Unreal Nature

July 26, 2009

Man in Mind

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:59 am

… If nests and shells were without significance, their image would not be so easily or so imprudently synthesized. With eyes closed, and without respect to form and color, the dreamer is seized by convictions of a refuge in which life is concentrated, prepared and transformed. Nests and shells cannot unite as strongly as this otherwise than by virtue of their oneirism. Here an entire branch of “dream houses” finds two remote roots that intermingle in the same way that, in human daydreams, everything remote intermingles.

One hesitates to be too explicit about these daydreams, which no memory can either clarify or explain. And if one takes them in the resurgence manifested in the above-mentioned texts, one inclines to think that imagination antedates memory.

That’s from the chapter Shells in the classic book The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard (1958). Here is more, from earlier in that same chapter:

… When we accept slight amazement, we prepare ourselves to imagine great amazement and, in the world of the imagination, it becomes normal for an elephant, which is an enormous animal, to come out of a snail shell. It would be exceptional, however, if we were to ask him to go back into it.

… in real life, a mollusk emerges from its shell indolently, so if we were studying the actual phenomena of snail “behavior,” this behavior would yield to observations with no difficulty. If, however, we were able to recapture absolute naïveté in our observation itself, that is, really to re-experience our initial observation, we should give fresh impetus to the complex of fear and curiosity that accompanies all initial action of the world. We want to see and yet we are afraid to see. This is the perceptible threshold of all knowledge, the threshold upon which interest wavers, falters, then returns.

… A creature that hides and “withdraws into its shell,” is preparing a “way out.” This is true of the entire scale of metaphors, from the resurrection of man in his grave, to the sudden outburst of one who has long been silent. If we remain at the heart of the image under consideration, we have the impression that, by staying in the motionlessness of its shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being. The most dynamic escapes take place in cases of repressed being, and not in the flabby laziness of the lazy creature whose only desire is to go and be lazy elsewhere. If we experience the imaginary paradox of a vigorous mollusk — the engravings in question give us excellent depictions of them — we attain to the most decisive type of aggressiveness, which is postponed aggressiveness, aggressiveness that abides its time. Wolves in shells are crueler than stray ones.

… certain theories which were once thought to be scientific are, in reality, vast boundless daydreams. I should like to give an example of a dream-idea of this type, which takes the shell as the clearest proof of life’s ability to constitute forms. According to this theory, which was propounded in the eighteenth century by J. B. Robinet, everything that has form has a shell ontogenesis, and life’s principal effort is to make shells. It is my opinion that at the center of Robinet’s immense evolutionary table there was a vast dream of shells.

… Fossils for Robinet are bits of life, roughcasts of separate organs, which will find their coherent life at the summit of an evolution that is preparing the way for man. We might say that the inside of a man’s body is an assemblage of shells.

… If one could succeed in reliving this partial life, in the precision of a life that endows itself with a form, the being that possesses form dominates thousands of years. For every form retains life, and a fossil is not merely a being that once lived, but one that is still alive, asleep in its form. The shell is the most obvious example of a universal shell-oriented life.

… It would be a mistake to see nothing in this but a reference to language habits that name new objects by comparing them with other commonplace ones. Here names think and dream, the imagination is active. Lithocardites are heart shells, rough draughts of a heart that one day will beat. Robinet’s mineralogical collections are anatomical parts of what man will be when nature learns to make him. A critical mind will object that our eighteenth century naturalist was a “victim of his imagination.” A phenomenologist, however, who avoids all criticism on principle, cannot fail to recognize that in the very extravagance of the being given to words, in the extravagance of his images, is manifested a profound daydream. On all occasions Robinet thinks of form, from the inside out. For him, life originates forms, and it is perfectly natural that life, which is the cause of forms, should create living forms. Once again, for such daydreams as these, form is the habitat of life.

Back to the first paragraph of the chapter:

One has only to look at pictures of ammonites to realize that, as early as the Mesozoic Age, mollusks constructed their shells according to the teachings of transcendental geometry.

If this is all getting a bit New Age for you, see my next post.




  1. I recall Robinet from first-year palaeontology. He’s a bit of a joke now, but in many ways he was on the right track and just missed a major insight into the conmmonality of processes that produce biological form (for instance, the ubiquitous double-ended grwoth about a non-growing axis that makes the same shape in beans, kidneys, various fungi, Belousov-Zhabotinsky scrolls, etc.

    On a more prosaic level, palaeontologists then (as now) were forced to a deal of verbal ingenuity to come up with Latin names for hordes of things that didn’t differ very much. The heart-shaped Chalk fossil sea urchin Micraster (“little star”) has species including corbovis (= bull’s heart), coranguinum (=eel’s heart), and cortestudinarium (tortoise’s heart). As far as I know, these were purely descriptive in intent.

    I rather like what I’ve read from Bachelard; it’s a poetic expression of ideas that are sound within discussion of history and philosophy of science, unlike that Impostures Intellectuelles bunch he influenced.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — July 28, 2009 @ 7:58 am

  2. I agree on Bachelard. The first time I read The Poetics of Space (many years ago), I thought it was too airy-fairy, but now, for some reason, I think he manages to walk right along the edge without falling. Every time — or almost every time — he goes too far off into la-la land, he backs up and grounds himself.

    Comment by unrealnature — July 28, 2009 @ 11:09 am

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