February 2011

Ben Greenman


The Nobel Reprise, Letter 8: Henri Bergson

Dear Pauls,

Itís been a while. The cold is oppressive and also conducive, I fear, to doing nothing. I like to think about how people were before central heating, or before bricks and mortar, when it was a struggle just to survive these temperatures. It gives me an excuse to delay finishing the letter. Dear Pauls, please donít bother me when I am struggling just to survive.

Your letter, about Thomas Mann, was a little intimidating to me, and not just because you sent it to me in a manila envelope decorated with skulls and crossbones. Ha ha. That is a joke. Today I want to talk about jokes, but not right away. First I want to talk about philosophy, which is in itself kind of a joke. Your letter about Mann hailed The Magic Mountain for its quality, which you quickly clarified:

This book was astonishing, one of the best Iíve read -- one of the most complete. There were two things in it I could have done without: 1) Mannís charactersí persistent and very creepy preoccupation with the sexuality of young boys, with their physical bodies and their "pristine" essences, and 2) Many of the numerous, twenty-page philosophical debates between Herr Settembrini and Herr Naphta. These philosophical debates are part of why this book is labeled "serious literature," but they are also hard to follow. Thatís a dumb complaint, I know.

The first of your points I will address only briefly. I think the preoccupation with the sexuality of young boys is persistent and creepy, though itís persistenter (if less creepy) in Death in Venice. Mainly I tend to forgive it because itís so central to Mannís own internal struggles. Anthony Heilbut wrote a biography where he discussed this at length; I wonít.

Your second point, though, stuck in my head since I read the letter, in part because I thought it was a Grade A example of hypocrisy. I am smiling when I write this to reassure you that Iím not being malicious. Itís just that here we are, you and I, embarking upon a correspondence that is pushed forward by our desire to inquire into the deepest recesses of world literature. We leaven our discussion with humor (see above) and occasional profanity (see below) but, shit, Pauls, arenít we basically doing what Settembrini and Naphtha did?

You might argue that I am wrong, and that what we are doing is looking at the same issues as philosophers might, but from another angle, one where the heart of the matter is productively obscured by other effects. One-sidedly, without permitting you to answer, let me quote from your Mann letter again:

The writer Jay Parini once asked his friend Gore Vidal if he should write a scene where two characters discuss philosophical questions for thirty minutes. And Gore Vidal said, sure -- as long as theyíre on a train and the reader knows that thereís a bomb under the seat.

I want to sit there for a minute, on the seat next to Vidal and Parini. I wonít sit between them. Parini has just published a novel called The Passages of H. M., which is a historical fiction about Herman Melville, and it has long stretches of thinking about thinking, and few bombs. So I think that Parini would dispute Gore Vidalís formulation, and I would, too. Thereís the presumption that a philosophical discussion is somehow static, when in fact itís anything but. Ideas are the most unruly things. Objects can change absolutely, or in part, but they are still objects, and they can still be described. A bomb under a seat is just there. It just is. It is static. And while itís true that it represents the potential for change, even if its potential is realized, the new scene, with the bomb having exploded, is equally static. The reality can be captured with a camera. Pariniís book, from its title on, is more about transformation, and about the ways in which the evolution of a human character appears to take place across time and space but in fact takes place within theÖ soul? Itís not a word I wanted to use.

I wanted to write about Melville, in part because Pariniís book put me in mind of one of my favorite novels ever, Frederick Buschís The Night Inspector, which is smart and dark like much of what Busch wrote, and which begins with a scene of a man being fit for a mask without a mouth. Is there a better metaphor for the ways in which writing fiction doesnít always let us do the things we want to do? Melville -- both as a character in Parini and Busch and in real life, on his own -- is, to me, one of the most philosophical fiction writers: everything evolves from a pre-existing idea, sometimes programmatically, but then the ground under the idea begins to shift. Itís a beautiful and frightening process that I recommend to anyone, especially writers. But Melville never won the Nobel, on account of being dead before it started. So I went looking for someone who would allow me to talk about these issues of philosophy, and thatís how I came to Henri Bergson, the recipient of the 1927 Nobel Prize for Literature.

This surprised me. Bergson was not a novelist or a poet. He wrote no fiction, in fact, and his works are not what we would think of as ďimaginative,Ē in the sense that they donít have characters, plots, or settings. ďJean-Claude stepped closer to the river, where flowers floated upon the surface like notes in a symphony, and then he turned and waved goodbye to the bird that had, moments before, angled its head in a manner reminiscent of his lover AnnaĒ is not a sentence from Bergson. And yet, Bergson, who was a professor at the College de France, was closer to a novelist than many novelists. He was awarded the Nobel in 1927, mainly as a result of his L'Evolution crťatrice, an ambitious work that investigates the way in which new ideas arise, and specifically the way in which novelty is enabled by (and thwarted by) the passage of time. I had not read all of the work, though I had read pieces of it in philosophy classes, and owned a copy, which is a dangerous gateway to actual reading. So I got down Creative Evolution and submerged myself in it for a week, which was fascinating and rewarding if also slightly worrisome, if only because it might have made me look especially pretentious on the subway. The first section of the book turns on Bergsonís general suspicion of science as a discipline of fixed observations, or observations of fixed objects; he is, throughout, more interested in process, because process is what creates ideas, what creates creativity, and as a result what creates what we think of as life itself -- the mental life, the cultural life, life as something felt and sensed rather than just recorded. This is why he places evolution in his title, and why he is deeply in debt to Darwin. Hereís an example:

It must not be forgotten that all the parts of an organism are necessarily coordinated. Whether the function be the effect of the organ or its cause, it matters little; one point is certain -- the organ will be of no use and will not give selection a hold unless it functions. However the minute structure of the retina may develop, and however complicated it may become, such progress, instead of favoring vision, will probably hinder it if the visual centers do not develop at the same time, as well as several parts of the visual organ itself. If the variations are accidental, how can they ever agree to arise in every part of the organ at the same time, in such way that the organ will continue to perform its function? Darwin quite understood this; it is one of the reasons why he regarded variation as insensible. For a difference which arises accidentally at one point of the visual apparatus, if it be very slight, will not hinder the functioning of the organ; and hence this first accidental variation can, in a sense, wait for complementary variations to accumulate and raise vision to a higher degree of perfection. Granted; but while the insensible variation does not hinder the functioning of the eye, neither does it help it, so long as the variations that are complementary do not occur. How, in that case, can the variation be retained by natural selection? Unwittingly one will reason as if the slight variation were a toothing stone set up by the organism and reserved for a later construction. This hypothesis, so little conformable to the Darwinian principle, is difficult enough to avoid even in the case of an organ which has been developed along one single main line of evolution, e.g. the vertebrate eye. But it is absolutely forced upon us when we observe the likeness of structure of the vertebrate eye and that of the molluscs. How could the same small variations, incalculable in number, have ever occurred in the same order on two independent lines of evolution, if they were purely accidental? And how could they have been preserved by selection and accumulated in both cases, the same in the same order, when each of them, taken separately, was of no use?

This paragraph is somewhat arcane, as I am neither an ophthalmologist nor an evolutionary biologist. My initial tendency was, Iím sure, that of many peopleís: get the general idea and skip ahead, let the words go by like a tree from a moving train. I saw the tree. It was tall and thin and there was a bird in it. Done and done. Instead I underlined the things that stood out to me (mostly the questions Bergson poses, which I take to be rhetorical, for the most part, setting up the statements that follow) and went back through the passage several times, immersing myself in it or it in myself, and tried to make it more transparent, the way a cloth gets when you wet it. Bergson is asking a good question I cannot answer about natural selection, specifically why minor variations that do not have any immediate benefit for their host organ (in this case, an eye) occur, and why theyíre retained until the complementary benefits can appear, thus advancing the function of the organ. How does the eye know that there is any advantage to Variation A, which is waiting for Variation B for its benefit to be realized? Bergson says there are two possibilities, that the organism can predict the future (or know the past from its predictable future) and that these changes are, despite appearance to the contrary, coordinated. In either event, weíre dealing with what he calls a ďgood genius.Ē One way or another, effects must be made to work in harmony.

Bergson goes on to make several more equally complex points. He wonders whether character is what one organism inherits from another or in fact whether the ability to vary is what is inherited. He takes a logicianís scalpel to the notion of causality, wondering whether our traditional division is not based on a misunderstanding of the movement of a system in which actions supposedly motivated by will and actions supposedly regulated by physics are segregated into causes and effects. Much of the fun of reading him is half-understanding a sentence or a paragraph and then going back through it to try to do a little bit better. But for this letter, today, I want to take away one thing: I want to apply Bergsonís set of questions about variation in the eye to the process of creative composition. How do we know, as novelists, as thinkers, that the questions we are asking, the details we are recording, the rhythm we are establishing in our prose or the intentional ruptures in expected syntax or punctuation are serving a broader cause? Any choice we make is made in isolation, but also made with a growing sense of that larger system, the organ, its function. So how do we come to foresee, with any real accuracy, what our prose will do? Bergsonís final question in that paragraph above (ďAnd how could they have been preserved by selection and accumulated in both cases, the same in the same order, when each of them, taken separately, was of no use?Ē) is a question about art as much as itís a question about eyes.

I have come off Mann's Magic Mountain and out of Parini/Vidal's train. Sorry, I suppose. I know that this doesnít respond directly to your question about novels, and Mann, and Franzen, and whether fiction is a way of exploring/taxonomizing the various freedoms we can experience within a social contract. But it does respond indirectly to it. Bergson is bothered by the way that science looks at fixed things (see above: Parini and Vidal and the bomb under the seat) rather than exploring process, duration, and evolution. He wants life to admit that itís about change. Iíd like to establish a tenuous relationship between change and freedom, and to suggest that art is a way of exploring change. That might be one great overarching definition. Whatís the difference between a snapshot of an apple, or a girl, and a photograph of same that we would classify as art? The latter, Iíd say, encodes change in some regard: it either illustrates a change within the object or demonstrates the way in which it changes with respect to its environment. When I was in school and I read especially dense philosophy or literary criticism, I liked to play this game in my mind where I came into class, raised my hand, and said ďThat shit made no sense.Ē This would be subversive but also creative because it would free the class to take pieces of what they had read and reassemble them into something meaningful. They would do that. I was sure of it.

Does this shit (by which I mean this letter) make any sense? I hope that it does, and that it doesnít.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland,