The Endurance of Bergsonism and the Missteps of Deleuzian Buggery

Expanding on a Twitter thread from the other day, I wanted make a few further notes on my current readings around Henri Bergson and his philosophy.

I’m currently hard at work on an essay about temporal (or rather durational) ethics in 20th century philosophy and its unacknowledged relevance to (and perhaps indirect influence on) accelerationism, so often said to be devoid of any ethics whatsoever.

I’ve been primarily looking at Blanchot for this — of course; I can’t leave him alone at the minute — because I’ve kept finding references to “duration” as a somewhat underdefined philosophical concept in his body of work, likewise containing shades of Levinas’ concept of “infinity”.

In trying to better account for what he might mean by this term, the obvious place to turn has been to Bergson who was so undoubtedly popular at the time through which Blanchot was writing.

Emily Herring has written a really fun essay on this recently for Aeon, all about Bergson’s pretty incredible popularity in early 20th century France, and how his popularity amongst women in particular probably fuelled the subsequent backlash against him in later decades — undoubtedly giving birth to the contemporary “theorybro”. She writes:

Why, when Bergson was popular, was he so popular, and especially with women? A combination of factors, including the public nature of his lectures and the clarity of his lecturing style no doubt contributed to his fame. Women in particular would have benefitted from the fact that Bergson’s lectures, which were held outside the stuffy confines of the exclusive Sorbonne, presented complex and subtle ideas in a way that was digestible to those who had perhaps not benefitted from a formal philosophical education. More importantly, Bergson’s philosophy was a philosophy of change, creativity and freedom that many, in the years leading up to the First World War, used as a way of channelling their own political hopes.

Herring goes on to argue that “the women of the late Belle Époque were so drawn to Bergson because his philosophy was then a rallying point for those who believed radical change was possible — much as their descendants would be drawn to the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the late 1940s.” Sartre and de Beauvoir are not the only ones, of course — Blanchot and Levinas have emerged as two philosophers who have piqued my own interest recently who seem quite obviously influenced by Bergson, even just by osmosis, and whose radicality would increase as a result of that same interwar feeling and its later squandering in the post-war era — but Herring makes a good point with de Beauvoir, in particular. She writes:

Little more than a decade later, the young de Beauvoir, who would herself become one of the 20th-century’s most famous and influential thinkers, became an avid reader of Bergson. While she disavowed Bergson in her memoirs, her diaries tell another story. Born in 1908, de Beauvoir was still a young child when Bergson was at the height of his fame. At the age of 18, in 1926, she wrote of a ‘great intellectual intoxication’ after reading his works. [Her] reading of Bergson did not hinge upon essentialist notions of femininity (that would have been incompatible with her existentialism). Instead, she appears to have been inspired in her views on fiction by Bergson’s methodical use of metaphors, and she was moved by Bergson’s idea that true freedom was to be found within the immediate data of lived experience.

She ends on the point that “the important role played by women in the history of philosophy no longer needs to be demonstrated, but philosophy books, articles and curricula remain chronically dominated by (mostly European) men.” And yet, the strange entanglement that seems to conjoin Bergson to the women he supposedly inspired is that both have been (or once were) ejected from the philosophical canon. Such was Deleuze’s interest in Bergson (and Hume, Nietzsche, Spinoza, et al.)

Yes, Deleuze could have written a book about a woman to actually help this argument… But what I’m trying to say is that he was at least interested in those philosophers whose work contained a certain something that could not be assimilated into the canon that, in some circles, he himself now represents, and this is something which persists in the work of many philosophers from maligned demographics but is nonetheless the first thing to be removed when those thinkers end up being brought into the academy. (And this is even a centrally important aspect of some explicitly feminist philosophies — I’m thinking of Helene Cixous.) [1]

This is how the translator’s introduction to the English edition of Deleuze’s 1966 book Bergsonism sets the scene, as a seminal entry in his books on others which, together, form a philosophical “counter history” of philosophers “who seemed to be part of the history of philosophy, but who escaped from it in one respect or another.” Furthermore, the translator’s invoke that most famous of quotations wherein Deleuze describes his approach to the history of philosophy as

a kind of buggery, or, what comes to the same thing, immaculate conception. I imagined myself getting onto the back of an author, and giving him a child, which would be his and which would at the same time be a monster. It is very important that it should be his child, because the author actually had to say everything that I made him say. But it also had to be a monster because it was necessary to go through all kinds of decenterings, slips, break ins, secret emissions, which I really enjoyed.

They notes that Deleuze’s book on Bergson is “a classic case of this”, but the issue seems to be for many, especially in the English-speaking world, that Deleuze’s bastardised books become the foundation on which these under-appreciated philosophies are discussed.

Interestingly, Deleuze does address this in the afterword written specifically for the English edition which begins, surprisingly, with a very explicit doubling-down on Bergson’s own project, somewhat in contrast to his own monstrous version of it.

Whereas Deleuze begins, originally, in 1966, by hammering out the distinct stages of Bergson’s philosophy, in this afterword he writes that “a ‘return to Bergson’ does not only mean a renewed admiration for a great philosopher but a renewal or an extension of his project today, in relation to the transformation of life and society, in parallel with the transformations of science.”

To my mind, this reads like a kind of softening of his initial style — perhaps to be expected: this afterword was written 20+ years later, for a new edition of a book that is still a relatively early entry in Deleuze’s oeuvre — but it also speaks to the other book on Bergson which I’ve been reading these past few weeks: Vladimir Jankélévitch’s Henri Bergson.

I’m still getting to grips with this book and its particularly challenging to a lot of the English-speaking literature on him which is still so heavily influenced by Deleuze.

I shared sections from this on Twitter already but I want to reiterate them here because I think this somewhat un-Deleuzified approach to Bergson is in fact very insightful for how the English-speaking world might better approach Deleuze himself.

The translator’s introduction to Jankélévitch’s book spends a considerable amount of time on this issue and necessarily so. They write that it is “not at all controversial to claim that Deleuze effectively revived interest in Bergson for English speakers.” They likewise go on to note a number of well-known texts from the English-language secondary literature that “are guided by Deleuze’s interpretation”.

However, the translators are quite pointed in their evaluation of Deleuze’s book. They write that for “all its strengths … balance is not one of them.” They continue:

Deleuze interprets Bergson’s philosophy in terms of a progression, wherein the insights of his early writings are fully realized only in his later work. And it’s not as if Deleuze is coy about this feature of his interpretation. To the contrary, he couldn’t be more up front about it! Just look at the famous first lines of Bergsonism: “Duration, Memory, Élan Vital mark the major stages of Bergson’s philosophy. This book sets out to determine, first, the relationship between these three notions and, second, the progress they involve.” With his talk of stages and progress, this is a bold opening move. Indeed, it is a highly — an incredibly! — anti-Bergsonian gambit. No doubt, it buys Deleuze a sharp and systematic presentation; but it comes at the price of faithfulness to precisely what Jankélévitch labored hard to capture: the real duration and lived development of Bergson’s philosophy. Or, to put the point in more technical terms, at the outset of his interpretation of Bergson, Deleuze avowedly (I am tempted to say, brazenly) occupies the very standpoint that Bergson had spent a lifetime problematizing: a retrospective vision that sees movement only in terms of the destination it reaches.

This Bergsonian perspective that problematises “a retrospective vision that sees movement only in terms of the destination it reaches” is interesting in that it is the sort of position that, even if Deleuze does not problematise it himself in this instance, seems to be central to his later thought and, indeed, whenever Blanchot appears in Deleuze’s work, it seems to be this point that he is emphasising.

This is precisely what Blanchot means when he speaks of duration and, as I’ve spoken about very recently in my essay on friendship, this is the basis of a mid-20th century durational ethics for a whole host of writers which becomes quite explicitly associated with communism, perhaps in being thought as a temporality and subjectivity that is beyond the capitalist capture of time and labour power.

This is not to suggest that this is wholly absent from Deleuze’s thought at this point, however. As Jankélévitch’s translators write: “At every point in his interpretation Deleuze is keen to push past Bergson’s analysis of subjective experience toward an ontological — or, as he puts it, an “inhuman” or “superhuman” — register of duration.” The writer’s critique is that this selective reading, whilst perhaps more relevant to us today, is unfaithful to Bergson’s own persistently vitalist humanism.

They do go on to note, however, that these perspectives — Jankélévitch’s and Deleuze’s — whilst being “divergent”, are not “incompatible” with one another. I’ll have to finish digesting the rest of the actual book before I can comment on that…

What I find most interesting about this critical reevaluation of Deleuze’s impact on Anglo-Bergsonism, though, is that it seems to frame Bergsonism the book as something of a joke on Deleuze’s part, if only one that backfired when the work was translated into English. This seems to be so apparent that he has to return to his own book in 1988 and write an afterword reemphasising the true Bergsonism at the heart of his new Bergsonism — to emphasise its multiplicity and its “pathology of duration”; the splits that nevertheless entangled the two — the discrete and the continuous, connecting it somewhat to his thought-to-come, his difference and repetition. But, notably, Deleuze does not reevaluate his own book by making reference to his own later destinations.

He resituates Bergson’s work — and, by association, his own — as an attempt at a living project, and it is here that the importance of a true Bergsonism to schizoanalysis can be seen, so often trodden on by the same sort of theorybro-dom that makes Deleuze such an insufferable figure to talk about in many a context today.

Whilst a younger Deleuze may have approached Bergson “brazenly”, speaking to the violence of his previous “buggery” with its rape-like connotations, it seems that, later, he attempts to fix this, reestablishing himself not as a theoretical Frankenstein, producing monsters, but rather as a friend.

[1] Sidenote: This was a conversation had in the pub the other day, actually. I was chatting to some MA students who’d just had a symposium to present their dissertation ideas and someone was talking about a psychoanalyst and philosopher who had paved the way for a lot of later feminist work. I wasn’t sure who they were talking about and asked, out of curiosity. It was Lacan. I was quite surprised by this but took their word for it. I’m not so well versed in Lacanian theory at all but I offered the suggestion that, if you’re going to give that trophy to any French dude, I’d imagine Deleuze (and probably Guattari even more so?) had a better claim to that title — especially considering they were talking about Lacan as a direct influence on Irigaray. But anyway, that’s not my area of expertise.


One thought on “The Endurance of Bergsonism and the Missteps of Deleuzian Buggery

  1. “Deleuze is keen to push past Bergson’s analysis of subjective experience toward an ontological” isn’t this what you’ve done with the “weird” and or the uncanny?


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