Why the Tortoise Lost

John Sturrock

In the years before 1914, the open lectures that Henri Bergson gave at the Collège de France were the prototype in intellectual chic for the barnstorming Parisian ‘seminars’ of Jacques Lacan in the Sixties and Seventies, even if the topics that the fashionable came to hear were as dry as the lecturer’s podium manner: ‘The Evolution of Theories of Memory’, ‘Theories of the Will’, ‘The Nature of Mind and Its Relation to Cerebral Activity’. Women especially took to Bergson, and in such numbers that displaced students complained at being unable to get into the lecture-hall, asking that the too popular professor should move to somewhere more spacious, the Paris Opéra perhaps. When, in 1914, he was elected to the Académie Française, there was a run on the local flower-shops and the dais was fragrant with the bouquets of his admirers. Bergson was appalled: ‘I am not after all a ballerina,’ he declared, a rare disclaimer for a philosopher to have an opportunity to make.

Bergson had none of the unholy conceit or boisterous presence of a Lacan. His photographs make him look small, camera-shy, every muted inch a senior pedagogue of the Third Republic. He had come to a decision early on in his life to be ‘grave et sérieux’, something that his father had rather embarrassingly not been. Michaël Bergson was a musician, born into a wealthy Jewish family in Warsaw and at one stage a pupil of Chopin’s. After leaving Poland, he played, composed and taught music, but was too errant a character to make the living that he should have done. In 1859, the year of Henri’s birth, an opera of his was done in Paris, with a proverb for a title: Qui va à la chasse perd sa place, or ‘Who goes off hunting loses his place’ – can this have been the sung version of the composer’s own less than focused life? Ten uncertain years later, the Bergsons chose to emigrate, to London, a move organised most likely by Mme Bergson, who was Irish-Jewish and the daughter of a Yorkshire doctor. The ten-year-old Henri, however, did not go with them. He was left behind in Paris, for good, and for reasons that Philippe Soulez and Frédéric Worms do strangely little to explain, beyond speculating that a boy who had already given proof of being exceptionally intelligent was cast adrift as a hostage to the future, with the dynastic responsibility of making good in the place where his father had failed: too cruel an explanation to be the case, let’s hope. Whatever the real reason for his desertion, the curious thought occurs that in a kinder way of things Bergson might have grown up to be a British, not a French philosopher, except that as a young Jewish boy in Victorian England he might not have found his education coming to him as easily or as triumphantly as it did in Paris, where ten years later he finished second of his year in the agrégation, one place ahead of his rival and classmate, the future Socialist strongman Jean Jaurès.

By the standards of the day, this new Life is impressively unrevealing on its subject’s private life, its authors finding so little to go on archivally that they had no alternative but to fall in with Bergson’s own insistence, in a few lines of guidance he offered to potential biographers in the Thirties, that a Life contain only the barest personal details. He stands with R.G. Collingwood, the author of a robustly unforthcoming autobiography, in wanting the story of his life to be the record of his thought; no Nietzschean nonsense in this case of the life merging with the oeuvre to make an enthralling whole. Bergson, unlike Nietzsche, was untempted by publicity, which is why he never became, in the Sartrian definition of the role, an intellectual. He didn’t think that his preeminence in philosophy gave him a title to impose his opinions on questions that were not philosophical. He took no public part at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, for example, if perhaps on that occasion out of a fear that, French from birth though he was, and not a naturalised Polish Jew, he felt insufficiently assimilated to risk coming out as a Dreyfusard. Later, he justified these silences on the ground that he had no philosophical ‘system’, no ‘general principle from which I deduce consequences and which enables me to answer any question at all on any subject’. Where politics was concerned, he claimed to be no more and no cleverer than a ‘voter’, his views being formed from what he had read in the newspapers, not from some esoteric process of abstract thought. Ironically, as we shall see, this refusal to take sides or be seduced into transient polemic, was to lead to Bergson being involved in politics at an altitude such as no mere ‘intellectual’ could ever have aspired to.

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