Traces of Bergson

June 21, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Read Lalucq’s full poem from Fortino Sámano here:

Bergson’s Creative Evolution:

For our upcoming Quarterly Discussion, we will discuss a selection from Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution. I had such a difficult time narrowing down this reading because there are so many wonderful avenues to take. I find his ideas of multiplicity to be very much in our rhetoric today. Since these concepts challenge the reader, today, I wanted to apply them to a contemporary poem which may (or may not) illustrate some of his ideas. Below, I focus on a single poem from Fortino Sámano by Virginie Lalucq which demonstrates, at least to me, the way that perspective alters a thing. This concept aligns with Bergson’s discussions of duration and reality.

I really enjoy how Virginie Lalucq plays with Bergson’s ideas of being and time. In Lalucq’s poetic series on Fortino Sámano, the narrator assumes the persona of Sámano on the day of his execution. Using nothing more than the last surviving photo, she begins a narration of his final thoughts. The poems, however, do not contain his voice any more than they contain the poet’s. Rather, they demonstrate an interplay between reality and perception, vital ideas in Bergson’s theories. In Chapter IV of Creative Evolution, Bergson addresses duration and perception. He suggests that the mind does not invent reality, but reconstructs a portion of it. In fact, reality happens simultaneous to a single perception of reality. This gives rise to the idea of multiplicity. Bergson writes,

“Matter or mind, reality has appeared to us as a perpetual becoming. It makes itself or it unmakes itself, but it is never something made. Such is the intuition that we have of mind when we draw aside the veil which is interposed between our consciousness and ourselves. This, also, is what our intellect and senses themselves would show us of matter, if they could obtain a direct and disinterested idea of it. But, preoccupied before everything with the necessities of action, the intellect, like the senses, is limited to taking, at intervals, views that are instantaneous and by that very fact immobile of the becoming of matter. Consciousness, being in its turn formed on the intellect, sees clearly of the inner life what is already made, and only feels confusedly the making. Thus, we pluck out of duration those moments that interest us, and that we have gathered along its course. These alone we retain. And we are right in so doing, while action only is in question. But when, in speculating on the nature of the real, we go on regarding it as our practical interest requires us to regard it, we become unable to perceive the true evolution, the radical becoming. Of becoming we perceive only states, of duration only instants, and even when we speak of duration and of becoming, it is of another thing that we are thinking. Such is the most striking of the two illusions we wish to examine. It consists in supposing that we can think the unstable by means of the stable, the moving by means of the immobile.” (273)

In her poetry, Virginie Lalucq plays with this idea. The narrator wonders about Sámano and asks, “How can he be absolutely in motion and/ absolutely motionless at the same time?” In other words, why does the photograph appear to be a single, instantaneous image, but in reality is a container for many narratives. The viewer perpetually makes and unmakes the image, adding details, questioning details, and then changing the narrative again. This reflects Bergson’s idea that we perceive only states of becoming, but not becoming in its entirety. This is our attempt to make something concrete out of something much too fluid which in this case is, ironically, a photograph.

Furthermore, the narrator addresses the dilemma of an absolute. The image has become shaded, “snowy,” distorted or unclear. The opacity heightens the enigmatic ending which reads: “From which the snowy/ image: each thing in its place is absolutely in/ motion is absolutely at rest.” The line break indicates a potential definition for image: “each thing in its place is absolutely in.” Generally speaking, the voice indicates that an image contains everything, perhaps even the motion. However, they also note that the motion is at rest, which reiterates the question from the beginning: how can he be simultaneously in motion and motionless? The poem’s structure literally reflects this question by placing four lines above and four lines below the central word: “absolutely?” This word becomes its own line because it is the key to the poem. That it is in the form of a question demonstrates its inability to be pinned down or defined.

This poem is about both becoming and duration. This poem demonstrates multiplicity because without multiplicity the reader (and narrator) would not be able to embody Sámano, to recreate his life from images, to wonder about the details in the photo’s background. In short, the reader moves Sámano because of the mind’s ability to think in terms of multiple realities. Only through the dense stream of reality can one body understand the “traces” left by motionless bodies. I think this poem directly expresses the confusion that one feels in trying to assemble reality, or, in Bergson’s terms, in trying to come to terms with the way that consciousness constructs our duration. It indicates that consciousness “sees clearly of the inner life what is already made, and only feels confusedly the making.”

I wonder about the idea of duration and how it plays into our knowledge base, or our constructed world. I want to see more examples of the “radical becoming.” For this reason, and many others, I am excited to discuss Bergson’s ideas in our upcoming Quarterly Discussion. If you would like to join, email for more information.

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The World Upside Down

October 14, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“So come out of your cave walking on your hands/ And see the world hanging upside down/ You can understand dependence when you know the maker's land” - Mumford and Sons, “The Cave”
“Without pride or delusion,/ the fault of attachment overcome,/ intent on the self within,/ their desires extinguished,/ freed from dualities,/ from joy and suffering,/ undeluded men/ reach that realm beyond change.” (The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna's Fifteenth Teaching: "The True Spirit of Man")

The Bhagavad Gita is written as a dialogue between the great warrior, Arjuna, and his spiritual leader, Krishna. Yet, the Fifteenth Teaching: "The True Spirit of Man", involves no true dialogue. Instead, Krishna explains man's spirit to Arjuna. Krishna begins the chapter with:

“Roots in the air, branches below,/ the tree of life is unchanging,/ they say, its leaves are hymns,/ and he who knows it knows sacred lore.
“Its branches/ stretch below and above,/ nourished by nature's qualities,/ budding with sense objects;/ aerial roots/ tangled in actions/ reach downward/ into the world of men.
“Its form is unknown here in the world/ unknown are its end,/ its beginning, its extent;/ cut down this tree/ that has such deep roots/ with the sharp ax/ of detachment.”

This idea of branches above and below, as if nurturing two different aspects of the world, is vital to this view of detachment. I am drawn to images that reflect this inner/outer phenomenon and the relevance of detaching. There is a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End in which Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) realizes the literal difference between sunset and sundown. Once he realizes that sundown is a direction, then he gets the crew to flip the ship. The next image is a switch of ocean and sky. This creates a new world, or at least, a new perspective on the world. It also mimics the idea presented in Plato's "Allegory of a Cave". The Allegory is one of the most widely read and discussed pieces of philosophy. It has numerous elements of interest, but for today's purpose, I wonder about the idea of human nature as set in his initial premise. Is it possible for the chained being to realize that there is more than what he can physically see and/or experience? Could the chained man realize a simpler answer without the physical removal of the cave? Could he instead, rise out of himself without ever having left the cave? Plato notes that these men in the cave would see shadows only and not reality. He writes, “[W]ould they not suppose they were naming what was actually before them?” While it is certainly true that we only know of a thing by its dimensions and sensory details, or by our experience of them, it is also true that the importance of names is important to the self. Therefore, the self is intrinsically involved in the naming of a thing. In other words, would the man in the cave be able to find that inner self which enables him to create names?

Action is vital in The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps because it is written to a warrior who is saddened by the current battle. Action, however, does not reflect the self so much as Krishna himself who physically leads the body towards a true destiny. In the Thirteenth Teaching of The Bhagavad Gita: “Knowing the Field”, Krishna states, “He who really sees/ that all actions are performed/ by nature alone and that the self/ is not an actor./ When he perceives the unity/ existing in separate creatures/ and how they expand from unity,/ he attains the infinite spirit.” The field is our current circumstance, or current existence and environment, whatever that may be. Action may not necessarily be physical, but in thinking, we also prepare.

The image of an upside-down world is all about changing perspective. About looking into a new place for answers, in some cases, perhaps the simplest of places. I suggest the interior self as the simplest, but also, ironically, the most complex, place to reach. In the introductory quote (“You can understand dependence when you know the maker's land”), then, the “maker's land” is understood to be the self, not the landscape. In this sense, the landscape merely offers a reflection of ourselves. And it claims that we gain an understanding of dependence, which I assume means on our need to continually find and understand our interior being. What we become dependent upon might depend upon the person. In The Bhagavad Gita, one becomes dependent upon seeking Krishna, who also represents things like knowledge, spirit, self and unity.

Perhaps another way of looking at this is through the idea of a vessel. Plato writes, “And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels”. These vessels are only visual objects for the chained men. However, if they have noticed the jars at all, then they have a reason for identifying it as separate from other things. Either the vessel contains intrinsic meaning or the chained men have located a meaning within themselves. We perceive, separate, and seek to know our world as best we can. Plato's allegory is only one attempt at perception. Knowing that there are many others, I end with this quote from “The Anecdote of the Jar” by Wallace Stevens:

“The wilderness rose up to it,/ And sprawled around, no longer wild./ The jar was round upon the ground/ And tall and of a port in air.”


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