Henri Bergson is not a philosopher who, like Agamben, I have consciously avoided. None the less, it is the case that I have often heard his name come from the mouth of someone who was, I am certain, interested in this philosopher only because Deleuze wrote about him. Yet for a variety of reasons, I have started to read Bergson. I began at what is more or less the beginning, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience. I can say with honesty that I experienced what I imagine the publishers must have had in mind when they printed, on the front of the otherwise quietly ugly standard PUF design, “LE CHOC BERGSON.” Bergson is a remarkable writer, but also one that I am concerned I may have trapped in my person web of reference.
What do I mean by this? I mean that reading the Essai, I thought of Proust and Sartre. I thought a little of William James (who, since he is cited, cannot be avoided). And then, in what is probably the most historically useful association, springing less from conscious thought than what might be called aesthetic association, I thought of George Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty. This last seems to me somehow similar in its tone and its construction. There are, I think, reasons for this on several levels. First, the two books were written only about a decade apart (1886-96, give or take some months), and were both ‘first’ books. That is, both were written for presentation to a jury of senior academics, and in what was essentially the same intellectual field. After all, Santayan was writing for James, and James and Bergson were already, by this point, in communication. On a higher level of abstraction, but books are attempts to maintain what I would, quite un-technically, call transcendental reasoning in the face of a respected, powerful, and aggressive materialist science. James is in something of the same boat. The next generation of philosophers, Sartre and Heidegger, say, seem to have felt no need at all to engage with ‘psychophysique’ and the like.
The Essai is rich and complex—though I would not say, exactly, that it is ‘difficult.’ Part way through the book I began to think about memory, and how a philosopher of durée would deal with this. Of course the next book is Matière et mémoire, so I image I’ll find out. It was hard to read the example of the musical phrase, which turns up several times, without thinking of Proust and Vinteuil. Yet it seems to me that Vinteuil means something quite different for Swann, and even for Proust, than the musical phrase does in the Essai. I want to know a great deal more, for instance, about what Bergson does with language in his later work. No doubt much has been written here, and I will soon know. Suffice it to say for the moment that after reading the Essai with Proust and Sartre in my head, both as ‘readers’ of Bergson, Proust seems, oddly enough, more (philosophically???) interesting than Sartre. Perhaps this is because I know more about him than I do about Sartre.
I am going to continue to avoid saying anything substantive about Bergson’s ideas. I have never been able to be interested in the philosophical ‘problem’ of human freedom—perhaps Bergson more or less tabled the issue, except for the odd twist of the postwar existentialists? Rather than discuss the issues, I’ll finish by saying only that I am sorry it is not yet possible to buy Frédéric Worms’ critical edition of Matière et mémoire (it apparently comes out in 2009)—the notes in the Essai are helpful and, despite the somewhat didactic tone, not obtrusive.
Last of all, I admit that I bought Deleuze's little 1966 manual on Bergson. It was only 5 Euros from the box outside of the librarie Vrin. Maybe after MandM I will read it.