Gaston Bachelard: Subversive Humanist

Well, it’s been over 16 hours, and no one has taken up the “Dreams vs. Hope” challenge. Granted, the first eight of those hours would have been “Friday night after work” and in my heart of hearts I know that not all of my readers are rushing home to check in on the Notio Inquiry. And then the next eight hours were after midnight, or early Saturday morning, and most people were sleeping, at least euphemistically.
So I guess it’s up to me to rise to the occasion and consider this question.
As we’ve seen, Thich Nhat Hanh believes hope is an obstacle. I resonated with this when I read it ten years ago, and I resonate with it today. Which is not to say I’m not a hopeful person – but perhaps “hopeful” is best thought of as “optimistic.” At least most of the time, modulo the human condition.
Gaston Bachelard was a postal clerk who eventually rose to teach at the Sorbonne. I understand Bachelard primarily through the vectors of phenomenology, the rehabilitation of imagination, poetics, and especially reverie, even though his oeuvre is grounded in epistemology and the history of scientific thought. Mary McAllester Jones writes:

Bachelard was always a polemical thinker, believing, as he declared in La Philosophie du non (1940), that “two people must first contradict each other if they really wish to understand each other. Truth is the child of argument, not of fond affinity.”

Bachelard likes to describe himself very simply as a reader, not out of intellectual laziness or false modesty, but because of what happens when he reads: “is not the reader’s imagination…revealed to be purely and simply the movement of quickly changing images?” and more strikingly, “it would seem that the reader is called upon to continue the writer’s images; he is aware of being in a state of open imagination.” Reading poetic images brings us “the experience of openness, of newness,” new images, new language, new possibilities in the world and in ourselves. What [Bachelard] brings to it is an attitude of mind, a willingness to accept and not reduce complexity, to take reading a poem seriously, as an aspect of our relationship with something other than ourselves.

What Bachelard reads is images, not ideas. In his first books, these are images of fire, water, air, and earth; later they are images of space – cellars and attics, shells, corners, the cosmos; and then in his last book, images of a candle flame. He reads material and dynamic images, neither perceptual nor rational, nor expressive of lived experience, images which are written, which are in and through language. He modifies and subverts Freud, and eventually, in his second series of books on poetry (1957-61), he rejects psychoanalysis, preferring phenomenology. He does so because psychoanalysis is reductive; it reduces images to the unconscious, the unconscious to lived experience, to infantile social experience in particular. Bachelard modifies Freud by making the source of poetic images not the unconscious … but rather what he calls an “intermediate zone” on the threshold of consciousness and thought. Bachelard’s material images, in which man and matter are conjoined, spring from “the zone of material reverie that precedes contemplation.”

In 1957 Bachelard turns from psychoanalysis to phenomenology precisely because this offers a better account of reading. However, he modifies Husserl as he did in his work on science, insisting on the dynamic relationship between subject and object, so that the reader’s consciousness is changed by what he reads.

Gaston Bachelard, Subversive Humanist, Texts and Readings (1991)
So when Bachelard says

We can accomplish nothing good against our will, that is to say, against our dreams. The oneirism of work is the very condition of the worker’s mental integrity.

he is trying to infuse all of our activities, all of our lives, with an endless joy in making images as we make the world. It is not just what the reader reads, but what the person does – every moment is an opportunity to infuse our living with dynamic images, allowing our imagination to lead us, as it reacts with where we are, what we are doing, and recursively, what we are imagining.
This is much different that the idle longing of hope. When I think of “one who is hopeful,” I think of passive daydreams, infused not so much with possibility, probability, or even plausibility, as with an idealized and disconnected image of perfection. In this perfect hopeful world, things work out according to the script in our heads, driven by our previous experiences and infantile impressions created in our family of origin. In this way, hope is aligned with psychoanalysis in Bachelard’s view – reductionist, limiting, and of the past, not the future.
Instead, by living in the moment, by paying attention to the images we create as we work, as we read, as we dream, as we meditate – as we live – we draw our consciousness every moment toward the larger sphere of the infinite. We are not reducing the possibilities to fit our notio, we are alive in the openness of all possibilities. We then react and respond to these images both imaginatively and materially. We are changed by what we read, and also by what we imagine. We observe phenomenologically, and we then observe how our observation changes. Even as we “cram the oven with shovels-full of coal,” and “challenge the oven to a duel of energy.” The result: “To participate no longer in heat as a state but in heat as growth, to assist enthusiastically the becoming of its growth.”
In this, Bachelard gestures toward David Bohm’s work on the dynamic aspects of soma-significant and signa-somatic implicate and explicate orders of meaning-making in quantum physics. But that’s a reading for another day.