I am currently reading a book by Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962) titled The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language and the Cosmos. I came to Bachelard by way of Otto Friedrich Bollnow, about whom I’ve written once before. Prior to reading this book I read Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space. Bachelard has the same boldness of thought, the same openness to life, that I find so appealing in William James. But Bachelard’s philosophical “music” plays in a completely different key than James’. I cannot find the words to adequately summarize Bachelard and the effect these two works of his have had on me. Every philosopher is unique, in some way at least, but Bachelard is unique across so many sight lines that philosophy, as a discipline, cannot assimilate him and does not want to. That he is not for everyone goes without saying. But, as I once wrote about the filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, if you are receptive to him, Bachelard may astound you, to the point that after you’ve been exposed to him, no one else quite satisfies. I mention Tarkovsky because if you love Tarkovsky’s film Zerkalo (Mirror), you will love Bachelard, and you owe it to yourself to read him.
The excerpt from Bachelard that I’ve chosen to feature (below) has to do with seasons, and childhood, and it is representative of his thought and style. When I read it for the first time, I had the oddest feeling, one I rarely get—that I only get when I am reading words that say more than words can say, or should be able to say. This happens when I read great poetry but it’s much rarer with prose. It is as though a veil that is almost always there is suddenly lifted, and I suddenly see something I couldn’t before. If I had to label this particular unveiled thing, I might call it something like the ultimately ephemeral nature of time, or at least of “dating” events that occur in time. The last paragraph of the excerpt reminds me of, and would fit very well within, Scandinavian creation theology.
I also want to feature, as part of this reverie on seasons, a song and a photograph. The song (linked to here) is “The Sound of Summer Running” by Alison Brown. The photograph (shown on the right-hand side of this page, underneath the banner photo at the top) is from the cover of an audio CD titled The Sound of Summer Running by Marc Johnson. I don’t know if Brown’s song was inspired by Johnson’s CD but, to my mind, Brown’s song and the photo belong together: both of them beautifully evoke the eternal summer of childhood that endures, by means of the imagination, within each one of us.
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From The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos by Gaston Bachelard (as translated from the French by Daniel Russell), p. 115 ff.:
What a tension of childhoods there must be, held in reserve at the bottom of our being, for a poet’s image to make us suddenly relive our memories, reimagining our images by starting from well assembled words. For the poet’s image is a spoken image; it is not an image which our eyes see. One feature of the spoken image is sufficient for us to read the poem as the echo of a vanished past.
In order to restore, it is necessary to beautify. The poet’s image gives our memories a halo once again. We are far from having an exact memory (mémoire) which could keep the memory (souvenir) pure by framing it. For Bergson, it seems that pure memories are framed images. Why would one remember having learned a lesson on a garden bench? As if his goal were to fix a point in history! It would at least be necessary, since he is in a garden, to retell the reveries which distracted our schoolboy attention. The pure memory can only be recovered in reverie. It does not come at a given moment to help us in active life. Bergson is an intellectual who does not know himself. By a fatality of his own time, he believes in the psychic fact, and his doctrine of memory remains, all things considered, a doctrine of the utility of memory. Completely involved in developing a practical psychology, Bergson did not encounter the fusion of memory and reverie.
And yet, how often the pure memory, the useless memory of the useless childhood, comes back to nourish reverie as a benefit of the non-life which helps us live an instant on the edge of life. In a dialectical philosophy of repose and act, of reverie and thought, the memory of childhood tells clearly enough the utility of the useless! It gives us an ineffectual past in real life but one which is suddenly dynamized in that life, imagined or reimagined, which is beneficial reverie. In the growing-old age, the memory of childhood returns us to the delicate sentiments, to that “smiling regret” of the great Baudelairean atmospheres. In the “smiling regret” which the poet experiences, we seem to realize the strange synthesis of regret and consolation. A beautiful poem makes us pardon a very ancient grief.
To live in this atmosphere of another time, we must desocialize our memory and, beyond memories told, retold and recounted by ourselves and by others, by all those who have taught us how we were in the first childhood, we must find our unknown being, the sum total of all the unknowable elements that make up the soul of a child. When reverie goes so far, one is astonished by his own past, astonished to have been that child. There are moments in childhood when every child is the astonishing being, the being who realizes the astonishment of being. We thus discover within ourselves an immobile childhood, a childhood without becoming, liberated from the gearwheels of the calendar.
Then, the time of men no longer reigns over memory any more than the time of saints, those journeymen of everyday time who mark the life of the child only by the first names of his relations; but it is the time of the four divinities of the sky, the seasons. The pure memory has no date. It has a season. The season is the fundamental mark of memories. What sun or what wind was there that memorable day? That is the question which gives the right tension of reminiscence. Then the memories become great images, magnified, magnifying images. They are associated with the universe of a season, a season which does not deceive and which can well be called the total season, reposing in the immobility of perfection. Total season because all its images speak the same values, because you possess its essence with one particular image such as that dawn which arose out of the memory of a poet:
What dawn, torn silk
In the blue of the heat
Has arisen remembered?
What movements of colors? (Nöel Ruet, “Le bouquet de sang”)
Winter, autumn, sun, the summer river are all roots of total seasons. They are not only spectacles through sight, they are soul values, direct, immobile, indestructible psychological values. Experienced in the memory, they are always beneficial. They are lasting benefits. For me summer remains the bouquet season. Summer is a bouquet, an eternal bouquet which could not wilt. For it always takes on the youth of its symbol; it is an offering, very new, very fresh.
The seasons of memory are beautifying. When one goes off dreaming to the bottom of their simplicity, into the very center of their value, the seasons of childhood are the seasons of the poet.
These seasons find the means to be singular while remaining universal. They circle in the sky of Childhood and mark each childhood with indelible signs. Thus our great memories lodge within the zodiac of memory, of a cosmic memory which does not need the precisions of the social memory in order to be psychologically faithful. It is the very memory of our belonging to the world, to a world commanded by the dominating sun. With each season there resounds in us one of the dynamisms of our entry into the world, that entry into the world which so many philosophers bring up at any time and for any reason. The season opens the world, worlds where each dreamer sees his being blossom. And the seasons, armed with their original dynamism, are the seasons of Childhood. Later, the seasons can make a mistake, develop badly, overlap, or fade. But during our childhood, they never make a mistake with signs. Childhood sees the World illustrated, the World with its original colors, its true colors. The great once-upon-a-time (autrefois) which we relive by dreaming in our memories of childhood is precisely the world of the first time. All the summers of our childhood bear witness to “the eternal summer.” The seasons of memory are eternal because they are faithful to the colors of the first time. The cycle of exact seasons is a major cycle of the imagined universes. It marks the life of our illustrated universes. In our reveries we see our illustrated universe once more with its childhood colors.