20 Jan 2010

Novel Time. TF §82 How Analysis and Description Distort the Feelings. Bergson. Time and Free Will

by Corry Shores
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Novel Time

Henri Bergson

Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness
Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience

Ch. II, "The Multiplicity of Conscious States," "The Idea of Duration"
De la multiplicité des états de conscience : l'idée
de durée

Part XXVIII: The Two Aspects of the Self
Les deux aspects de moi

Previously Bergson explained how words fix our fleeting sensations. Language allows us to group distinct experiences under one heading, for practical purposes. Yet doing so distorts the irreducible uniqueness of each experienced moment.

§82 How Analysis and Description Distort the Feelings

Our immediate consciousness is most distorted when we apply language to our feelings. An emotion is never so simple that one word could describe it.

A violent love or a deep melancholy takes possession of our soul: here we feel a thousand different elements which dissolve into and permeate one another without any precise outlines, without the least tendency to externalize themselves in relation to one another; hence their originality. We distort them as soon as we distinguish a numerical multiplicity in their confused mass: what will it be, then, when we set them out, isolated from one another, in this homogeneous medium which may be called either time or space, whichever you prefer? A moment ago each of them was borrowing an indefinable colour from its surroundings: now we have it colourless, and ready to accept a name. The feeling itself is a being which lives and develops and is therefore constantly changing (132bc-133)

Un amour violent, une mélancolie profonde envahissent notre âme : ce sont mille éléments divers qui se fondent, qui se pénètrent, sans contours précis, sans la moindre tendance à s'extérioriser les uns par rapport aux autres ; leur originalité est à ce prix. Déjà ils se déforment quand nous démêlons dans leur masse confuse une multiplicité numérique : que sera-ce quand nous les déploierons, isolés les uns des autres, dans ce milieu homogène qu'on appellera maintenant, comme on voudra, temps ou espace ? Tout à l'heure chacun d'eux empruntait une indéfinissable coloration au milieu où il était placé : le voici décoloré, et tout prêt à recevoir un nom. Le sentiment lui-même est un être qui vit, qui se développe, qui change par conséquent sans cesse (100c-d).

Complex emotions are alive because they develop throughout a duration whose heterogeneous moments permeate one another. But when we distinguish these originally continuously states and assign words to them, we deprive them of their true life.

By separating these moments from each other, by spreading out time in space, we have caused this feeling to lose its life and its colour. Hence, we are now standing before our own shadow: we believe that we have analysed our feeling, while we have really replaced it by a juxtaposition of lifeless states which can be translated into words, and each of which constitutes the common element, the impersonal residue, of the impressions felt in a given case by the whole of society. (133b)

en séparant ces moments les uns des autres, en déroulant le temps dans l'espace, nous avons fait perdre à ce sentiment son animation et sa couleur. Nous voici donc en présence de l'ombre de nous-mêmes : nous croyons avoir analysé notre sentiment, nous lui avons substitué en réalité une juxtaposition d'états inertes, traduisibles en mots, et qui constituent chacun l'élément commun, le résidu par conséquent impersonnel, des impressions ressenties dans un cas donné par la société entière. (101a)

[Consider how we might attribute the weather to our moods.] After rendering our complex emotions into simple generalities, we may later apply logic to them to produce deductions (133c).

Bergson now has us consider a hypothetical novelist. She writes in such a way that her book breaks down our categories and causes us to see "under this appearance of logic a fundamental absurdity, under this juxtaposition of simple states an infinite permeation of a thousand different impressions which have already ceased to exist the instant they are named" (133d). Bergson [writing in France, 1888 or so] is aware of no such novelist. Any such writer Bergson knows "spreads out our feeling in a homogeneous time, and expresses its elements by words" (133-134). By doing so, she "is only offering us its shadow" (134a). And nonetheless, the writer uses her talents to point us to the deeper level of pure conscious duration.

but he has arranged this shadow in such a way as to make us suspect the extraordinary and illogical nature of the object which projects it; he has made us reflect by giving outward expression to something of that contradiction, that interpenetration, which is the very essence of the elements expressed. Encouraged by him, we have put aside for an instant the veil which we interposed between our consciousness and ourselves. He has brought us back into our own presence. (134b)

seulement, il a disposé cette ombre de manière à nous faire soupçonner la nature extraordinaire et illogique de l'objet qui la projette; il nous a invités à la réflexion en mettant dans l'expression extérieure quelque chose de cette contradiction, de cette pénétration mutuelle, qui constitue l'essence même des éléments exprimés. Encouragés par lui, nous avons écarté pour un instant le voile que nous interposions entre notre conscience et nous. Il nous a remis en présence de nous-mêmes. (101d)

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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.

Available online at:


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