and move about irrationally “like ants.? These comparisons which are so hackneyed that one no longer dares to use them, appear as though inadvertently in numerous passages that recount a belfry daydream. It remains true, nevertheless, that a phenomenologist of images must take note of the extreme simplicity of these reflections which so successfully separate the daydreamer from the restless world, and give him an impression of domination at little cost. But once its commonplace nature has been pointed out, we realize that this is specifically the dream of high solitude. Enclosed solitude would think other thoughts. It would deny the world otherwise, and would not have a concrete image with which to dominate it. From the top of his tower, a philosopher of domination sees the universe in miniature. Everything is small because he is so high.. And since he is high, he is great, the height of his station is proof of his own greatness.

It’s not without reason that Bill and I used to refer to tourists who never left the parking lot but were content to look up at the mountains or at the Gorge waterfalls as “flatlanders? when we descended into their midst.

Bachelard’s “nests and shells”

Personally, I think the essence of Bachelard’s book is found in the first two chapters, but he extends his metaphor throughout the rest of his work, exploring the phenomena of shelter in greater and greater detail.

He suggests that the idea of shelter is a primal instinct:

With nests and, above all, shells, we shall find a whole series of images that I am going to try to characterize as primal images; images that bring out the primitiveness in us.

The nesting image seems like a natural, since primitive homes, small as they were, must have served primarily as a safe haven for very young children since it’s unlikely they could confine older children for long:

A nest, like any other image of rest and quiet, is immediately associated with the image of a simple house. When we pass from the image of a nest to the image of a house, and vice versa, it can only be in an atmosphere of simplicity. Van Gogh, who painted numerous nests, as well as numerous peasant cottages, wrote to his brother: “The cottage, with its thatched roof, made me think of a wren’s nest.”‘ For a painter, it is probably twice as interesting if, while painting a nest, he dreams of a cottage and, while painting a cottage, he dreams of a nest. It is as though one dreamed twice, in two registers, when one dreams of an image duster such as this. For the simplest image is doubled; it is itself and something else than itself. Van Gogh’s thatched cottages are overladen with thatch. Thick, coarsely plaited straw emphasizes the will to provide shelter by extending well beyond the walls. Indeed, in this instance, among all the shelter virtues, the roof is the dominant evidence. Under the roof’s covering the walls are of earth and stone. The openings are low. A thatched cottage is set on the ground like a nest in a field.

It’s probably not entirely coincidental that baby bassinets are often made of straw-like material lined with soft, fleecy blankets since it’s one of the first thing prospective parents buy when they get the nesting instinct. Who can resist nestling; I certainly loved it when Zoe nestled in my arms on my recent visit to Colorado. It’s hard to say who felt most secure— the child or the grandpa.

A less intuitive metaphor, but perhaps an even more thought-provoking one is that of the shell as a form of shelter:

Moreover, these facts of the imagination are related to allegories of very ancient origin. Jurgis Baltrusaitis recalls (bc. cit. p. 57) that “as late as the Carolingian epoch, burial grounds often contained snail shellsan allegory of a grave in which man will awaken.” And in Le bestiaire du Christ, p. 922, Charbonneaux-Lassay writes: “Taken as a whole, with both its hard covering and its sentient organism, the shell, for the Ancients, was the symbol of the human being in its entirety, body and soul. In fact, ancient symbolics used the shell as a symbol for the human body, which encloses the soul in an outside envelope, while the soul quickens the entire being, represented by the organism of the mollusk. Thus, they said, the body becomes lifeless when the soul has left it, in the same way that the shell becomes incapable of moving when it is separated from the part that gives it life.”

This certainly gives added dimension to the cliché he’s “just a shell of his former self,? doesn’t it? Is our home our shell, a living extension of ourselves to protect us from our environment?

In essence, Bachelard attempts to show the many way artists empathize with man’s attempts to find security in an uncertain world, a vital role in a postmodern world which seems anything but secure:

With nests, with shells at the risk of wearying the reader I have multiplied the images that seem to me to illustrate the function of inhabiting in elementary forms which may be too remotely imagined. Here one senses clearly that this is a mixed problem of imagination and observation. I have simply wanted to show that whenever life seeks to shelter, protect, cover or hide itself, the imagination sympathizes with the being that inhabits the protected space. The imagination experiences protection in all its nuances of security, from life in the most material of shells, to more subtle concealment through imitation of surfaces. As the poet Noel Arnaud expresses it, being seeks dissimulation in similarity.’ To be in safety under cover of a color is carrying the tranquility of inhabiting to the point of culmination, not to say, imprudence. Shade, too, can be inhabited.