Eliot And Bergson

After completing his undergraduate and Master's degrees at Harvard, Eliot spent the year 1910-1911 in Paris, during which time he attended Bergson's lectures at the Coll├Ęge de France. He later admitted to a 'temporary conversion to Bergsonism' (1948b: 5), and Bergson was the subject of one of the papers he wrote after returning to Harvard to study for his doctorate in philosophy. The paper criticizes what Eliot sees as inconsistencies in Bergson's philosophy, particularly Bergson's attempt to reconcile idealism and realism by locating reality in neither the consciousness nor the external world, but in the tension between the two. For Eliot, only one or the other could logically be true (Habib 1999: 49-54).

Despite this major disagreement, Bergson's legacy can be discerned in Eliot's writings, especially in the poems he wrote while in Paris. 'Rhapsody on a Windy Night' (written 1911, published 1915) is the most frequently cited example of Bergson's influence. In this poem, the speaker, or more precisely, the thinker, moves through a sordid symbolist cityscape, letting his mind flit between observations of his environment and memories they suggest. The thinker appears to enact Bergson's theory of memory, in which images from the past 'must constantly mingle with our perception of the present, and may even take its place' (Bergson 1988: 66; Childs 2001: 19). So, Eliot writes, the night 'dissolve[s]'

the floors of memory And all Its clear relations, Its divisions and precisions.

The sight of a prostitute in a doorway is the cue for a chain of memories, 'a twisted branch upon the beach', 'a broken spring in a factory yard'. By the fourth stanza, the remembered details are as vivid as those seen: a cat lit up by a street lamp 'Slips out its tongue / And devours a morsel of rancid butter', which recalls 'the hand of the child, automatic' which 'pocketed a toy that was running along the quay' and a crab that 'Gripped the end of a stick which I held him'. At the end of the poem the street lamp calls the thinker back from his reverie, and he is confronted by the accoutrements of everyday external life: 'The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall, / Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life'. The triviality and, especially, the mechanization expressed in the latter line represent for the thinker 'The last twist of the knife' (1969a: 24-26; Childs 2001: 62).

0 0

Post a comment