Tuesday, October 14, 2008

War and (Cultured) Selfhood

Gerald Izenberg’s “Identity Becomes an Issue: European Literature in the 1920s,” in a recent issue of Modern Intellectual History, is a useful and erudite framing of a certain facet of European literary culture. The essentials of his argument are simple. Before the First World War, when these writers spoke about split selves, they generally did so in dualist terms (rational/sensual, spiritual/material, ect...) After the war, the self becomes fractured along multiple complex lines, the center, indeed, is empty.

I am a little uncomfortable with the way Izenberg makes the reality of the war do so much intellectual work. I want to know more about what pre-existing conditions interacted with what, exactly, about the war, to produce the phenomena he is documenting. Was it the massive and long-term propaganda effort (at every level of society) hammering home certain ideals, which were then suddenly given the lie by the generalization of bureaucracy and death on a never-before-seen scale? I guess what I don’t like about this is that it fails to take account of the many people who did not react to the war in this way. And if many people did not have such a reaction, then we need either to look to different war-time experiences (this, I think, makes no sense), or more plausibly, to different pre-war positions. Or we could throw our hands up in the air and admit that the same cause does not always lead to the same result.

Which brings me to a more substantive question. One of Henri Bergson’s little tricks to get around the various metaphysical problems (especially having to do with free will) created by experimental psychology in the 1880s speaks to this last option. Bergson says that the question is poorly posed because there can be no too exactly identical causes. Either they are distinct in space (in different places) or in time (happen at different moments in the durée).

Izenberg ends his essay by pointing to Heidegger, and Being in time. Bergson is certainly not Heidegger, but he did think famously and explicitly about selfhood and time. Gide and Woolf, at least, would have read Bergson—I don’t know about the Germans, but probably they had as well. Is it perhaps a Bergsonian—modernist—self that was exploded into little bits by the coming of the war, and the encounter with irrationality originating from outside the individual durée?

Of course it would be foolish to ask Izenberg to treat more authors--an impressive diversity of writers are discussed already--yet I wonder if he would have been able to avoid Bergson if he had looked more closely at Proust. The aside we do get on Proust does not, I think, entirely do justice to the complexity of the Proustian self, which is hardly guaranteed by recovered memory. At any rate, this article has had the effect of renewing my resolution to read both Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self, and then Jerrold Seigel's The Idea of the Self.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that Bergson gives a picture of a dualist self that perfectly fits his argument; the various dualisms (analysis/intuition, specular/lived, etc.) are probably laid out most clearly in "Intro to Metaphysics." You make a good point about the fragility of the Proustian solution (albeit already discovered before the war, given the 1913 publ. date of the first volume), but even the more programmatic stuff in the last volume centers on the retrieval of a buried moi profond. In this sense, the move to multiplicity in Hermann Hesse etc. is in substance perhaps more radical. Heidegger certainly read Bergson and was deeply influenced by him, in spite of a critical footnote or two in Being and Time.