Air and Dreams (1943) is one of Bachelard's four studies on literary imagination, imagination whose destiny is determined by four fundamental elements. The other three are: The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938), Water and Dreams (1942), and the two "earth" books (The Earth and Reveries of Rest (1946), The Earth and Reveries of Will (1948)). If the reader wants to see Bachelard the philsopher of imagination at work, Air and Dreams may be the best place to start, since it is here that he posits his philosphical positions a little more clearly and explores them in more depth than he does in other works.
To Bachelard, imagination, as a fundamental psychic value, is what makes human freedom possible. To imagine is for our psyche to experience "openness" and "novelty," and in this regard, imagiation and perception--habitual way of seeing things--are antithetical. As he writes in the Introduction: "Imagination allows us to leave the ordinary course of things ... To imagine is to absent oneself, to launch out toward a new life." Such "form of human boldness," however, is never an escapist lapse into fantasy, since to Bachelard the materialist, "the imaginary is immanent in the real" while "in the realm of the imagination transcendence is added to immanence."
Since the advent of psychoanalysis, sickness of normality or normality of sickness in our mental life are taken for granted. Everybody is neurotic, more or less. So, Freudian psychoanalysis is generally credited with revealing the dark recesses of human psyche, giving it the name of "unconscious," and hence with accepting 'unreason' as a strong force in our mental life. But has it explained 'unreason' adequately? Bachelard says no. To him, the blindess of classical psychoanalysis is that it misses the "aesthetic" aspect of dreams. With its essentially rationalizing tendency, psychoanalysis usually turn dreams into a text of symbols, which in turn is made into an array of concepts. Hence, to rational psychoanalysts, dreams of flight always symbolize erotic desires, which can be explained with a variety of conceptual tools made for anayzing human sexuality and its repression.
Limitations of such approach are obvious when we read, for instance, images of flight in Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound" or images of ascending, or conquering vertigo, in Nietzsche. All testaments to a profound and simple life, to the power of imagination as a liberating force, these images have little to do with the poets' voluptuous desires, repressed or not. Indeed, neurosis to Bachelard is essentially a mal-function of imagination. As he notes in the Introduction: "A person deprived of the function of the unreal is just as neurotic as the one deprived of the reality function. It could even be said that difficulties with the function of the unreal have repercussions for the reality function. If the imagination's function of openness is insufficient, then perception itself is blurred."
The chapter on Nietzsche ("Nietzsche and the Ascensional Psyche") would be of particular interest to Nietzsche students. Here we see how Bachelardian attention to imagination can reveal the hidden law at work behind the apparently accidental arrays of literary images. In the case of Nietzsche, his numerous images of conquest and domination, his intoxicated affirmation of will to power, were generally seen as indications of his megalomania, perhaps inevitable but still an uncomfortable aspect of his philosophy. Walter Kaufmann for instance thinks of such element as clearly an expression of Nietzsche's "snobbery" and "infatuation" with domination, which, he is quick to add, are perpetually sublimated and spiritualized. To Bachelard, these images of Nietzsche form an "experimental physics of the moral life," which lets us experience an "accelerated becoming," or "transformation of energy." They are ones that faithfully follow the destiny of Nietzschean soul.
With this tour-de-force chapter on Nietzsche, Air and Dreams has many more magical chapters, chapters on individual poets such as, yes, Shelley, and Poe, and more theme-oriented ones on "sky," "clouds," or "trees." The book can be read as an implicit plea for curing the ills of modernity, and in this sense, would be read fruitfully together with such notable critics of modernity as Adorno, Benjamin, or even Lukacs.