Reveries of Water in Bachelard

Manila Bulletin, July 24, 2011 | Go to article overview

Reveries of Water in Bachelard

MANILA, Philippines -- Fr. Jett Villarin, Ateneo's new president, is a Jesuit scientist and poet who reminds me of my favorite philosopher Gaston Bachelard. He was born in 1884 in the small Champagne town of Bar-sur-Aube in France. A son and a grandson of a cobbler, he struggled to sustain his studies as a postman. He finished Etudes secondaires at the College de Bar-sur-Aube, became a practising physical chemist while teaching physics and chemistry in the same school. In 1930, he taught at the Faculte de Lettres at Dijon. He chaired the departments of history and philosophy of science at the Universite de Sorbonne. He was elected to the Academie des Sciences morales et politiques in 1955 and won the Grand Prix National des Lettres in 1961. In the 20 years of his illustrious career, he influenced French philosophy's most prominent post-modernist thinkers such as Georges Canguilheim, Jean Hyppolite and Michel Foucault. An amphitheater in the Universite de Sorbonne is dedicated to him.

The honoris causa of Bachelard is to change the fundamentalist attitudes in scientific teaching by changing the rationalist metaphysics that supports it. From the Jungian psychology of the archetype and the shadow, Bachelard conceived of an ontology that thrives not on reason but imagination. Bachelard lived in the provencal part of France and must have been close to nature. During his times, environmental destruction was not yet a concern but he was well aware of the growing power of science. When science becomes too rational and "scientific," it objectifies nature. But when science integrates emotion and imagination, its practice becomes humble, wholistic, healing, attuned to the ways of nature, and compassionate. Bachelard shows that the scientist, before he goes to the laboratory, "dreams" of the elements in the most romantic manner, which, if he is aware of it, infuses him with creativity and compassion in his experiments. The man of hard science designed a "pauso" metaphysics which he called "poetic ontology" of the elements.

In his book "Water and Dreams," Bachelard distinguishes between formal imagination and material imagination. Formal imagination is conceived intellectually whereas material imagination is an idea that comes directly from contact with nature, such as water. Greek philosophers believed that Spirit inhabits all beings. Water, in all its forms and ways, is charged with Spirit and contact with it awakens us to "The Deep" in our souls; we are all mermaids that swim in the water of life. The material imagination of water gives us the spiritual exercise of fluidity; life flows and carries us in its torrents, throwing us to and fro with no support, and if we are detached and unafraid, we might just be delivered to the white shores of Aslan's country.

Clear, springtime waters are images of our souls. Narcissus looked into a clear spring and fell in love with himself. In psychology, this is interpreted as narcissism but Bachelard indicates that there is such a thing as innocent love of self. A metallic mirror makes us obsessed with self but the water mirror sees the beauty in the human; the human face is made an instrument of seduction. Water makes our image more natural and fills it with purity and we realize that our beauty is not an end in itself but continues, its destination a mystery. The narcissistic temptation is to say "I love myself as I am" but Narcissus says "I am the way I love myself". Sublimation does not always deny desire or quell instinct but could also be a form of sacrifice for an ideal.

The human wants to see and seeing is an insatiable need. We do not dream water but water dreams in us. The world wants to see itself in us - a unity of natura naturans and natura naturata. The will to contemplate meets contemplative nature. When we contemplate water, the Spirit that desires to be carried along is born in our imagination.

The river evokes sexual desires; women are portrayed in paintings as wading nude in it. …

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