Soft Matter: The Valorization of Mud 04

Soft Matter: The Valorization of Mud 04


From Earth and Reveries of Will 泥土與意志的幻想

By Gaston Bachelard 巴舍拉

Translated by Springhero 雄伯


Continuing our study of unpleasant matter, we will now attempt to characterize, from the point of view of the material imagination, a work of literature that contains great psychological truths. In Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre presents a character, Roquentin, who exemplifies with unusual clarity a certain psychological type. This character serves to distinguish between a psychological originality profoundly rooted in the unconscious and the contrived originality found in woks of secondary novelists.

One discovers, if one reads enough, that novelists imbue their heroes with numerous contradictions, in the belief that they will appear “ life-like” by means of gratuitous inconsistencies. But contradictions do not necessarily produce ambivalence. A contradiction not rooted in ambivalence remains a mere psychological incident.




Sartre, on the other hand, develops his psychological novel by following the opposite course, proceeding from ambivalence to contradiction. He presents a character who, in the realm of the material imagination, cannot attain “ solidity,” and consequently can never maintain a firm position in life. Roquentin is sick even in the realm of material images, that is to say even in his attempt to establish a viable relationship with the substance of things. He attributes contradictory qualities to the essence of things because he himself is divided by ambivalence as he approaches them.




We can see this ambivalence play out precisely in Roquentin’s imagery of the consistency of objects. In a single paragraph, Sartre shows the hero of Nausea in the process of gathering  “chestnuts,” : old rags,” and, later, “ heavy and sumptuous papers, probably soiled by excrement. Yet Roquentin recoils from contact with a pebble on the beach—a pebble washed clean by the sea! The conventional responses of attraction and disgust are here reversed. This material inversion excites irregular, and as a consequence passionate, concern. Unpleasant material suffices to make an unhappy man conscious of his unhappiness.




We must observe that what the writer describes sequentially, in obedience to the ineluctable law of narrative, he imagines simultaneously. Many signs betray this art of simultaneity that gives life to the Sartean hero. Here, at the slightest hint of infantile behavior, the mature personality resurfaces. Roquentin is childish in his reactions.

His ambivalent feelings of attraction and repulsion come into play even in the case of dirt’s temptations. As he is about to pick up the above-mentioned papers, almost buried “ beneath a crust of mud,” Roquentin tells us in his own words: “ I bent down, already rejoicing at the touch of the fresh tender pulp which I thought to roll between my fingers into grayish balls But I could not.”




It should come as no surprise, then, that one so painfully sensitized to the material drama of uncleanliness should also have a reaction to tactile contact normally considered innocuous.




Objects can’t touch us because they aren’t alive. We use them and we put them back in their places; we live in their presence; they are useful, nothing more. But they touch me and I find it unbearable. I fear contact with them as though they were living creatures. Now I understand; I recall better what I felt the other day at the seashore when I held the pebble. It was a sort of sweetish sickness. It was so unpleasant! And it came from the stone, I’m sure; it passed from the stone into my hand. Yes, that’s it, that’s just it—a sort of nausea in the hands.



Nausea in the hands! A crucial phrase for a psychology of unpleasant substances, for a theory of the manual imagination of weakened hands. Such hands, which perhaps have not been given a clear task to accomplish at the proper moment, nor a pleasant substance to work with, rarely succeed in coming to terms with the material world. Before anything slightly insidious or shifty, the separation between subject and object is poorly realized, the toucher and the thing touched are blurred, the one too slow, the other too yielding. The World is my Nausea, a Sartrean Schopenhauer might claim. The world is glue, pitch, paste—always too pliant; a dough that softly kneads the kneader, and whispers to the hand the material absurdity that it should loosen its grip, renounce its labor.





Soft Matter: The Valorization of Mud 04


From Earth and Reveries of Will 泥土與意志的想像

by Gaston Bachelard 巴舍拉

Translated by Springhero 雄伯



Earth and Reveries of Will by Gaston Bachelard

Translated by Springhero 雄伯


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