‘The Ocean Boils For Fear’ — 1

‘What we must do is to attempt a psychoanalysis of things’, said Jean-Paul Sartre, (1905–1980), in the section ‘Quality as a Revelation of Being’ that features in ‘Being and Nothingness’. And what does that mean, a psychoanalysis of things? This I consider to be one of the most interesting and rewarding fields of study to emerge out of phenomenology (a philosophical discipline that studies the appearances of things, or how we experience things, or the meanings that things have for us in our experience of them), although perhaps I think so primarily because of my poetic sensibilities.

Gaston Bachelard, (1884–1962), who was an influence on Sartre, in ‘Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter’, presents a psychoanalysis of water, and by water he refers to actual streams, and lakes, and oceans, but also to the bodies of water that permeate our dreams and reveries; that is, he is analysing the meaning that water has in our experiences of water.

Poetic images have their matter, as well as their form, and, for Bachelard, when theorising on the imagination, we must take into account the relationship between material and formal causality. But to understand this we need to go back to Aristotle, (384–322 BC), who said that ‘we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause’. Aristotle distinguished between material causality and formal causality. A material cause of change or motion is that aspect of the change or motion that is determined by the material that composes that which is changing or in motion. What causes my laptop to exist? One answer that Aristotle would give is my laptop’s material cause, the plastic and metal of which it is made. The formal cause, however, gives form to the matter. A formal cause of change or motion is that aspect of the change or motion that is determined by the arrangement or appearance of that which is changing or in motion. Another answer to the question of my laptop’s existence that Aristotle would give is that it owes its existence to its formal cause, the plastic and metal arranged and programmed in a certain way in order to function as it is does (or does not, as is more frequently the case).

Bachelard therefore argues that there exists two kinds of imagination; one that grants being to formal causation, and the other that grants being to material causation. That is, there is a formal imagination and a material imagination; and both notions are indispensible if any philosophical analysis of poetic creativity is to be complete. And just as there are images of form, and these have been frequently described in philosophy, there are also images of matter; that is to say, imagery that is created directly out of matter. If we wish to formulate an exhaustive theory of the imagination, we need to study forms, but we also need to characterise each form by its appropriate matter. As Bachelard wrote:

‘Besides the images of form, so often evoked by psychologists of imagination, there are… images of matter, images that stem directly from matter. The eye assigns them names, but only the hand truly knows them. When forms, mere perishable forms and vain images — perpetual change of surfaces — are put aside, these images of matter are dreamt substantially and intimately. They have weight; they constitute a heart’.

Bachelard proposes that the impulses of the human imagination are derived from two pivotal yet disparate notions; one of which draws upon the quality of the unforeseen, the exceptional, and the expressive; an imaginative impulse towards blossoming life. The secondary pivotal notion is that of the need for depth; the pursuit after that which is both primordial and eternal in both outer nature and inner human nature; the element of water, for example. The matter through which such imaginative impulses appear is eternal and engenders fruitfulness; which is to say, such fruitfulness is grounded in matter. As Bachelard puts it:

‘The lake or pool or stagnant water stops us near its bank. It says to our will: you shall go no further; you should go back to looking at distant things, at the beyond… I still take pleasure in following a stream, in walking along the banks in the right direction, the way the water flows and leads life elsewhere — to the next village. My ‘elsewhere’ is never father away than that. I was almost thirty when I saw the ocean for the first time… in my own reverie, it is not infinity that I find in waters but depth’.

Bachelard makes no mention of James Joyce’s account of a watery dream, ‘Finnegans Wake’, though he would find confirmation there for his psychoanalysis of water; that most receptive of elements, with its feminine characteristics; the fountainhead of being; symbolising the birth of possibilities. The character of Anna Livia Plurabelle is the river-woman who is evoked in the first word of the text, ‘riverrun’; whose monologue opens and closes the book, as the end of her sentence carries on into the opening sentence; Anna Livia, the personification of the river Liffey, upon whose banks the city of Dublin was built; Anna Livia, who, at the close of the text, flows into the ocean:

‘I sink I’d die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, memmemoree! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the ……. / ……. riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs’.

Memmemoree! she cries, and the word ‘riverrun’, with which the text begins, suggests the German word ‘Erinnerung’, which means memory; and Bachelard’s notion of material imagination interconnects memory and imagination; the latter moulds and engenders memory, and memory in turn exists as imagination. The material imagination is imagination of matter that occurs as a consequence of this interconnectedness with memory in an expressive act. The suggestion is that we should take the lessons of water in earnest, that we should see by means of water, for water makes its appeal towards a seeing in depth, and a seeing beyond. Juliet exercises her material imagination when she expresses to Romeo:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,

My love as deep. The more I give to thee,

The more I have, for both are infinite.

(‘Romeo and Juliet’, Act 2, Scene 2).

Plato, (428/427–348/347 BC), quotes Heraclitus, (c. 535 — c. 475 BC), as having said: ‘Everything changes and nothing remains still… and… you cannot step twice into the same stream’. From an understanding of the depth of a material element comes an understanding that flowing water is a kind of destiny in which we share, not simply the vain destiny of fleeting images or the never-ending dream of ‘Finnegans Wake’; of all the elements, water is the transitory one; a being committed to water is a being in flux. ‘Each day is a little life’, said Schopenhauer, (1788–1860), ‘every waking and rising a little birth, every fresh morning a little youth, every going to rest and sleep a little death’. Rather, we die every moment, as something of our being slips away from us. ‘Love cools, friendship falls off… ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves….’ (‘King Lear’, ‘Act 1, Scene 2). Or perhaps, to maintain the water imagery:

‘I to the world am like a drop of water

That in the ocean seeks another drop,

Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,

Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself’.

(‘The Comedy Of Errors’, Act 1, Scene 2).

But for Bachelard, beneath such superficial imagery of water there is a sequence of increasingly deeper and more cohesive and retentive images; we can evolve a sensibility for such infiltration into our own contemplation; beneath the imagination of forms we can detect the revelations from an imagination of material things; and with its special kind of familiarity that differs markedly from that indicated by the depths of the other elements, (fire, for instance; Bachelard is also the author of ‘The Psychoanalysis of Fire’), the material imagination of water is a special kind of imagination, as he explains:

‘Because we fail to de-objectify objects and deform objects — a process which allows us to see the matter beneath the object — the world is strewn with unrelated things, immobile and inert solids, objects foreign to our nature. The soul, therefore, suffers from a deficiency of material imagination. By grouping images and dissolving substances, water helps the imagination in its task of de-objectifying and assimilating’.

At this point, however, we encounter what may be a problem with this theory. Sartre wrote of Bachelard that he has ‘shown much talent in his last book, ‘Water and Dreams’. There is great promise in this work; in particular the author has made a real discovery in his ‘material imagination’.’ But, Sartre continues, ‘in truth this term imagination does not suit us and neither does that attempt to look behind things and their gelatinous, solid, or fluid matter, for the ‘images’ which we project there’. Perception, Sartre contends, is a distinct mode of thinking from imagination; (see Sartre’s great work, ‘The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination’); they exclude each other, in fact; to perceive is not to assemble images by means of sensations; and ‘consequently psychoanalysis will not look for images but rather will seek to explain the meaning which really belongs to things’.

(To be continued…)

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David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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