Maclean and Bachelard: Words, Water, and Life

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

Norman Maclean, A River runs Through It and Other Stories, 104.[1]

Liquidity is a principle of language; language must be filled with water.

Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams, 192.[2]


Norman Maclean

Those who have read Norman Maclean’s A River runs Through It know that the passage quoted above alludes to conversations between Maclean and his minister father about the very basis of reality. As Christians, they refer to the Book of Genesis, from the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament, which explains that in the beginning of time there was only “spirit” and “water.”[3] They also refer to John 1:1, from the Christian New Testament. This verse reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Thus, Maclean and his father seem to be engaging in the same debate in which so many “Western” philosophers of language have also engaged: is there a physical reality beyond the words that allow us to discuss existence, or is language completely metonymic—is the world made real through language?

I don’t have an answer to such questions, though I do know that most mainstream Europeans and North Americans overlook the immense power and importance of language. Norman Maclean, as evidenced in his famous story, does not. He suggests at the end of A River, in the passage quoted above, that there is a mutually dependent relationship between language and reality: the words are under the rocks, and yet some of the words belong to the rocks.

What is just as important, though, is Maclean’s emphasis upon water. All things “merge” in the running waters of “the river.” Water is thus a metaphor, in Maclean’s mind, for the connections that are made possible in the physical world through the use of words—through language.

A River runs Though It is, of course, something more than mere words. It is both poetry and narrative. Both of these types of language are ideally full of movement. They work against reification. A story moves from beginning to end, and poetry pushes against the rules of language that so often deplete it of vitality. Water, too, is full of movement.

This evening I was pulling some books by Mircea Eliade off a shelf, as I thought about my recent fly fishing trip to Romania. I noticed, one shelf up, a series of books by the influential French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. In these books, Bachelard reflects upon the relationship between language, imagination, and the physical elements. Not being particularly moved by Eliade tonight, I decided to browse through Bachelard’s book on water, which I have not read for many years. I came across the second quote provided in the epigraph to this post.


Gaston Bachelard

In addition to the quote above, Bachelard writes, “Liquidity is, in my opinion, the very desire of language. Language needs to flow.”[4] For Bachelard, poetry – ideal, creative poetry – is the language that best embodies liquidity. He seems to acknowledge that narrative can do so as well.

I think, then, that Bachelard and Maclean share the view that language and reality are mutually dependent. However, the language that gives life to our world is the language of movement. It is narrative and poetry.

Toward the end of Maclean’s book, he describes another conversation with his father. This one has to do with the tragic death of Maclean’s brother Paul:

Once, for instance, my father asked me a series of questions that suddenly made me wonder whether I understood even my father whom I felt closer to than any other man I have ever known. “You like to tell true stories, don’t you?” he asked, and I answered, “Yes, I like to tell stories that are true.”

Then he asked, “After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it?

“Only then will you understand what happened and why.”[5]

Of course, A River is the story that Norman eventually “makes up,” in order to understand the death of his brother. While the book is very nearly autobiographical, Maclean does change certain elements of the actual story his family lived. Perhaps doing so allowed Maclean to give new vitality to his brother.

Now, all of the preceding might be taken as mere ramblings, on my part, about some favorite books and topics. Largely, that’s exactly to what all those words amount. But let me make a final points. Reading authors like Bachelard and Maclean, as different as they are, and looking towards teaching found in texts like the bible and even more commonly in the oral traditions of indigenous peoples, reminds us that language is powerful and important. When used to its full potential, it shapes our worlds, at the very least. So take language seriously. Your life depends upon it.


[1] Norman Maclean, A River runs Through It and Other Stories, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[2] Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, trans. Joanne Stroud (Dallas, The Pegasus Foundation, 1983. Originally published in 1942 as L’Eau e le rêves, essai sur l’imagination de la matiére.

[3] I am using the RSV, simply because it is handy. Maclean, however, tells us that his father was reading the bible in Greek.

[4] Bachelard, 187.

[5] Maclean, 104.

3 Responses to “Maclean and Bachelard: Words, Water, and Life”

  1. rivertoprambles Says:

    I like this intro and analysis of the interweave of language and reality. Thanks for reminding us, too, why Maclean’s story is so important.


  2. Scott Says:

    I have always loved that Maclean quote. Powerful and beautiful! Thanks for the connections with Bachelard. Good stuff!


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