Bachelard / Feu & Eau
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A superﬁcial look at his biography already makes clear that Bachelard never followed standard trajectories. Born on June 27, 1884 in Bar-sur-Aube, at the border between Champagne and Burgundy, he started his career as a postmaster in his hometown. He performs his military service in telegraphy. This job also brought him to Paris in 1907 where at the same time, he started studying mathematics and natural science. Just before his mobilization for the First World War, he marries Jeanne Rossi, a teacher from his hometown. Bachelard stayed for more than four years at the war front. His young wife died shortly after the war, leaving him a daughter, Suzanne Bachelard. In the ﬁfties and until the eighties, Suzanne Bachelard would also become an important philosopher and epistemologist in her own right, working at the interface of philosophy of science and phenomenology. From the twenties on, the Bachelards will always be together, discussing and inﬂuencing each other’s ideas, dividing their time between Paris and Burgundy.
A bright pupil of humble origins, Bachelard 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 said 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 duly 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.”
While denouncing substantialist and other images as false origins of knowledge, Bachelard at the same time calls for a study of the imaginary reality of the natural ‘elements' in their own right. In this view, the four elements of the ﬁrst so-called philosophies of nature are the basic ingredients for an imaginative conception of the material universe. Bachelard does not connect these elements to nature itself, but to nature as it is imagined and experienced in literary texts invoking natural phenomena, or in daydreams. Which is to say the elements are elements of poetic imagination, that also must be studied independently. The ‘discovery’ of these elements through a kind of epistemic ‘psychoanalysis’ is not only an occasion for the rationalist’s verdict on the obstacles, but also a starting point for a speciﬁc study of the imagination, that will take shape in a second series of works in a new genre, the poetics of the imagination. Each of these well-known monographs circle around special clusters of images and metaphors, gathered from Bachelard’s readings of poets and novelists who are drawn to peculiar elements as machines that produce speciﬁc types of metaphors.
The publication of Fragments of a Poetics of Fire is a milestone in Bachelard studies that will influence the way we think about his themes & method for a long time to come. Dissatisfied with his earlier attempt to come to terms with the element of fire in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, Bachelard returned to this theme in the book he was working on at the time of his death in 1962. Because of delays in &, eventually, the abandonment of a projected edition of his complete works, these Fragments of a Poetics of Fire remained unpublished & their very existence unknown to all but a handful of Bachelard's readers. The author's daughter, Suzanne Bachelard, edited them for separate publication over a quarter-century later in 1988. For the first time we have an insight into the way Bachelard constructed his remarkable books. Suzanne Bachelard's introduction & extensive notes are an indispensable guide to the workings of his mind as "he shapes a meandering series of observations on the phoenix, Prometheus, & Empedocles into a coherent & engaging structure that respects the fluidity & openness of a living image—the powerful image of fire."
The title of the Psychoanalysis of Fire is somewhat deceiving. It's not that he politely asked a flame to lay on the couch and proceeded to question it about its tyrannical mother. Rather the psychoanalytical subject is the human conceptualizations of fire, our subjective (masquerading as objective) responses to it. And through this study he lays bare the fallacy of scientific objectivity, the impossibility of it, because we are simply too ruled by our passions and our loves. When we look at something such as a flame or a fire, no matter how determined we are to remain detached and objective, a revery is induced that causes our emotional body to project itself onto the flame, which in turn alters our conclusions.
Using historical example he shows that this process is very much like the experience of old time alchemists who dreamed wildly while monkishly ensconced among their flames and their alembics, and took these wild dreams as objective scientific conclusions. But I don't think Bachelard is disparaging these alchemists as he uses them as examplars. I think he uses them as an extreme example of what happens inside each of us as we gaze upon all the living objects around us.
As Bachelard acknowledged in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, “The axes of poetry and of science are opposed to one another from the outset. All that philosophy can hope to accomplish is to make poetry and science complementary, to unite them as two well-defined opposites.” Yet what profoundly links Bachelard’s philosophy of knowledge to his poetics of the imagination, his scientific epistemology to his study of psychic phenomena, is his concern with how creative thought comes into being. Like Michel Foucault after him (and anticipating Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the paradigm shift), Bachelard directed epistemological inquiry away from the continuities within systems of knowledge toward the obstacles and events that interrupt the continuum, thereby forcing new ideas to appear and altering the course of thought. Bachelard’s concept of the epistemological obstacle—a concept Foucault would assimilate in The Archaeology of Knowledge—was an attempt to demonstrate how knowledge incorporates its own history of errors and divagations.
The “epistemological profile” of any scientific idea included the multiple obstacles that had to be negated or transcended dialectically—and thus absorbed—in the process of arriving at more rational levels of knowledge. Countering the codification of universal systems of thought and the formation of collective mentalities, as Foucault would put it, were events and thresholds that suspended the linear advancement of knowledge, forcing thought into discontinuous rhythms and transforming or displacing concepts along novel avenues of inquiry. For Bachelard as for Foucault, such epistemological obstacles played a crucial and creative function in the history of thought. Scientific inquiry therefore had to remain nonteleological and open to the possibility of such reorderings and reversals. In this way, modern rationalism would be a transcendent rationalism, “surrationalism.” “If one doesn’t put one’s reason at stake in an experiment,” writes Bachelard in Le Surrationalisme, “the experiment is not worth attempting.”
The first book to draw me to Bachelard was Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, originally published in 1942, in French, but not translated into English until 1983. Then, by accident, I came upon a little book called H20 & the Waters of Forgetfulness, by Ivan Illich. I was surprised to find out that Illich’s essay had begun as a lecture at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture in 1984, and that it was, in part, a gloss on or reply to Water and Dreams.
As in most of his other writings of this time, Bachelard in this essay focuses primarily on works of literature, including Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Valery, Coleridge, Shelley, Poe, Eluard, Claudel, John Cowper Powys, Strindberg’s Swanwhite, etc., etc., rather than on works of visual art. But he does say a number of intriguing things about images. In the beginning, he quotes Jacques Bousquet to say, “A new image costs humanity as much labor as a new characteristic costs a plant.” And he follows this with “Many attempted images cannot survive because they are merely formal play, not truly adapted to the matter they should adorn.”
Bachelard uses water here (as he does elsewhere with the other elements) as an endlessly generative image, as a way of gathering language around an image, and re-imagining the world. And, as in all his work, the tension between reverie and rationalism keeps the discourse alive. “Here…materialism, imagined through the material imagination, takes on a sensitivity so sharp, so painful, that it can understand all the woes of an idealistic poet.”
Bachelard sets up an axis to explain the two ways our minds imagine:
In 1958 in the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris, the artist Yves Klein presented an iconic work, a completely empty room, an installation entitled “The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void.” This crucial episode might be considered the starting point of the artist’s research for an architectural space in connection to the notion of immateriality and his paradoxical attempt to materialize it. After 1958, Klein began working on his projects of “Air Architecture,” collaborating at first with the architect Werner Runhau, a member of the Mobile Architecture Group. Later, artist Jean Tinguely invited him to contact Claude Parent, as at that time, the architect used to work with artists to help them express their thoughts in architectural drawings and forms.
“Air Architecture” was Yves Klein’s concept of an immaterial architecture, made of ephemeral elements of nature, such as air, fire and water. It was the symbol of materiality liberation, humans would have complete access to the space of the Universe.
Klein began with Parent to design schemes of buildings and cities inspired by ancient Islamic palaces with pavilions, fountains, sky; the exhibitions included films, drawings, plans, construction details, installations. Engagement with climate was at the beginning of the design: walls of fire were proposed for cooler northern climates and walls of water for the south; shelters were shells of moving air, providing protection from rain, which could be blown away before it landed.
Klein’s investigation responded to the artist’s radical vision of an evolving society where the main activity would become leisure.
“The architecture of air has in our minds always been just a transitional stage, but today we present it as a means for the climatization of geographical spaces.The principle of privacy, still present in our world, has vanished in this city, which is bathed in light and completely open to the outside.
A new atmosphere of human intimacy prevails.
The inhabitants live in the nude.
The primitive patriarchal structure of the family no longer exists.
The community is perfect, free, individualistic, impersonal.
The principal activity of the inhabitants: leisure.”
Klein’s conceptual project rather than his aesthetic objects are available to everyone attentive enough to perceive them. What if Klein envisioned an art-making in which the art lay not in an object, but in a breathless, transitory experience—something that is always already gone? What if all the monochromes, the sponge reliefs, monogolds, Fire Paintings, and Anthropometries were just a significant yet preliminary draft for an art still to come? Just artifacts. Klein himself wrote, “my paintings are not my definitive works. They are the leftovers of a creative process.”
What would be left? Earth, wind, and fire?
In 1959, Klein traveled to Anvers and instead of installing a painting or whatever tangible and visible object in the space reserved for him in the Hessenhuis exhibit hall, he loudly pronounced to the public these words borrowed from Gaston Bachelard during the opening reception:
"First there is nothing, then there is a deep nothing, then there is a blue depth."
An early experimenter with printmaking in the 1960s, Joe Tilson works to unsettle the tension between serialized production and an artwork’s status as unique. Tilson excelled as a craftsman from an early point in his life. He first worked in a realist style during the 1950s, but adopted the commercial sheen of pop art in the 1960s. Tilson began creating prints during this decade, using consumer imagery, yet his work retained a handmade quality. He painted directly on the prints, making unique pieces from editioned series. The artist also added sculptural elements to his work, blurring the distinction between two- and three-dimensional space and disregarding any medium-specific hierarchies. His art later evolved away from pop content to address mythology and rural living, but Tilson has maintained the same interest in the handmade throughout his career.
The series explores fire, air, water and earth in which Tilson links the elements with autobiographical material from his life. Seeking to establish a kind of order within the world and its ever-changing elements, Tilson uses poetic oppositions and subdivisions of time to present various helpful systems: the four seasons, the four elements, days of the week and letters of the alphabet. Navigating these familiar patterns and cycles, he invites us, as Marco Livingstone writes, ‘on a journey that replaces a conventional understanding of ‘linear’ time with a more expansive concept of ‘organic’ or circular time.’
Alchera, referring to the Australian Aboriginal concept of dreamtime, featured work riddled with incantation-like compositions of words and symbols. Explicit or suggested references to elemental metals, the seasons, the zodiac and earth, air, fire and water appear in totemic or diagrammatical constellations. Feeding Tilson’s personal rhetoric were the great thinkers and poets of history: Carl Jung, William Wordsworth, Heraclitus and other Greek philosophers. This new direction in his work was seen publicly at the eponymous 1973 exhibition at the Boijmans-van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam. In the catalogue, Curator R. Hammacher-van den Brande wrote: “Tilson invokes the old values in order to restore links that can amplify and liberate his spirit, which is essentially modern, and his creations, which are unequivocally of our own day.”