TOP 500 REVIEWERon 30 April 2013
Bachelard is attempting something so difficult it is no wonder this is a very demanding read. Having spent a lifetime doing "proper" philosophy, he realises that the analytical, critical approach used, not just by science but by philosophy, literary criticism and most writing about the arts, has been destroying our ability to appreciate and understand precisely that which makes much of human experience worthwhile. Here he seeks to deal with image and idea, imagination and poetry, without analysing them to death. It is like appreciating the butterfly as the air bears it amongst the flowers, rather than poisoning it and pinning it to a board.
Using poetry and contemplating our familiar spaces, Bachelard focuses our attention on the everyday, that which is usually taken for granted. But he is not trying to analyse our responses so much as induce us to understand how differently we can, if encouraged, see the world. Bachelard focuses our attention on ways of thinking that are non-linear, on the resonances of the poetic imagination. Because academics are accustomed to using the terminology of the intellect; analysis, criticism, taxonomy; it is a struggle to convey what he is driving at. Though I am used to reading philosophy, I confess I found Bachelard's language at times painfully opaque. His train of thought will be laid out in such a way that one is excited, eager to follow him forward. Then one encounters several sentences which, though they are grammatical, convey no graspable sense; they use irreconcilable words in an order that has no conceivable meaning. Is this Bachelard being extremely clever, and me rather dim? Would this make perfect sense in the original French, to a Francophone reader? Is the problem in fact one of translation?
Unfortunately, though I can read a little French, this level of text is way beyond me, so I'll never know unless another translation is made. This translation is by Maria Jolas, an ambiguous name; I find myself asking if the publishers have committed the error of commissioning a translation from, rather than into, the translator's mother tongue. W. G. Sebald, though fluent in English, insisted on writing in German and having his works translated by a mother tongue English speaker, lest their subtlety be lost. I cannot believe that English has no sensible words and phrases which will translate Bachelard's ideas.
I am wary, moreover, because where French text is published alongside English, the translations seem to me to be flawed. In chapter 3, for example, "armoire" is repeatedly translated as 'wardrobe', though it is quite clear from context and sense that Bachelard means 'linen cupboard'. Later, a stanza of verse by Jules Supervielle is translated as follows:
Je churche dans les coffres qui m'entourent brutalement
Mettant des tenebres sens dessus dessous
Dans les caisses profondes, profondes
Comme si elles n'etaient plus de ce monde
Roughly I search in coffers that surround me
Putting disarray in the darkness
Of cases that are deep, deep
As though they had departed this life.
Now, I am have mere schoolboy French, but I read this verse as
Roughly I search in the coffers which surround me
Turning darknesses topsy-turvy
In the chests so deep, deep
As if they were no longer of this world
Which is both more literal and more poetic.
The text does get easier as the chapters progress, and one also gets used to the translator's English, so persevere. You have to read on, hoping the context will illuminate, re-read hoping familiarity will shed a light, and finally you sometimes pass by, trusting that the meaning will sink in by poetic osmosis. In the end, you'll be surprised how much does.
I would like to have given this book 5 stars; it clearly deserves them. But only the most highly motivated reader can cope with such a high level of linguistic obtuseness. Readers who are unused to handling complex ideas will find it impenetrable. This is a book not just for philosphers but for poets and artists. In a very real way, Bachelard's question is "what is art and how does it move us?". Be ready let him lead you; trying too hard to get to grips with his meaning is like catching the soap in the bath; the harder you try to grasp it, the harder it will ping away.
Books which would be of interest to some readers of this include 18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields and Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in 20th Century English Painting