I have been reading a lot lately in preparation for an application to a research degree here in Sydney, Australia. That application has been lodged now, thankfully, but I’ve continued reading, mostly for my own interest, and partly because I know that if I get accepted I’m going to have to back up my proposal ‘talk’ with a serious and studious amount of ‘walk’. As part of this reading I’ve picked up a copy of Gaston Bachelard’s ‘On Poetic Imagination and Reverie’, which is available from Amazon.com. I’m still working my way through Collete Gaudin’s well thought out and interesting introduction to the work, and already it has me questioning some of the basic assumptions of our language.
The one I want to write about at the moment is the idea and concepts surrounding the word ‘image’, as understood by our culture, and as understood by Bachelard. This will by no means be a definitive examination, but my first gentle foray into playing with this area of thinking, so take from it what you will.
The first thing I think we should look at is: what do we mean when we use the word ‘image’? In English speaking cultures the word image has come to predominately mean a visual representation. This is not to say that the meaning of the word has degraded from a broader concept in recent, more technological times. Quite the contrary. A definition given in 1707 gives the meaning as ‘an artificial resemblance, either in painting or sculpture. However, the word, etymologically, runs:
c.1225, “artificial representation that looks like a person or thing,” from O.Fr. image, earlier imagene (11c.), from L. imaginem (nom. imago) “copy, statue, picture, idea, appearance,” from stem of imitari “to copy, imitate” (see imitate). Meaning “reflection in a mirror” is c.1315. The mental sense was in L., and appears in Eng. c.1374. Sense of “public impression” is attested in isolated cases from 1908 but not in common use until its rise in the jargon of advertising and public relations, c.1958. Imagism as the name of a movement in poetry that sought clarity of expression through use of precise visual images, “hard light, clear edges,” was coined 1912 by Ezra Pound.
So the word has its roots in ‘copying, imitating’ rather that superficially resembling. And this, I think it key to the difference between how our current culture uses the word ‘image’ colloquially, and how we actually employ images, especially poetically.
When we say ‘Image’ these days too often we mean ‘picture’, whereas what image means is ‘an artificial representation’, which needn’t be entirely visual. It is interesting to note that the French for image, funnily enough, is image (I put it in italics to help you imagine the accent), and the meaning translates not just to ‘visual’ image, but also to ‘idea’. It’s easy to over-read this sort of effect. However, what I hope to emphasise is that an image, as commonly understood, tends to under-emphasise the non-visual elements of the image.
What Bachelard emphasises in his writing is the ‘material’ nature of the image. There is a complicated thought process behind this idea, but what it boils down to in my mind is that the material image, as understood by Bachelard, encompases the entire experience, conceptual, physical and referential, of a thing, not just the sight of it. In fact, Gaudin’s exegesis quotes as “Images are ‘lived’, ‘experienced,’ ‘reimagined’ in an act of consciousness …” In this way he downplays Sartre’s use of symbols:
Bachelard challenges Sartre’s choice of softness, viscosity, and shapelessness as direct symbols of the apprehension of the concrete world by human consciousness. … these are perjorative qualities, fixed in the moment of their material becoming.
The point of Bachelard’s challenge is that softness, viscosity, shapelessness are not well chosen as symbols because there is no material experience to be found in them. They are immaterial and abstract, and as such do not relate back to an image, as such, but to a suggestion of one. As Gaudin explains, they are ‘fixed’ in place before they have become real. However, an image that does adequately symbolise ‘the apprehension of the concrete world by human consciousness’ could itself conjure sensations/connotations of softness, viscosity, shapelessness.
I think that an image must suggest the materiality of the thing being imagined. In this sense, then, the Poundian/Imagist idea of the image as an experience comes more into focus as the attempt, not just to describe visually, but to present the imagined materialisation of time, place, object etc. I’ll end with a famous example of Poundian Imagism. The haiku-esqu:
IN A STATION OF THE METRO
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The poem is strongly visual, there’s no denying this. But the poem is not just attempting to superimpose one image on another in order to point out similarities. There is a definite, materialism to the imagery. The faces of the people, above their dark clothes, do not just resemble the bough visually, they are also wet, and fragile as petals. Pound attempts to convey not just an image that may be considered beautiful, but also his own sense of experiencing beauty. Suddenly, succinctly, at a glance. The image as an experience.