Gaston Bachelard: The Hand of Work and Play

Joanne Stroud, Ph.D.

Why would we care to talk, or even think about the hand, in this set of talks on Work and Play in the City of the Imagination? By concentrating on such a specialized subject, I would like to introduce you to the unique way that Gaston Bachelard approaches being-in-the-world. I was a graduate student in the Psychology department at the University of Dallas when I first read Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which stirred my imagination in an entirely new way. What we were studying was a specific form of psychology/ philosophy called Phenomenology. It means, at least on one level, that we examine with fresh attention how individuals respond to the physical world. Before making generalizations about the complex reactions of anger or even joy, or before describing the physiological manifestations of emotions such as the surging blood in the face of anger or shame, we ask ourselves how we experience each of these moments subjectively. Collette Gaudin, in her Introduction to Bachelard’s On Poetic Imagination and Reverie, recognizes the impact of phenomenology. “In a word, the phenomenological approach is a description of the immediate relationship of phenomena with a particular consciousness; it allows Bachelard to renew his warnings against the temptation to study images as things. Images are ‘lived,’ ‘experienced,’ ‘re-imagined’ in an act of consciousness, which restores at once their timelessness and their newness” (xli).

I remember being somewhat stunned one day when asked by one of my professors a question about the common coffee cup—what it implied about being human. After much pondering, I came up with a few feeble observations, such as, a cup approximates the proportions that a human being can comfortably wrap the hand around. Directing my attention in this way to function and form started my thinking about the relevance and significance of the human hand to the lived world.

The two most expressive features of the human body are probably the eyes and the hands. We are told that the soul is revealed through the expression of the eyes. Think of Beatrice leading Dante upward, traversing the rings of Paradise with her ever-brightening eyes. Next is surely the hand.

Let’s recall for a minute a few of the multiple ways we use our hands to declare ourselves. Think of the Buddha. The extended right hand of the Buddha has a name, Semui-in mudra, which “has the power of giving tranquility and grants the absence of fear.” Buddhism has a whole science of hand positions, with a psycho-symbolism accorded to each finger. We might call it sexist, but the the index finger is considered masculine, independent. The first finger is feminine, patient. Think of the salute to the Roman Emperor (“Hail Caesar”),or to Hitler (“Heil Hitler”). Many other examples of the expressiveness of the human hand in art history come to mind—the Sistine Chapel with God reaching out His hand to convey the spark of life to Adam with his outstretched fingers. The hand of Christ on the beautiful altarpiece at Christ the King Catholic Church has the first two fingers upright.

The hand is an avenue of communication, independent of the verbal medium. The baby points and puts its hands over the eyes or the ears in pre-verbal expression or it claps its hands to convey joy. Have you ever played the hand game ‘Here’s the church and here’s the steeple’? Or the one where you stretch a string and make a cradle’s bow? What we do with our hands can define a complete attitude or our whole relationship to others. Hands are expressive. Think of the thumbs-up or thumbs-down gesture. Having someone rudely flash us the finger is a gesture that is a frequent occurrence on the road. In the Eastern tradition, hands are folded together to acknowledge the other in meeting. In the West, we greet each other or make a deal by shaking hands. We use the hands to say ‘Bye, bye.’ We raise our hands to say we want to speak. We put our hand on the Bible to make an oath. We say: “It’s out of my hands; it’s in the hands of God.” We pray by clasping our hands together. We make the sign of the cross by passing our hands over our heart.

In the Christian litany, Christ sits on the right hand of God, just as we honor a guest by choosing a place on our right hand. For left-handedness, the word in French is gauche, indicating a difference from the usual. Both science and human studies lay emphasis on the hand. For the deaf, sign language is a powerful tool for understanding and communication. Blind people develop a heightened sensitivity in their fingertips as a result of reading in Braille.

A recent study reported in Nature indicates that gesturing with the hand helps people lay out abstract thoughts or recall words. Gesturing isn’t learned. Children blind from birth use hand gestures, even when speaking to other blind children. In this day of advanced electronics, transactions on the New York Stock Exchange are conducted with hand signals. When we hurt, we instinctively put our hands on the spot. The healer too uses the hand to massage or stroke the body. It is through the hands that we are most aware of touching and being touched. Rubbing the hands together generates recuperative heat. We do it to warm ourselves. In experiments at Southwest Medical School, effects of biofeedback can be graphically demonstrated. Through mental concentration on the hands—not by actually rubbing them—their physical temperature can be raised. The fortuneteller looks at our hands to discern our length of life, our talents, and our destiny.

Whether in measurement or play, the hand is a direct means of communication. We say something is ‘close at hand.’ Or we want a handful of berries or a pinch of salt. A horse’s height is measured in hands (4 inches). The clock has hands. We have time on our hands. We take things in hand, show our hand, tip our hand or throw up our hands. Joining hands represents cooperation, solidarity. Many games such as tennis and ping-pong require hand-eye coordination. Most musical instruments require trained use of the hands. Lovers hold hands. The Beatles made famous the song I Want to Hold Your Hand.

Hand words invade our vocabulary. Here are a few examples: We talk of keeping a hand in, ‘many hands make light work,’ ‘idle hands are the devil’s,’ things are hand-made or hand-written. We live hand-to-mouth or receive handouts or hand-me-downs; we can be even-handed, short-handed, underhanded, heavy-handed; or we say ‘I’ve got to hand it to you.’ ‘Hands off!’ or ‘Hands Up!’ gets the point across quickly.

A recent book by Frank R. Wilson, The Hand, gives some stimulating information about the anthropological development of the physical hand. He sees the hand as the key to the evolution of intelligence. He believes the reason why humans developed such large brains lies in the peculiarities of the human hand. Our prehensile thumb allowed us to wrap our hand around a stone and make it a weapon or a tool. Without our fancy mitts, he argues, there wouldn’t have been any point in growing big brains. By profession he is the medical director of the Peter F. Oswald Health program for Performing Artists at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco. He works mainly with musicians who have manual disorders and his book celebrates the importance of hands in our lives today as well as in the history of the species. In a New York Times Review of his book, David Papineau explains, “The current favorite theory of why we grew large brains that distinguish us from our hominid ancestors is that it was for the purpose of gossip.” Less facetiously, the idea is that hominids with enough brainpower to be interested in the psychology of others had a great advantage once social cooperation became the norm. Another rather older answer to the evolutionary conundrum is that the biped stance we adopted when we left the trees allowed for a wide range of flexible behaviors. Wilson accepts that both of these theories played a part, but he insists that neither would have made any difference were it not for the special structure of our hands” (N. Y. TimesBook Review by David Papineau).

For Gaston Bachelard, the French Philosopher of Science at the Sorbonne in the nineteen thirties, the hand defines the human being as no other physical part of the body. He says that “The hand and not the eye alone has its own reveries and poetry” (Earth . . .IV,7). Here I need to introduce Bachelard’s particular definition of reverie, which he regards as being far more vital to imagination’s activity or to psychic balancing than the nocturnal dream. In his Poetics of Space, Bachelard says that “The daydream is less insistent than the night dream” (36). The sense of the “I” is never lost. Reverie for me is that time in the morning when I don’t jump immediately out of bed. I can’t remain awake long enough at night. When half-dozing, if I can refrain from making lists of things that I need to accomplish, I try to be an observer of the images that flow through my semi-conscious state. Reverie is a playful time for Bachelard where one can approximate the state of wonder that we experienced in childhood. Such moments are very restorative to the psyche because we are momentarily “liberated from the gear-wheels of the calendar.”

In exquisite detail Bachelard explains how we fall asleep: “After the relaxation of the eyes comes the relaxation of the hands, for they too come to reject objects” (Right to Dream, 155). The hands, those seekers of work during the day, relax at night. Indeed relaxation of the hand is a requisite if we wish to sleep: “When we bear in mind that the whole specific dynamism of the human being is digital, it follows inescapably that oneiric space unfolds as and when our knotted fists unclench themselves”(Right to Dream, 155). Digital here does not refer to anything mathematical.

One of the aspects of Bachelard that I most appreciate is his acceptance of human anger not as a liability but often as a spur to action. Tantalizingly, he says “To imagine a fist clenched for no reason would be a dishonor to the high drama of ANGER, a blemish on the image of invincibility.” For Bachelard, “Always anger is a revelation of essential being. In anger one feels reborn, renewed, called to new life.” Anger is energy potential.

Bachelard honors the entire spectrum of what it means to be a human, foibles and all. He makes us aware of nuances of soul that we have always taken for granted and persuades us to look at the world anew, with the innocent and wondering eyes of a child.

Bachelard has an almost reverential attitude toward the imagination. He would agree with Blake’s statement that “The imagination is not a state; it is human existence itself.” He considers the imagination not only the source of pleasure and satisfaction, but also more importantly the primary source that stirs and vitalizes our actions. Often the mind, which is needed for accomplishing goals, and imagination are at odds with each other. “Satisfying the mind so often means doing violence to the imagination,” he argues. He urges us to give imagination full play, to allow ourselves to enjoy the jolt of joy that imagination stimulates before plotting how to effectuate any plans. We are most happily productive when physical action, work, and the images of reverie coincide. Then we can mold the world to our inner model. We can get a grip on it.

For Bachelard, imagination is the galvanizer of will and supplies the energy to take action: “Where the imagination is concerned, if one is to feel strong one must feel all-powerful. Reveries of will to power are reveries of will to be all-powerful.” He illustrates this point by referring to Greek mythology. “To study the labors of Hercules as dynamic reveries, as images of primordial will, serves to cleanse one’s core being almost as effectively as if one had been literally cleansed. To imagine effort in lyrical terms, to dress up efforts conjured in imagination in all the splendor of legendary imagery, is truly to harmonize and to condition one’s entire being and to do so without privileging one set of muscles over another as is usually the case with a physical workout” (Earth . . .26-27).

The possibilities of what the hand can accomplish prompt us to engage in activities of the world and to dream that we can conquer whatever is necessary. The capable hand gives us confidence that we can overcome any difficulties. We think, “I can hand-le that.” To handle something is to get control over it. Bachelard insists that “everyone who labors dreams a cosmic dream” (The Right to Dream, 60). The world presents jobs waiting to be done. The destiny of work is present in our bodies. Bachelard alludes to the clenched fist, which is linked to toil and needs toil, as “the digital will…a will to build” (71). Being endowed with a hand, we can dream of holding the world in it. There is a song about God having the whole world in his hand, isn’t there?

Dreams of power begin to form in the imagination. These reveries move toward the strengthening of the personality or toward aggressive action in the world. The power of the will is first brought into play when faced with matter to be taken in hand. We can use the hand to fashion a tool to weed the garden, or a tool to strike an enemy. In our prehistoric past, a “simple stone clutched in the fist [had] accentuated human cruelty, forming the first weapon, the first mace.” True to the power of the imagination, what the hand can use for defense can also be used for eliminating some of the toil from work. “Hammer and club embody the opposition of good and evil…. With the hammer was born an art of shortsharp, blows of forcerapidly delivered, making possible the precise implementation of desire” (E&RW, chap 6, p 1). “But the day came when a stone hammer was used to cut other stones, indirect thoughts prolonged indirect thoughts, stirred to life in the brain, intelligence and courage, formulating together an application of energy with work—work against matter—the immediate benefit.” Bachelard extols the benefits of work to liberate the restrictions or limitations, what we might call the hang-ups in the psyche. He recommends the efficacy of “Striking blows against troubles and annihilating them” and adds “Work is its own therapy, with benefits that carry deep into the life of the unconscious (E&RW, chap 6, p 9)” “The worker is elevated into regions where will is liberated from obsessive primal impulse” (E&RW, chap 6, p 6-9).

It is Bachelard’s reverence for matter that distinguishes his approach, his unique methodology. The attention he calls to the physical world causes us to observe it more keenly, to heed it more acutely, and to honor it. He contradicts the scientific view that often dismisses matter as inanimate, an attitude which was more prevalent in the first half of the twentieth century, insisting that matter is totally alive with statements such as “The meadow is a mantle of greenery.” Bachelard is most familiar to literary critics in this country. In writing a Preface to the book that the Institute is currently close to publishing, Earth and Reveries of Will, I wondered why environmentalists haven’t latched onto Bachelard. He is not interested in large-scale projects to save the planet, but his regard for material substances inspires one to care for the cosmos. Metaphysically we might say he is concerned with the energizing and in-spiriting of matter. His earliest foray into the studies of imagination involved analyzing, even psychoanalyzing the four classical material elements—earth, air, fire and water—which he called “hormones of the imagination.” “Material elements reflect our souls; more than forms, they fix the unconscious, they provide us with a sort of direct reading of our destiny.” In describing his approach, Gaudin says, “The audacious idea of psychoanalyzing elements drew immediate attention to the originality of Bachelard’s research” (xxxvii).

In his first book on earth, Earth and Reveries of Will, Bachelard takes up the images of various material substances that challenge us to engage with the world. “Rocks teach us the language of hardness.” Rocks and other hard substances “serve as educators of the will.” Bachelard quotes Gerhardt Hauptmann, a German poet, to accentuate his point that the hand is more than an appendage—the hand wants to accomplish tasks:

I feel it in my arm – ‘tis hard as steel;

And in my hand, that, as the eagles claw,

Clutches at empty air and shuts again,

Wild with impatience to achieve great deeds.

Gerhardt Hauptmann

Here is one from Gabriel Audisio:

Thank you for your lessons in hatred and vengeance.

I’ll make myself harder than your clenched fists.

Gabriel Audisio

At the opposite end of the scale of hardness from rocks, Bachelard calls attention to the image of “pate,” to which he gives a very broad meaning. Pate represents any malleable matter: “dough, clay, molten metal; it acquires the value of a central and direct metaphor of imaginary life” (Gaudin, 80). Pate is not only an example of material combination (earth and water); it also provides the paradigms of reverie and spiritual life. “The space in which the dreamer is immersed is a ‘plastic mediator’ between man and the universe” (Poetics of Reverie 144). “While provoking our creative energy, [pate or any of these mediums] also stimulates our consciousness and thus gives rise to an intense happiness.” These malleable substances offer the physicality of a hand the glorious opportunity to mold matter to human dimensions. For Bachelard, there is a truism “linking liberation of the soul to work” (7).

Bachelard is sometimes criticized, and I would agree, for using poetry out of context as examples merely to prove his thoughts about images. Generally, he disregards the whole poem but just lifts pieces from literature to emphasize his points. Nevertheless, Bachelard has the greatest regard for the poet and for poetry as a conveyor of life’s meaning. “The poet helps us to discover destinal forces.” In other words, the poet leads us in a teleological way to follow our unique star. The poem opens up a special place for us, one where we are enraptured by being temporarily out of casual time. “Everything, in short, that loosens the ties of causation and reward, everything that denies our private history and even desire itself, everything that devalues both past and future is contained in the poetic moment.” Listen to some of his glowing words about poetry. “Poetry demands a prelude of silence. The poetic moment possesses metaphysical perspective. We have here neither the spirited masculine time that thrusts forward and overcomes, nor the gentle submissive time that weeps and regrets, but the androgynous moment. The mystery of poetry is androgynous.” Bachelard has a lyrical tone in all that he writes. Gaudin claims that Bachelard “writes poetry on poetry.”

I can never complete any paper without at least one reference to the poet William Butler Yeats. I may be accused, like Bachelard, of nipping poetic images out of context just to back up my point, but when I think of hands, I think of the amusing turn that Yeats takes in this poem, “Broken Dreams.” His life long love for the beauty of Maude Gonne was legendary. He often compared her to Helen of Troy. In another place he speaks of her as “the woman Homer sung.” But here he remembers her hands as her one flaw:

You are more beautiful than any one,
And yet your body had a flaw;
Your small hands were not beautiful,
And I am afraid that you will run
And paddle to the wrist
In that mysterious, always brimming lake
Where those that have obeyed the holy law
Paddle and are perfect. Leave unchanged
The hands that I have kissed,
For old sake’s sake.
The last stroke of midnight dies.
All day in the one chair
From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged
In rambling talk with an image of air:
Vague memories, nothing but memories.

The Poems of Yeats, “Broken Dreams” p.154

It may seem that I have favored the image of the hand at work more than at play, but Bachelard would insist on the interchangeability of the two—that work is really play when imagination is fully engaged. Finally he insists that “Every hand is an awareness of action.” (The Right to Dream, 53). What I want to mention is that you, the patient audience, are now most likely ready to use yours for action, to put your two hands together and use them to signal the end of this talk.

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