‘The Ocean Boils For Fear’​ — 2

David Proud
6 min readAug 6, 2020

Sartre’s objection is that Bachelard, in his psychoanalysis of things, applies himself not so much to the subject, in this case water, but rather he applies to things a method of objective interpretation that makes no assumptions about any previous reference to the subject. Sartre gives an example of a kind of frozen water, namely, snow: ‘When for instance I wish to determine the objective meaning of snow, I see, for example, that it melts at certain temperatures and that this melting of the snow is its death. Here we merely have to do with objective confirmation. When I wish to determine the meaning of this melting, I must compare it to other objects located in other regions of existence but equally objective, equally transcendent — ideas, friendship, persons — concerning which I can also say that they melt. Money melts in my hands’.

We can thus decode the secret meaning of snow, which for Sartre is an ontological meaning; in which, he argues, there is no relation to the subjective, to imagination. All that has been achieved is a comparison between strictly objective structures, and from thence to the formulation of an hypothesis that can unify and group together such structures. Psychoanalysis depends upon the things themselves, not upon men or women. ‘The method of phenomenology’, said its founder, Edmund Husserl, is to go back to things themselves’. It is certainly interesting to resort to the material imagination of the poets; Edgar Allan Poe, (1809 -1849), for instance, in his poem ‘The City Under The Sea’:

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne

In a strange city lying alone

Far down within the dim West,

Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best

Have gone to their eternal rest.

There shrines and palaces and towers

(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)

Resemble nothing that is ours.

Around, by lifting winds forgot,

Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.

But if through such research we return to the subjective, our results will attain significance only through a consideration of Poe as ‘an original and pure preference’ for the watery; and if we have also first determined the objective meaning of the watery. Bachelard does refer to Poe (but not to any of the other writers I have here referenced to illustrate his thesis); and to understand that this is what Bachelard himself prefers it is necessary to understand the nature of that which he prefers; just as I would need to understand the nature of my preferences, namely, Shakepeare, to whom Bachelard makes no reference. I know well enough that he will place in the watery world something different and something more than I will place into it; (just as Bachelard, quoted above, states that ‘in my own reverie, it is not infinity that I find in waters but depth’, whereas Juliet finds just that, the infinite). And yet such subjective enhancements that he provides to inform us about Poe will be contrasted and contradicted by the objective structures of wateriness itself. An existential psychoanalysis of Poe through his material imagination necessarily assumes first an interpretation of the objective meaning of water.

Similarly, Sartre argues, ‘a rigorously objective psychoanalysis will discover that deeply engaged in the matter of things there are other potentialities which remain entirely transcendent even though they correspond to a still more fundamental choice of human reality, a choice of being’. This again differs from Bachelard, in that psychoanalysis requires its a priori principles; it must know what it is looking for, and the means by which to find it. And yet if psychoanalysis was itself to establish the goal of its research we would thereby find ourselves in a vicious circle; for the goal of the research must be the object of a postulate; and we must search for it in experience, or establish it by means of another discipline. Sigmund Freud, (1856–1939), provides us with simple postulates, the death drive, for instance; and Alfred Adler, (1870–1937), with his particular conceptualization of the will to power, in a rather unmethodical approach, generalizes from empirical data, and hence is able to disregard the basic principles of a psychoanalytic method.

Bachelard’s research is governed by just such postulates; death, for instance, in his referencing of Poe’s poem ‘The Sleeper’, a material imagining of dead water; for while the dead are still among us in our consciousness, to the unconscious they are sleeping:

The rosemary nods upon the grave;

The lily lolls upon the wave;

Wrapping the fog about its breast,

The ruin moulders into rest;

Looking like Lethe, see! the lake

A conscious slumber seems to take,

And would not, for the world, awake.

All Beauty sleeps!

Such a psychoanalysis is more certain of its method than of its a priori principles; it depends upon its results for any enlightenment with regard to its precise goal; and there is too much reliance upon empirical principles or upon postulates that would make man or woman a priori a death instinct or a will to power; instead, the goal of psychoanalysis should be established from the standpoint of ontology. Human reality is a choice of being, and a psychoanalysis of things and of their matter ought above all to be concerned with establishing the way in which each thing is the objective symbol of being and of the relation of human reality to this being. ‘M. Bachelard’s study of water’, said Sartre, ‘which abounds in ingenious and profound insights, will be for us a set of suggestions, a precious collection of materials which should now be utilized by a psychoanalysis which is aware of its own principles’.

Ontology can educate psychoanalysis upon the true meanings of things and their true relation to human reality. However, Sartre still encounters a problem here, it seems to me. This choice of being, whatever that may be, is nonetheless apprehended from a single viewpoint; and though psychology does encourage us to reflect, a very watery term, and material reflections can govern our psychological methodology, nonetheless, as we read the world, with all its complexities, as we might read a poem, by what means can we look beyond our own narcissism; our own images as they are reflected back upon us; to see the world as it looks upon itself? Water reveals as it reflects, and the metaphors of water become deeper and deeper; the idea of pure and impure water, for instance, is connected with the theme of good and evil; a pool of pure water, contaminated by an impure drop, can never be pure again. And yet Bachelard, in his discussion of violent water, with its images of swimming in a turbulent sea, buffeted by the irrational, serving as a metaphor for a life beset with ordeals and the unexpected, he makes no Biblical references; and yet for me, perhaps because this is a reflection of my own soul, the discussion of violent water suggests Isaiah 57: 20 -21: ‘But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked’.

And further, our perceptions are so much under the influence of how we feel; leading to strange and hard to analyse connections. I end with a couple of curious examples of this. Mersault, the existential hero of Albert Camus’ (1930–1960) ‘The Outsider’, while in his cell awaiting his execution for a meaningless murder, vents his anger upon a priest that endeavours to turn him back to God: ‘It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe’. This ‘benign indifference’, it would seem to be an oxymoron; typical of the kind of thing an atheist would contrive; but we find such curious connections among the religious too. And here I continue the water theme. The poet Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas, (1544–1590), freely expands upon the Book of Genesis, giving his poetic account of the vices and diseases that perpetually plague us, and gives his own account of the Biblical flood, the waters not boiling with rage, but instead:

Then th’ocean boils for fear the fish do deem

The sea too shallow to safe-shelter them;

The earth doth shake; the shepherd in the field

In hollow rocks himself can hardly shield;

Th’afrrighted heavens open, and in the vale

Of Archeron, grim Pluto’s self looks pale.

Th’air flames with fire; for the loud roaring thunder,

Rending the cloud that it includes, asunder,

Send forth those flashes which so blear our sight;

As wakeful students in a winter’s night

Against the steel glancing with stony knocks

Strike sudden sparks into their tinder-box.



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.