Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Bergson goes to Burnt Norton and visits T.S. Eliot

I've always felt that Eliot's Four Quartets was one of the great religious poems. It expresses an ecstatic sobriety and an abandon always reined in by a sense of unworthiness. The Bergsonian reflections on the nature of time in Burnt Norton are beautiful and I will consider just a few of them.

Section I:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Relate this to Bergson's remarks on duration:

Granted that inner duration, perceived by consciousness, is nothing else but the melting of states of consciousness into one another, and the gradual growth of the ego, it will be said, notwithstanding, that the time which the astronomer introduces into his formulae, the time which our clocks divide into equal portions, this time, at least, is something different : it must be a measurable and therefore homogeneous magnitude.-It is nothing of the sort, however, and a close examination will dispel this last illusion. When I follow with my eyes on the dial of a Time, as dealt with by the astronomer and the physicist, does indeed seem to be measurable and therefore homogeneous (108) clock the movement of the hand which corresponds to the oscillations of the pendulum, I do not measure duration, as seems to be thought ; I merely count simultaneities, which is very different. Outside of me, in space, there is never more than a single position of the hand and the pendulum, for nothing is left of the past positions. Within myself a process of organization or interpenetration of conscious states is going on, which constitutes true duration.
pg.50 ereader. Time and Free Will
||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

End of Section II.:

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

Compare the thought behind this to Bergson's almost presentist consideration of the apparent pointlessness of having a consciousness which is constantly being drawn away from the present where it really is. Eliot's critique of time is based on the concept of duration which has no extension. Time whose essential reality is duration becomes derealised by being spatialised. It is taken to be an extended quanitative thing.

But it might be asked whether pleasure and pain, instead of expressing only what has just occurred, or what is actually occurring, in the organism, as is usually believed, could not also point out what is going to, or what is tending to take place. It seems indeed somewhat improbable that nature, so profoundly utilitarian, should have here assigned to consciousness the merely scientific task of informing us about the past or the present, which no longer depend upon us.
page 16 ereader Time and Free Will
|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||


From the beginning of Section V:

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.

4 comments:

skholiast said...

For a moment your title had me thinking I had overlooked some historical encounter.

Didn't Eliot once decry Bergsonism as an "epidemic"?

elisa freschi said...

I have a question which is somehow a follow-up of a discussion (on poetry and philosophy) we had in the past: Do you mean that Eliot expresses the same concepts expressed by Bergson? Or does the fact that he expresses them in poetry make them different? In which sense? Is, for instance, the relation with time completely different in prosa (which tries to be timeless) and in poetry (in which time plays an important role)?

ombhurbhuva said...

Hi Skholiast,
Only in the spirit would he have visited Burnt Norton but as you well know Eliot attended lectures by Bergson at the College de France when he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. In those years 1910/11 there was a virtual cult of Bergson. In a more tentative way I note the thought of Bergson in a poem by Louis MacNeice
http://ombhurbhuva.blogspot.com/2006/12/louis-and-henri.html

ombhurbhuva said...

Elisa wrote:
I have a question which is somehow a follow-up of a discussion (on poetry and philosophy) we had in the past: Do you mean that Eliot expresses the same concepts expressed by Bergson? Or does the fact that he expresses them in poetry make them different? In which sense? Is, for instance, the relation with time completely different in prosa (which tries to be timeless) and in poetry (in which time plays an important role)?
|||||||||||||||||||||||||
Elisa,
Poetry from poien to make and metaphysics have their root in the soul. Here I think the observations of Jacques Maritain on connaturality in Art and Scholasticism are useful:
"To the work to be done, that it may turn out well, there must answer in the sould of the workman a disposition which creates between the one and the other that sort of conformity and inmost proportion which the schoolmen call 'connaturality'."

'Connaturality' would be what makes the object out there to be somehow 'in' us according to the scholastics.

In the Bergsonian understanding of time which is founded on duration the artist has to give a sense of the timeless in a medium which is tied to spatial or temporal unfolding. A poem/work of prose unfolds over a period of time. The artist therefore is working against the medium to an extent. There is a need to evoke the eternal in the reader or to make them connatural with the experience of the poet.

The Eastern view is more mechanistic/esoteric:

"All the more reason that the group of seeds (bijas) which, because they are independent of the constraints of convention, cause consciousness to vibrate thus constitute a valid means for the attainment of consciousness. Because of the nonexistence of meaning to be expressed, because they vibrate in consciousness in a way that is totally indifferent to the external reality, because they are self-illuminating, because they cause the extinction of the movement of the vital breath - for these reasons the group of seeds are completely full and self-sufficient."
(Abhivinagupta on Bijas/ from The Triadic Heart of Siva by Muller-Ortega pub. Suny '89)

Bergson in Matter and Memory as far as I understand him prefers to use 'image' instead of 'concept' . He accepts that this has the flavour of dualism but again I think his form of panpsychism works outside the normal categories of philosophical convention.

Interesting questions.