SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Reviewed by: Dylan Trigg (University of Vienna)
In Anglo-American philosophy, Gaston Bachelard has never assumed the influence of Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, or Levinas, much less Heidegger. Where his work has been addressed, it has tended to be outside of philosophy, especially in literary studies, human geography, and branches of psychology. Monographs devoted to his work from a philosophical perspective tend to be rare while research on his philosophy together with the proliferation of this thought tend also to emerge from a handful of scholars and institutes, not least the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, which has championed the translation of Bachelard for several decades. There was also a brief surge of interest in Bachelard in the UK via Clinamen Press who published several key texts before they went out of business.
Beyond these contingent circumstances, quite why Bachelard has been neglected in this fashion is a contentious matter. In part, it may be because of the idiosyncrasy not only of his work, but also of the course of his thought. Although he is more commonly known for his work on the philosophy of imagination, Bachelard started out as a philosopher of science, working extensively on the epistemology of science. This disparity in the course of his philosophical research tends to generate the impression of a thinker on the margins, neither fitting entirely into the traditional context of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and so forth, but nor fully belonging to the philosophy of science, at least in a traditional sense. In part, this is true. Although he lived through the era, Bachelard was never part of the ethos of existentialism, much less a political philosopher in the manner that Sartre would eventually become. Yet the notion that there are two distinct trajectories in Bachelard’s thought may be one-sided. Much like Merleau-Ponty, there are strands of thought in the early Bachelard, which, far from being left behind, are returned to in his late work, only now from an enriched perspective (one thinks of his striking discussion of Baudelaire’s notion of “smiling regret” in the 1932 text Intuition of Instant and its subsequent reappearance in his 1960 book The Poetics of Reverie).
The neglect of Bachelard is regrettable, not least because the gap between the sciences and humanities is one such area where he can assume a pivotal role. Furthermore, where philosophers have engaged with Bachelard, it has tended to be in a dismissive if polite fashion (to think here of Foucault’s comments on Bachelard’s in the former’s essay “Of Other Spaces). Because of this dismissal, an entire area of research on Bachelard remains underdeveloped (not least his relation to other thinkers within the tradition, especially Merleau-Ponty).
In spite—or because—of the peculiarities of his thought, over the last ten years or so, we are beginning to witness something like a slow revival in the thought of Gaston Bachelard. Beginning with author such as Roch C. Smith, Mary McAllester, and Mary Tiles in the 1980s, after a latency period, a new generation of thinkers resumed scholarly work on Bachelard either by tackling specific thematic and conceptual strands of his thought (as in Miles Kennedy’s book on the role of home in Bachelard) or through employing Bachelard in a dialogical fashion to develop an applied analysis of a certain phenomenon (as in Ed Casey’s work on place or Richard Kearney’s work on imagination). Eileen Rizo-Patron is another key figure in the contemporary revival of Bachelard, translating his important early book Intuition of the Instant (2013) as well as being the lead editor on the present volume under review, Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard.
This is an impressive, wide-reaching, and important volume in several respects. Over the course of sixteen chapters, the collection covers topics as varied as Bachelard’s philosophy of time, his place within the phenomenological tradition, his analysis of language, and the usage of his philosophy in issues such as environmental politics and theories of space and place. These issues are tackled by many if not all of the key players in Bachelard studies, including notable figures such as Ed Casey, Richard Kearney, and Mary McAllester Jones. It would be impossible to review the book as a whole given its complexity and range, but in what follows I will critically survey some of the book’s salient themes, addressing to what extent the volume as a whole develops Bachelard studies for contemporary research in phenomenology.
Eileen Rizo-Patron’s introduction to the volume establishes the aims and context of the collection clearly and coherently. From the outset, the aim is established of positioning Bachelard in dialogue with contemporary continental thought (1). In the first instance, this requires a historical context, which Rizo-Patron provides. The “cavalier attitude toward Bachelard” by his contemporaries is conceived in both institutional and conceptual terms (4). Bachelard’s appointment as chair of History and Philosophy of Science at the Sorbonne was contentious when set against his wide-ranging—and autodidactic—interests, not only in the philosophy of science but also of his then burgeoning interest in Jungian psychology, alchemy, and the philosophy of imagination. Yet this methodological stance, far from a weakness, emerges as a strength insofar as Bachelard can be read as a “subversive” figure both within the history of philosophy but also in terms of his broader thought. Bachelardian concepts such as reverie and oneirism anticipate the ways in which Merleau-Ponty’s late thought sought to undermine binary divisions and address the ways in which experience and thought appear for us long before those same thoughts have been culturally and intellectually sedimented into habitual patterns.
Such is the theme of the first chapter of the volume, a provocative exploration of Bachelard’s account of temporal duration by Ed Casey. At the heart of this chapter is a question that is central to both Bachelard and contemporary continental philosophy; namely, is time continuous or disruptive? (19). Indeed, the question forms a leitmotif in Bachelard, evident from the outset to the end of his life, either appearing explicitly in temporal terms or through a series of different guises (be it spatiality in The Poetics of Space or animality in Lautréamont). From the outset the question is posed against a critical reading of Bergson. What Bachelard finds problematic in Bergson is the assumption that duration can involve continuous change. For Bachelard, this paradox can only be resolved through the introduction of a dialectical model of time that recognises how discontinuous and disorders of time are consolidated into the appearance of continuity. As Bachelard writes in the 1936 book Dialectics of Duration, there is a “time which is ineffective, scattered in a cloud of disparate instants and on other [hand] time which is cohered, organised, and consolidated into duration.” In a word, time is that which is to be worked on, formed, reformed, consolidated, reconsolidated, renewed, and returned to. Duration is never given to experience as a unitary field, but instead becomes in Bachelard an achievement of sorts.
It is in the 1932 book Intuition of the Instant—thus written during Bachelard’s “scientific” phase—where these issues are first explored at length, and it is this formative text that Casey attends to in his contribution. As Casey makes clear, Bachelard’s motivation for introducing the notion of the instant is to undercut the dichotomy between thinking of time as either continuous or discontinuous. Casey contextualizes this claim through applying Bachelard’s notion of the instant to an analysis of the distinction between the sudden and the surprising, with the two terms being “coeval if not precisely coextensive” (22-23). Both occur instantaneously, and, moreover, “all of a sudden,” even if the result of a sustained process of rumination. Both moreover, are taken up in the overarching theme of newness, which Casey offers a threefold taxonomy, from the new as “utterly unprecedented” to that which is already but renewed in its newness upon each contact (as in engaging with a great work of art that generates new perspectives), and then finally to the cases of what is new in relation to what is familiar (as when we are presented with something novel that is situated with an already established context).
What is important about these reflections is that they enrich Bachelard’s idea of the instant and what he will enigmatically call “verticality,” a key concept that several of the chapters explore, and one that I will return to. Bachelard’s own remarks on this concept consist of several sketches and some incisive though underdeveloped passages. An appendix in the English translation of Intuition of the Instant includes Bachelard’s short essay “Poetic Instant and Metaphysical Instant,” written in 1939, which unpacks his notion of vertical or poetical time. But much remains to be said on what implications Bachelard’s philosophy of the instant and his analysis of time more generally have for contemporary research. In extending Bachelard beyond his own remit, Casey’s elaboration of these ideas positions us in a much better place to grasp the “unthought thoughts” within Bachelard.
Alongside Casey, Richard Kearney also tackles Bachelard’s concept of the instant, giving more specific attention to the enigmatic essay “Poetic Instant and Metaphysical Instant” and its adjoining notion of vertical time. Some words on Bachelard’s usage of poetics and poesies is needed here. By “poetic,” Bachelard refers not only to sensuous experience and that alone, but rather insofar as it involves poesies, the act of creation that is as much concerned with the composition of time in the present as it is that of the past. Such is the task of poesies, to shatter “the simple continuity of shackled time,” revealing therein an “element of suspended time, meterless time—a time we shall call vertical in order to distinguish it from everyday time.” With his idea of vertical time, Bachelard offers a rejoinder to Bergsonian durée, which he finds unconvincing on both a conceptual and phenomenological level, not least because it fails to account for how paradoxes and contradictions are central to the creative act of time. It is, Bachelard writes, “astonishing and familiar…a harmonic relationship between opposites [which] compels us to value or devalue” (59). More than a detached aesthetic pleasure, the poetic instant confers upon the reader an imperative to assess our understanding of time itself and to recognise that within that understanding there lies an enduring ambivalence that is fundamentally “androgynous” in nature (59).
Bachelard explores these rich concepts through literary illustrations, Baudelaire’s motif of “smiling regret” being one such articulation of the androgyny of the poetic instant. As mentioned above, Bachelard was so taken with this image that he would return to it at the final stages of his life, in The Poetics of Reverie, a book that expands and to some extent fulfils the promise of the earlier sketch of vertical time. In speaking of a smile that regrets, the question is not of trying to resolve this contradictory image, but of preserving it. Through this preservation of two apparently disjoined states entering the same affective orb, time, Bachelard insists, comes to a standstill.
Both Bachelard and Kearney distance this temporal structure from that of nostalgia, even though Bachelard will speak of the poetic instant as allowing us to “experience, belatedly, those instances which should have been lived” (60). I would question to what extent this distancing from nostalgia is tenable, given the direction Bachelard’s philosophy will proceed, with its eventual veneration of childhood as a model of the cosmos. But for Kearney the movement toward polarised time is less a question of nostalgia and more of a fascination with the “poetic conjunction of opposites,” which derives from Bachelard’s broader intellectual landscape, especially that of depth psychology and alchemy, where the conjunction of opposites assumes a vital role. Such influences are traceable in Bachelard’s notion of vertical time, where we find a plurality of timescales inhabiting the same sphere.
Naming this movement of time standing still an “epiphanic instant,” Kearney broadens Bachelard’s privileging of poetry over fiction, locating the movement of vertical time within Proust and Joyce, as Kearny puts it, “these novels are narratives constructed around certain vertical moments of ‘epiphany’ which cut through the linear plot line and liberate the story into a series of circular reprises … chronological time is upended and reversed, as past and future are reinscribed in a timeless moment” (52). Kearny notes in a footnote that there is a striking rapport here between Bachelard’s notion of vertical time and that of Benjamin’s concept of the “Messianic instant,” with Benjamin employ a metaphorical figure of flashing lightning and Bachelard invoking the figure of a “phoenix poetic flash” (56). While there is no evidence of a mutual influence between Benjamin and Bachelard (indeed, Benjamin would write a critical letter on Bachelard’s book, Lautréamont, toward the end of his life), untapped connections of this sort (not least between Merleau-Ponty and Bachelard) litter the work of Bachelard and remain to be developed. There is much more to be said on Kearney’s paper, which is exemplary in not only unpacking but also situating Bachelard’s critical (and overlooked) account of the poetic instant within his work as a whole.
Moving on from time, the middle parts of Adventures in Phenomenology deal with Bachelard’s methodology and his concept of language. Of these parts, Anton Vydra’s chapter is especially notable for critically assessing Bachelard’s place within the phenomenological landscape. Despite his avowed passion for phenomenology, especially in the later works, Bachelard’s relationship to the method is ambiguous. Vydra’s chapter explores these points of ambiguity, situating Bachelard’s methodology in relation to the concepts of phenomenon and noumena, his evolving concept of a “non-phenomenology,” his perspective on the phenomenological attitude, and how these dimensions contribute to an authentic formulation of phenomenology. Of note here is the phenomenological pathway Bachelard was developing and its potential relation to Merleau-Ponty. As with Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard calls into a question a phenomenology that centralises explicit modes of act intentionality. What this prioritizing omits is the way in which intentional relations are structured in the first place. In a word, it confines itself to things rather than what Bachelard terms “elemental matter” that has yet to assume a static quality. The rapport here not only with Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh, but also of his own development of “non-phenomenology” (of course, long before its formulation in Laruelle) is a rich area of research that is currently under-investigated. Vydra is exemplary in negotiating with the trajectory of Bachelard’s thought, but it would have been enriching to read a more sustained analysis of the relation between Merleau-Ponty and Bachelard, especially in their joint understanding of the term “element.” In addition, while Vydra ends his rich chapter with an inclusion of Bachelard’s “turn” toward poetics, there remains much here to say on the ontological and conceptual significance of concepts such as reverie, ontological amplification, and oneirism, which are touched upon but only in passing.
Both of Eileen Rizo-Patron’s contributions to this volume are noteworthy by dint of their incisiveness and lucidity. In her first chapter, Rizo-Patron picks up where Vydra left through tackling Bachelard’s relation to psychoanalysis. This relation is situated within Bachelard’s “psychotherapeutic period” in the 1940s, and the beginning of his concern the value of repose in response to what he will term in The Dialectic of Duration “ill-made durations” (108). By this, Bachelard seems to have in mind something like a Freudian complex, a dysfunctional “affective knot” that binds humans to impoverished ways of being, dwelling, and thinking. Rizo-Patron’s first chapter is especially helpful in teasing out these complex strands through identifying the central role alchemy plays in Bachelard’s intellectual background. Rizo-Patron maintains that Bachelard’s hermeneutics frames poetic texts as “proverbial ‘philosopher’s stones’ capable of drawing out the latent energies in other ‘stones’ (readers’ souls) while assisting in their distillation and transmutation” (114). This language may appear ornate, but I think it is more than a whimsy on behalf of Bachelard and Rizo-Patron. Bachelard’s hermeneutics is alchemical insofar as it revolves around themes of change and transformation, both within the texts and within the reader. Alchemy forms the allegorical counterpart to Bachelard’s insistence on the value of opposites, the significance of elemental images, and the centrality of reverie, and marks the way of attending to phenomena that implicates the reader as an active constituent in the formation of the world.
The volume’s middle section on language offers more detailed studies of the role language plays in the formation of Bachelard’s thought. Essays here concern the relation between Bachelard and Henry Corbin; and Bachelard’s relation to Nancy as well as his relation to Gadamer. Roch C. Smith’s chapter on Bachelard and the logosphere, although published in another form in 1985, is a welcome inclusion here for its astute analysis of a lesser known essay, “Reverie and Radio” in which Bachelard makes a plea to nothing less than a global logos (157).
The final part of the volume considers various applications of Bachelardian phenomenology as understood through the theme of alterity. The theme is pertinent, given that much of Bachelard’s thought prima facie invokes a solitary world sealed off from otherness and others. It is true that in The Poetics of Space, he devotes a chapter to the dialectical relationship between inside and outside, and suggests that this relation can always be reversed. It is also true that he emphasizes temporal discontinuity over a pregiven durée. But in all this, the overarching sentiment seems to be establishing a quiet space far from the hum of urban life, in which individual memories and dreams are protected by drawn curtains (to think of Bachelard’s discussion of the house in the snow in The Poetics of Space). While this part of the volume intends to confront whether Bachelard’s philosophy is receptive to the other, I think it only partly succeeds in this task.
Both Edward Kaplan’s chapter on Buber and Bachelard and Madeleine Preclaire’s contribution on solitude deal in some part with the question of alterity in Bachelard, both of whom argue passionately for Bachelard’s commitment to the other. Preclaire’s chapter is especially notable for its insistence on this point. Despite the impression of Bachelard as a philosopher of solitude, Preclaire claims that solitude is but a first step toward a shared world, a “call” of sorts that leads us out of ourselves and toward the other. The theme is taken up here through Bachelard’s discussion of the flame, love, and reading. In each case, a gesture is made toward drawing the other into contact with the self through a paradoxical deepening of solitude. “[Solitude] alone,” Preclaire writes, “enables the discovery of deep being, that which in the midst of the din and stress of the world reserves its secret, but which is therefore the source and springboard of dialogue and sympathy” (261). We are certainly rather removed from the ethical demands Levinas places upon the reader to recognise the primacy placed on the alterity of the Other. Bachelard’s intersubjective world, in sharp contrast, is described as “solitudes filled with company” (267).
While there is no doubt that Bachelard as a human being was receptive to other people, a fuller defense of whether Bachelard’s philosophy is welcoming to the other would require a more sustained look at his writings on dwelling. Yet for a philosopher most commonly associated with his work on spatiality, the theme itself in Bachelard is surprisingly underplayed in this volume. Ed Casey’s contribution on the topic of “missing land” is the exception; though alterity is not a central theme despite being placed in this section (a section on spatiality may have been more judicious). In short, while the section on alterity is welcome, to my mind, a critical assessment of Bachelard’s account of intersubjectivity, his openness on the other, to say nothing of his account of gender, remains to be undertaken.
Despite this shortcoming, this is an excellent volume, which will be of immense benefit not only to Bachelard scholars but also to the contemporary continental philosophy community more generally. As a whole, the volume is edited with care, though several unfortunate typos were found, including blank empty page citations (“000”) that were presumably pending actual page numbers. This is a minor point in what is otherwise a necessary and welcome collection.
 Bachelard 2016, 81.
 Bachelard 2013, 58.