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.

His whole oeuvre takes place at altitude indeed, in mountain air that does wonders for the lungs in these reptilian philosophical times. Bergson may not have had a ‘general principle’ qualifying him to perform as a public oracle, but he had one as a metaphysician, He is the one philosopher this century to have earned an -ism: Bergsonism is a headword to this day in our dictionaries. That it is so is a proof first, that his thought was at one time fashionable, and second, that it is, very strikingly, all of a piece, so that the Bergson who writes about laughter is recognisable right away, by the directions in which his thought runs, as the Bergson who writes about Evolution. He did not write so very much: only seven books in all, in the 45 years between 1889 (Les Données immédiates de la conscience) and 1934 (La Pensée et le mouvant). When he was told he should publish more, his answer deserves today to be e-mailed to every academic work-station: ‘One is never obliged to write a book.’ (Jacques Derrida, are you listening?) The figure whom Bergson meant never to be was the one he called homo loquax, who by lapsing into speech or print without good cause debases the currency of useful thinking. In the terms of his own philosophy, language is a necessary evil, because the stability of its forms misleads people into assuming a corresponding fixity in the – in truth, unceasingly mobile – phenomenal world to which language refers. He anticipates Derrida, though without dwelling on it, in opposing the iterative nature of language, with its illusory powers of arrest over the temporal process, to the real unrepeatability of passing time. Sadly, Bergson’s sparingness in the matter of language perished with him. He died in 1941, just when Jean-Paul Sartre, homo loquax made flesh, was launching unscrupulously out on the seven hundred pages of L’Etre et le néant. And, fresh from reading Bergson, I find it frustrating that his sociable brevity, and the even more sociable clarity that went with it, should have been so quickly and comprehensively displaced as a discursive ideal by the plethoric language-games of the Heideggerians.

So clear did Bergson always insist on being that even the mundane audiences at the Collège de France may well have understood what they heard there; in which case, they should on leaving have felt themselves to be happier as well as more enlightened participants in the natural order than they were on entering. For Bergson is that now prelapsarian thing, someone who believes that Evolution, or Life, or the Universe, or God, is proceeding on overwhelmingly creative and, on balance, encouraging lines. Change is the law of laws and has been from the start (supposing there needed to be one), change not in the slow realisation of some preordained plan – Bergson is not a finalist – but as a transcendent, suprarational force whose effects are to be observed in ‘the continuous elaboration of the absolutely new’. The absolutely new may not always be what we would absolutely have wanted, but then to pass topical and partial judgment on the Life-process as a whole is beside the point. There’s no take it or leave it about Bergson, who is adept at showing how leaving it is actually another, lesser way of taking it. He argues, for instance, that Evolution, taken as a whole, can not be ‘accidental’, because it is inevitable, even if specific changes that occur along the way may be seen, vacuously, as ‘chance’ occurrences – ‘vacuously’ because ‘chance is an intention that has been emptied of its content.’ Stubborn notions that things must occur either by accident or by intention start to dissolve as one gets further into Bergson, who is wonderfully good at overstepping what until now seemed like immovable dichotomies.

He was thinking in evolutionary terms from the start of his life in philosophy when, as a young lycée teacher in Angers, he edited a volume of extracts from Lucretius. In his Commentary there, he draws attention in passing to similarities between the views of Lucretius and those of Darwin, of the Epicurean atomist and the Victorian ‘transformationist’. What was mainly wrong with atomism for Bergson was its belief that the total number of atoms of which the cosmos is made is fixed, so that all that happens over time is that the stock is rearranged. A physics like this, of a cosmos doing no more than literally mark time, was not good enough for Bergson, for whom time is by definition creative, so that as it passes it also adds to the stock of what there is, not least by increasing the stock of what there has been, whose continued existence is underwritten by its ability to inflect our actions in the present. Bergson’s whipping-boys are the determinists, the Laplacians who in their mathematical vanity believe that the atomic state of the Universe at a given moment is hypothetically calculable from a complete knowledge of its state at a given moment before. Even an élite of Lucretius’ atoms, however, were allowed to enjoy a small bid for freedom, by making a wilful ‘swerve’ away from their appointed course; but this concession is a poor thing compared with the wholesale unpredictability by which Bergson lays the greatest store. Indeed, so strong and subtle a proponent is he of a radical indeterminacy, it is surprising that he has not had more of a revival as a thinker in the quantum age.

Bergson’s indeterminacy is bound up with consciousness, and he uses the freedom of action that he sees us as having gained with the evolution of the nervous system – that ‘reservoir of indeterminacy’ – as a curb on the presumptions of any over-mechanistic science. Science in Bergson is made to look forever backwards, because it can only account for the new in terms of the old, as either repeating or else closely approximating to what science is familiar with. Like the human intelligence as such, it is pragmatic, its main function is to try and ensure that we act in the world to the best advantage.

The effect of this is to filter out from the reality around (and within) us all those aspects or properties irrelevant to the operative needs of the moment. The intelligence does a fine job; but practicality isn’t everything, and Bergson thinks that we would do well to look beyond the perceptual and conceptual habits it imposes on us, to the ‘pure’, intuitive experience of reality that precedes the ‘passage from the immediate to the useful’. For a serious philosopher, this was laudably tactless. Bergson came to be seen as a softie, as an irrational champion of instinct – ‘Instinct may be seen at its best in ants, bees and Henri Bergson,’ scoffed Bertrand Russell. In fact, Bergson is drawing the attention of the mechanists and the mathematical bigots to what, in any evolutionary perspective, they discard at their peril.

Bergson’s is a ‘bio-philosophy’, and a critique of the meta-physics of the day. Biology improves on physics by dealing with what is alive and has a past, so that ‘the present moment of a living body does not get its raison d’être from the moment immediately preceding, for to that must be added the whole of the organism’s past, its heredity, in fact the sum of a very long history.’ Bergson protested the physicists’ model of the Universe that denied its prodigious inventiveness by subsuming it under the closed rubrics of mathematics. He would have seen the ancient atomism writ depressingly large in any concept of a Big Bang holding that the eventual contents of the Universe were once contained inside one portentously compressed lump of matter, which only needed then to be sent on its expansive way. That, a Bergsonist would say, is to idolatrise the mathematical at the expense of the vital.

The deterministic science against which Bergson wrote achieves its ends by a trick involving time, or what we commonly think of as time. But then, if Bergson is right, and he surely has to be, we commonly think wrongly about time, by identifying our conventional understanding of it with the real thing. To time as a recuperable, that’s to say clockwork medium, he opposes his durée, which is pure movement and indivisible into seconds, minutes or anything of the kind, since the durée is what keeps on going even as we are doing the dividing. We have intimate experience of just such an absolute continuity in our own conscious existence. We like to break this up into successive (or ‘simultaneous’ and often conflicting) ‘states’, the better to think and talk about ourselves, but these arrested ‘states’, whether of mind, body or the Universe, are not in truth bounded, they run into one another. By separating them, we raise what for Bergson is the pseudo-problem of an ‘underlying’ self whose successive ‘states’ these supposedly are; but there is no need in Bergsonism (any more than in Buddhism) for any such spooky supernumerary, since each contourless ‘I’ simply goes with the flow, borne along on the crest of its history.

For all Bergson’s remarkable lucidity, it’s hard at first to keep firm hold of his conception of the durée. We treat time as divisible because we could hardly organise our lives if we didn’t. To go beyond that practical need, however, and believe that time truly is divisible is to make what is for Bergson a gross yet pervasive error: to treat time as though it were spatial. The error is the one enduringly dramatised in the Eleatic paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, where the reality of the durée, represented by the real movement of the two entrants in that unequal footrace, is obscured by the fiction of a time whose infinite divisibility contrives to stay it from elapsing. Such fictions have appeal for geometers perhaps, and for their deceitful successors, the determinists, who spatialise time in like fashion by occupying two moments of the durée as if they were simultaneous. They claim that our actions are determined by the state of our brains, bodies, and all the rest of it at the moment when we acted. The free-willers claim the opposite: that we could have acted otherwise, even if as things turned out we didn’t. Bergson wants nothing to do with either party to this interminable dispute because both are caught up in the same ‘crude symbolism’, of representing the durée retrospectively in the form of a line and then mistaking that spatial representation for the reality. Freedom of action does not lie in negotiating a Borgesian garden of forking paths but

in a certain nuance or quality of the action itself, not in a connection between this action with what it is not or what it might have been. All the obscurity stems from the fact that both [determinists and believers in free-will] represent deliberation to themselves in the form of an oscillation in space, whereas it consists in a dynamic progress in which the self and the motives themselves are in a continual state of becoming, as true living beings.

Bergson may have been a retiring character but his philosophy has all the grandeur appropriate to the late 19th century in which it was elaborated. More than a holist, he is a Wholist, aware on just about every page he wrote of continuities, of the present with the past, as that has accumulated in memory, and of one physical entity with every other, in a tremendous scheme of ‘universal interaction’. This is Lucretius redone for moderns, in the light of the new sciences in which Bergson was formidably well read. There is an element of agon also, in the efforts of consciousness to increase the scope and quality of freedom in the Universe by countering the tendency to torpor in the ‘brute matter’ on which it goes to work. Brute matter is ‘raised’ from an otherwise inert state by Life and consciousness. Bergson’s best-known book, L’Evolution créatrice, ends with the exalted suggestion that a philosophy of freedom such as his, the product of, as well as a commentary on, the Evolutionary process, embodies ‘the coincidence of human consciousness with the living principle from which it has emanated’.

He extended his evolutionism into ethics and religion in his last major book, Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion, of 1932, where, for example, he compares two forms of morality: a morality of ‘pressure’, or social obligation, which is more or less static, is founded on habit or dumb acceptance of its rules and is characteristic of a ‘closed’ society; and a morality of ‘aspiration’, which is dynamic, self-conscious and tends to the democratic and the universal. The comparison between these two kinds, the one inert, the other progressive, is made in terms drawn straight from the book on Evolution:

Between the first morality and the second there is thus all the distance which separates rest from movement. The first is held to be immutable. If it changes, it at once forgets that it has changed or does not admit to the change. The form it takes at any given moment is claimed as definitive. But the other morality is an impulsion, it requires movement; it is mobile on principle. By which it proves ... its superiority.

The evolutionary process by which a higher morality may come to replace a lower one works through the rare figures who have been able in history to energise enough moral dissidents to ensure their own survival as exemplars and as enduring sources of ‘aspiration’: Buddha, Socrates, the Stoics, Jesus, ‘privileged souls’ who have led the species on a climb from the flatlands of social solidarity to a towering ideal of ‘human fraternity’. This progress might seem to go against nature, if it is natural for intelligent beings to favour individualism and life in closed societies that enjoy going to war with one another. The Bergson of Les Deux Sources is pretty much the moral optimist, however, arguing that the universalising tendency in moral codes conforms with nature understood as a continually creative force, rather than as a system fully contained within our present scientific representation of it. The down side of the evolutionary view – as our local neo-Darwinians are overfond of reminding us – is that we may, morally, evolve backwards, regress that is to what we imagine to have been an unpleasantly instinctive condition of life. Bergson reflects on this anxiety, but plays it down, confident that the mystical élan carrying us all up and away from subjection to brute matter will finally see us through morally.

He had evolved himself in the years, first of war and then of the new internationalist politics, between 1914 and the writing of Les Deux Sources. The previously non-committal Bergson had come out at last, and had moved on from the jingoism he gave vent to at the beginning of the war to being a pillar in the early Twenties of the International Committee for Intellectual Co-operation, an offshoot of the League of Nations. In August 1914, he lost no time in saying where he stood now his country was at war, declaring in his presidential address to the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques that ‘the struggle on which we are engaged against Germany is the struggle of civilisation itself against barbarism’ and that, in its ‘brutality and cynicism’, the enemy had ‘regressed to the savage state’. This address was given only five days after the war began, and has been cited ever since as a shocking example of the ease with which thinkers who should know better – Julien Benda’s clercs – sell out to the hysterical nationalism of the hour. Cited a little unfairly, however, according to Soulez/Worms, since Bergson’s subsequent attitude during the war years was far from extreme – although by later associating the enemy’s ‘predatoriness’ with the philosophy of the ‘Prussian’ Hegel, he was making sure that he’d have few friends among the steely young dialecticians of the Thirties.

That the League of Nations ever came about after 1918 was very much the doing of Woodrow Wilson, and it was as an emissary to Wilson while the war was still on that Bergson had his unlikely moment of high political involvement. Early in 1917, he was chosen by the Government of Aristide Briand to go to Washington and represent the case to the President for an American intervention in the European war. Bergson was to ask for credits, as well as for armies, and to reassure the eirenic Wilson that what the French wanted was nothing more vindictive than ‘peace without victory’. Why should Briand have asked Bergson to do this, the man known for never wanting any public role, let alone one as imposing as this? The answer suggested in this Life is that he was chosen for that very reason, because he was a ‘witness to the truth’ whose philosophical work and integrity would have been known to Wilson. Bergson’s aloofness made him believable, he couldn’t be suspected of stooping to the weasel language of diplomacy. The President and the philosopher met alone together, and whatever the degree of influence Bergson’s presence and arguments may have had on the outcome, the United States entered the war barely two months later. The conscription of Bergson had perhaps been a shrewder move than Briand realised, inasmuch as Bergson appears to have idealised Wilson as a moral force in the world, to the extent almost of elevating him to be with his ‘privileged souls’.

Twenty years later, Bergson wrote an account of his ‘missions’ to the US (there was a second one in 1918), in which he described his reaction to Wilson’s declaration of war on Germany in terms startling in their fervour (they had better remain in the original): ‘J’ai vécu là des heures inoubliables. L’humanité m’apparaissait comme transfigurée. Surtout la France adorée ... était sauvée. Ce fut la plus grande joie de ma vie ... Je n’étais rien. Personne n’était plus rien. Il n’y avait que la France.’ These words were written in 1936, but Bergson wished them to be published only once he was dead. France was by this time coming under threat once more from a ‘predatory’ Germany, and he wanted posterity to know where, prominent internationalist though he had been after 1918, his loyalties as a French citizen lay.

By the time the war came, Bergson was 80 years old and had been ill for many years with a rheumatic complaint. Exactly what happened to him in the few months between the collapse of June 1940 and his death in January 1941 is uncertain. It is said that he registered with the authorities as a Jew and gave up his many French honours. There is also a story, not certified in this biography, that Vichy offered him the status of ‘honorary Aryan’ and that he refused it. This squalid offer lends a distressing resonance to the proclamation of his Frenchness that he had left to be read after his death.