God in the Poetics of Space (Bachelard)

Some of the mentions of God and gods in Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space are only incidental and unremarkable. While the most meager appearance of the word is “just” a figure of speech, in a meditation on poetics and imagination, words are not so simple. I’m following below and citing the main passages in the order in which the word “God” appears throughout Bachelard and making my own connection to the way “certainty” figures for Bachelard in the image. In order of appearance, the divine appears in [1] the self-enclosure of huts and shells. [2] The sense of wonder invoked in the poetic image moves into forests and into immense space [3] through thresholds. [4] The final image of a tree in a poem by Rilke is the quintessence of rounded being. The Poetics of Space has a running argument with Heidegger. Bachelard refuses the notion that being or human Dasein is “thrown.” The image-of-God-embedded-in-place-in-the-world is a figure of certainty; alone with God in place, the apparition of God is scaled from the intimate to the immense, moving back and forth in a spiral motion of thought between inside (consciousness) and outside (the world). One way to simply this concrete metaphysics is to point out that for Bachelard, a French thinker writing at mid-century, the universe is a hostile place. The house is warm, protective. That’s where God is first sensed in the poetic image. The final two word-phrases in the poetics of space,” this straining of a tree to see God, belongs to “the permanence of being” and a “concrete metaphysics.”

THE ISOLATED HERMIT’S HUT [IN CHP.1, THE HOUSE. FRM CELLAR TO GARET. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE HUT”]:

“The hut immediately becomes centralized solitude, for in the land of legend, there exists no adjoining hut. And although geographers may bring back photographs of hut villages from their travels in distant lands, our legendary past transcends everything that has been seen, even everything that we have experienced personally. The image leads us on towards extreme solitude. The hermit is alone before God. His hut, therefore, is just the opposite of the monastery. And there radiates about this centralized solitude a universe of meditation and prayer, a universe outside the universe. The hut can receive none of the riches “of this world.” It possesses the felicity of intense poverty; indeed, it is one of the glories of poverty; as destitution increases it gives us access to absolute refuge. This valorization of a center of concentrated solitude is so strong, so primitive, and so unquestioned, that the image of the distant light serves as a reference for less clearly localized images” (p.32).

CERTAINTY, CERTAINTY OF BEING RELATED TO THE HUT [IN CHP.1, THE HOUSE. FRM CELLAR TO GARET. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE HUT”]:

“Poetry gives not so much a nostalgia for youth, which would be vulgar, as a nostalgia for the expressions of youth. It offers us images as we should have imagined them during the “original impulse” of youth. Primal images, simple engravings are but so many invitations to start imagining again. They give us back areas of being, houses in which the human being’s certainty of being is concentrated, and we have the impression that, by living in such images as these, in images that are as stabilizing as these are, we could start a new life, a life that would be our own, that would belong to us in our very depths. When we look at images of this kind, when we read the images in Bachelin’s book, we start musing on primitiveness” (p.33).

A NOT TERRIBLY INTERESTING APPEARANCE OF THE WORD GOD, BUT HERE IT IS [IN CHP.2 “HOUSE AND UNIVERSE”]:

“Recalling these evenings during the dramatic winters in his father’s house, Bachelin writes (p. 104): ‘When our companions left us, their feet deep in snow and their faces in the teeth of the blizzard, it seemed to me that they were going very far away, to unknown owl-and-wolf-infested lands. I was tempted to call after them, as people did in my early history books: “May God help you.’ And what a striking thing it is that a mere image of the old homestead in the snow-drifts should be able to integrate images of the year one thousand in the mind of a child” (pp.41-2).

SHELLS & NATURAL FORTRESSES [IN CHP.5 “SHELLS’]

“Faced with ‘the horrible dangers of war,’ [Bernard] PaIissy [ed. footnote: sixteenth century scholar, potter and enamelist. One of the creators of the ceramic arts in France] began to muse about ‘a young slug that was building its house and fortress with its own saliva.’ Indeed, he passed several months dreaming of a construction from within, and most of his leisure time was spent walking beside the sea, where he saw ‘such a variety of houses and fortresses which certain little fishes had made from their own liquor and saliva that, from now on, I began to think that here was something that might be applied to my own project.’ ‘The battles and acts of brigandry” that take place in the sea being on a larger scale than those that take place on land, God ‘had conferred upon each one the diligence and skill needed to build a house that had been surveyed and constructed by means of such geometry and architecture, that Solomon in all his wisdom could never have made anything like it’” (pp.127-8).

FORESTS FAR FROM ALL HISTORY OF MEN [IN CHP. 8 “INTIMATE IMMENSITY”]

“Poets feel this immediate immensity of old forests: 1 Foret pie use} foret brisee OU l’on n’enleve pas les morts Infiniment fermee} serree de vieilles tiges droites roses Infiniment resserree en plus vieux et gris fardes Sur la couche de mousse enorme et profonde en cri de velours (Pious forest, shattered forest, where the dead are left lying Infinitely closed, dense with pinkish straight old stems Infinitely serried, older and grayed On the vast, deep, mossy bed, a velvet cry.) Here the poet does not describe. He knows that his is a greater task. The pious forest is shattered, closed, serried. It accumulates its infinity within its own boundaries. Farther on in the poem he will speak of the symphony of an “eternal” wind that lives in the movement of the tree-tops. Thus, Pierre-Jean Jouve’s ‘forest’ is immediately sacred, sacred by virtue of the tradition of its nature, far from all history of men. Before the gods existed, the woods were sacred, and the gods came to dwell in these sacred woods. All they did was to add human, all too human, characteristics to the great law of forest revery” (p.186)

IMMENSE SPACE AND AN APPARITION OF THE HOLY TAKES SHAPE [IN CHP. 8 “INTIMATE IMMENSITY”]

A rarely felicitous expression of the intimate nature of the notion of immensity may be found in the pages Baudelaire devoted to Richard Wagner, and in which he lists, so to speak, three states of this impression of immensity. He begins by quoting the program of the concert at which the Prelude to Lohengrin was played (loc. cit. p. 212). ‘From the very first measures, the spirit of the pious recluse who awaits the sacred cup, is plunged into infinite space. Little by little, he sees a strange apparition assuming form. As this apparition becomes clearer, the marvellous band of angels, bearing in their midst the sacred goblet, passes. The holy procession approaches, little by little the heart of God’s elect is uplifted; it swells and expands, stirred by ineffable aspirations; it yields to increasing bliss, and as it comes nearer the luminous apparition, when at last the Holy Grail itself appears in the midst of the procession, it sinks into ecstatic adoration as though the whole world had suddenly disappeared/’ All the underlinings in this passage were made by Baudelaire himself. They make us sense clearly the progressive expansion of the daydream up to the ultimate point when immensity that is born intimately, in a feeling of ecstasy, dissolves and absorbs, as it were, the perceptible world” (p.194).

SPIRAL BEING; HERE AND THERE; INSIDE OUT (A JAB AT HEIDEGGER IN CHAPTER 9, “THE DIALECTICS OF OUTSIDE AND INDSIDE”):

“I should like to examine a little more closely, this geometrical cancerization of the linguistic tissue of contemporary philosophy. For it does indeed seem as though an artificial syntax welded adverbs and verbs together in such a way as to form excrescences. By multiplying hyphens, this syntax obtains words that are sentences in themselves, in which the outside features blend with the inside. Philosophical language is becoming a language of aglutination. Sometimes, on the contrary, instead of becoming welded together, words loosen their intimate ties. Prefixes and suffixes-especially prefixes-become unwelded: they want to think for themselves. Because of this, words are occasionally thrown out of balance. Where is the main stress, for instance, in being-there (être là): on being or on there? In there -which it would be better to call here- shall I first look for my being? Or am I going to find, in my being, above all, certainty of my fixation in a there? In any case, one of these terms always weakens the other. Often the there is spoken so forcefully that the ontological aspects of the problems under consideration are sharply summarized in a geometrical fixation. The result is dogmatization of philosophemes as soon as they are expressed. In the tonal quality of the French language, the là (there) is so forceful, that to designate being (l’être) by être là is to point an energetic forefinger that might easily relegate intimate being to an exteriorized place. But why be in such a hurry to make these first designations? One has the impression that metaphysicians have stopped taking time to think. To make a study of being, in my opinion, it is preferable to follow all the ontological deviations of the various experiences of being. For, in reality, the experiences of being that might justify “geometrical” expression are among the most indigent … In French, one should think twice before speaking of l’être là. Entrapped in being, we shall always have to come out of it. And when we are hardly outside of being, we always have to go back into it. Thus, in being, everything is circuitous, roundabout, recurrent, so much talk; a chaplet of sojournings, a refrain with endless verses” (213-14).

DOORS, SACRED THRESHOLD AND A LITTLE THRESHOLD GOD [CHAPTER 9, “THE DIALECTICS OF OUTSIDE AND INDSIDE”]:

But then come the hours of greater imagining sensibility. On May nights, when so many doors are closed, there is one that is just barely ajar. We have only to give it a very slight push! The hinges have been well oiled. And our fate becomes visible. And how many doors were doors of hesitation! In La Romance du Retour, by Jean Pellerin, this tender, delicate poet wrote: 1 La porte me flaire, elle hbite. (The door scents me, it hesitates.) In this verse, so much psychism is transferred to the object that a reader who attaches importance to objectivity will see in it mere brain-play. If such a document had its source in some remote mythology, we should find it more readily acceptable. But why not take the poet’s verse as a small element of spontaneous mythology? Why not sense that, incarnated in the door, there is a little threshold god? And there is no need to return to a distant past, a past that is no longer our own, to find sacred properties attributed to the threshold. In the third century, Porphyrus wrote: “A threshold is a sacred thing.”2 But even if erudition did not permit us to refer to such a sacralization, why should we not react to sacralization through poetry, through a poem of our own time, tinged with fantasy, perhaps, but which is in harmony with primal values (pp.222-3)

THE DIVINE ABSOLUTE BIRD [IN CHP.10 “THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF ROUNDNESS”] (BACHELARD IS WORKING THROUGH A STATEMENT BY JASPERS, “EVERY BEING SEEMS IN ITSELF ROUND” {p.232}.)

“Without preparing us, precisely as regards the absolute nature of the image, Michelet says that ‘a bird is almost completely spherical.’ If we drop the “almost,” which moderates the formula uselessly, and is a concession to a viewpoint that would judge from the form, we have an obvious participation in Jaspers’ principle of “round being.” A bird, for Michelet, is solid roundness, it is round life, and in a few lines, his commentary gives it its meaning of model of being.1 “The bird, which is almost completely spherical, is certainly the sublime and divine summit of living concentration. One can neither see, nor even imagine, a higher degree of unity. Excess of concentration, which constitutes the great personal force of the bird, but which implies its extreme individuality, its isolation, its social weakness.” In the book, these lines also appear totally isolated from the rest. One feels that the author, too, followed an image of “concentration” and acceded to a plane of meditation on which he has taken cognizance of the “sources” of life. Of course, he is above being concerned with description. Once again, a geometrician may wonder, all the more so since here the bird is considered on the wing, in its out of-doors aspect, consequently, the arrow figures could accord here with an imagined dynamics. But Michelet seized the bird’s being in its cosmic situation, as a centralization of life guarded on every side, enclosed in a live ball, and consequently, at the maximum of its unity. All the other images, whether of form, color or movement, are stricken with relativism in the face of what we shall have to call the absolute bird, the being of round life” (p.237).

TREE, ROUND BEING, ISOLATED, CONCENTRATED AROUND ITSELF [IN CHP.10 “THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF ROUNDNESS”]

Sometimes we find ourselves in the presence of a form. that guides and encloses our earliest dreams. For a painter, a tree is composed in its roundness. But a poet continues the dream from higher up. He knows that when a thing becomes isolated, it becomes round, assumes a figure of being that is concentrated upon itself. In Rilke’s Poemes francais, this is how the walnut tree lives and commands attention. Here, again around a lone tree, which is the center of a world, the dome of the sky becomes round, in accordance with the rule of cosmic poetry. On p. 169 of this collection we read: Arbre toujours au milieu De tout ce qui I’ entoure Arbre qui savoure La vo’llte des deux (Tree always in the center Of all that surrounds it Tree feasting upon Heaven’s great dome)

Needless to say, all the poet really sees is a tree in a meadow; he is not thinking of a legendary Yggdrasill that would concentrate the entire cosmos, uniting heaven and earth, within itself. But the imagination of round being follows its own law: since, as the poet says, the walnut tree is “proudly rounded,” it can feast upon “heaven’s great dome.” The world is round around the round being.

“And from verse to verse, the poem grows, increases its being. The tree is alive, reflective, straining toward God. Dieu lui va apparaitre Or pour qu’il soit sur Il developpe en yond son être Et lui tend des bras murs. Arbre qui peut être Pense au-dedans. Arbre qui se domine Se donnant lentement La forme qui elimine Les hasards du vent! (One day it will see God And so, to be sure, It develops its being in roundness And holds out ripe arms to Him. Tree that perhaps Thinks innerly Tree that dominates self Slowly giving itself The form that eliminates Hazards of wind)”

“I shall never find a better document for a phenomenology of a being which is at once established in its roundness and developing in it. Rilke’s tree propagates in green spheres a roundness that is a victory over accidents of form and the capricious events of mobility. Here becoming has countless forms, countless leaves, but being is subject to 241 the phenomenology of roundness no dispersion: if I could ever succeed in grouping together all the images of being, all the multiple, changing images that, in spite of everything, illustrate permanence of being, Rilke’s tree would open an important chapter in my album of concrete metaphysic” (239-41).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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5 Responses to God in the Poetics of Space (Bachelard)

  1. dmf says:

    ah yeah the old metaphysics of Presence via the “primitive”, Al Lingis is probably the contemporary heir here in the States for better and often worse:

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