Bergson and Proust: Intuition and Literature (6 of 6)

UnknownAlone, rising from the level of the plain, and seemingly lost in that expanse of open country, the twin steeples of Martinville rose towards the sky. Presently we saw three: springing into position in front of them with a bold leap, a third, dilatory steeple, that of Vieuxvicq, had come to join them. The minutes passed, we were travelling fast, and yet the three steeples were always a long way ahead of us, like three birds perched upon the plain, motionless and conspicuous in the sunlight. Then the steeple of Vieuxvicq drew aside, took its proper distance, and the steeples of Martinville remained alone, gilded by the light of the setting sun which, even at that distance, I could see playing and smiling upon their sloping sides. We had been so long in approaching them that I was thinking of the time that must still elapse before we could reach them when, of a sudden, the carriage turned a corner and set us down at their feet; and they had flung themselves so abruptly in our path that we had barely time to stop before being dashed against the porch. 

Unknown-1We resumed our journey. We had left Martinville some little time, and the village, after accompanying us for a few seconds, had already disappeared, when, lingering alone on the horizon to watch our flight, its steeples and that of Vieuxvicq waved once again their sun-bathed pinnacles in token of farewell. Sometimes one would withdraw, so that the other two might watch us for a moment still; then the road changed direction, they veered in the evening light like three golden pivots, and vanished from my sight. But a little later, when we were already close to Combray, the sun having set meanwhile, I caught sight of them for the last time, far away, and seeming no more now than three flowers painted upon the sky above the low line of the fields. They made me think, too, of three maidens in a legend, abandoned in a solitary place over which night had begun to fall; and as we drew away from them at a gallop, I could see them timidly seeking their way, and after some awkward, stumbling movements of their noble silhouettes, drawing close to one another, gliding one behind another, forming now against the still rosy sky no more than a single dusky shape, charming and resigned, and so vanishing in the night (255-6).

The charm of this passage comes from its sense of movement and its use of innovative similes, metaphors, and personification. Throughout, the steeples are “springing… with a bold leap,” “like three birds perched upon the plain,” “fl[i]ng[ing] themselves,” “wav[ing]… in token of farewell,” “like three golden pivots,” “three flowers painted upon the sky above the low line of the fields,” then like “three maidens in a legend, abandoned in a solitary place,” finally “seeking their way, and after some awkward, stumbling movements of their noble silhouettes, drawing close to one another, gliding one behind another.” Furthermore, the sunlight is “playing and smiling.”  The array of human behaviors, meanings, and movements attributed to the inanimate objects reveals an intuitive sensitivity which only the philosopher or artist, according to Bergson, exercises.


Unknown-2Rather than providing a stagnant, unmoving description of the world as if it were frozen, or like some exhibit, the narrator gives us plenty of kinetic verbs; few things stand still in the passage, and many are in movement. Bergson, recall, opposes himself to staticity, stillness, stagnation, because reality is dynamic; life is not Parmenidean permanence but Heraclitean hurrying, a flowing river. Thus, the passage demonstrates intuition as “intellectual sympathy,” since we see Proust/the narrator sympathizing with the steeples, considering how they feel, how they react to him just as much as how he reacts to them, and how they interact even with the sun. Of course, this could be criticized and passed off as merely excessive and crude anthropomorphization, which raises anew the question of intuition: Is it even possible?


Assuming we go with this objection—that intuition, as a form of sympathy, inevitably becomes overtly and unapologetically anthropocentric—then we would be forced to concede that the only way of considering how a steeple would feel is if we ourselves were steeples, and that steeple-essence can only be grasped in the vocabulary of steeples, requiring steeple-centrism or steeple-morphization; however, I think we would agree that with this reductio ad absurdum, it is safe to say that such an extreme standard is not worth taking seriously, that it does not work in the long run, and that personification is, to reiterate, an approximation, since Bergson admits that no language is perfect, and since we humans immediately and emotionally connect with and understand human terms. In other words, we must take Wordsworth’s complaint seriously in “The World Is Too Much With Us”: “Little we see in Nature that is ours.” 


imagesIn conclusion, according to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, we achieve true, absolute knowledge not through methodical analysis but simple intuition, and philosophy’s—and art’s—objective is to show the world, life, and experience as they truly are, which means walking a mile in their shoes, proverbially speaking. Marcel Proust, a French early-twentieth-century Modernist novelist, is, I have argued, an excellent representative of intuition as applied to literature, for his book In Search of Lost Time beautifully and lengthily explores the inner life not just of man, but of things, showing how it is possible to achieve insights into life and the world. Are Bergson and Proust perfect? No. Are they successful? Well, it depends how we define success in this case. Do either of them express the world as it truly is? Probably not—we can never know, and that is the point they both stress. Do they get close in approximating the richness of life? I think so. To the extent that they tried with new language and originality to initiate us into the hidden depths, to the extent that they revealed truths of which we were previously unaware, and to the extent that they did this elegantly and movingly—to this extent, I think they were successful. That is just an intuition of mine, though. 

Sentence Analysis: Marcel Proust

When it comes to old writing, we tend to come across long, beautiful sentences—beautiful, but also headache-inducing. It is as though the author wanted to take the scenic route instead of the shortcut while writing, at the expense of the reader’s understanding. It is difficult to pause and appreciate the effort and mastery put into these sentences—resemblant of poetry—when you’re too busy figuring out what is being said. As such, in this series on sentence analyses, I’ll find particularly well-written and melodious sentences, pick them apart, and explain what and how they mean. My hope is twofold:

(1) As a reader, you will be able to understand these sentences when you come across them without stressing, taking time instead to admire them.

(2) As a writer, you will be able to improve your own writing, learning a trick or two from famous authors who knew what they were doing precisely because they, too, learned from authors before them.


Without further ado, here is a sentence drawn from Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (pages 560-2), color-coded to aid in comprehension:

UnknownThe name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me, in action so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target—carrying in its wake, I could feel, the knowledge, the impressions concerning her to whom it was addressed that belonged not to me but to the friend who called it out, everything that, as she uttered the words, she recalled, or at least possessed in her memory, of their daily intimacy, of the visits that they paid to each other, of that unknown existence which was all the more inaccessible, all the more painful to me from being, conversely, so familiar, so tractable to this happy girl who let it brush past me without my being able to penetrate it, who flung it on the air with a light-hearted cry—wafting through the air the exquisite emanation which it had distilled, by touching them with the utmost precision, from certain invisible points in Mlle Swann’s life, from the evening to come, just as it would be, after dinner, at her home—forming, on its celestial passage through the midst of the children and their nursemaids, a little cloud, delicately coloured, resembling one of those clouds that, billowing over a Poussin landscape, reflect minutely, like a cloud in the opera teeming with chariots and horses, some apparition of the life of the gods—casting, finally, on that ragged grass, at the spot where it was at one and the same time a scrap of withered lawn and a moment in the afternoon of the fair battledore player (who continued to launch and retrieve her shuttlecock until a governess with a blue feather in her hat had called her away) a marvellous little band of light, the colour of heliotrope, impalpable as a reflection and superimposed like a carpet on which I could not help but drag my lingering, nostalgic and desecrating feet, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat (391 words!)


Base sentence:
The name Gilberte passed close by me. 

Explanation: This is the sentence in its simplest form. Seriously. These seven words form the basis for the next 384 words, which are used to modify them, elaborating on how the name passed by the narrator and the effects it had on him.


Compound sentence:
The name Gilberte passed close by me; it passed thus close by me with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target. 

Explanation: A semicolon acts as a conjunction, e.g., “and,” “but,” “for,” combining two complete sentences together, which is called a compound sentence.


Compound-complex sentence:
The name Gilberte passed close by me; it passed thus close by me with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat

Explanation: The new addition here is of the “while” clause. Unlike the compound sentence to which it is amended, it is not complete in itself; hence, it is a dependent clause. This is the last of the clauses in Proust’s sentence; the rest of the sentence will be composed of modifying phrases that lack a subject, describing only actions.


Compound-complex sentence with present progressive phrases:
The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target—carrying in its wake the knowledge that she recalled of their daily intimacy—wafting through the air the exquisite emanation which it had distilled from certain invisible points in Mlle Swann’s life—forming a little cloud resembling one of those clouds that reflect minutely some apparition of the life of the gods—casting on that ragged grass a marvellous little band of light, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat

Explanation: In between the independent clauses, the sentence is really divided into five sections, each indicated by the use of a present progressive, a verb ending in “-ing.” The five verbs in question are “evoking,” “carrying,” “wafting,” “forming,” and “casting.” Proust’s mastery here comes from his use of the em dash, the “—,” which functions almost like a set of parentheses “(),” adding extra information, building suspense, anticipation, and excitement. This feeling of being overwhelmed makes sense given the context: The narrator is overcome with love, and the “—” coupled with the “-ing” verbs, each building off of each other, reflects the fact that his very language is overflowing and can hardly be contained: It keeps spilling out.


Compound-complex sentence with present progressive phrases and appositive and adjectival phrases:
The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target—carrying in its wake the knowledge, the impressions concerning her to whom it was addressed that belonged not to me but to the friend who called it out, everything that she recalled of their daily intimacy, of the visits that they paid to each other, of that unknown existence which was all the more inaccessible, all the more painful to me from being, conversely, so familiar, so tractable to this happy girl who let it brush past me without my being able to penetrate it, who flung it on the air with a light-hearted cry—wafting through the air the exquisite emanation which it had distilled from certain invisible points in Mlle Swann’s life,  from the evening to come, just as it would be, after dinner, at her home—forming a little cloud, delicately coloured, resembling one of those clouds that reflect minutely some apparition of the life of the gods—casting on that ragged grass a marvellous little band of light, the colour of heliotrope, impalpable as a reflection and superimposed like a carpet on which I could not help but drag my lingering, nostalgic and desecrating feet, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat

Explanation: The new elements here are appositives, or restatements of a thing, coupled with their adjectival modifications. Proust uses repetition of appositives to create a clear picture of all the implications of the images he uses. For example, Gilberte’s name directs his mind to “the knowledge,” “the impressions”—in short, “everything”—”of [Gilberte and her friend’s] daily intimacy,” “of the[ir] visits,” “of that unknown existence.” In each case, he is essentially getting at one thing—he thinks of her life without him—but with different variations, yet each one is necessary because it adds a new hue to it, as it were. Even though he is saying the same thing over and over,  he is calling it by a different name, drawing attention to other aspects. The adjectives speak for themselves in describing his images, e.g., the “delicately coloured” “little cloud.”


Compound-complex sentence with present participle phrases, appositive and adjectival phrases, and final modifiers (adverbs, similes, tags):
The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me, in action so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target—carrying in its wake, I could feel, the knowledge, the impressions concerning her to whom it was addressed that belonged not to me but to the friend who called it out, everything that, as she uttered the words, she recalled, or at least possessed in her memory, of their daily intimacy, of the visits that they paid to each other, of that unknown existence which was all the more inaccessible, all the more painful to me from being, conversely, so familiar, so tractable to this happy girl who let it brush past me without my being able to penetrate it, who flung it on the air with a light-hearted cry—wafting through the air the exquisite emanation which it had distilled, by touching them with the utmost precision, from certain invisible points in Mlle Swann’s life, from the evening to come, just as it would be, after dinner, at her home—forming, on its celestial passage through the midst of the children and their nursemaids, a little cloud, delicately coloured, resembling one of those clouds that, billowing over a Poussin landscape, reflect minutely, like a cloud in the opera teeming with chariots and horses, some apparition of the life of the gods—casting, finally, on that ragged grass, at the spot where it was at one and the same time a scrap of withered lawn and a moment in the afternoon of the fair battledore player, a marvellous little band of light, the colour of heliotrope, impalpable as a reflection and superimposed like a carpet on which I could not help but drag my lingering, nostalgic and desecrating feet, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat.

Explanation: Because there are a lot of small, subtle grammatical modifiers here, and because I have neither the knowledge nor the patience to carefully distinguish them all, I’ve decided to group them all under “other modifiers.” Here Proust employs a number of different additions: Tags, which show the speaker’s verbal actions or personal comments, e.g., “so to speak,” “I could feel,” “or at least”; adverbs and adverbial phrases, which tell us where, when, or how something took place, e.g., “in action,” “by touching,” “on its celestial passage,” “finally,” “at the spot”; and similes, which compare two things with “as” or “like,” e.g., “like a cloud.” The reason I included the participle phrase “billowing” here under light purple rather than green is because its function is different in this case: It is not modifying the main sentence but rather an element of another modifier, namely, “one of those clouds.”


Compound-complex sentence with present participle phrases, appositive and adjectival phrases, final modifiers (adverbs, similes, tags), and parenthesis:
The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me, in action so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target—carrying in its wake, I could feel, the knowledge, the impressions concerning her to whom it was addressed that belonged not to me but to the friend who called it out, everything that, as she uttered the words, she recalled, or at least possessed in her memory, of their daily intimacy, of the visits that they paid to each other, of that unknown existence which was all the more inaccessible, all the more painful to me from being, conversely, so familiar, so tractable to this happy girl who let it brush past me without my being able to penetrate it, who flung it on the air with a light-hearted cry—wafting through the air the exquisite emanation which it had distilled, by touching them with the utmost precision, from certain invisible points in Mlle Swann’s life, from the evening to come, just as it would be, after dinner, at her home—forming, on its celestial passage through the midst of the children and their nursemaids, a little cloud, delicately coloured, resembling one of those clouds that, billowing over a Poussin landscape, reflect minutely, like a cloud in the opera teeming with chariots and horses, some apparition of the life of the gods—casting, finally, on that ragged grass, at the spot where it was at one and the same time a scrap of withered lawn and a moment in the afternoon of the fair battledore player (who continued to launch and retrieve her shuttlecock until a governess with a blue feather in her hat had called her away) a marvellous little band of light, the colour of heliotrope, impalpable as a reflection and superimposed like a carpet on which I could not help but drag my lingering, nostalgic and desecrating feet, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat.

Explanation: Last but not least, Proust includes a parenthetical phrase toward the end “()” to share one last bit of knowledge with us. It comes as an aside, something not super necessary but worth noting nonetheless. It also provides context for the final words of the sentence.


Having gone over each of the sections, clarifying their purposes, and reverse engineering the sentence, and hopefully without having made things even more confusing, I invite you to reread the nearly 400-word passage, this time without color-coding, and see if you can follow along!

UnknownThe name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me, in action so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target—carrying in its wake, I could feel, the knowledge, the impressions concerning her to whom it was addressed that belonged not to me but to the friend who called it out, everything that, as she uttered the words, she recalled, or at least possessed in her memory, of their daily intimacy, of the visits that they paid to each other, of that unknown existence which was all the more inaccessible, all the more painful to me from being, conversely, so familiar, so tractable to this happy girl who let it brush past me without my being able to penetrate it, who flung it on the air with a light-hearted cry—wafting through the air the exquisite emanation which it had distilled, by touching them with the utmost precision, from certain invisible points in Mlle Swann’s life, from the evening to come, just as it would be, after dinner, at her home—forming, on its celestial passage through the midst of the children and their nursemaids, a little cloud, delicately coloured, resembling one of those clouds that, billowing over a Poussin landscape, reflect minutely, like a cloud in the opera teeming with chariots and horses, some apparition of the life of the gods—casting, finally, on that ragged grass, at the spot where it was at one and the same time a scrap of withered lawn and a moment in the afternoon of the fair battledore player (who continued to launch and retrieve her shuttlecock until a governess with a blue feather in her hat had called her away) a marvellous little band of light, the colour of heliotrope, impalpable as a reflection and superimposed like a carpet on which I could not help but drag my lingering, nostalgic and desecrating feet, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat.

If you found this post interesting and/or informative, then check out my other sentence analyses!
Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man
Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel

Bergson and Proust: Intuition and Literature (5 of 6)

4. Lastly, like Bergson, the narrator, and therefore Proust, too, employ a number of vivid and illustrative metaphors, images, and similes, and use diverse phenomena to capture the mobility of life and our experience thereof. Thus, the narrator invokes treasure chests, a fish kept alive in a picnic basket, and a room full of souvenirs and keepsakes—all familiar and evocative to us, despite their lack of unity—to explain how he perceives and is affected by his environment; he does not stick with one metaphor and beat it to death, but swiftly glides from one to the other, creating a sense of movement, just as he is walking, just as he is taking in his surroundings. Distinct sensations, from “a roof, a gleam of sunlight on a stone, the smell of a path” to “the line of the roof, the colour of the stone,” from “a shape or a perfume” to “the play of sunlight on a stone, a roof, the sound of a bell, the smell of fallen leaves,” assemble in his mind as “a mass of disparate images,” which he compares to his room, with its sundry items. Initially, the narrator is dissatisfied with this: “It was certainly not impressions of this kind that could restore the hope I had lost of succeeding one day in becoming an author and poet, for each of them was associated with some material object devoid of intellectual value and suggesting no abstract truth.” In other words, what does it matter to him if he knows what sunshine, leaves, or roofs are really like? How are superficial, trivial, and insignificant things like these going to help him uncover or get to the bottom of life itself? There is no “abstract truth” in a stone tile, and a bush is just “some material object devoid of intellectual value”; surely there is nothing deep to be gleaned thence. However, we must keep in mind two things: Continue reading

Bergson and Proust: Intuition and Literature (4 of 6)

Unknown[S]uddenly a roof, a gleam of sunlight on a stone, the smell of a path would make me stop still, to enjoy the special pleasure that each of them gave me, and also because they appeared to be concealing, beyond what my eyes could see, something which they invited me to come and take but which despite all my efforts I never managed to discover. Since I felt that this something was to be found in them, I would stand there motionless, looking, breathing, endeavouring to penetrate with my mind beyond the thing seen or smelt. And if I then had to hasten after my grandfather, to continue my walk, I would try to recapture them by closing my eyes; I would concentrate on recalling exactly the line of the roof, the colour of the stone, which, without my being able to understand why, had seemed to me to be bursting, ready to open, to yield up to me the secret treasure of which they were themselves no more than the lids. It was certainly not impressions of this kind that could restore the hope I had lost of succeeding one day in becoming an author and poet, for each of Unknown-1them was associated with some material object devoid of intellectual value and suggesting no abstract truth… And so I would concern myself no longer with the mystery that lay hidden in a shape or a perfume, quite at ease in my mind since I was taking it home with me, protected by its visible covering which I had imprinted on my mind and beneath which I should find it still alive, like the fish which, on days when I had been allowed to go out fishing, I used to carry back in my basket, covered by a layer of grass which kept them cool and fresh. Having reached home I would begin to think of something else, and so my mind would become littered (as my room was with the flowers that I had gathered on my walks, or the odds and ends that people had given me) with a mass of disparate images—the play of sunlight on a stone, a roof, the sound of a bell, the smell of fallen leaves—beneath which the reality I once sensed, but never had the will-power to discover and bring to light, has long since perished (Swann’s Way, 251-3). 

In this long passage which gives us insight into the creative, literary process, a number of Bergsonian themes pop up: (1) The secret, interior experience of things; (2) the enticement of intuition, or the desire to sympathize with things; (3) the inherent, inscrutable movement of the mind; and (4) the synthetic interrelatedness of all things within the world. 

  1. imagesFor the narrator, the natural objects around him “appeared to be concealing, beyond what my eyes could see, something which they invited me to come and take,” and “this something was to be found in them.” Every sensation, be it “a shape or a perfume,” contains a “mystery that lay hidden,” “protected by… visible covering[s].” Subsequently, they “yield up to me the secret treasure of which they were themselves no more than the lids.” The objects are imbued with a life of their own. A tree, a stone, a flower—these are not specimen to be experimented on, decorations to be idly admired, or insubstantial phantoms of the mind lacking any reality; instead, they are phenomena that are real, independent, and lively, possessed of their own hidden world. 
  2. Unknown-3The active voice attributed to these things—they “invited” him, they “make me stop still”—causes the narrator to become passive, receptive to their innate power; a force within them beckons him. Later in the novel, Proust writes that what attracts us most to the beloved is the life they live without us, the experience and history they have before we met them; and here, it would seem this same idea extends beyond persons, to those things we consider inanimate, so that physical objects, occurrences—the sum of what we experience—have hidden lives of their own. What frustrates the narrator is his “endeavouring to penetrate with my mind beyond the thing seen or smelt,” his inability to “discover” the depths of the world, his remaining stuck with “disparate images… beneath which the reality I once sensed… has long since perished.” As a writer, the narrator is sensitive to the world around him, and everything exerts a charm on him, whispers to him; he is attracted to everything. 
  3. The mind of the writer is spontaneous, and follows after every impression in an attempt to appropriate it, to make it one’s own. Because creativity and originality are difficult, if not impossible, to force, they must come about on their own, often unconsciously, aided by time, during which period ideas are able to Unknown-2ferment, intermix, synthesize, before emerging as something novel, insightful, eye-opening. Bergon refers to this “direction of a movement” of the mind as an “impulse,” and it cannot be freely willed. Likewise, the narrator finds himself pulled along by his sensations. He “would begin to think of something else, and so my mind would become littered… with a mass of disparate images… beneath which the reality I once sensed, but never had the will-power to discover and bring to light, has long since perished.” In other words, he is aware that if he just keeps staring at something, if he tries to analyze the thing before him, then he will never sympathize with it; the key is to let it simmer, develop, and arise in the back of his mind, and not to force it through “will-power.” This possession of the mind by an external impression cannot be explained, for it is arational—not blind, but drawn toward something hidden, enchanting, charmful, hence intuitive.

Intuition and Literature: Bergson and Proust (3 of 6)

This is where literature and Proust come in. Knowing what we now know, the key to good writing, “good” here meaning “true,” and “true” in the sense of being to true to life, to experience, is avoiding the staid, mechanical, and lifeless approach of analysis, which treats of things and events indirectly, confusedly, and externally, as if the whole world of experience were inert matter, a prejudice to which we are disposed by modern scientific understanding, which unfortunately reduces much of the world to meaningless, homogeneous masses and their chance interactions. This is a dull, monochrome type of writing that desiccates and kills all it touches, a writing that has no concern for the inner life of things, that neglects the possibilities and potentialities of objects and persons, that is more interested in the motionless and permanent than the ever-changing and fluid, and that prefers old and clichéd expressions to original and creative experimentation that tries to go beyond surfaces to the heart of the matter.


Good writing tries to get at the essence of something, tries its best to articulate the inner happening and unfolding of a feeling, object, or event. Of course, what I have just described sounds immensely difficult, rare, and demanding at best, and impossible at worst. It prompts the question, first, of how much literature counts as good according to this judgment, and second, of whether there even has been such an author ever. Just as Bergson himself acknowledged his personal shortcomings, indeed, the intrinsic shortcomings of all expression, so I think it is absurd to expect that there be a perfect work, the best work, one which manages in its entirety, 100% of the way, to be consistently intuitive, without any lapses; on the contrary, I think it is fair to say that even a single intuition, one singular glimpse of true experience, one faithful depiction of life, is perhaps enough to redeem and sanctify a work.


This is why novels are art are “works”: Not only must one work, endeavor, and hone in order to produce it in the first place, but we even go so far as to say that a completed work is never fully completed, that it is a work in virtue of its finiteness, what it leaves out, what could have been added or removed, what stands for interpretation; the work is always in-progress, infinite despite its finity, and alive. To be able to write well or to paint, compose, draw, etc. well, is a nearly impossible task: 

The mind has to do violence to itself, has to reverse the direction of the operation by which it habitually thinks, has perpetually to revise, or rather to recast, all its categories. But in this way it will attain to fluid concepts, capable of following reality in all its sinuosities and of adopting the very movement of the inward life of things (85).*

But, precisely in light of its difficulty and the purity of the pursuit at which it aims, art is therefore one of the most noble and dignified tasks. Bergson applies this thinking to literature in a beautiful passage at the end of his essay, which we will use as a segue to Proust and his approach:  

Any one of us, for instance, who has attempted literary composition, knows that when the subject has been studied at length, the materials all collected, and the notes all made, something more is needed in order to set about the work of composition itself, and that is an often very painful effort to place ourselves directly at the heart of the subject, and to seek as deeply as possible an impulse, after which we need only let ourselves go. This impulse, once received, starts the mind on a path where it rediscovers all the information it had collected, and a thousand other details besides; it develops and analyzes itself into terms which could be enumerated indefinitely. The farther we go, the more terms we discover; we shall never say all that could be said, and yet, if we turn back suddenly upon the impulse that we feel behind us and try to seize it, it is gone; for it was not a thing, but the direction of a movement, and though indefinitely extensible, it is infinitely simple. Metaphysical intuition seems to be something of the same kind… For we do not obtain an intuition from reality—that is, an intellectual sympathy with the most intimate part of it—unless we have won its confidence by a long fellowship with its superficial manifestations. And it is not merely a question of assimilating the most conspicuous facts; so immense a mass of facts must be accumulated and fused together, that in this fusion all the preconceived and premature ideas which observers may unwittingly have put into their observations will be certain to neutralize each other. In this way only can the bare materiality of the known facts be exposed to view (89). 

At the end of the first part of Swann’s Way, “Combray,” the narrator is thinking back to one of his walks in his youth, when he was tortured by his dreams of being a writer, and when he worried himself about the possibility of writing anything serious or sufficiently “philosophical,” anything deep or worthwhile. So to take his mind off of his mental distress, he would clear his mind completely, let himself be distracted by his surroundings, which had the fortunate effect of opening him up to the magic of the world.


* My citations of “Introduction to Metaphysics” come from Volume 55 of The Great Books of the Western World, though it can also be found in The Creative Mind

Intuition and Literature: Bergson and Proust (2 of 6)

But if Bergson contends that intuition is the proper epistemological method of philosophy, metaphysics, and art, then that means that he, who is so assured of its successfulness, must have used it—and additionally, must have been able to share it with us, or else he could not have written his essay extolling it. That is, if Bergon thinks intuition is inexpressible and unthinkable, then how does he (attempt to) communicate his intuitive findings to us? How can he argue for his apparently superior conception of temporality and selfhood, arrived at via intuition? What does this mean for literature, for serious authors like Proust who want to convey and depict life sincerely, accurately, vividly—intuitively


To begin, I ought to clarify intuition a bit more, as the way in which I have described it is dissatisfactory. Intuition is the proper way of seeing into a thing, but of what does this insight consist? That is, how does one intuit? Bergson describes intuition as the power of our imagination to sympathize; it is an “intellectual sympathy” (84)*. This means that our minds have the ability to introject themselves, to throw and cast themselves outside themselves and into an external object, sympathy being the phenomenon of feeling-with, attuning, and role-taking. In this way, by positioning ourselves within an object, we have a singular perspective. When see another person or an animal, perceiving them from outside, we apprehend them as a complexity, something composed of parts, which we form into a whole, a gestalt.  Continue reading

Intuition and Literature: Bergson and Proust (1 of 6)

UnknownMarcel Proust’s highly regarded and influential novel In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past, is famous for its psychological depth and exploration of broad themes like art, time, memory, and love; though as the title indicates, the most important among them is arguably time. Written at the beginning of the twentieth century, the novel is notable for its place in the literary movement known as Modernism, which tended to focus more on internal rather than external realities, a focus that was also reflected in the philosophy of the time, a philosophy determined to break out of the hold of positivistic, mechanical science. As such, after the turn of the century, with the relativistic reimagination of the Universe by Einstein, the French philosopher Henri Bergson rose to prominence with his unique interpretation of time.


Many readers and critics like to point out the evident influence Bergson had on Proust, highlighting both authors’ interest in involuntary memory. So I will not be doing that; plenty has already been written about how Bergon’s philosophy of time works its way into In Search of Lost Time. Instead, I want to focus on another, neglected parallel between the two: Art. In this post, I want to compare Bergon’s “Introduction to Metaphysics” (1903) with Proust’s first volume, Swann’s Way (1913), exploring the idea of intuition and how well Proust measures up to it in his writing. 


UnknownIn his essay “Introduction to Metaphysics,” intended as a popular statement of his position within philosophy, Bergson is concerned, first of all, with dispelling several myths that philosophers are guilty of spreading in relation to reality; then, after correcting these mistakes, he wants to put forward his thoughts, which he believes to be more in tune with the way things really are. According to him, philosophy up until his time had relied on the epistemological method of analysis, which is the great error of thought. Analysis is a form of knowledge that is merely relative, a statement that seems odd seeing as we are used to saying that Einstein, for example, arrived at his understanding of the world through scientific and mathematical—in a word, physical—analysis. Even though Einstein’s theory is called “relativity,” this does not mean that the theory, the understanding it provides us, is itself relative; instead, we understand it to be objective, absolute, truthful.


However, Bergson disagrees because analysis, as a mental operation, as the cognitive grasping of objects and their relations, deals only with externalities; analysis is great at showing us the outsides of things, telling us “about” what they are. Still, could we not say, on the contrary, that analysis can tell us but internal realities? The biologist who dissects a body or the physicist who splits an atom—surely they see into, beneath, and imagesbeyond mere appearances, right? Or what of the doctor’s X-ray, which literally lets us see through surfaces? These examples do not change the facts, Bergson would argue, for they only demonstrate his claim more: Analytic knowledge does not acquaint us with a thing directly “in itself,” but rather indirectly and mediately. That is, splitting open or looking through a surface does not negate superficiality, for with what are we then confronted except another surface? Furthermore, our attempts to “understand” the object are thwarted by the fact that our immediate experience thereof is mediated by symbols and signs, be they mathematical, terminological, or simply propositional. (That last bit, about propositions being mediate and therefore indirect and relative, i.e., that language as such is an obstacle to reality, will have serious implications.) A frog is not known by its pulmonary artery, nor an atom by its nucleus; they “are” not these things, yet analysis reduces them thus.


Unknown-1Hence, Bergson’s criticism regards analysis’ reductive nature. Analytical thinking takes a thing, abstracts from it universal traits and categories, generalizes it, and thereby misses it completely or else de-realizes it. Analysis tries to express things, if we understand “ex-press” in its etymological sense as “pushing-outside itself,” a process comparable to that of squeezing or extracting the juice out of a lemon in an attempt to grasp the essence of lemons, the result being that we avoid and forget the lemon outright. With this understanding, Bergon can also equate analysis with immobility, stasis, the search for permanence. Analysis freezes and petrifies its object. This, he explains, is how we deluded ourselves in living by faulty Newtonian, or absolute, time—the time of the clock, the time of bland, indistinguishable seconds, minutes, and hours. 


In contradistinction to analysis, Bergson introduces and endorses intuition. Unlike analysis, which is relative, intuition is absolute; it does not brush up against the surface of things and find itself rebuffed, but rather gains access to—into—the thing. It has the privilege of giving us direct, unmediated (immediate), and by images-1extension immanent (internal) knowledge; in short, it immerses us in the object itself, allows us to “dip” into it, swim around in it. So whereas analysis is complex because it divides a thing into more and more parts, because it decomposes the whole, and because it consists of several steps, intuition is everything but complex: It is simple, straightforward, elegant, and preservative. By enabling insight, literally “in-sight,” “seeing-into,” intuition keeps the object of our concern alive and, rather than stifling it, it reveals its intrinsic mobility, its kinesis, its dynamic nature; however, this amazing faculty of ours sounds too good to be true, and consequently comes with a cost: Intuition, due to its brilliant power, is ineffable; it naturally induces us to speechlessness.


Unknown-1This is where the major difficulty comes in, for both Bergson and, as we shall presently see, Proust. Although we are left with a choice here, the either/or does not seem all that balanced: Either we analyze an object in a sensible way, or we intuit it insensibly. The reason this does not seem like a fair choice is because only the former, analysis, seems truly viable. Of what use is something we cannot express? Recall that analysis has the advantage of being expressible, but expressibility is not a virtue in Bergson’s eyes; it destroys and gets in the way of a given thing. Yet intuition is absolutely vital because without it, analysis leaves us with a monstrous, unrecognizable concoction of our own while intuition preserves the thing in its fullness and actuality. But what does this mean to us—what can it mean to us—if we cannot express it? But ex-pression is antithetical to that which is to-be-expressed; the thing expressed is not, and cannot be, the thing being expressed…