Av Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962),
utdrag fra L’air et les songes (1943)
STUDIES OF THE IMAGINATION, like many inquiries into psychological problems, are confused by the deceptive light of etymology. We always think of the imagination as the faculty that forms images. On the contrary, it deforms what we perceive; it is, above all, the faculty that frees us from immediate images and changes them. If there is no change, or unexpected fusion of images, there is no imagination; there is no imaginative act. If the image that is present does not make us think of one that is absent, if an image does not determine an abundance— an explosion— of unusual images, then there is no imagination. There is only perception, the memory of perception, a familiar memory, an habitual way of viewing form and color.
The basic word in the lexicon of the imagination is not image, but imaginary. The value of an image is measured by the extent of its imaginary aura. Thanks to the imaginary, imagination is essentially open and elusive. It is the human psyche’s experience of openness and novelty. More than any other power, it is what distinguishes the human psyche. As William Blake puts it: “The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself. We will be more easily convinced of the truth of this maxim if we study the literary imagination systematically, as I am going to do in this work. This verbalized imagination, because it depends on language, forms the temporal fabric of spirituality and is therefore not bounded by reality.
Conversely, an image that deserts its imaginary principle and becomes fixed in one definite form, takes on little by little all the characteristics of immediate perception. Soon, instead of leading us to dream and speak, it causes us to act. We could say that a stable and completely realized image clips the wings of the imagination.
It causes us to fall from the state of dreaming imagination that is not confined to image, and that we may call imageless imagination, just as we speak of imageless thought. In its prodigious life, the imaginary no doubt leaves behind some images, but it is always more than the sum of its images, always beyond them. The poem is essentially an aspiration toward new images. It corresponds to the essential need for novelty which characterizes the human psyche.
A psychology of the imagination that is concerned only with the structure of images ignores an essential and obvious characteristic that everyone recognizes: the mobility of images. Structure and mobility are opposites— in the realm of imagination as in so many others.
It is easier to describe forms than motion, which is why psychology has begun with forms. Motion, however, is the more important. In a truly complete psychology, imagination is primarily a kind of spiritual mobility of the greatest, liveliest, and most exhilarating kind. To study a particular image, then, we must also investigate its mobility, productivity, and life.
It is possible to do so because the mobility of an image is not vague. A given image often has its own way of moving. A psychology of the imagination of movement, therefore, should define the mobility of images directly. It should bring us to the point where we can actually draw, for each image, an odograph which would summarize its kinetic activity. This book is a first attempt at such a study.
I shall not, therefore, consider established images, those stereotypes that have already become well defined. Nor shall I consider other clearly traditional images such as the many flower images found in poet’s garden. They are a conventional touch that serve to add color to literary descriptions but have lost their imaginative power. Other images are completely new, alive with the life of living language. We experience them as actively lyrical through their ability to renew our hearts and souls. These literary images add hope to a feeling, a special vigor to our decision to be a person, even have a tonic effect on our physique.
The book that contains them suddenly becomes for us a personal letter. They play a role in our lives. They revitalize us. Through them, words— speech, the written word, literature— are raised to the rank of creative imagination. Thought expressed by a new image is itself enriched as it enriches language. Being becomes speech. Speech appears at the psychic highpoint of being. Speech is revealed as the instant transformation of the human psyche.
How can we gauge this urge to live and to speak? Only by broadening our experience with literary figures and moving images; by restoring to each thing its own particular movement, as Nietzsche advises; by classifying and comparing the different movements that belong to images; and by counting the wealth of tropes that cluster around a word.
Whenever we are struck by an image, we should ask ourselves what torrent of words this image unleashes within us. How can we detach it from the all too stable background of our familiar memories? To grasp the imagining role of language, we must patiently search out for every word its inclinations toward ambiguity, double meanings, metaphors.
To put it in more general terms, we must take account of every urge to abandon what we see or what we say in favor of what we imagine. In this way we may be able to reinvest the imagination with its role as seducer. Imagination allows us to leave the ordinary course of things. Perceiving and imagining are as antithetical as presence and absence. To imagine is to absent oneself, to launch out toward a new life.
Often we have no guiding principle for our absence and do not persevere once we have set out. Reverie merely takes us elsewhere, without our really being able to live the images we encounter along the way. The dreamer is set adrift.
A true poet is not satisfied with this escapist imagination. He wants the imagination to be a journey. Every poet must give us his invitation to journey. Through this invitation, our inner being gets a gentle push which throws us off balance and sets in motion a healthy, really dynamic reverie. If the initial image is well chosen, it stimulates a well-defined poetic dream, an imaginary life that will have real laws governing successive images, a truly vital telos.
The images which the invitation to journey arranges one after the other gain a special vitality from this careful disposition, allowing us to define a movement of the imagination for those instances that will be studied here at length.
This movement will not be a simple metaphor. We will really feel it within ourselves, most often as a release— as ease in imagining related images or desire to pursue a fascinating dream. A beautiful poem is a kind of opium or alcohol. It is refreshment that calms our nerves. It effects in us a dynamic induction. I shall try to elaborate all the possible meanings of Paul Valéry’s profound remark: “The true poet is one who inspires.” The poet of fire, of water, or of earth does not convey the same inspiration as does the poet of air.
This is why the meaning of the imaginary journey is very different for various poets. Some only bring their readers to the land of the picturesque. They want to find elsewhere what we see around us every day. They load, even overload, daily life with beauty. We should not scorn this journey to the land of the real that entertains us at little expense. A reality illuminated by a poet has at least the novelty of new light shed on it. Because the poet shows us a fleeting nuance, we learn to imagine every nuance as a change. Only the imagination can see nuances, grasping them in transition from one color to another.
There are, then, in this old familiar world, flowers we have seen imperfecty! We have seen them imperfectly because we haven’t seen them as they change. Flowering is a process of subtle changes; it is always motion filled with nuances. Anyone who watches the flowers in his garden as they open and take on color alrready has thousands of models at hand for the dynamics of images.
But real mobility, the very essence of motion, which is what imagined motion is, is not aroused by the description of reality, even when it describes the unfolding of reality. A true journey of the imagination is a journey to the land of the imaginary, into the very domain of the imaginary. By this I do not mean one of those utopias which reveals itself suddenly as heaven or hell, Atlantis or Thebes. It is the journey that should interest us, yet it is the sojourn that gets described.
What I would actually like to examine in this work is how the imaginary is immanent in the real, how a continuous path leads from the real to the imaginary. Rarely does anyone live out the gradual imaginary deformation that the imagination obtains from perceptions or achieve the fluid state of the imagining psyche.
If we could multiply our experiences of image transformations, then we would understand the profundity of Benjamin Fondane’s remark: “First of all, an object is not real, but a good carrier of what is real.” The poetic object, rendered duly dynamic by the rich resonances of a name, will be, I maintain, a good carrier of the imagining psyche. To achieve this conduction, we must call the poetic object by its name, by its old name, giving it its proper oral value and allowing it to resonate, to awaken adjectives which will prolong its cadence and temporal life.
Did Rilke not say: “In order to write a single verse, one must see many cities, and men and things; one must get to know animals and the flight of birds, and the gestures that the little flowers make when they open out to the morning.” Every object that is contemplated, every exalted name that is whispered is the starting point for a dream and a poem; it is a creative linguistic movement.
How many times, at the edge of a well, with its old stone covered with wild sorrel and fern, have I murmured the names of distant waters, the name of a world buried in water . . . And how many times has that world suddenly answered me . . . O my things! What conversations we have had!
Finally, the journey to the far-away worlds of the imaginary does not really channel a dynamic psyche unless it takes the form of a journey to the land of the infinite. In the realm of the imagination transcendence is added to immanence. Going beyond thought is the very law of poetic expression.
Of course, this transcendence often appears to be crude, artificial, or flawed. Sometimes, it happens too quickly and becomes illusory, impermanent, and diffused. The reflective person sees it as a mirage. But this mirage fascinates us. It brings with it a special dynamic, which is already an undeniable psychological reality.
Poets, then, can be classified by their response to the question: “Tell me which infinity attracts you, and I will know the meaning of your world. Is it the infinity of the sea, or the sky, or the depths of the earth, or the one found in the pyre?”
In the realm of the imagination, infinity is the place where the imagination asserts itself as pure imagination, where it is free and alone, vanquished and victorious, proud and trembling. Then images soar upward and vanish; they rise and are shattered by their very height. Then the realism of unreality is evident.
Forms are understood through their transfiguration. Speech is prophecy. In this way, the imagination is indeed a way of going beyond, psychologically. It takes on the appearance of a precursory psyche that projects its being. In Water and Dreams, I brought together many images in which the imagination projects its inner feelings on the outer world.
As we study the aerial psyche in this book, we will find instances where the imagination projects the whole being. When we have come so far and so high, we will certainly find ourselves in a state of open imagination. Eager to experience the realities of the upper air, the imagination as a whole will double every impression by adding to it a new image.
As Rilke put it, one feels as though he is on the verge of being written. “But this time I shall be written. I am the impression that will transform itself.” In this transposition, the imagination puts forth one of its Manichaean flowers that blurs the colors of good and evil, transgressing the most stable laws governing human values. We gather such flowers in the works of Novalis, Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Nietzsche. By valuing them, we get the impression that the imagination is a form of human boldness. An innovative dynamism comes from them.