Bachelard: the candle and the hourglass

Détail d'une photographie de Gaston Bachelard reproduite p. 128 du livre de Pierre Quillet intitulé Bachelard, Seghers, 1964.

Détail d'une photographie de Gaston Bachelard reproduite p. 128 du livre de Pierre Quillet intitulé Bachelard, Seghers, 1964.

Time is a word that is as common as it is fleeting. It flits off like images from a dream. It starts with a definite article that presents it as being alone and unified: but isn’t it already an image? Bachelard’s ponderings about the diversity of time invite us to understand it better and to experience it fully.

Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) was a French philosopher. He was one of the founders of historical epistemology, the aim of which was to apply philosophical studies to the so-called exact sciences (physics, chemistry and maths). His thought processes are wide and lively: wide in the sense that he invested his time in fields as diverse as science, poetry, the dark depths of the psyche and the primitive primacy of images; lively in the sense that he invented reflexive regimes, – ways of approaching and formulating topics that were specific to each domain being investigated and against any fixed organisational systems. A reflection on time, or more accurately on times, runs through his work. He produced a complex and scholarly body of work in the language of a writer agitated by the dynamics of the equivocal.

His work on time has a polemical title for initiates: The intuition of the Instant (ref. II) is an echo of the clash with the intuition of duration proposed by philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) for whom time unfolds on a continuous basis. But « time has only one reality, that of the instant » wrote Bachelard. This instancy of the instant is protean and discontinuous in nature.

This temporal discontinuity emerges from the shadows in the scientific light shed by Albert Einstein’s Theories of Relativity and then quantum physics. « We were woken up from our dogmatic dreams by Einstein’s analysis of objective duration » (II) « Relativity showed us temporal pluralism » (Dialectic of Duration). This pluralism defeats the notion of absolute duration in favour of space-time blocks but not a potential unity of time, as in quantum theory: « “The passage of time is full of knots. And the continuity of the trajectory has been shot to bits by microphysics. Reality is unstable near our abstract markers. Time uses little quanta (minimum amount of physical entity involved in an interaction) to shine.” (DD)

Time becomes an erratic outburst of pockets of energy, and the image of its discontinuity is found within the time being experienced: its proven reality is psychic, emotional, physiological and imaginary.  Memory restores the precious and decisive moments that constitute the life of an individual because these moments have an affective charge: « The chronology of the heart is indestructible. »

As an epistemologist and psychoanalyst of knowledge Bachelard discovers the impact of archaic intuition in the time thought process that has an effect on thought via metaphors of flow and melody that spring from an imaginary source. As a philosopher of existence and ethics, a friend of poetry, the fire of the hearth and the flame of the candle, a man who understands how to give « familiar objects the attentive friendship they deserve », Bachelard thinks that these temporalities give life structure and are disassociated firstly from horizontal time frames, then common time, vertical time and personal time.

Horizontal time is first and foremost the time provided by clocks, the time of social frameworks, habits and all temporality experienced in reference to external unities, social factors (the individual memory building on that of the collective memory), phenomenal aspects (time of things) and vital signs (heartbeats). This discontinuous time is rhythmic in nature: « To last, one must put one’s trust in these rhythms, that is to say systems of instants» (DD), and the life of each individual is relatively hierarchised and rendered stable by these rhythms or a sum total of « discontinuous instants punctured by habits ». This time enchains and decentres itself.  It is good to learn how to rely on it.

Vertical time is the surging up of the instant. This time looks like a mass of potentiated energy. Its moment, which it alone can realise, is a delta into which all opposing, complementary and fraternal forces flow. The threshold of this time, or its ‘open sesame’, is poetry. The poetic moment condenses the verticality of affective ambivalence: hence Baudelaire’s « smiling regret » when there is no causal chronology between the two terms ; their two conflicting affective frequencies prove themselves and join together without destroying each other and raise the consciousness that welcomes them in unison. This time of psychic dynamism achieved in a poetic image is significantly alive in the flame of a candle. The latter illustrates the verticality of time, its dynamics and ambivalence: « The flame of a candle on the table sets all the reveries of verticality in motion. The flame has a robust yet fragile verticality. One puff can disturb the flame but the flame restores itself. An ascensional force restores its prestige. » (The Flame of a Candle).

It is these simultaneous and contiguous times of horizontality and verticality that Bachelard brings together using the metaphors of the hourglass and the candle. He aspires to unite them in imaginary life: “By reproducing for ourselves images of the cell of the meditating philosopher, we can see the same table with its candle and hourglass, two things in a human time frame but how different they are! The flame is an hourglass that flows upwards. Lighter than sand flowing downwards, the flame creates its shape as if time itself has always got something to do. The flame and the hourglass, in peaceful meditation, express the communion between the lightness and heaviness of time. In my dreams, they talk of the communion of time between the anima and animus. I would like to dream about time, the length of time that is elapsing and the length of time that is flying away, if only I could unite the candle and the hourglass in my imaginary cell.” (The Flame of a Candle).

We would like to thank Gilles Hiéronimus, Doctor of Philosophy, author of a thesis of philosophy on Bachelard without the advice, scholarship and selection of quotes from the latter, this article could not have been written.