The Poetics of Reverie

At least once or twice a year, I read Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), a French philosopher and literary critic. The best way to read Bachelard is to read Bachelard slowly, preferably in deep afternoon, outside, under some enormous tree, with a turquoise bowl of ice cream in hand. He is impossible to read quickly, and almost impossible to understand without a serious background in mid-century French philosophy–and, yet, here I am, continuing to read him, year after year, with such fondness and tenderness, and only a vague understanding of mid-century French philosophy. Why?

The text is not immediately satisfying; the language is dense, weighted down with abstraction after abstraction, words so large and vague that their meanings careen off into nothingness, like a spinning children’s top. I don’t entirely trust the translation from the French: I have the distinct sense that Bachelard is making puns I’m not catching. Nevertheless, I read on, waiting for rare moments of lucidity and delight, moments that, to quote Emily Dickinson, “take the top of my head off,” like this gem: “To enter into the fabulous times, it is necessary to be serious like a dreaming child.”

I own two of Bachelard’s books. Both were purchased for undergrad literature courses and have stayed with me, prominently placed on my bookshelf, through various apartments and houses. They have fantastic titles: The Poetics of Space (1958) and The Poetics of Reverie: Language, Childhood, and the Cosmos (1960). The latter, which sits in front of me as I type this, has a pale aquamarine cover. The words on the page are not crisp; the letters blur. The smell, the cover, the old font: all of it reminds me of children’s books handed down from grandparents, grandparents who told me stories of milkmen placing cold glass bottles at their doors—1917, 1924. The pages of these children’s books were always browning, ready to break at any moment. Their smell was a mix of mildew and firewood and mothers’ perfumes (musk, rose water). And their language—arcane, British-sounding—was prim, often close to rhyming.

I loved those books, illustrated by the likes of Arthur Rackham, George du Maurier, Linley Sambourne. They, like all great children’s books, transported me from my bedroom in Virginia to another world entirely, a world in which children turned into water babies, and only children, such as myself, had siblings. Even now, if I happen upon a children’s book I was once devoted to, I’m lifted into a fairy land of my own creating, a landscape of rolling pastures and afternoon, always afternoon, light. In this landscape, Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” is playing on an out-of-tune Steinway piano and I, princess of this kingdom, keep my William Blake Songs of Innocence in my pocket.

Gaston Bachelard.

In The Poetics of Reverie, Bachelard writes from this place. Einstein called it “imagination.” Jung called it the “collective unconscious.” Bachelard calls it “reverie” and it is the locus from where creative thought arises. Reverie, for Bachelard, is both a place (a noun) and an action (a verb). Unfortunately, our English vocabulary can’t fully capture this. Reverie is daydream and it is also the daydreaming itself. It is the mind at play. It is the mind untethered from its usual duties. It is also the lucid dream.

Of interest to Bachelard is the relationship between reverie and reading/writing. He devotes considerable time in The Poetics of Reverie to tracing how both reading and long-hand writing can jump-start reverie.

Here Bachaelard muses on how reading encourages reverie, from the Introduction:

I am a dreamer of words, of written words. I think I am reading; a word stops me. I leave the page. The syllables of the words begin to move around … The words take on other meanings as if they had the right to be young.

Notice how Bachelard personifies words: “a word stops me,” and “words take on other meanings as if they had the right to be young.” Words here are agents, instigators, mischief makers: slippery, uncatchable. To follow them is to risk losing yourself in depthless reverie. You could end up anywhere.

Writing also invites reverie:

A word is a bud attempting to become a twig. How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream.

If there is an argument within The Poetics of Reverie (and I’m not sure there is one), it might be that the act of unstructured, unplanned reverie is essential to creation of any kind, especially to the creation of literature. Whether or not these writings are actually sent out and published is an entirely different matter–probably not important. What’s important is this: diving deep into the reverie and swimming there with our eyes open to all its viscous elements. What will we see? What will we find? What memories will we bring up from the depths, all covered in brine? What images? What forgotten colors?

Anything could happen. And, as we creative types know, anything does happen.

But who actually daydreams? If you’re anything like me, you might feel the anxious urge to constantly be doing something. A day of commuting, meetings, emailing, and running errands feels productive. I’m tired after it. I can reassure myself that I’ve done something, that I’m worthy of waking again tomorrow. To lounge around on the sofa, drifting in and out of naps, gazing at a white rose blooming outside the window feels slothful, lazy, and (shall I say it?) frightening. It’s as if I’m asking the God of Free Market Economics to throw a lightning bolt at my daydreaming head. I’m frightened because if I give myself over to reverie, it may mean that I’ve accomplished nothing, that I’ve gotten nowhere, that I’m still me, same as yesterday, same as tomorrow: flawed, bad at math.

To daydream is to resist the dominant motion of our busy culture. In Madness, Rack, and Honey, a collection of essays on poetry, Mary Ruefle writes that “Western culture has always fundamentally limited play, if not prohibited it, because of [its] nonutilitarian nature.” I would add that Americans have a particularly manic, viscious strain of Western culture’s aversion to nonutilitarian activities–perhaps you’ve heard of the Puritans? Ruefle goes on to write that both poetry and non-procreative sex are looked down upon because “they do not have a value dependent upon the consequences of furthering anything out side themselves.” Oh, my American anxieties: What if nothing comes of my reveries! What if I just wasted a day on the sofa? No wonder daydreaming is scary. No wonder I feel guilty, like I’ve gotten caught red-handed doing something very, very bad.

And yet. I’ve been practicing what Bachelard has advised me, even though I can imagine the early Puritans turning over in their cold graves. I spend time each day allowing my mind to sway and scuttle. Sometimes I have a pen in hand, sometimes not. Who knows, perhaps I’ll be washed up on an arctic shore, cold and shivering, in which case I can call the whole thing off. Then again, maybe not. Maybe I’ll end up in the French Riviera, eating pizza and drinking rosé. It’s hard to know where reverie will lead.

But I have a hunch. I have a hunch that my reveries will lead me to the restaurant where the Muse eats her breakfast (two eggs over easy and a dry cappuccino, I’ve heard), and, if they don’t, at least I will have dared greatly.

Bachelard asks us: Daydreamer, what is it like? That vast, glowing interior of your mind?

I want to answer.


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