mieke’s essay on gaston bachelard — the phenomenology of the imagination

August 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

Mieke from Ghent, Belgium sent me the following text after a brief discussion asking her to contribute a post for this blog: Luctor et Emergo. To my surprise she dedicated it to me & for that I’ll always be grateful. In addition to writing this essay Meike also translated it from Dutch into English for this specific use.

When I read through the text, I’m reminded of Heidegger’s famous insistence that truth is disclosure, uncovering, revealing—this is best referred to with his revival of the ancient Greek word aletheia (ἀλήθεια). Back in March 2011 I wrote a detailed post on Heidegger’s essay: On the Origin of the Work of Art, his essay was written in the 1930’s & was presented as a series of lectures at that time. It wasn’t published as a full text till the 1950’s.

What is of primary importance for Heidegger in his many writings, is his elaboration of the word aletheia. If anything is said about this term, we’ll be sure to place it at the center of how Heidegger understands the work of art, primarily & primordially, intrinsically. The work of art is alethiea for Heidegger. For this placement Heidegger had to work hard to dislodge our traditional perceptions concerning the issues of truth & how we think of it. He had to show that alethiea preceded an assertion (judgment), it preceded a necessary agreement with the object & our idea/s of the object, & that truth/alethiea was much more than the logical & rational. With all of this said, I’ll risk quoting myself (from the post) to illustrate roughly how I understood Heidegger’s truth, of course, this is done with the effort to engage Mieke’s text in a way that hopefully speaks to her main ideas concerning poetic truth. (Note: Heidegger is referred to here as MH. OWA is the notation for The Origin of a Work of Art. Also see: Being & Time Div. 1, §44, “Dasien, Disclosedness & Truth”)  )

  As we’ve noted aletheia (ἀλήθεια) is unconcealment, a revealing, a disclosure, it’s before logos (λόγος), before the apophansis (απόφανσις) of Husserl, & even before we can say anything about our apprehension of the phenomena. MH proposes that the phenomena of unconcealing is already there to be revealed by us (or not, depending). We have to be open to that which is revealed, attending to it, striving, perhaps in the mode of discovery as phenomenologically opened. MH quickly thrusts us in the clearing. “The clearing in which beings stand is in itself at the same time concealment.” (178/OWA) As much as anything can reveal itself in the clearing, there will be concealment. “Truth, is in its essence un-truth.” (179/OWA) Certain aspects of a being have to be concealed, mistaken, overlooked, misinterpreted, so that the truth (ἀλήθεια) that’s sought for & can be brought forth. MH’s clearing must be a recognition of aletheia (ἀλήθεια) as that which has not yet been opened.

—Aurelio Madrid

Gaston Bachelard — The Phenomenology of the Imagination / by Mieke

bachelard Gaston Bachelard

—for Aurelio

(Note: to preserve a sense of a typed page that includes Mieke’s footnotes, each ‘page’ is divided here by a line. Each line simply represents a page turn.)

“The poet stands on the threshold of being”, says Bachelard. The language of the poet, the poetic image, is primary to the language of ideas. It is closer to the real experience. The image always comes before thought, before abstract thinking. One of the first things a philosopher should do, if he wants to learn something from the poetic images, is to leave everything behind. All foregoing knowledge. As a phenomenologist, but a phenomenologist of the imagination, he must be receptive, receptive to the image at the moment it appears. In a way he must look with a poetic eye, which is time and again a first glance. “If there be a philosophy of poetry”, Bachelard says, then it is “a philosophy that must appear and re-appear through a significant verse, in total adherence to an isolated image, in the very ecstasy of the newness of the image.”1 From this very sentence emerges the agility, the liveliness, the novelty also of a philosophy that gives priority to the imagination. Moreover, according to Bachelard, a philosopher who has recourse to the poets will discover that the world is not of the order of the substantive, but of the order of the adjective.

“And when a philosopher looks to poets, to a great poet like Milosz, for lessons in how to individualize the world, he soon becomes convinced, that the world is not so much a noun as an adjective. If we were to give the imagination its due in the philosophical systems of the universe, we should find, at their very source, an adjective. Indeed, to those who want to find the essence of a world philosophy, one could give the following advice – look for its adjective”2

I would like to start from this idea of Bachelard that a connection exists between the search for the essence or for the description of being, and the imagination and its expression in an ever living language3. As a start I want to submit this idea to a few poets/thinkers.

1 G. Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, “Introduction”, p.xv-xxxix
2 G. Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, “Corners”, p.143-144
3 P. Verbeeck, Verbeeldingskracht, p.40: “Elle doit être franchement langage vivant.”

In What Difference did Stesíchoros Make? 4 one of the introductory pieces in her
Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson tells the story of the poet Stesíchoros and the adjectives. “Adjectives”, she writes, “seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.” Or at least, they were, in the world of the Homeric epic poem. Homer applied the adjective with a passion for the rule: blood was always black, human knees were always quick, coward’s livers were always white… Being seemed very stable under this rule. But then came Stesíchoros.

Stesíchoros studied Homer’s rule restlessly and all of a sudden, “for no reason that anyone can name, Stesíchoros began to undo the latches.” He released being,5 says Anne Carson, “all the substances in the world went floating up. Suddenly there was nothing to interfere with horses being hollow hooved. Or a river being root silver…” That these adjectives appeared to be not so innocent Stesíchoros would soon experience. “When Stesíchoros unlatched her epithet from Helen there flowed out such a light as may have blinded him for a moment.” A reference to this anecdote on Stesíchoros’ blindness we can also find in Plato’s Phaedrus.
The moment Socrates comprehends that his first speech to Phaedrus is on the edge of godless he wants to make this up. “I bethink me of an ancient purgation of mythological error”, he explains to Phaedrus, “which was devised, not by Homer, for he never had the wit to discover why he was blind, but by Stesíchoros, who was a philosopher and knew the reason why; and therefore, when he lost his eyes, for that was the penalty which was inflicted upon him for reviling the lovely Helen, he at once purged himself. And the purgation was a recantation,

4 A. Carson (poet), Autobiography of Red, “Red meat: What difference did Stesichoros make?”, p.3-7
5 Consider Anne Carson’s description beside the following fragment of hellenist W.S.Barrett in Greek Lyric, Tragedy and Textual Criticism: “And then to sum up my impression of the poetry. When so much of Stesichoros’ effect must have been achieved on the grand scale, by the broad sweep of his narrative, it would be unfair to judge him more than provisionally on these tattered and uncertain
scraps; but even from these something has begun to emerge. One can see now something of the merits that the ancient critics found: the resemblance to Homer, the dignity of his characters, the grandeur of his theme. At the same time one can see something of his faults: a certain lack of control, evinced not merely in the over-fullness or diffuseness that Quintilian castigates but also, I suspect, in a certain carelessness or muddle-headedness in his thought and language. But the faults, so far as one can tell, weigh little against the merits: my appetite is whetted, and I hope most earnestly that the papyri will one day give us something that we can really read and really Judge.” The faults of Stesíchoros, according to Barrett. Bachelard’s “The critical mind can do nothing about this.” (PoS p.146) is not far

which began thus: False is that word of mine / the truth is that thou didst not embark in / ships, nor ever go to the walls of Troy; and when he had completed his poem, which is called the recantation, immediately his sight returned to him.”6 We know that Plato’s view of art and artists was ambiguous. It does make sense to keep this in mind with regard to this fragment, as it explains also what was Plato’s idea of a living language. Plato’s thinking is commonly considered to be hostile to art. This goes back to The Republic 7 in which he proclaims that poets like Hesiodos and Homer are sophists and warns us for the risks that lie in comedy and tragedy. The dialogues in Symposium and Phaedrus tend to soften this view. Clearly there is Plato’s own style. Plato was aware that theatre is not a mere spectacle, more than sight it also presumes insight. Better than any other person he succeeds in adopting the techniques of the tragic art in his thinking. With Plato philosophy turns into art. Therefore his disapproval of writing in Phaedrus shouldn’t be read necessarily as an absolute disapproval. Rather as a disapproval of bad writing, a disapproval of written texts of which “you would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.” The ideal Socrates opposes to this is “the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is properly no more than an image,”8 which is, of course, Plato’s own writing.
According to a different way of reading9 Plato achieves the opposite. He serves poetry well by declaring it atopical. By according poetry no room at all, he plunges it into a deadly crisis. If it overcomes this crisis, its presence will be compelling, its authenticity definitely proven, and it will have a right to exist. True poetry must never be obvious.

cover van autobiografie van rood anne carsonAnn Carson’s Autobiography of Red

These shades of meaning may clarify Socrates’ respect for the poet Stesíchoros, as it comes to the fore in the above-mentioned fragment. Stesíchoros is not only aware of his error, he knows also how he can make it up, and starts at once to write a palinody. He may be a poet, but by his insight and his love for beauty he gets a rightful place near the philosophers.10

“He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet,” Anne Carson writes.

6 Plato, Phaedrus, 243a-b
7 Plato, The Republic, 377d, 605c-606d
8 Plato, Phaedrus, 275d-276a. Also, according to Cornelis Verhoeven the discussion is not about the written against the spoken word, but Socrates and Phaedrus discuss the precariousness of the verbal medium as such.(C.Verhoeven p.37)

9 C. Verhoeven, Het medium van de waarheid, p.192
10 In Plato’s hierarchy of reincarnations the philosophers (filosófos) and lovers of beauty (filokálos) are located at the very top. The other poets and imitating artists are located much lower, they take 6th place in the hierarchy. This classification shows Plato’s ambiguous attitude towards art and the artists.

We know Nietzsche admired Plato’s power of thought and especially its artistic quality, but his idealism he resolutely wiped off the map. For Nietzsche even the essence is perspectival, a plurality. Against Plato’s eternal wide ocean11 Nietzsche poses a to-and-fro of motley rainbows12, against the vision of eternal beauty he poses his abysmal thought and the vision of the lonesome one. He regards himself as the first tragic philosopher.13


pages 215-216 from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra


In Nietzsche’s view the artist has the ability to look at the world through many eyes. Like all the other arts the art of writing is absolutely indispensable because it unlatches thought. Style can never be disconnected from conceptual contents. “To improve one’s style means to improve one’s thoughts and nothing else!”14

When Nietzsche lets Zarathustra say, about too lazy poets, that they lie too much: “superficial are they all unto me, and shallow seas. They did not think sufficiently into the depth; therefore their feeling did not reach to the bottom”,15 we can understand that he speaks out of a sense of importance that he attaches to the phrasing of the experience, from as many diverse perspectives as possible. The choice of a style is equal to the choice of a perspective. In Ecce Homo he tells how Zarathustra came into being. This text is full of references to premonitions, omens, thoughts that assault him, even the character Zarathustra fell upon him. Nietzsche’s description of his experience of poetic inspiration is very close to Bachelard’s fundamental reverie. “The involuntary nature of the figures and similes is the most remarkable thing; one loses all perception of what is imagery and metaphor; everything seems to present itself as the readiest, the truest, and simplest means of expression. It actually seems, to use one of Zarathustra’s own phrases, as if all things came to one, and offered themselves as similes.”16 According to Nietzsche the poets of his time, and of many ages before, lack this inspiration. Zarathustra calls it out: “what have they known hitherto of the fervor of tones!”

11 Plato, Symposium, 210d-211c
12 F. Nietzsche, Zarathustra, “The convalescent”
13 F. Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, “The birth of tragedy”
14 F. Nietzsche, Human, all too human, “The wanderer and his shadow”
15 F. Nietzsche, Zarathustra, “Poets”
16 F. Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, “Thus spake Zarathustra: a book for all and none”

“Passion for substances.” Thus Anne Carson describes the moment Stesíchoros pulls the latches out of the adjectives. Bachelard shows a similar drive in his plea in favor of a phenomenology of the imagination. In the same way that Stesíchoros incessantly studied Homer’s rule, Bachelard intently listens to the philosophical jargon, and realizes that he cannot live it. “Such formulas as: being-in-the-world and world-being are too majestic for me and I do not succeed in experiencing them. In fact, I feel more at home in miniature worlds.”17 And that is precisely what the philosopher can learn from the poet. In a very nice passage in this text Victor Hugo is sitting on a little square of grass and studies it, meticulously, totally unaware of the majestic landscape that unfolds in front of him, and concludes that the microscopic universe in the grass is as grand as the other. These are reveries not unknown to the slow reader, Bachelard says. “Now the poet has given them literary dignity. It is my ambition to give them philosophical dignity. For in fact, the poet is right, he has just discovered an entire world.”18 The poet is not mistaken. These are the words with which Bachelard opens wide the weather-beaten door that Plato once resolutely closed.

“But that is enough proemium. You can answer for yourself the question What difference did Stesíchoros make? by considering his masterpiece,” concludes Anne Carson. An invitation of the poet.

Mieke / May 2011

17 G. Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, “Miniature”, p.161
18 G. Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, “Miniature”, p.160

—Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon, 1994, 241 p.
—Barrett, W.S., Greek Lyric, Tragedy and Textual Criticism, Oxford: University Press, 2007, p.1-24
—Carson, Anne, Autobiography of Red. A Novel in Verse, London: Cape, 1999, 149 p.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich, Aldus sprak Zarathoestra. Een boek voor allen en voor niemand, vert. P Endt – H. Marsman, Amsterdam: Wereldbibliotheek, 2010, eenendertigste druk, 251 p. (Oorspronkelijke titel: Also sprach Zarathustra)
—Nietzsche, Friedrich, Ecce homo. Hoe iemand wordt wat hij is, vert. P. Beers, Amsterdam – Antwerpen: Arbeiderspers, 2005, 158 p. (Oorspronkelijke titel: Ecce homo)
—Plato, Verzameld werk, Baarn: Ambo, 1978, vert. X. De Win, 5 vols.        (English translation of citations Plato and Nietzsche via Gutenberg.org & Achive.org)                                                                                                     —Verbeeck, Philippe, Verbeeldingskracht. Bijdragen tot de antropologie van het imaginaire, tekst bij het Onderzoeksseminarie esthetica, 2010-2011.
—Verhoeven, Cornelis, Het medium van de waarheid. Beschouwingen over Plato’s houding tegenover de poëzie, Baarn: Ambo, 246 p.

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