21 Jan 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 1, §11 "Stages in the Aesthetic Emotion"

by Corry Shores
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[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"

§11 "Stages in the Aesthetic Emotion"

We saw previously that art hypnotizes us and affects us through hypnotic suggestion.

[The loss of a loved one causes us profound grief. We may feel grief as well when watching a tragedy. Like the grace of the dancer, the dramatists cast a spell on us and forge a sympathetic bond. The pain that the tragic character suffers is neither our pain nor the pain of someone we know or care about. And the emotions that the actor plays are not real emotions. They are representations. But they suggest images that we associate with real causes of pain.]

For Bergson, any feeling has the potential to be an aesthetic feeling. All that is required is that the feeling is suggested and not caused.

Bergson will now explain why we mistakenly think that aesthetic emotions may take on varying degrees of intensity, rather than each be no more than qualitatively different.

We might not value art or music that uses shock to command our attention. It seems cheap. So we do not measure the artwork's merit according to its power of commanding our emotions. A Shakespeare play will carry us through a wealth of complex emotions. We value artistic masterpieces according to the richness of the feelings they give us.

Any one moment of our lives might not by itself be rich or complex. But if we look at larger portions of our lives, we find many ironies, paradoxes, surprises, contradictions, puzzles, dramatic swings, and the like. So if we could capture a portion of our histories rather than just a moment, we could express a very rich and complex feeling.

Bergson says this is precisely the artist's talent. He suggests to us feelings and thoughts that "sum up more or less a considerable part of his history." (17d) One suggestion shades each of our thousands of constituent states so variously that the feeling is indescribable. So much, that we feel we need to enter into the artist's life in order to grasp the emotion in its original complexity.

Because the feeling is inexplicit [and hence intense in the Deleuzean sense], the artist cannot enable us to understand it. However, he uses his finely crafted technique to skillfully select those "outward signs of his emotions" that our bodies are most likely to imitate mechanically. Too much will just be shock, so the artist affects us subtly. He transports us then to the indefinable psychological state he wishes to express. (17-18)

The painter for example paints her work long before we view it, and often does so in some other part of the world. But by the hypnotic power of her technique, she breaks down these temporal and spatial barriers between her consciousness and ours. And the richer the emotions and ideas the artwork expresses, the higher we judge its beauty. The emotions are rich when they evoke a wide range of changing complex feelings. When a greater number of our constituent states contribute to the complex emotion, we perceive a higher degree of depth to the feeling. (18c)

[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.


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