The Future of Beauty: Gaston Bachelard as Guide

Joanne H. Stroud, Ph.D.

How do we begin to define such a vast subject as beauty? Not many of the lectures in the series so far have attempted to define it. Glen Arbery spoke about building up “aesthetic capital”; Fred Turner called beauty the “creator of form” and spoke of evolution as “generative feedback”; Mary Vernon described the artist’s task of one of getting through the blank wall. Maybe a permanent definition of such an ineffable subject would crush it, put an end to it? What we are calling the beautiful–how does it differ from Plato’s definition with which we are all somewhat familiar? We know that beauty has something to do with the true and the good, but that seems a bit cold and distant. I have always considered myself somewhat of a modern Neo-Platonist. For me, beauty can be said to be in the eye of the beholder, but that statement makes it sound like a passive perception. Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder. It is not entirely a subjective, idiosyncratic observation unique to the individual. Some criterions are shared by most. We could probably all agree that the Taj Mahal at sunrise is beautiful.

Our surroundings daily provide us with a cornucopia of beauty-extrinsically in the natural world and in the inner beauty of persons we confront. For me, perceiving beauty is an act of paying attention, directing more than a sensory gaze, giving oneself over to the act of involvement with an object or a person or an experience. Beauty is more than an agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder (Dave Hickey), but pleasure is certainly a component. It is hard to envisage being as taken with ugliness. Although our current art world when it regards a dead pig as anything other than a sensation sometimes seems to be leaning in that direction. In my definition, recognizing beauty that surrounds us involves the circular act of looking, hearing, smelling, intuiting intensely with an open heart, always with the aim of understanding and appreciating at the deepest level the other-ness of the other. The movement is not a trip down a one-way street. Energy returns to us. The round trip of interaction, the proscribing and closing of this circular motion is a necessary component, as a reaction to the experience. In the completion of the movement, the object or person returns our gaze and we are changed, renewed by the encounter. So, recognizing beauty in another or in an event or landscape is a most active, direct way of relating and making connection. The point I want to emphasize is that there is beauty in perceiving a sense of unity and wholeness, in the completion of the invisible circle, in the intuition of an underlying form, or in the discovery of a value, meaning, or purpose. Didn’t Plato say this better?

Surprisingly, beauty can turn up in the most unexpected places. It always carries a flash of recognition and genuine surprise at its ability to cause a clutch at the heart. The act of appreciation of beauty yields a sense of meaningfulness to the most ordinary day. Robert Frost captures this moment of shifting mood in this brief poem, “Dust of Snow”: “The way a crow/ shook down me/ The dust of snow / From a hemlock tree. / Has given my heart/ A change of mood/ And saved some part/ Of a day I had rued.” (Brooks and Warren, 91) Or Ezra Pound, who pictures the shining moment in the brief passing of faces “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of those faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” (Brooks and Warren, 88) In a slightly longer poem William Blake intones: “To see the world/ in a grain of sand/ And heaven in a wild flower:/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,/ And eternity in an hour.” These images take hold in us. Their beauty lingers. As we give ourselves to re-sounding, resonating, with the words of the poet, we enter into this captured beauty.

Here are some similar testimonies. The trappist monk, Thomas Merton writes: “One of the most important-and most neglected-elements in the beginnings of the interior life is the ability to respond to reality, to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things, to come alive to the splendor that is all around us.” (Brussat, 64) Robert Romanyshyn, an Institute Fellow, urges us to “regard the world with soft eyes,” as the painter or poet does “in the spirit of loving wonderment.” An occasion of looking at a painting is more than what we look at “it is also a moment which reflects how we are looking.” He gives this testimony about close observation of a rose: “I saw how a rose so fully desired to be itself that it opened beyond its own boundaries, drinking in the light, becoming pure light itself before its petals would begin to fall away. In that moment, I realized a wonderful secret of the world: that a rose is a flowering of the sun, the light’s way of becoming blossom and seed, odor and color, texture and visibility.” (Temenos 3, p 172) Paul Cezanne invoked Boileau and recited: “Rien n’est beau que le vrai, le vrai seul est aimable.”(Beauty is only in the true, only the true is lovable.) “Nature is not on the surface, it is inside. Colors on the surface show that inside. They show the roots of the world.” (Quoted in Milosz, xvii-xviii)

The world is not simply a wellspring of joy to enjoy passively; it also provides us with motivation and a glorious opportunity to conquer some part of it, Gaston Bachelard would say. Rabindranath Tagore, native of India, a poet, painter, lecturer, and religious mystic and, in 1913, winner of the Nobel prize for Literature believes that even the obstacles we confront are there to challenge us to know more: “All the fetters of attraction in this world are an inducement for our advance.” ( Temenos 2, p.155)

Hear what Tagore writes about the constant proximity of beauty: (in “Who sits Behind My Eyes”). Tagore claims that he cannot acknowledge any division between himself and the universe.

Through the beauty of this universe, through the loveliness of our dear ones, it is God the all-pervading One who is ever drawing us. -Nobody else has the same capacity to pull. To know the Supreme joy through all earthly love, to perceive the visible form of the Exquisite One through the world of beauty is what I call the realization of freedom. This world has enchanted me. In my enchantment I taste the essence of my freedom. (Brussat, 155)

What is so interesting about this statement is that not only for him is the world one of the enchantment of beauty and the place where he confronts the Infinite, but it does not chain him to materiality. It is also where he experiences freedom. He has nostalgia for a time, less mechanically and deterministically oriented than ours, when larger numbers of the populace made the connection with higher realms.

Whether is it the soul or the universe, I see no end to its miracle. By describing a thing just as ‘inanimate’ or as ‘limited’, I cannot push it aside in contempt. Only through what is called ‘limited’, what is ‘visible’ does the Infinite manifest itself-and that is a perpetual source of wonder for me. It is a wonder that I have opened my eyes in this world of land and water, of trees and shrubbery, of birds and beasts, of days and nights, of the sun and the moon, and that I am moving. This world is miraculous in all its atoms and molecules, in its every particle of dust. The fact that our forefathers looked at the fire, the air, the sun, the moon, the cloud and the lightning with a second vision, the way they lived their lives in this inconceivably glorious universe departing with a sense of wonder in their eyes and devotion still intact-every touch of the universe having struck a chord in their heart-lute producing chanting-melodies that were always new-all this touches my soul deeply. (Temenos 2, p.152-53)

What Tagore has written in prose echoes an earlier poem:

I have cast the net of my heart

The entire world is drawing me, pulling me

Into the lap of its love. (157)

Tagore makes it clear that religion finds its source in the beauty of the world: “The way to realizing God-realizing one’s supreme religion –is rather through the path of nearness than that of distance, rather through things definite than indefinite, through things perceptible than by things imagined.”

Louise Cowan, in her lecture here two weeks ago, asks if this could be the definition of beauty:

Could we not maintain, then, that our experience of beauty is the intuition of an invisible realm, a spiritual order that lies behind our experience of the natural world? And can we go on further to say that that spiritual order may be discerned both within things-as their deep immanent core-and as shining on them from a transcendent source?

I was glad to get this quotation exactly from the Institute’s web page, which all of you might want to find if you haven’t

Tagore sums up this sentiment in much the same way as Dr. Cowan, arguing that behind the visible, we see the inner but very real, though invisible realm of spiritual order: “By accepting that which is perceptible we come to realize the Infinite in its true form.”(Brussat,156) So philosophers and poets, both in eastern and western traditions testify that contemplation of the beauty of earthly delight leads to spiritual regeneration.

Frederick Turner, another of our Fellows, speaks about the quality of inexhaustibility, of depth of beauty, possibly because “Beauty always opens up a new space.” (Turner, 5) That new space is also a fresh opening on time, which suggests something of a challenge to eternity about beauty. In its fragility, beauty is a poignant reminder of temporality and the closeness of life and death. And yet something of the eternal enhances beauty’s appeal. This is the paradox, beauty is both a reminder of temporality and a reminiscence of eternity.

I would like to add my voice to this argument. I want to say that beauty is always there for us to see, now and in the future, if we but open our eyes and extend our hearts. But, instead we have been living through a period when ugliness has been valued and beauty considered only decorative or trite, but not sought, not necessary. We have inclined toward that which is only sensational or merely kitsch. What follows then is that we have to keep upping the decibels. We get more and more inured and less and less satisfied with the substitution of a mere bombardment of our senses. I want to argue that beauty is necessary; the soul feels depressed and deprived, even violent without it. And a culture does not survive and certainly will not be long remembered without it. I keep asking what will our legacy be? What monuments of unageing intellect will we leave behind?

Bachelard is a good guide in a difficult time. He always reminds us of the pleasure of seeing the world through they eyes of childhood, not childish, wonder. My childhood wasn’t quite as tranquil as his, but his point is well taken. When we look with the wide open, expectant eyes of childhood instead of with an overlay of cynicism, we are more inclined to experience uninhibited joy. Bachelard can take a simple object-a house, a cave, a nest, for example– and reveal its powers of appeal. His main attention is directed to those vast (incidentally he does a whole meditation on the word “vast”) those vast areas of interest– earth, air, fire and water-those alchemical images that continue to haunt the imagination in actual material engagement or as building blocks of a poem. He calls them “the harmones of the imagination” to give a sense of them as powerful, almost instinctual, certainly visceral stimulants of the imagination. He has tackled each of the elements in separate books-one on water, one on air, two on earth, the first of which we hope to be publishing in the next few months. I’m not sure it is correct form to quote oneself, but here is what I wrote in 1983 as a Foreword to our translation of Water and Dreams:

To read Bachelard’s books on the elements is not to acquire more knowledge, but to change one’s way of looking at the material world. It is a transformation difficult to describe to someone who has not shred the experience. Just as no prose statement captures a poem, no amount of paraphrasing will bridge the gap between one who has and one who has not read his work. Just as we are altered by experiencing Hopkins or Yeats or Rilke, so it is with Bachelard. With a concern for the beautiful, offset by a sense of hearty well-being, Bachelard does illumine a way, a joyous way, to rehabilitate the imagination. We read and return to Bachelard, and each time our imagination expands in a new way. He teaches us to read images centrifugally. He presses our interior space outward, as if moving imaginatively from the center of a flower. Perhaps more appropriate for a book on water would be the image of ripples from a center point, constantly expanding our way of seeing. This consciousness of change, or “felt change of consciousness,” in Owen Barfield’s term is never linear or logically casual. (Bachelard, W&D, viii)

In addition to writing three books on the image of fire, Bachelard wrote a separate one on the attraction of the flame of a candle. Here, his interest is specifically focused on the upward thrust of the flame that invites reverie in a vertical direction. Perceiving the connectedness of all things, of all creatures, is the action of an earthly, horizontal linkage. It is possible to participate in a vertical connection, either upward or lower, a connection which unites heaven and hell. The beauty of the universe can pull one in a horizontal awareness but more often into a verticalizing mode, leading to an invitation to transcendence. Through making an imaginal connection, through an upward vertical movement, we are raised, or we might say, though Bachelard doesn’t express himself this way, our consciousness is raised to a higher realm than our ordinary, practical workaday mode. On this more exalted plane, we sense value and meaning. Hear his words on reverie before a flame:

Among the reveries that make us feel lighter, reveries of height are the simplest and most effective. All upright objects point to a zenith….Living at the zenith of the upright object, gathering reveries of verticality, we experience a transcendence of being. The image of verticality brings us into the realm of values. In communing through imagination with the verticality of an upright object we experience the beneficial influence of lifting forces, we participate in the hidden fire dwelling in beautiful forms, forms assured of their verticality. (Bachelard, F. of a C., 39)

Imagination can be primarily directed in a veritcalizing way or make connection in a more intimate, commonplace horizontal mode. In these contrary movements, images can keep us grounded or take us soaring to the heights of transcendence. Bachelard who loves to use his methods to classify poets, uses this determining scheme with Baudelaire, Lautréamont, and Eluard:

We would thus find new reasons for classifying poets in two large groups: those who live in a vertical, intimate, internal time like Baudelaire, and those who live in a frankly metamorphosing time, swift as an arrow flying toward the limits of the horizon, as do Lautréamont and Eluard. (O.P.I.&R.,35)

We are drawn by the poet into seeing how images connect horizontally up and down or pulled into recognizing the invisible behind the visible. Bachelard quotes the Italian writer, D’Annunzio who reminds us: “The richest events occur in us long before the soul perceives them. And, when we begin to open our eyes to the visible, we have long since committed ourselves to the invisible.” (O. P.I.& R.,16 ) Bachelard sees poetry as a synthesis of human existence.

For me, as well, a poem in and of itself, is a beautiful form, brought into being out of the necessity to interpret the jumble of random experience. It emerges with its sounds and rhythm out of the literary chaos of all possible images and words. Poets, not only in the Romantic periods, not only Keats, have always been the purveyors of beauty and taught us that is truth is beauty and beauty, truth and that is all ye know and all ye need to know. Rilke says: “Beauty is nothing/ but the beginning of terror which we still are able to endure/ and we are so awed because it serenely distains/ to annihilate us.” The classical Greeks always accepted the terrifying power of Aphrodite as a force that not only unveiled the sensual beauty of the physical world but also awakened the soul to its destiny.

Not everything in the world is outwardly beautiful. Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” pleads the cause of recognizing the inner beauty of all living creatures. I’m sure you remember the story of how the Ancient Mariner idylly, unthinkingly, shot the white albatross, the bird of good luck. At that moment his and his shipmate’s good fortune drastically changed. He was forced to wear the white albatross around his neck as punishment. When nature turns against him, the winds die down, all his shipmates die, and he is left in solitary dejection on a ghost ship to contemplate his fate. He looks out upon the slimy creatures of the deep that he had always regarded as ugly. Now he gradually comes to appreciate them as living beings. At the moment that he can see them as beautiful and bless them unawares, his redemption begins.

Beyond the shadow of the ship,

I watched the water-snakes:

They moved in tracks of shining white,

And when they reared, the elfish light

Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship

I watched their rich attire:

Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,

They coiled and swam; and every track

Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! No tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;

And from my neck so free

The Albatross fell off, and sank

Like lead into the sea. (Coleridge, 40)

Beauty is there for our looking, even in some very practical ways. Louise Cowan in her talk connected the ink of the printing of Shakespeare’s sonnet with the preserved beauty of the poetry. Can we find beauty in what often seems the overly mechanical, recently the overly electronic world of the future? The electron itself makes a circle, the symbol of things eternal. Perhaps the connective links have merely been extended. Dr. Gail Thomas in her lecture in the spring connected the whirling, bucky balls of plankton in the seas to the electron.

Robert Sardello in Facing the World with Soul speaks of the unaware, oblivious of one’s surroundings, the usual way of entering a skyscraper and urges us to more mindfulness:

We make a building beautiful when we stop for it, arrest the motion of thoughts, and linger with it, rather than merely using it. A glass tower is not unlike a computer. Both are media whose message is to increase efficiency. To spend time each day giving attention to a technical building where one works is a very unfamiliar gesture toward a thing designed to receive little attention, designed to focus attention on efficient work. The soul work here consists of defamiliarizing it, loosening the web of anesthesia. (Sardello, 43)

How to remember to apply these statements to our fast-paced world that seems so unconcerned with beautiful and forgetful of the sacred in everyday life? Can we imagine that currently the beauty of making connections, even some trite ones, is simply being made in the new medium of cyberspace? I sometimes wonder what Marshall MacLuhan would have said about cyberspace as a medium-is it a hot one or a cold one? I must confess that I do find through e-mail that I stay in touch with far-flung members of my family and friends more frequently than ever before.

I could end this talk with words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin with which I agree: “This world, this palpable world, which we are wont to treat with the boredom and respect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it. Venite adoremus.” (Brussat, 79) In a less homilizing way, I would like to throw out a few irreverent lines of e.e. cummings to the effect that even with all these new-fangled devices we currently are trying to cope with, nothing takes the place of the basics of human nature, so here goes: “While you and I have lips and voices which/ are for kissing and to sing with /who cares if some one-eyed son of a bitch/ invents an instrument to measure spring with?”


Bachelard, Gaston. The Flame of a Candle. Dallas: The Dallas Institute Publications, 1988.

Bachelard, Gaston. Water and Dreams-An Essay On the Imagination of Matter. Dallas: The Dallas Institute Publications, 1983.

Brooks, Cleanth and Warren, Robert. Understanding Poetry. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann. Spiritual Literacy– Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life. New York: Scribner, 1996.

Coleridge, Samuel TaylorThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970.

Hickey, Dave. The Invisible Dragon, Four Essays on Beauty. Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1995.

Milosz, Czeslaw. A Book of Luminous Things-An International Anthology of Poetry. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996.

The Norton Anthology of Poetry. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1983.

On Poetic Imagination and Reverie-Selections from the Works of Gaston BachelardTranslated, with an Introduction by Colette Gaudin. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1971.

Sardello, Robert. Facing the World with Soul. New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1992.

“Temenos Academy Review 2,” Spring, 1999. London: St. Edmundsbury Press, 1999.

“Temenos Academy Review 3,” Spring 2000. London: St. Edmundsbury Press, 2000.

Turner, Frederick. Beauty-the Value of Values. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.

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