By Charles Matthews

Thursday, May 19, 2011

33. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 723-737

Self-Consciousness: The Field of Consciousness (Henri Bergson, Marcel Proust)
Henri Bergson: Duration 

Bergson's indebtedness to William James's concept of consciousness as a continuous stream is evident in these excerpts from Creative Evolution (1907) and An Introduction to Metaphysics (1903). 

Like Descartes, he starts from the near-undeniable fact of existence, only to question what "existence" may be, or rather, what does our consciousness tell us about existence? "I find, first of all, that I pass from state to state. I am warm or cold, I am merry or sad, I work or I do nothing." In short, he changes: "there is no feeling, no idea, no volition, which is not undergoing change every moment: if a mental state ceased to vary, its duration would cease to flow." Even "the visual perception of a motionless external object" is subject to this constant modification by consciousness. "My mental state, as it advances on the road of time, is continually swelling with the duration which it accumulates."
J.E. Blanche, Portrait of Henri Bergson, 1891

We think, however, of consciousness as a series of discrete moments. "The apparent discontinuity of the psychical life is ... due to our attention being fixed on it by a series of separate acts: actually there is only a gentle slope; but in following the broken line of our acts of attention, we think we perceive separate steps."
Discontinuous though they appear, however, in point of fact they stand out against the continuity of a background on which they are designed, and to which indeed they owe the intervals that separate them; they are the beats of the drum which break forth here and there in the symphony. Our attention focuses on them because they interest it more, but each of them is borne by the fluid mass of our whole psychical existence.
We imagine "a formless ego" that threads together these individual moments, but the concept presupposes an unchanging psychic state. The real existence of this fictive stable ego is negated by the very fact of existence in time, but we cling to it because serves "the requirements of logic and language." Time is the stuff of which the actual "psychical life" is made. "Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances."
In reality, the past is preserved by itself, automatically. In its entirety, probably, it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside.... What are we, in fact, what is our character, if not the condensation of the history that we have lived from our birth -- nay, even before our birth, since we bring with us prenatal dispositions?
Because the past is cumulative, we can never experience the same thing twice. "We could not live over a single moment, for we should have to begin by effacing the memory of all that had followed. Even could we erase this memory from our intellect, we could not from our will." By the same token, we can never foresee the future, because that would imply a discontinuity: "that which has never been perceived ... is necessarily unforeseeable." We are, in short, "creating ourselves continually ... to exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly." 

This makes self-perception a difficult process. We can start with our perceptions, our memories, and our "tendencies and motor habits." But "if I search in the depth of my being that which is most uniformly, most constantly, and most enduringly myself, I find an altogether different thing."
This inner life may be compared to the unrolling of a coil, for there is no living being who does not feel himself coming gradually to the end of his role; and to live is to grow old. But it may just as well be compared to a continual rolling up, for our past follows us, it swells incessantly with the present that it picks up on its way; and consciousness means memory.... A consciousness which could experience two identical moments would be a consciousness without memory. It would die and be born again continually.
A better analogy might be the spectrum, "with its insensible gradations leading from one shade to another.... Yet even here the successive shades of the spectrum always remain external one to another. They are juxtaposed; they occupy space. But pure duration, on the contrary, excludes all idea of juxtaposition, reciprocal externality, and extension." 

The fact that we have such difficulty imagining the constant flux of our inner life once again suggests what would come to be formulated by Heisenberg as the "uncertainty principle": "the unrolling of our duration resembles in some of its aspects the unity of an advancing movement and in others the multiplicity of expanding states; and clearly no metaphor can express one of these two aspects without sacrificing the other.... The inner life is all this at once: variety of qualities, continuity of progress, and unity of direction. It cannot be represented by images." 
If I consider duration as a multiplicity of moments bound to each other by a unity which goes through them like a thread, then, however short the chosen duration may be, these moments are unlimited in number. I can suppose them as close together as I please; there will always be between these mathematical units other mathematical points, and so on to infinity. Looked at from the point of view of multiplicity, then, duration disintegrates into a powder of moments, none of which endures, each being an instantaneity. If, on the other hand, I consider the unity which binds the moment together, this cannot endure either, since by hypothesis everything that is changing, and everything that is really durable in the duration, has been put to the account of the multiplicity of moments.
Underlying it all, then, "is only one unique duration, which carries everything with it -- a bottomless, bankless river, which flows without assignable force in a direction which could not be defined." 

Marcel Proust: The Recapturing of Time 

Proust had met Bergson, but although some have tried to connect Proust's preoccupation with time and memory to Bergson's, there seems to be no essential link between the two. I have written elsewhere about these two excerpts from the beginning and the end of In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past in the Scott Moncrieff translation), so I'll pick up some elements from my postings there. (The translation quoted is that of Lydia Davis for Swann's Way and Ian Patterson for Finding Time Again -- aka The Past Recaptured in the Frederick A. Blossom translation quoted by Ellmann and Feidelson).

Everyone knows (or rather, everyone who cares to know knows) about Proust's madeleine, the pastry dipped in tea that triggered the most famous "Proustian moment" -- the spontaneous memory. In the novel, the narrator's account of the scenes of his childhood rising before him comes just after his account of the rare, privileged night his mother spent in his room, reading to him. It is "a sort of puberty of grief, of emancipation from tears," "the beginning of a new era" that "would remain as a sad date." 

But for years afterward, his childhood in Combray remained limited to what it has been in the first 40-some pages of the novel: "the theater and drama of my bedtime" -- "as though Combray had consisted only of two floors connected by a slender staircase and as though it had always been seven o'clock in the evening there." The rest of it comes to life when he pursues something ineffable awakened by the taste of the madeleine in tea. At first, he doesn't know what he has glimpsed: "Undoubtedly what is palpitating thus, deep inside me, must be the image, the visual memory which is attached to this taste and is trying to follow it to me." Note here that he ascribes the volition to the memory, that he must meet the memory -- "struggling too far away" -- halfway. 

Ten times I must begin again, lean down toward it. And each time, the laziness that deters us from every difficult task, every work of importance, has counseled me to leave it, to drink my tea and think only about my worries of today, my desires for tomorrow, upon which I may ruminate effortlessly.
For Proust this is, I think, the distinction between the artist and the layman, the willingness to struggle against the "laziness" that traps most of us in the quotidian. 

And then he meets the memory of aunt Léonie giving him a taste of madeleine soaked in lime-blossom tea. It's the fortuitous combination of tea and madeleine that does it -- the intimate power of taste that proves more effective than sight alone in raising the past. He had seen madeleines in shops without awakening any distinct sensations. He even finds a way of moralizing the image of the little shell-shaped cake, "so fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating."

But, when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, upon the ruins of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.
And so rooms, roads, people and the town join themselves in his imagination. The stage is set for the vast novel that follows. 

These spontaneous eruptions of memory continue throughout the Search. In In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (Scott Moncrieff's Within a Budding Grove), the narrator tells us that "the mere breath of trees in full leaf" has brought back the memory of riding through the countryside with Mme. de Villeparisis. In The Guermantes Way, he comments on the difference between the spontaneous memory and the "voluntary memory," a distinction that persists throughout the Search: 

[S]hould a sensation from the distant past ... enable our memory to make us hear that name with the particular tone it then had for our ears, even if the name seems not to have changed, we can still feel the distance between the various dreams which its unchanging syllables evoked for us in turn. For a second, rehearing the warbling from some distant springtime, we can extract from it, as from the little tubes of color used in painting, the precise tint -- forgotten, mysterious, and fresh -- of the days we thought we remembered when, like bad painters, we were in fact spreading our whole past on a single canvas and painting it with the conventional monochrome of voluntary memory.
Later in the same book, "the hiccuping sound of the new furnace boiler" brings back memories of his stay at Doncières, where his friend Robert de Saint-Loup is stationed with the army. In Sodom and Gomorrah (Scott Moncrieff's Cities of the Plain), the narrator returns to Balbec, the seaside resort where he had spent time with his late grandmother, and experiences for the first time an overwhelming grief for her that voluntary memory had been unable to trigger:
For to the disturbances of memory are linked the intermittences of the heart. It is no doubt the existence of our body, similar for us to a vase in which our spirituality is enclosed, that induces us to suppose that all our inner goods, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession. Perhaps this is as inaccurate as to believe that they escape or return. At all events, if they do remain inside us, it is for most of the time in an unknown domain where they are of no service to us, and where even the most ordinary of them are repressed by memories of a different order, which exclude all simultaneity with them in our consciousness. But if the framework of sensations in which they are preserved be recaptured, they have in their turn the same capacity to expel all that is incompatible with them, to install in us, on its own, the self that experienced them. 
But the series of memory-stirring events in Finding Lost Time, the final book in the Search, are the most crucial ones, for they set the narrator on the course that has eluded him: writing the novel itself. 

Entering the courtyard to the Guermantes's house, he dodges an approaching car and steps on some uneven paving stones, triggering the first of a series of epiphanies:
But at the moment when, regaining my balance, I set my foot down on a stone which was slightly lower than the one next to it, all my discouragement vanished in the face of the same happiness that, at different points in my life, had given me the sight of trees I had thought I recognized when I was taking a drive around Balbec, the sight of the steeples of Martinville, the taste of a madeleine dipped in herb tea, and all the other sensations I have spoken about, and which the last works of Vinteuil had seemed to me to synthesize. Just as at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all uneasiness about the future and all intellectual doubt were gone. Those that had assailed me a moment earlier about the reality of my intellectual talent, even the reality of literature, were lifted as if by enchantment.
He realizes that the paving stones had triggered a memory of similarly "uneven flagstones in the baptistery of St Mark's" in Venice, just as "the taste of the little madeleine had reminded me of Combray. But why had the images of Combray and Venice given me at these two separate moments a joy akin to certainty and sufficient, without any other proofs, to make death a matter of indifference to me?"

Then, while he is waiting in a sitting room for the conclusion of a piece of music that his hostess wishes not to be interrupted, it happens again: a servant knocks a spoon against a plate, which triggers his memory of a hammer striking the wheel of the train he had recently sat in, feeling indifferent to the beauty of the countryside. And again, a butler gives him a plate of petits fours and a glass of orangeade, and when he wipes his mouth with the napkin, the texture of it recalls a similar sensation while he was looking out to sea at Balbec. Each instant of involuntary memory -- connections between past and present triggered by the madeleine, the paving stones, the sound of the spoon, the texture of the napkin -- "suddenly makes us breathe a new air, new precisely because it is air we have breathed before, this purer air which the poets have tried in vain to make reign in paradise and which could not provide this profound feeling of renewal if it had not already been breathed, for the only true paradise is a paradise that we have lost."

The narrator perceives in these moments in which "the past was made to encroach upon the present and make me uncertain about which of the two I was in" something he calls "extra-temporal." When he tasted the madeleine, "at that very moment the being that I had been was an extra-temporal being."
This being had only ever come to me, only ever manifested itself to me on the occasions, outside of action and immediate pleasure, when the miracle of an analogy had made me escape from the present. It alone had the power to make me find the old days again, the lost time, in the face of which the efforts of my memory and my intellect always failed.
He believes he has experienced "a little bit of time in its pure state." This perception of "the essence of things"
languishes in the observation of the present where the senses cannot bring this to it, in the consideration of a past where the intelligence desiccates it, and in the expectation of a future which the will constructs out of fragments of the present and the past from which it extracts even more of their reality without retaining any more than is useful for the narrowly human, utilitarian ends that it assigns to them. 
"I knew that places were not the same as the pictures conjured up by their names" -- an observation that takes us back to the concluding sections of Swann's Way ("Place-Names: The Name") and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower ("Place-Names: The Place"). He recalls the disillusionments at Balbec, the fact that he did not experience its beauty when he was there as much as he did in remembering it, and that he was unable to recapture that beauty when he went back for a second visit.
Impressions of the sort that I was trying to stabilize would simply evaporate if they came in contact with a direct pleasure which was powerless to bring them into being. The only way to continue to appreciate them was to try to understand them more completely just as they were, that is to say within myself, to make them transparent enough to see right down into their depths.
This is a vindication of the narrative strategy of In Search of Lost Time, the endless analysis of relationships (Swann-Odette, narrator-Gilberte, narrator-Albertine), the attempt to understand the emotional intricacies of a life.

It is also an attempt to give coherence to one's own existence:
I remembered with pleasure, because it showed me that I was already the same then and gave me back something that was fundamental to my nature, but also with sadness when I thought that I had not progressed since then, that in Combray already I used attentively to fix before my mind's eye some image which had impelled me to look at it. 
He has been trying to decipher "impressions such as that made on my by the sight of the steeples of Martinville" and other epiphanic moments. And he concludes
I had to try to interpret the sensations as the signs of so many laws and ideas, at the same time as trying to think, that is to draw out from the penumbra what I had felt, and convert it into a spiritual equivalent. And what was this method, which seemed to me to be the only one, but the making of a work of art? 

The "primary character" of these epiphanies, the thing that gives them their authenticity for the narrator (and hence for the reader), "was that I was not free to choose them." They are not subject to logical analysis. "The ideas formed by pure intelligence contain no more than a logical truth, a possible truth; their choice is arbitrary." Whereas the spontaneous impression contains its own truth, and demands an elucidation that "can bring the mind to a more perfected state, and give it pure happiness. An impression is for the writer what an experiment is for the scientist, except that for the scientist the work of the intelligence precedes it, and for the writer it comes afterwards."

Art, then, is a process of discovery, not of will: "we have no freedom at all in the face of the work of art, ... we cannot shape it according to our wishes." And above all, it can't be dominated by rules or theories: "A work in which there are theories is like an object with its price-tag still attached." Proust/the narrator here strikes back at proclamations about the social or political role of the artist: "the sound of the spoon on a plate, or the starched stiffness of the napkin ... had been more valuable for my spiritual renewal than any number of humanitarian, patriotic, internationalist or metaphysical conversations." He admits that the war has brought out proponents of these roles, which remind him of "M. de Norpois's simple theories in opposition to 'flute-players'" when he criticized Bergotte to the young narrator. And he even takes a dig, I think, at stream-of-consciousness writers:
Some even wanted the novel to be a sort of cinematographic stream of things. This was an absurd idea. Nothing sets us further apart from what we have really perceived than that sort of cinematographic approach.  

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