Gaston Bachelard and Mircea Eliade on the Existential and Cognitive Functions of the Imagination

Gaston Bachelard and Mircea Eliade on the Existential and Cognitive Functions of the Imagination

"Bachelard believes that a symbol has a psychological history. This may be true; but what interests me is the fact that, once constituted, the symbol is invested with a double function: “existential” and “cognitive.” Mircea Eliade, Journal I

Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) records a few telling encounters with Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) in his journal entries from the 1940s and 50s. Eliade seemed intimately familiar with and frequently inspired by Bachelard’s work. Eliade was enthusiastic when Bachelard reacted positively to his 1948 work, Techniques of Yoga. 

Mirce Eliade Journal I

Mircea Eliade’s notion of the eternal return explores the idea that we can return to our origin stories. Much like Eliade’s own body of work dips one foot in fiction writing and fantastic worlds and another in the so-called serious work of the histories of religions, his 1949 book, The Myth of Eternal Return, is equal parts practical and fantastic.

This is often the case with anthropological studies. It is no wonder, then, that Mircea Eliade was attracted to the phenomenological writings of Gaston Bachelard and his insights into the material imagination.

In Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, we learn the real is a closely woven fabric. Oral or partially literate cultures experience the meaning of their history with this close proximity in  mind. 

Stories are embedded into the cultural memory of the fabric of reality – usually tied to the land – and are displayed when these rich connections that are closely woven together converge with a member of the culture. It is through imagination that the experience takes on the rich, symbolic energies.

In a journal entry from October 2, 1945, Mircea Eliade reflects on Gaston Bachelard’s beautiful exploration of water and memory, and consequently contours his own understanding of symbolism.

“I reread L’Eau et les reves. Bachelard speaks very beautifully about “l’imagination de la matiere.” I should like to show (perhaps an essay: “L’Eau, les reves et les symboles”) that the imagination constitutes an instrument of cognition, because it reveals to us, in an intelligent and coherent form, the modes of the real. Bachelard believes that a symbol has a psychological history. This may be true; but what interests me is the fact that, once constituted, the symbol is invested with a double function: “existential” and “cognitive.” On the one hand, a symbol unifies various sectors of reality (aquatic symbolism, for example, reveals the structural solidarity among Water, Moon, becoming, vegetation, femininity, germs, birth, death, rebirth, etc.) On other hand, the symbol is always open, in the sense that it is capable of revealing “transcendent” meanings which are not “given” (not evident) in immediate experience. For example, the rites of baptism reveal a plane of the real other than the biocosmic (birth-death-rebirth): they reveal the “spiritual birth,” rebirth to a transcendent mode of being (“salvation,” etc.). The aquatic symbol is not only a “fidelity to a fundamentally oneiric temperament” (Bachelard) but also a means of intuiting the real in its totality, because it reveals the fundamental unity of the Cosmos. A symbol becomes autonomous at the moment when it is constituted as such, and its polyvalence helps us to discover homologies among different modes of our being -- homologies which the simple imagination of matter could not make possible.” Mircea Eliade

Evident in this reflection is the impulse for totality that haunt existential thinkers like Albert Camus. Not only do we have the phenomena functioning symbolically right in front of us, but each experience of that phenomena adds material to our closely woven fabric of reality. This is because the imagination celebrates both the cognitive and existential functions that Eliade so eloquently identifies.  

No matter how eloquently we might describe the function of the imagination, it is crucial that we remember how complex the process of living and therefore imagining is. With each breath, we apprehend new and living phenomena, while attempting to navigate time and space, and charting the territory that we traverse.

The German biologist, Andreas Weber, calls poetic space the most simple and the most enigmatic of all possible spaces in his 2016 book, Biopoetics: Towards an Existential Ecology. Eliade, he acknowledges, helps solidify the essence of poetic space. Poetic space does not re-present anything but offers a way to describe space that is alive:  

“Many symbols of nature in this perspective are not metaphors, but crystallized insights into forms of deep connection, ideas which do not refer to a platonic beyond but to an embodied here and now. The philosopher and writer Mircea Eliade observed that the physical sky through its concrete relation to ourselves reveals the ideas of transcendence, power, and eternity. These ideas exist in an absolute manner in the material sky, as it is high, vast, and home to forces that we cannot control. Therefore it is the poetic space of that which is unreachable, endless, and powerful. The blue of the sky is primordial, as it connects our experience directly to its meaning. It does not show anything, but it is.”

Andreas Weber, Biopoetics: Towards an Existential Ecology

Biopoetics: Towards an Existential Ecology Andreas Weber

For Mircea Eliade there are no objects that are inherently autonomous and carry value in and of themselves. This powerful, primordial essence that emerges from poetic space is a consequence of our status as dynamic, moving beings.

“If we observe the general behavior of archaic man, we are struck by the following fact: neither the objects of the external world nor human acts, properly speaking, have any autonomous intrinsic value. Objects or acts acquire a value, and in so doing become real, because they participate, after one fashion or another, in a reality  that transcends them. Among countless stones, one stone becomes sacred — and hence instantly becomes saturated with being — because it constitutes a hierophany, or possesses mana, or again because it commemorates a mythical act, and so on.” Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

Recognition of sacred phenomena requires a relationship. Not just a relationship between each experience – a concept we have come to know as narrative – but also a relationship between human phenomena. This relationship in our present day understanding is flavored by the unique history of each experience. According to Eliade, there is a kind of original symbolic act that informs the meaning of each repeated exposure to phenomena.

In The Spell of the Sensuous, cultural ecologist and philosopher, David Abram, writes about the role that repetition plays in the relationship between these rich connections that make up the fabric of our universe:

“Human events take on meaning only to the extent that they can be located within a storied universe that continually retells itself; unprecedented events, singular encounters that have no place among the cycling stories, can have no place, either, among the turning seasons or the cycles of earth and sky.”

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

David Abram The Spell of the Sensuous

Meaning is tied to story, story is tied to narrative, and repetition is how the narrative reinforces the poetics of space. Repetition is required for space to sing reality. The role of repetition in exercising the poetics of space is one that Gaston Bachelard comments on:

“The imagination is not, as its etymology suggests, the faculty for forming images of reality; it is the faculty for forming images which go beyond reality, which sing reality.”

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

David Abram says that for Mircea Eliade, repetition is not solely a descriptive act but also a creative act. This is what Eliade is after in The Myth of Eternal Return: when he says,

“Thus, reality is acquired solely through repetition or participation; everything which lacks an exemplary model is meaningless,” i.e., it lacks reality.”

Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

The emphasis on participation is synonymous with what Richard Kearney says about Bachelard’s posture toward the imagination in his introduction to The Poetics of Space:

“For him imagination was at once receptive and creative – an acoustic of listening and an art of participation. The two functions, passive and active, were inseparable. The world itself dreams, he said, and we help give it voice.”

Richard Kearney, Introduction: The Poetics of Space

What, then, is the relationship between repetition and imagination? The common factor of attention emerges in both and manifests in myth. In describing a kind of consciousness that celebrates historical and personal experiences, Mircea Eliade comments on the vital act of attention:

“What is personal and historical in the emotion we feel when we listen to the music of Bach, in the attention necessary for the solution of a mathematical problem, in the concentrated lucidity presupposed by the examination of any philosophical question?”

Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

These solutions often emerge from the myths we invent to navigate space and time. The cognitive function of the imagination requires attending to phenomena in a manner synonymous with the existential function of the imagination. The practice of both functions of the imagination manifest in sacred experiences that transcend time and space. 

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The phenomenology of Gaston Bachelard inspired the work of Mircea Eliade on the cognitive and existential functions of the imagination.