25 Jan 2009

Darwin's Teeth Gnashed Infernal: Inescapable Agony Expressed by Every Part of the Body

by Corry Shores
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In his Time and Free Will (Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience), Bergson argues that when pain increases, it does not increase in any one part of the body. Rather, it merely spreads to more parts of the body. In The Expression of the Emotions, Darwin illustrates the way that extreme agony is expressed all throughout the organism's body. Bergson cites parts of Darwin's description. Below are the full paragraphs of Darwin's text. The sentences in bold are the specific ones Bergson quotes. [The paragraphs are arranged in the order of Bergson's citation.]

An emotion may be very strong, but it will have little tendency to induce movements of any kind, if it has not commonly led to voluntary action for its relief or gratification; and when movements are excited, their nature is, to a large extent, determined by those which have often and voluntarily been performed for some definite end under the same emotion. Great pain urges all animals, and has urged them during endless generations, to make the most violent and diversified efforts to escape from the cause of suffering. Even when a limb or other separate part of the body is hurt, we often see a tendency to shake it, as if to shake off the cause, though this may obviously be impossible. Thus a habit of exerting with the utmost force all the muscles will have been established, whenever great suffering is experienced. As the muscles of the chest and vocal organs are habitually used, these will be particularly liable to be acted on, and loud, harsh screams or cries will be uttered. But the advantage derived from out-cries has here probably come into play in an important manner; for the young of most animals, when in distress or danger, call loudly to their parents for aid, as do the members of the same community for mutual aid.

When animals suffer from an agony of pain, they generally writhe about with frightful contortions; and those which habitually use their voices utter piercing cries or groans. Almost every muscle of the body is brought into strong action. With man the mouth may be closely compressed, or more commonly the lips are retracted, with the teeth clenched or ground together. There is said to be " gnashing of teeth " in hell; and I have plainly heard the grinding of the molar teeth of a cow which was suffering acutely from inflammation of the bowels. The female hippopotamus in the Zoological Gardens, when she produced her young, suffered greatly ; she incessantly walked about, or rolled on her sides, opening and closing her jaws, and clattering her teeth together. With man the eyes stare wildly as in horrified astonishment, or the brows are heavily contracted. Perspiration bathes the body, and drops trickle down the face. The circulation and respiration are much affected. Hence the nostrils are generally dilated and often quiver; or the breath may be held until the blood stagnates in the purple face. If the agony be severe and prolonged, these signs all change ; utter prostration follows, with fainting or convulsions. (68-69)

Images of the relevant pages from Darwin's text [click image for enlargement]:

Images of the relevant pages from the English translation of Bergson's text [click image for enlargement]:

Images of the relevant pages from Bergson's original French text [click image for enlargement]:

Charles Darwin. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
Available online at:

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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