Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bergson, Izenberg, Proust

Why is it that I thought of Bergson as troubling the narrative Gerald Izenberg sets up in the aforementioned essay? At the outset, not that I disagree, exactly, with Izenberg (I am in no position to do so), but rather that I think pieces of the story are missing, and that from the perspective of my own interests, things are importantly more complicated than he makes them out to be. My own knowledge and interest are focused on France, which Izenberg doesn’t treat: he discusses authors from Britain, Italy, Germany and Austrian (or rather, Austro-Hungary)—at the most I can say that he has left France out because, perhaps, it causes problems.

It is certainly the case that Bergson’s basic framework is dualism, inasmuch as his goal is to show the falsity of certain dualisms. Bergson’s first book, the Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, establishes the reality and necessity of liberté by demolishing the binary of materialist mechanism and idealist will. Mind-body dualism is the explicit target of Matière et mémoire. So he fits Izenberg’s story, because after the war, the problem to overcome isn’t simple dualism, but a much more complex fragmentation.

Now, I have just finished reading Bergson’s 1903 essay “Introduction à la métaphysique.” Incidentally, this is available online in its original publication through Gallica, at the very front of volume 11 of the Revue de métaphysique et morale—which journal, together with the philosophy of the history of science presented at the end of the essay, I find extremely significant and, given Bergson’s current reputation, somewhat surprising; the new critical Worms edition of the volume containing the “Introduction” comes out in 2009—I wouldn’t wait for Matière et mémoire, but I’ll wait for this.

There is much to discuss about this justly famous essay. Suffice it to say that after reading it, both the structuralist ‘revolution’ and Deleuze’s general tone make a great deal more sense to me.

Characteristically, Bergson says that the empiricists (which is to say those philosophers who stand behind experimental psychology) and the rationalists (which is to say, I think, Hegel and the various German idealists of the first part of the 19th century), are not so far apart. As usual, the accusation is a little too clean, rather too much in conformity with Bergson’s own ideas, for it to be taken so very seriously. None the less, I think the description he gives of the empiricists, and here he mentions John Stuart Mill and Hippolyte Taine, is significant for placing him in terms of Izenberg’s argument. These philosphers, Bergson says, juxtapose psychological states with one another, and hope that a self will emerge from a sufficient number of so-juxtaposed states. This, he says, is like seeking the meaning of the Iliad between the letters of which it is composed—“le moi leur échappe toujours, si bien qu’ils finissent par n’y plus voir qu’un vain fantôme”[13]—the target here is materialist accounts of psychology that reduce the self to, at best, an epiphenomenon. And yet the mindset that Bergson ascribes to these empiricists maps neatly onto Mansfield’s metaphor of the faceless hotel clerk that Izenberg quotes.

Bergson very often proceeds by setting up poles of extreme possibility, and claiming the territory between the two for his own method. Certainly the ‘climax’ of the “Introduction” does this. In Matière et mémoire, Bergson describes two extreme personality types, defined by their relation to memory—one which is always action oriented, and which is incapable of self-reflection, and another which is lost entirely in the shifting currents of its own memory, given over entirely to the dream life. We have here transparently tropes of what I am tempted to call a Balzacian capitalism—the man of action, always oriented towards a profit of whatever sort (so many shallow and forgotten characters), and then the dreamer (also shallow, but beloved), at the mercy of the winds of sentiment and sensation—Lucien from Illusions Perdus. Surely the example Izenberg cites from Virginia Woolf, of speed and enforced, fragmentary experience, is best read as pathological that makes no sense without the Bergsonian frame?

So this is what I mean: Izenberg’s narrative makes sense to me—at least in parts—if we start with Bergson, but not if we start with what came before Bergson.

There are lots of reasons why an intellectual historian trying to make the sort of argument that Izenberg wants to make would stay away from Proust. He is complicated and very much out of step with his time. I think, however, that Proust might be an especially useful author for Izenberg. According to Antoine Compagnon (and I think a simple reading of Contre Sainte-Beuve bears this out), the ‘programmatic’ end of the novel was planned already when Proust started writing. So it is perhaps not totally unreasonable to take the first and the last volumes as being, in an important sense, pre-war, while the intervening volumes were written during and after the war. For myself, and I agree with Compagnon here, Sodome et Gomorrhe is the best—if that even means anything—and Temps retrouvé is to be taken with a substantial amount of salt. Why, long before I read Izenberg’s article, did I think this? Because in the middle volumes more than anywhere, we and the narrator see the extent to which a person’s self is constituted by all those around them, and how the essence of an individual can change radically (since Proust, I believe, is radically perspectival—maybe this is a condition of the novel as form?) depending on what one knows about this person. I think, although this is something to be demonstrated rather than crassly suggested, that all this has to do with Leibniz. Everyone was reading Leibniz in the 1880s, there are essays about him regularly in the Revue philosophique, and the monad is, after all, a lastingly powerful metaphysical construction. So perhaps a historical reading of the sort that Compagnon’s book on Proust gives us could, in fact, show how the Proustian moi changed even against Proust’s own professed will, because of the war.

The burden of such a demonstration would be to show how something like ‘the war’ could change something like ‘the idea of the self.’ Although I find Izenberg’s argument in many ways persuasive, it seems to me that there is a sort of causal gap in it, which can only be filled or bridged by much more detailed and contextually sensitive research than, of course, his essay has any intention of providing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is enormously interesting. I like your point about the middle volumes potentially substantiating the thesis, though you're also surely right about needing a far deeper sense of how the war could cause such a significant shift across a broad spectrum of unrelated writers. The description OF the shift, of course, has to come prior to explaining it.