In Le Monde des livres, the Friday book review supplement to Le Monde (Paris), Roger-Pol Droit sees signs of a renaissance of interest in the work of Henri Bergson, whose key concept -- some would say discovery -- was durée. -- Bergsons The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, mentioned in this review, with its analysis of religion and the fundamental problems of war, peace, and political life, offers valuable perspectives in our own time of religious revival, war, and political upheaval....
[Translated from Le Monde des livres (Paris)]
BERGSON: THOUGHT IN MOTION
By Roger-Pol Droit
** Several books are engaged in rediscovering Henri Bergson (1859-1941), seeing in his work the starting point of a sort of philosophic revolution; Henri Bergson does not build a system: he sees in systems a philosophical illness, a lessening of thought **
Le Monde des livres
November 12, 2004
[Review of three books: Frédéric Worms, Bergson ou les deux sens de la vie ['Bergson and the Two Meanings of Life'] (PUF, "Quadrige," 360pp., 15 euros); Frédéric Worms, ed., Annales bergsoniennes II: Bergson, Deleuze, la phénoménologie [Bergsonian Annals II: Bergson, Deleuze, Phenomenology'] (PUF, "Epiméthée," 534pp., 35 euros; Jean-Louis Vieillard-Baron, Bergson: La Durée et la nature ['Bergson, Duration and Nature'] (PUF, "Débats philosophiques," 168pp., 13 euros).]
There is something about Bergson that is very clear, very well-defined. A sort of absolute simplicity in his gaze, and in his sentences. He is no doubt the philosopher the furthest removed from the artifices of speech and the contortions of language. This aspect of his work was deliberate; he formulated it in these terms: "There is no philosophical idea, however deep and subtle, that cannot be and ought not to be expressed in ordinary speech." His contemporaries were not mistaken about this clarity of thought and expression. "In Bergson, there is no back-of-the-shop, bric-à-brac stuffiness," wrote William James, while Charles Péguy considers him simply as "the man who reintroduced spiritual life into the world."
This does not mean that he is easy to understand! The first paradox of his work: constantly clear in his expression, terribly difficult in his positions. Bergson speaks clearly, his prose is smooth, even velvety. What he says remains, despite everything, extremely difficult to grasp. For the problem is that "grasp" is not the right word. In publishing, in 1889, Les Données immédiates de la conscience ['The Unmediated Data of Consciousness'], it is not some conceptual novelty that Bergson brings. He is not proposing more efficacious intellectual tools with which to take hold of reality, class it, and manipulate it. He is, rather, offering an invitation to find in ourselves the very movement of life, its pure mobility. A matter not of pure theory, but of direct experience, intuition, subtle attention to inner experience.
What he thus discovers and invites all readers to experience for themselves is what Bergson calls durée [generally translated, inadequately, as 'duration']. This has nothing to do with clockmaker's time, the uniform succession of equal instants. This objective time, whose gaps we measure and whose distances we calculate, is merely space. By thinking of time in a spatial mode, we miss what is essential. Durée, our lived time, is something utterly different. Not only because that subjective time speeds up or slows down according to our emotions, our state of excitedness or boredom. Above all, this inner movement, which is the very motion of our consciousness, is expectation. "We must wait for the sugar to melt," said Bergson at the time, long past, when people drank sugar water. . . . To say that we must wait, whether for the sugar to melt or the bus to arrive, is to recognize that the inner motion animating the reality that we are living can be neither suppressed, nor avoided, nor overcome in any way. Mathematicians may conceptualize with indifference the bus arriving in the next second, or three years, or a thousand years from now . . . the calculations will be different, that's all. It's very different in reality, when one is waiting, with nothing in durée being reversible or capable of being suppressed.
The distinction between durée and space is the discovery from which Bergson never ceased to take as his point of departure, although in each book he undertakes to treat a new subject. Whether it is a question of the relation of body to mind (Matière et Mémoire ['Matter and Memory'], 1896), of the power of life (L'Évolution créatrice ['Creative Evolution'], 1907), of mysticism (Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion ['The Two Sources of Morality and Religion'], 1932), each of Bergson's works derives from this experience of innerness.
Yet this philosopher did not build a system: he saw in systems a philosophical illness, a lessening of thought. Another difficulty: if there is no accumulation, return or reliance possible between two works, there is, however, a movement that links the four books together. How can this be described? Frédéric Worms offers, in a fine, precise reading, an extremely useful investigation into the complex unity of Bergson's work as a whole, but also of the centrality of Bergson in contemporary French thought. A reading of the second volume of the Annales bergsoniennes, a collective work under the direction of the same researcher, is equally convincing on this point.
Indeed, in the latter volume, in addition to an unpublished lecture given at the Collège de France, typed up for Charles Péguy, we find there an unpublished lecture by Gilles Deleuze given at the École normale supérieure of Saint-Cloud in 1960. At the time, Deleuze had already published a text on Bergson that Merleau-Ponty had asked him to write and had not yet written his book Le Bergsonisme ['Bergsonism'] (PUF, 1966). It is fascinating, for those interested in the history of thought, to see how Deleuze assembles "his" Bergson, retaining his movement and fluidity, but evacuating individual consciousness of any possibility of transcendence. Comparison of Deleuze's lecture with Canguilhem's, on the same text by Bergson (chapitre III of L'Évolution créatrice), allows one to see to what extent very different approaches to this body of thought, which is also a product of the "1900 moment"(1), have divided between themselves the twentieth century.
To grasp in another fashion that which Deleuze transforms, whether deliberately or not, one can read the critical remarks of Jean-Louis Vieillard-Baron in a series of studies that he has coordinated on durée. The author of several works on Bergson, Vieillard-Baron, too, allows one to see, in a little volume that is short but quite complete for one of its kind, how "the intuition of durée" is the "royal road" in all of Bergson's thought. "This durée, which science eliminates, how difficult it is to conceive and express it -- one feels it, rather, and lives it," wrote Bergson in La Pensée et le mouvement ['Thought and Movement'].
Bergson's effort, then, consists in thinking everything in the very movement of durée, in bringing the questions, and our very way of asking them, out of the static frame established long ago. This manner of giving thought over to surprise, to the possible emergence of the unforeseeable, is obviously upsetting and disconcerting. Bergson, lucid as always, simply asserted: "The truth is that philosophy has never candidly admitted the continuous creation of unforeseeable novelties." Let us hope that it will undertake to do so -- as seems, in fact, to be coming about.
(1) Le Moment 1900 en philosophie ['The 1900 Moment in Philosophy'], edited by Frédéric Worms (Septentrion, 424pp., 23 euros).
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, Washington 98447-0003
Web page: http://www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/