19 Jan 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 1, §10 "The Feeling of Beauty"

by Corry Shores
[Search Blog Here. Index-tags are found on the bottom of the left column.]

[Central Entry Directory]
[Bergson, Entry Directory]
[Bergson Time and Free Will, Entry Directory]

[The following is summary; my commentary is in brackets.]

Bergson, Time and Free Will (Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience)

Chapter I, "The Intensity of Psychic States"

Part III: "The Aesthetic Feelings"

§10 "The Feeling of Beauty: Art Puts to Sleep Our Active and Resistant Powers and Makes Us Responsive to Suggestion"

We are mistaken to think that the feelings we have when seeing something beautiful may increase or decrease in intensity (13-14).

Many consider nature to possess beauty inherently, and exactly what makes it beautiful remains mysterious to us. They furthermore believe that an artist expresses the same sort of beauty that nature bears. But because nature's beauty remains mysterious, so too does art's beauty remain mysterious. (14a.b)

Bergson proposes an alternative perspective. We intentionally and consciously make art beautiful. So there are some specific properties that we find beautiful. Then by chance, nature sometimes exhibits these properties. But because we consider nature as somehow primordial, we mistakenly regard it as the origin for what we call beauty. (14b)


it seems more in conformity with the rules of a sound method to study the beautiful first in the works in which it has been produced by a conscious effort, and then to pass on by imperceptible steps from art to nature.


il semble plus conforme aux règles d'une saine méthode d'étudier d'abord le beau dans les œuvres, où il a été produit par un effort conscient, et de descendre ensuite par transitions insensibles de l'art à la nature, qui est artiste à sa manière.


Bergson will now proceed to explain why art is essentially hypnosis.

Our sensations and ideas normally proceed in an irregular flow. They do not usually come at regular paces, but rather their speeds vary continuously. However, when we listen to music, its steady rhythm and measure diverts this natural flow, and causes our attention "to swing to and fro between fixed points." (14-15)

Previously we saw how we sympathize with the dancer's graceful movements. The result is that we take-on the dancer's motional tendencies. So if the dancer's movement is abruptly halted, our bodies want to carry it on, because they have been synchronized with it all along.

So our sympathetic connection with the dancer gives us the feeling that we are the dancer's puppet master. But because of the control the dancer has over us, we instead are the puppets really.

Like a lullaby, the steadiness of the rhythm pacifies us, and it places us in a hypnotic state. But this is so for all art:

the object of art is to put to sleep the active or rather resistant powers of our personality, and thus to bring us into a state of perfect responsiveness, in which we realize the idea that is suggested to us and sympathize with the feeling that is expressed. In the processes of art we shall find, in a weakened form, a refined and in some measure spiritualized version of the processes commonly used to induce the state of hypnosis.


l'objet de l'art est d'endormir les puissances actives ou plutôt résistantes de notre personnalité, et de nous amener ainsi à un état de docilité parfaite où nous réalisons l'idée qu'on nous suggère, où nous sympathisons avec le sentiment exprimé. Dans les procédés de l'art on retrouvera sous une forme atténuée, raffinés et en quelque sorte spiritualisés, les procédés par lesquels on obtient ordinairement l'état d'hypnose.


Once we are placed in this hypnotic state, art has heightened powers of affecting us by means of suggestion. This is why the sounds of nature, as beautiful as they are, do not overcome us as powerfully as music: "nature confines itself to expressing feelings, whereas music suggests them to us." (15a)

Poets use meter to create a steady rhythm for the words' procession. That alone has a hypnotic effect. And each word or phrase conjures an image. So these images pass before our eyes to a steady beat. Moreover, each image evokes an emotion, whose sequence also moves steadily and in synchrony with the other repetitions.

but we should never realize these images so strongly without the regular movements of the rhythm by which our soul is lulled into self-forgetfulness, and, as in a dream, thinks and sees with the poet.


mais ces images ne se réaliseraient pas aussi fortement pour nous sans les mouvements réguliers du rythme, par lequel notre âme, bercée et endormie, s'oublie comme en un rêve pour penser et pour voir avec le poète.


Statues capture bodies in movement, as though halted instantaneously.

the pale immobility of the stone causes the feeling expressed or the movement just begun to appear as if they were fixed for ever, absorbing our thought and our will in their own eternity.


la pale immobilité de la pierre donne au sentiment exprimé, au mouvement commencé, je ne sais quoi de définitif et d'éternel, où notre pensée s'absorbe et où notre volonté se perd.


The rhythm of music and poetry fix us into a state where the normal flow of time is suspended. Sculpture does as well by placing the spectator into a state of consciousness where time is eternal and still.

Architecture too has a "startling immobility," but its formal elements nonetheless produces rhythmic effects in the spectator. (15d)

The symmetry of form, the indefinite repetition of the same architectural motive, causes our faculty of perception to oscillate between the same and the same again, and gets rid of those customary incessant changes which in ordinary life bring us back without ceasing to the consciousness of our personality: even the faint suggestion of an idea will then be enough to make the idea fill the whole of our mind.


La symétrie des formes, la répétition indéfinie du même motif architectural, font que notre faculté de percevoir oscille du même au même et se déshabitue de ces changements incessants qui, dans la vie journalière, nous ramènent sans cesse à la conscience de notre personnalité: l'indication, même légère, d'une idée suffira alors à remplir de cette idée notre âme entière.


So art does not try to express its feelings. Rather, it tries to impress feelings upon us through hypnotic suggestion. Yet, nature as well is suggestion. But, it "does not command the resources of rhythm." (16b) Nature has earned our sympathies from a friendship spanning all the generations of humanity, so that "the slightest indication by nature of a feeling arouses sympathy in our minds, just as a mere gesture on the part of the hypnotist is enough to force the intended suggestion upon a subject accustomed to his control." (16c)

Bergson then claims that nature evokes the most sympathy when it is as regular and even as possible:

And this sympathy is shown in particular when nature displays to us beings of normal proportions, so that our attention is distributed equally over all the parts of the figure without being fixed on any one of them: our perceptive faculty then finds itself lulled and soothed by this harmony, and nothing hinders any longer the free play of sympathy, which is ever ready to come forward as soon as the obstacle in its path is removed.


Et cette sympathie se produit en particulier quand la nature nous présente des êtres aux proportions normales, tels que notre attention se divise également entre toutes les parties de la figure sans se fixer sur aucune d'elles : notre faculté de percevoir se trouvant alors bercée par cette espèce d'harmonie, rien n'arrête plus le libre essor de la sensibilité, qui n'attend jamais que la chute de l'obstacle pour être émue sympathiquement.


[Next entry in this series.]

Images from the pages summarized above, in the English Translation [click on the image for an enlargement]:

Images from the pages summarized above, in the original French [click on the image for an enlargement]:

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, Transl. F. L. Pogson, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001).

Available online at:


French text from:

Bergson, Henri. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience. Originally published Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France, 1888.


No comments:

Post a Comment