The Resonant Soul: Gaston Bachelard and the Magical Surface of Air

Robert Sardello, Ph.D.

In November 2002, The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture sponsored a conference titled "Matter, Dream, and Thought: A Symposium of the works of Gaston Bachelard." What follows is Robert Sardello's contribution to that Symposium. I approach the work of Gaston Bachelard as a depth psychologist who has for some twentyfive years been interested in determining the practices needed to develop conscious, embodied soul life that is open and receptive to the spiritual realms. I would say that my interest is in the spiritual soul. In addition, as an individual having an astrological chart with the Moon, the Sun, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus, all in air signs, my choice of Air and Dreams as Bachelard's work most concerned with the spiritual dimension of the soul comes as no surprise. Nonetheless there are five other major factors in my chart in earth signs, so what I want to present, I assure you, will not be all up in the air. Rather, the desire to know more what the soul's proclivity for ascension is all about belongs to the alchemical imagination of the distillation process, the circulation concerned with the spiritualizing of matter and the materializing of spirit. I ask you to enter with me into the tension of two opposing characteristics; aerial ascent and earthly engagement - simultaneously. Nature engages in this simultaneous opposition of movement all the time. For example, the perfume of the flower in its aerial ascent cannot be separated from the earthly weight of the seed. This tension of forces is expressed in the perfection of the flower, beings of the air and the earth all at once. Or the tree as a giant being of air and earth. Bachelard quotes Paul Gadenne's meditation on a gigantic walnut tree: "It was a huge and profound being which had worked the earth year after year with all its roots, and which had likewise worked the sky, and which from this earth and this sky had woven an unyielding substance and tied these knots against which no axe could have prevailed. Its upward thrust was so great, the movement of its branches was so noble and aimed so high that it forced you to experience its rhythm and to follow it with your eyes to the very top." (Air and Dreams, pg. 222) And he quotes La Fontaines' lines concerning the oak tree: Whose head was neighbor to the heavens, And whose feet touched the realm of the dead. Our imagination of depth, our depth psychology needs, I propose, to go not only deep into the underworld, but also deep into the cosmos. Let us let Gaston Bachelard be our guide. The elemental image of air concerns the soul's motion, soul as motion. It is not about motion in the soul but the soul itself as active movement, all movement, not something that moves. Of the four elements, Bachelard says that elemental images of air are the most rare, but always exemplify the dynamic imagination that is by far more significant than the formal imagination. More significant and more primordial because dynamic images are never about content but are the "how" of the content. If we do not have a deep sense of elemental air, the images produced all the time that are the mark of the psyche - the fantasies, the dreams, the memories and even our perceptions of the world, seem to us to be cinematic pictures, inner things to be looked at. Even the brilliant formulation of James

Hillman that images are not things seen but what we see through, is not strong enough to overcome the tendency to confine the imagination to set forms. To catch the air of the soul requires sensibility to the subtle, sensibility to the "how" of the image. There is nothing visual about the aerial imagination. It does not concern motion perceived visually. Motion perceived visually is not dynamic imagination but cinematic. Elemental air images compel us to realize images as creators of their own motion. The cinematic imagination, which views images as pictures, unwittingly reduces the motion of images as something caused by some invisible, outside force. The soul as motion is the basis of psychic images of every variety and element being activity and not static pictures. But it is the element of air that is the source of image as activity. Bachelard focuses, for example, on dreams of flying, quintessential images of the aerial soul, as the model of the air element. We might think, for example, that a dream of flying in which one has wings and floats through the air would be a dream typifying the aerial imagination. We might think that here is an instance of the soul revealing its dynamism, soul imagining itself as activity. Such a dream more likely shows a memory of seeing pictures of angels, or it is dreaming a concept of what we think concerning how humans might fly. Wings on the human are a static form. They suggest the concept of flying rather than invoking the action. This truth is easily tested. All you have to do is imagine a human being with wings and try to set that person, in your imagination, into flight. You can perhaps do so, but the wings on that human form will not be flapping nor even necessary to the flight. Bachelard says: "I will therefore, postulate as a principle that in the dream world we do not fly because we have wings; rather, we think we have wings because we have flown. Wings are a consequence. The principle of oneiric flight goes deeper. Dynamic aerial imagination must rediscover this principle.” (Air and Dreams, pg. 27) Soul is not some kind of unsubstantial thing that moves but rather qualities of motion. The primary qualities directly expressing soul's motion are buoyancy and lightness of being, often showing, for example, in dreams of flight in which I may find myself flying without wings but with the just right tilt of the feet that suggests motion. A buoyancy of the feet, launching one into air with the pure delight of being an air being, not with any projected goal toward which one seems to be headed. The lightness of matter shows in all dreams of flight, for the soul's motion is not a work of resistance against anything heavy. In a dream of flight, the whole form is light and there are subtle details, which if noticed, reveal this image as the soul's motion. In addition to the slight movement of the feet, the form itself is buoyant, and light, and movement occurs freely and spontaneously, not mechanically. In such images it is clear that the flying form is not some kind of projectile in the air, but the form is the condensation of the air itself, a kind of consolidation of air currents. Such a dream form also moves in the air in a way akin to a bird; the body form stretched out horizontally, rather than our usual vertical posture, now moving up and down. This resemblance to the bird also conveys that the form itself is airy. In a dream of flight, we are never our 170 pounds. Dreams of flight are one of the archetypal images of the spiritual soul. Soul is essentially vertical motion. Soul seeks both the heights and the depths. I do not intend to suggest that the soul as motion only seeks the heights; only that this necessary upward aspect of soul

has been sorely neglected in depth psychology, showing up only as purer pathology. Bachelard, however, has almost nothing to say of the downward flight of the soul because, he says, the aerial imagination concerns the primordial desire of the soul to ascend. For Bachelard, all depth psychology is spiritual psychology. Rather than hand spirituality over to religion or to the spiritual initiates or to cults of spirit or to the New Age, depth psychologists perhaps needs to encourage its sister discipline of spiritual psychology with its interests in elevation, and the resonant images touched off in all images of motion and elevation - gentleness, the embrace of light, the sky, infinite space, silence, contemplation, the motion of the stars, nebulae, the milky way, freedom, clarity, ideas. These qualities do not exist on their own but are the tropisms of imaginal matter under the valorization of air. Bachelard quotes Gasquet: "Could motion be matter's prayer, the only language that God really speaks? Motion! Through it the love of creatures and the desire of things are expressed in their essential nature. Its perfection unifies everything and makes it come alive. It binds the earth to the clouds, and children to birds." And "In rarified air, at the summit of the soul, does God not float like the dawn on snow as it grows whiter?" (Air and Dreams, pg. 57) Spiritual psychology concerns the soul's aerial attraction to God, and God's breath as a wind gently pulling on the soul. This attraction belongs inherently to soul, but can be attended to only through practices focusing on the soul's motion. Because our prevailing notion of images is that they are some sort of form, different certainly than the forms around us in the waking world of usual consciousness, but nonetheless forms, let me try to give an example of speaking an image as form and speaking that same image as activity. Let us, for a moment, engage the aerial imagination in a heightened way so our visual prejudice will not sneak in and infect the air. First, an image spoken in terms of formal imagination. Suppose I look at a painting on a wall. It is a landscape painting. It pictures a strong, flowing stream, blue, stirred into whiteness, moving from a higher region to the left, and down toward the right. On the far side of the swiftly flowing stream is a hill, a beautiful hill of dark green tall grasses, sloping steeply down to the stream. And on this side of the stream, more dark green grass, filled though with small blue flowers sitting atop long green stems. A hint of the blue sky forms the background of this pleasant painting. All images, like all matter, are composed of the subtle elements of earth, air, fire, and water. This present image is of the preponderance of the water and the earth element, but I am going to try to draw out and emphasize the air element, which is also present, and, more than present, makes this painting tend toward a living image rather than just a photographic representation of a pretty mountain scene. The aerial imagination would have to be spoken something like this: downard flowing white capping blue rushing, cutting through greening sloping hill ushering a welcoming field of flowering blue reaching toward its sky blue likeness.



The first image concentrates the formal imagination. The second image concentrates the dynamic imagination, of which the aerial imagination is the prime example. The animation of the image, we can see when we bring it out and let it speak loudly, comes from the aerial imagination. The formal imagination always risks missing the animation or makes animation a matter of cinematic movement rather than subtle qualities interior to the image. Besides being present to the animation within images, there is yet a further reason for intense interest in the aerial imagination. It is the only passageway between images and imaginal thinking. The aerial imagination induces thought, to put it in Bachelard's terms. In the esoteric spiritual traditions, spirit first reveals itself as mind, and soul is always a lesser level of the manifestation of mind, and more or less a hindrance to spiritual progress. Thus, there is always a strong tendency in spiritual practices to neglect soul. But in Bachelard, as in depth psychology, soul is first. And with Bachelard, because he is a phenomenologist who lets the world speak through him rather than concocting a theory about the world, we are allowed to begin where we are, as ensouled beings, receptive to the currents of upwardly deep spiritual forces and as well, receptive to the currents of archetypal forces going as downwardly deep as the underworld. Once we have released ourselves from the notion that images are forms, that is, release ourselves from the tyranny of the formal imagination, images as formed content, and begin to be able to feel and experience images as motions of soul, images as activity rather than as forms that do this and that, we are on the way to imaginal thinking. And just as images change from content to action with the aerial imagination, imaginal thinking is characterized by its constant and prevalent interiority of motion, action, movement. What we usually call thinking is not thinking at all but rather the stringing together of already completed thoughts. We typically engage in "thoughting" not thinking. We use thinked thoughts. Just as we neglect images as motion and focus only on the matter, the structure, and the form of images, even more so do we confuse thinking with what is thought about. That is, when we are thinking about something, we mistake what we think about with the thinking itself; the thinking activity goes unnoticed and thus we move further and further away from the possibility of thinking being open to the worlds of the gods, from which thinking originates. We do not think. Thinking occurs through us. In aerial imagination, for example, we do not experience flowers, but rather the act of the flowering. By becoming more and more accustomed to imagination's mobility, we loosen the hold fixed thoughts have on us and attune to the flowing activity of thinking itself. Bachelard quotes, among others, the poet Shelley as a master of living in this transitional space of image and thought: Whence come ye, so wild and so fleet, For sandals of lightning are on your feet, And your wings are soft and swift as thought True thinking is more like the motion of eagles, the tempests of storms, the sound of nightingales, the flight of larks, the swooping of falcons, the beauty of swans, the movement of the wind than anything that trails along following thinking as its trail of frozen content. Ideas fly. The flight of ideas. Wandering thought. The sign of true thinking is not in the content but in the vibrations, the resonances, the tones, the overtones and undertones it sets off as it swoops swiftly by.

It is, however, not only a matter of becoming accustomed to the aerial imagination that takes us into dynamic thinking. Something else is required. The aerial imagination takes us first into silence and then, through silence, into the activity of imaginal thinking. Indeed, you cannot experience the aerial imagination unless you quiet down and lets its presence show forth in silence. The path from imagination to thought goes through the fourth dimension of silence. When we enter the realm of silence, not just being quiet, which is only the necessary condition that opens the door to autonomous silence, we move from the surface of the aerial imagination into its interior. The interior space of silence is the depth of this high region of the aerial imagination. If you pay attention to silence itself, not to what might be in the silence, you find that silence is a subtle fluid medium that surrounds and interpenetrates everything. This medium, I propose, is the interior depth of the aerial imagination. And, just as silence exists on its own, penetrating and filling us, so also does it fill and surround everything. And everything, absolutely everything of this world issues forth from this medium as the things of the world. To the extent that we can, through the aerial imagination, be present in this medium, then the things of the world show in their animation, their aliveness. They show their animation, their soul, through very particular qualities, qualities that are missed in ordinary perceptual consciousness --- the fluidity of wonder in which all things are forever new; the subtlety of reverence in which all things are forever holy; the light of wisdom in which things find their place within the whole; the gesture of openness in which things by their very being surrender to the divine. These qualities are not in us, but are the animating qualities within the world, primordial world ideas. The flight of ideas, flighty ideas, are far from frivolous and far from abstract. Indeed, taking the flight path of the aerial imagination through silence shows us that we are all upside down in our usual, sleepy ways of living. What we consider to be concrete - this chair, this room, this paper, these people, are all abstract, for these 'concrete things' are but the smoky trails of the autonomous life of fleet-footed ideas. Thinking, experienced from within the fluid medium of the aerial imagination, is indistinguishable from contemplation. Bachelard verifies this assertion: In order to hear things that belong to infinite(translate - deep) space, we must reduce to silence all the noises on earth. .....Then we can understand that contemplation is essentially a creative power. We feel within ourselves the birth of a will to contemplate which almost immediately becomes a will to take part in the motion of what we are contemplating. ....All profound contemplation is necessarily and naturally a hymn. The function of that hymn is to go beyond reality and to project a world of sound beyond the silent world. (Air and Dreams, pg. 49). The aerial imagination opens into animated imaginal thinking, which opens the door to the interior of the temple of the world through contemplation. I am simply following here the trajectory of the aerial imagination, which goes through these metamorphoses the deeper we enter into this kind of imagination. We go from image activity to thought activity to world activity, sweepingly swooping its way through silence. On the other side of silence, the activity of the aerial imagination turns into sound beyond sound. Bachelard gives a beautiful example of this work of conscious contemplation as it occurs in Rilke's Fragments and Prose. The example helps us to follow this eagle like rapidity of movement that I just outlined, showing that indeed this motional metamorphosis is indeed exactly what happens when the aerial imagination is religiously followed. In the passage,

Rilke is telling us about walking with a book and comes to a resting place, in the fork of the tree, sitting in the fork of the tree where he enters into silence. Then, this happens: It was as if almost imperceptible vibrations came from the inside of the tree and passed over into his body....He felt as though he had never been moved so gently, as if his body had been in treated like a soul and prepared to receive an influence whose degree, in ordinary clear-cut physical conditions, would not even have been perceptible at all. ..... Endeavoring to become aware of the slightest of these impressions, he wondered over and over what had happened to him and, almost at once, found an explanation that satisfied him. He told himself that he had been carried to the other side of nature. (Air and Dreams, pg. 208) What is the other side of nature? It is the soul of the world. How is it experienced? As resonance, vibration, the interior currents of soundless sound, as the realm of immediate feeling, the flowing forces of feeling itself. The aerial imagination gives us the methodology for directly experiencing the soul of the world, provided we follow the prescribed flight plan. There are four qualities of the soul of the world - wonder, reverence, world wisdom, openness to the divine - let us follow through one of them - reverence as Bachelard develops it with the aerial imagination of the sky. The blue sky is the aerial imagination of reverence, but not the blue sky we look at above us, not that inverted goblet of sapphire, as Coleridge called it, and in so doing hardened the indeterminate infinity of the blue, which when entered is more of a feeling than a visual thing. When you let the sky completely pervade your being, when you let its resonate being pervade every part of your being, what resonates within that reflects the soul nature of the sky is the feeling of reverence. The sky does not make us feel reverent; it is the feeling activity of the operation of reverence embracing the earth. And, in the depth of the blue feeling of reverence, the blue depth, we open to reveries with an entirely different direction --reveries of the future! In the blue depth, there is the reverent sense of being within what has not yet come into form, the realm of what Aristotle called potentia. Potentia is a permanent state of coming-into-form. It is not just provisional, there until form is completed. It is a real and active state. There we meet ourselves and we meet the world, not as it is, but as it is intended. There are no formal images of this blue depth; it has no content, but is the utterly real experience of the not-yet lucidly and purely approaching us. From within reverence of the sky, we have the sense of how the things of the world are the distillations of an infinite field of azure, and how the things of the world are potentia and actuality all at once. Bachelard quotes the author, D'Annunzio: "On the tip of every needle, pines have a drop of blue." (Air and dreams, pg. 170) Bachelard comments: "Is there a better way to express the fact that rustling leaves distill blue sky?" (Air and Dreams, pg. 170) We have here a picture of the alchemy of the soul of the world, the sublimatio of air condensing at the top of the world flask into the infinite white/blue sky, the ether, soul of the world, sacred air, which then distills back into the ensouled world, in an unending active circulatio. The world is the dream of the aerial imagination.

When the alchemists looked deeply and attentively into the flask in which the alchemical circulation was taking place, images appeared. They saw the soul of particular things in their nascence, in their coming into being. In the great alchemical circulation of the world, we see this transformation from the depths of the universe into the things of the world as the clouds in the blue sky. As Bachelard says, "The clouds help us to dream of transformation."(Air and Dreams, pg. 185) And he speaks of the clouds as the day's zoomorphism as the constellations are the night's zoomorphism. The clouds are the aerial imagination of the soul of the things of the world. Contemplating clouds can strengthen the sense that all things are constantly moving, changing, transforming. Only for the formal imagination and only for the sharped-edged conceptual perception of daily life are things fixed into a single form and meaning. The aerial imagination releases in us matter that will dream. Clouds that are one moment monsters, the next beautiful women, and the next a medieval castle, strengthen the aerial imagination, releasing the illusion that the things of the world are lifeless. The things on the table are, for the aerial imagination, no less mobile than the clouds in the sky, and we have just a hint of the magical surface of elemental air, how the world itself is magical. While the magic of the soul of the world operates with speedy mobility during the day exemplified with the air imagination of clouds, the night is a slow force, and the depth of the stars the teachers of slowness. Here we approach the first motion, the origin of the motion of aerial imagination. We are still in the imagination of motion, but it is motion-asrest. And, in this motion-as-rest, we experience movement gazing at us. In the deep infinite space of the dark sky, the stars gaze. As Bachelard, says: In the realm of the imagination, everything that shines is a gaze. Our need to be on familiar terms is so great, and contemplation is so naturally a confidence, that everything that we gaze upon passionately, either because of our distress or our desire, looks back at us familiarly, with either compassion or love. (Air and Dreams, pg. 183) In the night, we are being looked at by the aerial imagination, which clothes us in a mantle of comfort. While the operation of the blue as reverence concerns mantling the world with comfort, the true creative power of the aerial imagination is given in air stirred, the wind. Here we have the creative force of anger. Wind is the elemental air image of anger that is everywhere and nowhere. It has no shape, but creates the whirlwind, the vortex, and the vortex is the wind of creation. The soul of the world's anger creates. Bachelard puts this beautifully: As by a provocation, the world is created through anger. Anger lays the foundation for dynamic being. Anger is the act by which being begins. However prudent an action may be and however insidious it promises to be, it much first cross of a small threshold of anger. Anger is the acid with which no impression will be etched on our being. It creates and active impression. (Air and Dreams, pg. 227) For the aerial imagination, the necessary shadow side of images and of the soul are created by the wind. Winged she-wolves, harpies. Even the Medusa is imaged as a flying head, a storm bird. Cries of anguish issue from the storm. The cosmology of the scream belongs to the imagination of air. There is always, with Bachelard, a tendency to get sentimental about the image. This is because he concentrates so much on beauty. With the wind, however, we have images of the enraged universe. Tumult and tempest too belong

to the soul of the world. Wind inspires courage of soul, and is also the imaginal point of interaction between the world soul and the individual soul. The breath of the world, the wind, is the breath of human beings. In pure silence, in pure air, we lose the boundary and cannot tell where we end and the cosmos begins. There is, of course, a deep reality to this unity, but it is equally so that we are not the totality of the cosmos, but, if we have sufficiently practiced our imaginal flying, we can become the sounding voice of the cosmos. This requires being stirred enough out of reveries by sometimes destructive forces of angry winds to become creators of stirring words that give breath to the breath of the cosmos. NOTES ABOUT THE TRANSLATION For nearly twenty years, Dr. Joanne Stroud of the Dallas Institute has directed the translation from French of the works of Gaston Bachelard. Bachelard was a gifted philosopoher of science who 'fell' into the imagination as he was trying to show that it had no place in science. He then spent the rest of his life developing an imagination of the elements - Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. He is an extraordinary thinker and writer because he does not write about the imagination, he writes from within imagination. You cannot read his work without undergoing a transformation of your very being. He makes one imaginatively capable. The books that have been translated under the direction of Dr. Stroud are: Earth and the Reveries of Will Air and Dreams The Right to Dream The Flame of a Candle Framents of a Poetics of Fire Lautreamont Water and Dreams All of these books are available through the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. The phone number is: 214-871-2440. The Institute's web site is:

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