Bergson, Eliot, and American Literature

Bergson, Eliot, and American Literature

Copyright Date: 1986
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Bergson, Eliot, and American Literature
    Book Description:

    Until now, Bergson's widely acknowledged impact on American literature has never been comprehensively mapped. Author Paul Douglass explains and evaluates Bergson's meaning for American writers, beginning with Eliot and moving through Ransom, Penn Warren, and Tate to Faulkner, Wallace Stevens, Henry Miller, William Carlos Williams, and others. It will be a standard point of reference.

    Bergson wasthecontinental philosopher of the early 1900s, a celebrity, as Sartre would later be. Profoundly influential throughout Europe, and widely discussed in England and America in the Teens, Twenties, and Thirties, Bergson is now rarely read. His current "obsolescence," Douglass argues, illuminates the Western shift from Modern to post- Modern.

    Ambitious in scope, this book remains admirably close to Bergson himself: what he said, where that fits in the historical context of philosophy, why his ideas moved across the Atlantic, and how he affected American writers. At the book's heart are readings of Eliot's criticism and poetry, analyses of Faulkner'sThe Sound and the FuryandLight in August, and evaluations of Ransom's, Tate's and Penn Warren's criticism.

    This impressively researched and beautifully written study will remain of lasting value to students of American literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6163-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. A Note on the Texts and Abbreviations Used
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-6)

    The aim of this book is to revaluate Bergson’s philosophy in relation to American literature. The study does not attempt a comprehensive survey of Bergsonian influences on American writers, a catalogue of which would be voluminous. Rather, it seeks to reintroduce a Bergsonian vocabulary in discussion of American literary Modernism by showing how Bergson’s ideas of openness, containment, and tension illuminate the theory and practice of several major American writers. Some of that Bergsonian vocabulary will be recognizable. But if I have done my job well, the reader will find a somewhat unfamiliar Bergson in these pages.

    Bergson played an...

  6. ONE Bergson and Bergsonism
    (pp. 7-26)

    Born in 1859, the yearOrigin of Speciesappeared, Bergson was very much a child of his time. He was first drawn to the sciences, and in 1879 published an article on a problem in geometry posed by Pascal. But he found mathematics “too absorbing”—that is, too removed from life—and started reading philosophy. Then, between 1881 and 1883, something happened to him. In a 1908 letter to William James, Bergson describes his remarkable experience: “I had remained up to that time wholly imbued with mechanistic theories to which I had been led at an early date by the...

  7. TWO Bergsonian Intuition and Modernist Aesthetics
    (pp. 27-48)

    In an essay on the “still movement of poetry,” Murray Krieger suggests that Bergson’s vitalism offers no key to the “well wrought” aspects of modern art, especially not to poetry’s archetypal imagery and symmetrical forms. Though he acknowledges inThe New Apologists for Poetrythe Modernist debt to Bergson for a special concern with freshness and concreteness of language, Krieger nonetheless argues that Bergson cannot earn aformbeyond fluidity; his philosophy thus gives no satisfactory approach to the Byzantine patterns of much twentieth-century poetry—poetry that seems anxious to become one of the “plastic arts.”¹ This view, which makes...

  8. THREE Eliot’s Unacknowledged Debt
    (pp. 49-82)

    Lyndall Gordon has rightly remarked that in the years 1911-14 Eliot formulated his most characteristic ideas and attitudes.¹ But though Philip Le Brun has convincingly argued that Eliot’s “major formulations about poetry” were influenced by Bergson, Bergson’s influence on Eliot has generally been seen as limited to the narrowly defined period of 1910-11.² In the view of most, Bradleyan philosophy eclipses Bergson in Eliot’s thought. Staffan Bergsten, for example, writes inTime and Eternitythat Eliot’s concept of tradition as an “ideal order” in the Bradleyan vein “may be interpreted as a rejection of Bergson’s doctrine of time.” And yet...

  9. FOUR Time, Intuition, and Self-Knowledge in Eliot’s Poetry
    (pp. 83-105)

    “The essence of mystical contemplation,” wrote Evelyn Underhill inPractical Mysticism, is dualistic: “union with the flux of life, and union with the whole in which all lesser realities are resumed.” To achieve these different sorts of union, you must first let “intuition have its way with you.”¹ This challenge encapsulates the struggle of Eliot’s career as a poet, for in positing “immediate experience” as the ground of poetic knowledge, yet still subscribing to an Absolute in which that experience must be resumed as a “lesser reality,” Eliot assumes a highly ambivalent posture toward “intuition.” Intuition is not “thought”; indeed,...

  10. FIVE Eliot, Bergson, and the Southern Critics
    (pp. 106-117)

    InReactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas(1936), Allen Tate defends T.S. Eliot; Tate rails against the “modern desire to judge an art scientifically, practically, industrially,” and claims poetry is not to be judged as a “pragmatic instrument.” He goes on to deny thatThe Waste Landis “a satire on the unscientific values of the past.” Rather, in Tate’s view, the poem satirizes the idea that man has finally found truth in science. Tate praises (in the same volume) the way in which “Ash Wednesday” “succeeds in creating the effect of immediate experience by means of a broken and...

  11. SIX Deciphering Faulkner’s Uninterrupted Sentence
    (pp. 118-141)

    Any discussion of Bergson and American literature must deal with Faulkner. My object is, however, not only to explain Faulkner’s relationship to Bergson. I wish to show how Bergsonian philosophy and aesthetics illuminate American literature. I have demonstrated that Eliot and the New Critics owe a debt to Bergson that is little-recognized because Bergson has not been reread for so long. If Faulkner can be profitably discussed in relation to Bergson, he is not alone, and in my final chapter I will suggest how other American writers might be approached along similar lines. I remind the reader simply that this...

  12. SEVEN Faulkner and the Bergsonian Self
    (pp. 142-165)

    Faulkner populates his books with characters reacting against change, refusing to accept history, as many have noted.¹ It has been less noted, however, that this rejection of change is tantamount to a rejection of self—that Faulkner, like Bergson, relates freedom direcdy to self-knowledge and self-acceptance. “Although we are free when we are willing to get back into ourselves,” writes Bergson, “it seldom happens that we are willing” (TFW, 240). Rather than admit self’s bubbling, unpredictable stream into consciousness, we repress it; and the tool of that repression is the spatializing intellect. Thus, as Whitehead says, we tend more and...

  13. EIGHT Bergson and American Modernism
    (pp. 166-178)

    For consciously “modern” writers in America during the period between the wars, technology and its muse, Science, seemed on a path toward spiritual impoverishment and disaster. As the gap between body and soul widened, that literature recorded the dissociations—thedédoublementof the self—but it also held out hope of a path back to wholeness. This, at its simplest level, is what Bergson personified to American artists like Faulkner, William Carlos Williams, Frost, Wolfe, Henry Miller, and Gertrude Stein. They responded equally or more strongly than the generation of British artists considering the same sorts of problems: Joyce, Woolf,...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 179-194)
    (pp. 195-202)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 203-210)