:: Article

Henri Bergson writes about time

By C. D. Rose.

 

 

Henri Bergson sits at his desk in a modest house on a quiet street near the Porte d’Auteuil and tries to measure a moment.  The clock ticks, the light through the window slats stretches across the floor, barely perceptible.  The desk extends to the wall, a flat plane piled with the slow accumulation of his life.  He cannot see where the desk ends and the wall begins.  A blank sheet of paper lies before him.

He begins to write.  The words come without ease, his black, crabbed handwriting crawling slowly across the page.  He has not thought clearly enough: he needs to think more carefully, to have his ideas clear, before he can begin to write.  He wonders if thought precedes word, or word precedes thought.

Henri Bergson is bored, and wonders if more coffee will redeem his situation.   He rings the bell to call the maid and immediately forgets he has done so.  The second he tries to measure the instant, the instant is gone.  You can measure a line, he realises, because a line is complete and immobile, but time is neither of those.  Better try measuring the wind, or using a ruler to measure the sun.

Marie arrives with coffee.  She puts a cup on the desk, raises the pot and begins to pour.  Henri Bergson watches carefully: the emptying pot, the filling cup, the spout of coffee in mid-air.  He feels he could be watching for hours, but knows that it is only seconds when the spout twists awkwardly and hits the rim of the cup, upsetting it, sending coffee spilling across the desk, the white sheet of paper, his lap.  He jumps up, not yet scalded, Marie drops the pot which lands on the carpet and does not break, only spills its last few dregs.

Monsieur!’ cries Marie.

‘It is nothing, it is nothing,’ insists the philosopher, frantically dabbing at himself.  ‘Go and fetch a cloth, or something.’  Marie runs from the room, in tears.

 

Henri Bergson sits at his desk and feels time speeding up and slowing down.  He looks at the clock on the wall and realises that time is doing neither, but measures out a ponderous steadiness.  He knows time is immeasurable, but tries anyway.

 

Although Henri Bergson does not yet know it, the apex of his career may have passed, even though he is yet to win the Nobel Prize (for literature, not physics).  A year ago, Henri Bergson met Albert Einstein at the Société française de philosophie in Paris to discuss the meaning of relativity.  The meeting, for Bergson at least, was not a success.

Henri Bergson hardly hears the knock on the door of his study and the maid entering, noticing only a large cup of strong black coffee appearing on his desk.  He wonders why his trousers are damp and cooling.

The memory of the debate still rankles.  He had wanted to talk about science; the scientist, about philosophy.  They said he didn’t understand physics; he knew they hadn’t understood philosophy.  He hadn’t wanted to offend anyone, respected the German physicist and his work.  He had said so, quite clearly.  It was that relativity, he thought, wasn’t enough.  In that story about the twins, the clocks wouldn’t slow.  He listens to the clock tick tick ticking on the wall of his own study and knows that – regularly wound – it would neither slow nor speed wherever it were placed.  But what those twins did, what they thought and experienced, that would surely be different, and that would interfere with their sense of time passed, passing and to come.  The physicists hadn’t listened.

When Henri Bergson goes to drink the coffee, it has gone cold.  The lack of warmth accentuates its bitterness.  He screws up his face and spits it back into the cup.  How long had it been sitting there, he wonders, for it to go so cold?

But science and philosophy had different jobs to do, though intricately related: two twins, perhaps, one catapulted into space, the other remaining with his feet firmly upon the Earth.  He wonders if he may have an other, a strange twin-like creature out there somewhere, a multiple of himself, experiencing time differently.

Henri Bergson looks at the blank sheet of paper in front of him.  He has written nothing, it seems, though the paper is now stained with coffee.  He rings for Marie again and when she arrives he has almost forgotten he had called her.

‘Ah, yes, Marie,’ he says.  ‘You have been looking very tired recently.  I wondered if you had thought perhaps about taking some time off.’

The maid looks at him with a trace of anxiety.

‘But Monsieur,’ she says, ‘I am not Marie.  Marie left last month.  I am her cousin, Marianne.’

‘You look very alike.  Almost as if you were twins.’

‘They say so, Sir, yes.’

 

Henri Bergson looks at the typewriter on his desk.  An Underwood Standard No. 5, a gift from his publisher no longer able to read the cramped writing of the manuscripts he now produces due to the arthritis in his hands.  He has tried to use it but it hurts his fingers even more than gripping a pen.  He was advised to have a secretary and dictate but he does not like anyone else between the flow of his thoughts and the paper.  The infernal thing makes a terrible noise, disturbing the silence he needs to write with, the silence regularly punctuated by the clock on the wall.  This room, on a quiet street in Paris, is so silent he can hear his own heart beat marking out his own time which one day will pass, his heartbeat, usually so slow, now momentarily quickened by that small sip of strong black coffee.  The clicks and the clacks of the typewriter were too irregular, punctuating nothing other than the slow speed of his writing: a quick burst followed by long gaps.

There is a knock at the door.

‘Come in,’ says Henri Bergson.  It is the maid.

‘Excuse me, Monsieur, I came to clear up the mess.’  She points to a broken china coffee pot on the floor.

 

Henri Bergson looks at the spools of ribbon on each side of the typewriter’s barrel.  One unravels, time moving to its end, the other collects, accumulating continuously.  Were he to remove and unspool it, the one on the right would bear the trace of all the words he had written, however few of them.  It would remember as surely as the paper feeding under it remembered.  The duration would be homogenous, not reflecting the time that had or hadn’t passed under the ribbon’s experience of his words.  One could take the used part of the ribbon, and place it over the empty, unexperienced part and the two moments would become one somehow, yet the two experiences would be different.  Henri Bergson thinks no two moments are ever identical, however much this quiet Monday morning slowly moving into afternoon is so similar to the Monday before, and will be like the Tuesday to follow.  Only the Tuesday will be different, even though he will be sitting at his desk, not writing, wondering how long it takes his coffee to go cold, because tomorrow’s Tuesday will contain this Monday within it, like the imprint of the letters on the spool.   Duration conserves the past.   Duration is memory, and tomorrow he will remember how the light moves so slightly differently, at a different angle, longer now, the days beginning to stretch into summer.  This moment, now, so different to the one only a second ago, because it bears the knowledge of that moment.  The past gets bigger, the future, like the dwindling spool, worryingly smaller.

Henri Bergson looks at the notes he has written on the paper before him, and has difficulty deciphering his own handwriting.  He has to squint as he reads.  ‘Did I write this?’ he asks himself.  ‘What was I thinking?’  He wonders if some other hand may have come and written the words for him, so alien to him do they seem now.  Perhaps he should have some coffee, perhaps he is drinking too much coffee.  He calls for the maid.

Henri Bergson tries to measure time and realises time can only be measured in decay.  That of his own body, its heartbeat slowing again now, the tired ache in his fingers the signs of decrepitude that will one day, he fears, render him totally immobile.  Henri Bergson wonders and worries what, where and how time is.  How can that machine know of time? What does the clock know of what it counts out?  Time is something humans have invented to put a measure, a fix, a hold on the infinite chaos of the universe and our lives.  Time is in our bodies, and in our consciousness.

He hears a slow knock at the door, almost indistinguishable from the tick of the clock, the beat of his heart.  The door opens.

‘I’m sorry Monsieur,’ the maid says.  ‘I have been very tired recently.  I shall be taking some time off.  My cousin Marianne will be coming instead.  I have already spoken to Madame.’

 

Henri Bergson accepts time as he understands it, and places himself firmly in the midst of duration.  Everything that has happened is present here, now, though none of it affects what will come.  He has freedom, space, mobility.

Henri Bergson watches the black spout of coffee reach from the pot to the rim of his cup.

‘Thank you Marianne,’ he says.  ‘That will be all.’

 

Henri Bergson looks at what he has written this morning and wonders how long it has taken him to write this, how long it will take to read, and how long it will be remembered.  In this second, Henri Bergson feels himself complete and immobile.  Would it be possible, he wonders, to measure my life?

Henri Bergson watches coffee slowly pooling across his desk, staining the white paper, turning his words back into ink.

Henri Bergson sits at his desk and writes about time.  He hears the sound of his pen scratching against the page, its lonely voice leaving marks which will one day be all that remains of him.  He looks at the light on the floor, the motes of dust in the air, hears the silence between the ticks of the clock.  There are no moments; there is no now.  Only the past, passed, touching the what-will-be.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.D. Rose is the editor of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (published by Melville House), and has also published stories in Gorse magazine, with Galley Beggar Press and Daunt Books.

ABOUT THE ARTWORK
Manipulated detail of a Henri Bergson portrait. He is photographed sitting behind his desk.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017.