Excursus on Bachelard’s The Philosophy of No

Maire Jaanus Kurrik

The classical realistic novel achieved all it could achieve in representing sujectivity in Tolstoy and Eliot where it basically followed the Hegelian model of rational self-development, of a successive creation of the self by negation and identification, self-division and resynthesis. It achieved all that it could achieve for subjectivity by following the Nietzschean model of tragic, dialogic self-development in Dickens and Dostoevsky. Here the novel shed its rational artistry as much as it was able in order to exhibit the tragedy of the unconscious will. Thus the logos of the novel, its aim to make the subject epical, shifts from an emphasis on the self's potential for rational negation to the self's potential for irrational negation. In the one case, the negative movement of consciousness is a consciously stated principle and belief, consciously negated; in the other it is an unstated, unknown, and unconscious principle that surges forth and is discovered. What, however, both these types of novels have in common is the aim to represent the subjective processes as completely as possible and in an order of succession. Hence their long, weighty, and epical structures and the use of repetition to insure that no subjective possibilities have been excluded and that they have formally been presented in a way that makes visible their contrary or contradictory relationships as much as possible.

These structures declare the poetics of the novel to be a poetics of negation issuing out of the novelist's knowledge of the powers of the self's negativity. The artistry and form of these novels have something in common with Bachelard's vision of a "philosophy of no." Bachelard's philosophy of no is a philosophy of affirmation based on the recognition and absorption of all criticisms and negations of a primary model. In its ardor to affirm all, Bachelard's notion is almost Piconian, but in its recognition that that which has to be affirmed is the power and productivity of negation, it is modern.

The essence of Bachelard's philosophy of no and of his balanced, rational, and nonviolent approach to negation is given in this extraordinary passage in which he characterizes the atom of modern physics as:

exactly the sum of the criticisms to which its first representation has been subjected. Coherent knowledge is a product, not of architectonic reasoning, but of polemic reasoning. By means of dialectics and criticisms, surrationalism somehow determines a super-object. This super-object is the result of a critical objectification, of an objectivity which only retains that part of the object which it has criticized. As it appears in contemporary microphysics the atom is the absolute type of the super-object. In its relationships with images, the super-object is essentially the non-image. Intuitions are very useful: they serve to be destroyed. By destroying its original images, scientific thought discovers its organic laws. The noumenon is revealed by dialectizing one by one all the principles of the phenomenon. The diagram of the atom proposed by Bohr a quarter of a century ago has, in this sense, acted as a good image; the there is nothing left of it. But it has suggested "no" often enough so that it keeps its indispensable role as initiatory pedagogy. These "no's" are happily coordinated; they are the real constituents of contemporary microphysics.

(p. 119)

Bachelard sees the superobject of modern microphysics as constituted of the coordinated negations and criticisms of the old model of the atom provided by Bohr. His vision takes cognizance of negation as a pluralizing and multiplicatory force, a power that destroys by splitting and doubling, producing contradictory divergence and ramification. But he also sees surrationalism as a power able "somehow" to turn the polemics into a new sum, a new coordinated superobject. Thus he can speak of the old, destroyed model without regret. Rather he sees Bohr's diagram of the atom as a good model precisely because it was totally negated and nothing is left of it. Negation thus becomes the mode or method underpinning the constitution and creation of new objects in modern science.

There is nothing destructive in Bachelard's view of negation. Unlike Feuerbach and Marx, he does not regard the old model as something false that deserves to be abolished, yet it is abolished and not preserved as it would have been in Hegel. Bachelard argues that a course of polemical negations has to be taken seriously because it is in essence creative.

Broadly, in the nineteenth century the old model which was criticized and destroyed by a varied course of polemical reasoning was a notion of subjectivity based in God. Feuerbach and Marx are only the most outstanding examples of a radical atheistic humanism which achieved the deconstruction and dismantling of this so basic model. Their criticisms, negations, and reductions of God became the models in turn for the criticism and negation of the autonomous self, which was modeled on God and had in a sense attempted to appropriate all of God's attributes and predicates. But what is most important is that the nineteenth-century novelists, who were engaged in the deconstruction and criticism of this old self, practiced an art which took account of all the negations, or which was itself the sum of all the available criticisms and negations. Their poetics of negation stressed and accentuated the negations. They felt their task to be the absorption or reintroduction into their art world of all excluded and mutually contradictory exclusions.

The classical novel's fundamental telos is the absorption of the negativity of its epoch, its doubly ironic and negative approach to God and the self. The novel's negative poetics was an effort to meet the challenges of the negative possibilities of the time. Their negative poetics was, like Bachelard's, an affirmation which accepted negation as a power and reality and which pursued it to try to discover its goal. In Dostovesky preeminently, the connection between the destruction of God (the father) and the self is clearly visible. In some ways, the contemporaneity of the two criticisms was unfortunate. It caused a confusion of the issues, a sense, as in Feuerbach, that the desymbolization of God would constitute man and social communion, or vice versa. On the other hand, the confusion itself pointed to the truth that man had indeed modeled himself on God and together with God for some time. Hence the intense dread of self-loss precipitated here and there by the sheer fact of atheism.

Another question becomes to what extent the novelists managed to create, out of the ironic polemics and dialectical criticisms of selfhood, a new superself. It becomes obvious here that Dorothea Brooke is a new self, engaged in realistic and concrete self-fulfillment with others, but that Eliot does not and cannot present her as a new superself because she has renounced too many aspirations simply to get in touch with herself and because the sphere of her influence is too narrow and insignificant. She is not a new superself because she cannot be represented as a new model. We remember that in her society she became in fact a negative exemplar.

Tolstoy's Levin is also a new self and presented as such, but what undermines his influence and value is that he reaches back to God to support his ego, and that without his irrational ethical faith he is not free from suicide. In Dostoevsky, besides Ivan's attempt at a new selfhood, without God which Dostoevsky sees no way of bringing to realization, there is the somewhat unshapen selfhood of Alyosha. Alyosha, however, remains problematic because he is more like a catalyst for others than a self, a kind of prefiguration of the Freudian analyst with his "hovering attentiveness" and endless ability to listen to others. Also his selfhood is based on an existential practice modeled on Christ. The coordination of the criticisms into a new self is in fact not fully achieved until the birth of Nietzsche's superman, but we can see that all the novelists made efforts in this direction and that the more they succeeded the less they lamented over the old self that was lost or destroyed, over its disillusionment and negativity.

What is important in the novel's poetics of negation is that it manages to teach us to expect negation rather than affirmation. The novel's negative poetics is a break with the perpetual desire to be affirmed and reconfirmed; it alerts us constantly to expect difference. These novelists understood, as does Bachelard, that "above all we must recognize the fact that new experience says no to old experience, otherwise we are quite evidently not up against a new experience at all" (p. 9). The very signs of new experience are contradiction, negation, and the presence of the unknown. The philosophy of no is "the consciousness of a mind which constitutes itself by working upon the unknown, by seeking within reality that which contradicts anterior knowledge" (p. 9). The classical realists, for various reasons that will become clearer later, could not quite risk themselves in the unknown and in uncertainty, as is required by Bachelard's vision, but they all did approach the "zone where the mind thinks hesitantly, where it risks itself outside its own experience" (p. 79), and where it entertains negative possibilities. Or, in their risks, they returned in various ways to God precisely because the unknown, the other, had been defined as God.

Between the time of Johnson's Rasselas and The Brothers Karamazov the novel's tolerance for the unknown (which Johnson feared so absolutely) grew immensely, as is evidenced by its daring to be fundamentally more and more interrogatory. The interrogatory mode of "Why not?" is one the modern scientist must adapt so that despite the absence of an experimental interpretation of negative mass one might, for example, ask:

Why can't mass be negative? What essential theoretical modifications could legitimatize to negative mass? What experimental prospect was there of discovering a negative mass? What characteristic is it which, in its propagation, would reveal itself as a negative mass? In short, theory stands its ground, it does not hesitate to seek the realization of an entirely new concept having no roots in common reality, at the cost of some basic modifications.

(pp. 29-30)

Bachelard's point is that we have found a way of dealing with the "totally unknown," the nonexistent, or nothingness. By our theoretically precise questions we turn the totally unknown into a "precise unknown." "This precise unknown thing is just the opposite of the irrational vague thing to which realism too often attributes a weight, or a function, or a reality" (p. 30). Bachelard's concept of the "precise unknown" as an intermediary concept between the totally unknown and the known is a radically new way of looking at the unknown as such. The approach is nonmystical, scientific, and rational, and yet, because it recognizes man's reason as noumenal, it is in fact "surrational," the term based upon surrealism which Bachelard chose to designate his new concept of the cogito. Surrationalism recognizes both the many negative concepts science has evolved and the fact that their discovery is intimately tied to our recognition of the unknown. A literary analogue to the probing of an unknown is, for example, the discovery of the formless and boundless sublime, the mystery of which was more and more turned into "a precise unknown," until it was coded as an exact experience. No doubt the systematization of this experience in the literature between the time of Kant and Hegel helped to provide a model, in turn, for the new unknown of the unconscious and its increased systematization into a more precise unknown.

Bachelard's surrationalism is an argument for a break with classical logic and "a conversion of the metaphysical values which have been postulated as fundamental" (p. 94). Classical logic, which was "the code for all the rules of normal thought" (p. 98), is no longer acceptable to Bachelard as an absolute logic because although it may work on one level of reality, it can, on another, lead to mere confusion. For example, the law of identity, "What is, is," must be reformulated when we are dealing with biology or the physics of the microobject into the postulate, "What is, becomes" (pp. 99-100). The new cogito must make itself mobile (pp. 91-92) and far more negatively dialectical to apprehend its object. The various formulas of classical logic and their cornerstone, the principle of contradiction, are mere postulates for Bachelard and no longer a priori forms of thought. Our task is to grasp the enlargement of rationalism or the mutation that has occurred in the cogito itself. This mutation was initiated by Hegel's addition to the cogito of negativity.

Bachelard's criticism of our unnecessary domination by classical logic is of course not new, but his particular way of presenting his argument and his vision of negative continuity between the old and the new is particularly applicable to the vision of the nineteenth-century novel. These novelists also avoided the broad error, made for example by Vico, of reading the pluralism and multiplications produced by rational negation as ultimately an inevitable decline and fall into chaos, darkness, and madness. They were aware of the possibility of such a vision—certainly Zosima's exhortation against modern radical individualism reads almost like a Viconian description of the age of man in its final phases—but they were artistically too enamored of and fascinated by the self's negativity to condemn or sum up its secular experience in a perpetual return to nothingness, They continued their explorations—although they knew that the first association with negation was always annihilation and death, and it near second, separation, the fear of being "cut off" or rejected—in order to make this fear and pain of destruction a more “precise unknown.” They brought us face to face with the dilemma inherent in modern pluralism by representing it so completely. Their various technical resolutions show them as struggling with the very options which Bachelard defines. For Bachelard the options are

either to preserve mental unity and regard divergent theories as contradictory (with confidence that the future will decide that at least one of the two theories was false) or else to unify the opposed theories, making appropriate modifications in those rules of elementary reasoning which seem to have become part and parcel of an invariant and fundamental structure of the mind.

(p. 121)

In Eliot certainly, with her final turning to the laws of mutation and development and the consigning of the resolutions of the problems to nature, there is an effort to find and preserve mental unity. But then in Dostoevsky and Dickens we find the approach that Bachelard suggests of juxtaposition (rather than merely superimposition) and complementarity. These allow a veering from one insight to the next and not only contradiction; man, therefore, is not merely the passive subject of evolution but can to some extent influence it by his own awareness. But to do this, one cannot—and these novelists did not—step wholly over into the unknown, the incomprehensible area, or the area that was denied. They remained in touch with what had been, never believing as the negative ontology of Jean Wahl and others does that "negations speak to us of a plenitude of reality situated beyond all negations" (p. 117). Rather negation was for them a strenuously achieved metalanguage, a commentary upon affirmation, by which the ego liberated itself, in fear and anxiety, or first gave birth to itself as an ego. The self ceased living like Adam, in a superego that had to live in a life of affirmations. Conscious negation is as closely tied to the development of the ego and its separation from the superego as unconscious negation is to the life and the development of the id.

SOURCE: Kurrik, Maire Jaanus. Literature and Negation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), excerpt from Chapter 2, “The Novel and the Self's Negativity,” pp. 183-189.

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