In praise of bricolage

I've given up trying to translate the marvelous French word bricolage, sometimes rendered as "tinkering". It's about putting together bits and pieces on a whim, rather than approaching a project as a solid, stolid work of engineering. It's about following oneiric logic rather than plans and structures.

     Claude Lévi-Strauss,who made the word at home in French, found that this approach is central to the making of myths and the workings of "the savage mind". In his celebrated book La pensée sauvage he observed that the bricoleur employs "devious means". His game is "always to make do with whatever is at hand, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions."[1]

     Found objects, junk shops, storage basements, words overheard from strangers...these are materials for bricolage. So are your journals. I love to go through old journals plucking out curious and shiny things and arranging them on fresh pages. I was encouraged to learn that this was a regular practice for Thoreau, a dedicated journal keeper. He liked to forage through old journals plucking out promising bits and pieces - observations in nature, quotes from his reading, dreams and reflections. He copied excerpts and married them up as fresh drafts. It became his habit “to work back over his journals…to reengage old subjects in the light of new interests, to revise and recopy his own earlier journal work,measuring, weighing, culling and sorting his materials…taking up earlier threads, reweaving and combining them.”[1]

     For any writer, as for Thoreau, it opens treasuries of material and above all it supports the writing habit. Playing around with old notes removes the terror of the blank page. When you dip into an old journal, you are never at a loss for a theme. The simple processes of selection, arrangement and retitling will fire the imagination. Before you know it, you’ll be in the midst of writing something new. However, the practice of journaling from journals is not only for writers. It is a marvelous tool for self-observation, for life navigation, and for constructing a personal encyclopedia of symbols.  

     Ah, but what is best is the pure bricolage. I might start working through old journals with a specific agenda, using the search engine to pull up items from my digital files, arranging materials in orderly folders, setting production schedules. Then I am distracted or enchanted by a note I made after a concert:

Barber's Adagio for Strings: The sad and lovely waves of sound carried me effortlessly into vision: of an island in the mist, of the grace of swimming swans, and the loneliness of a solitary swan, of a bright winged being towering above the many-colored waters. Meeting me halfway in the crossing, the swan prince made me know what is required to be enfolded in his knowing. I remember how Aengus, dream god and love god, took the form of a swan.

or a quote that stuns me awake:

Plotinus on the personal guardian: "“Our guardian is the power immediately superior to the one we exercise, for it presides over our life without itself being active…Plato truly said that ‘we choose our guardian’, for, by the kind of life that we prefer, we choose the guardian that presides over our life.’

or a dream of any kind, calling me into fields of memory, mystery and delight:

The Thumbelina Exchange: A young woman has mastered the art of entering another universe by becoming incredibly small.This may have been intentional; she may have wished herself out of her life situation, at least for a fling. Not clear if she is able to return at will.

Soon the pleasure of simply playing with my finds as they come up and come back, takes over. I forget my agendas, and play with the pieces that catch my eye, arranging and fitting them together without expecting them to snap into prearranged place like a jigsaw puzzle. I don't count on it, I don't try to program it, but I am open to finding again that it is in these moments of dickering and tinkering and playing without thought of consequences that fresh and unexpected creation bursts through, as I once saw an apple tree rise from an abandoned core in a heap of compost.  


1. Claude Lévi-Strauss, La pensée sauvage (Paris: Plon, 1962)

2. Robert D. Richardson Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986)