Colloque International : « Vladimir Nabokov et la France »

Les Chercheurs enchantés : Société Française Vladimir Nabokov

Paris, 30 mai-1er juin 2013

 DE LA DURANTAYE, Leland – Claremont McKenna College, California, USA
Pure Time and Perceptual Time, or The Influence of Henri Bergson on Vladimir Nabokov

    While Henri Bergson was likely not what Maeterlinck suggested he was –“l’homme le plus dangereux du monde”—Bergson’s vision of time and memory, more even perhaps than for the philosophers of his generation and the one that was to follow it, was phenomenally influential for the creative writers of the first part of this century (one would do well to remember the intensity of feelings that Bergson’s writings raised for members of Nabokov’s generation:  Julien Benda remarked that he would have joyfully killed Bergson if he might thus have arrested his influence; T.S. Eliot was at no small pains to denounce the « epidemic » which was « Bergsonism”; William James said of reading Bergson that, « it is like the breath of the morning and the song of the birds”).  For his part, Vladimir Nabokov was charmed enough by Bergson’s matinal song to list him among his preferred authors in the years he was forming his literary vision.
    Bergson was such a phenomenally appealing philosopher to artists of Nabokov’s generation, and the one directly preceding it (which was Bergson’s own, and that of his cousin Proust), for a number of reasons.  One is indeed his style, the rhythms and cadences of his elegant and flowing, his “musical” prose  (Bergson was awarded in 1928 the Nobel Prize for Literature).  What is more, this eloquence, this fluidity and facility of Bergson’s prose is ringed with a sort of désinvolture in that Bergson ceaselessly indicts language for its creation of false problems, its false découpures of rolling, swelling, constantly creative life.  And yet this eloquence and its corresponding dismissal as not essential, and even as an impediment, to the intuitive apperception of durée also appealed (and appeals) to artists for the place it gives precisely to artistic intuition.  Bergson consequently presented art, works of art, and artistic gestures as undivided motions which can only be falsified by the analyzing (that is, the dividing, the segmentarizing) mind.  To wit, the artist need not answer to the critic; the critic can never be commensurate, at least by way of analysis, of division and separation, with the artist and his or her initial, original gesture.
    These aspects of Bergson’s writing in all probability contributed to the attention that Nabokov devoted to Bergson—at least during the ‘20’s to the ‘30’s (and again in the mid-60’s during the composition of Ada—as evidenced by the preparatory notes to that novel contained in the Berg Collection).  But more particularly, in questions pertaining to theories of time and memory that Bergson was most important for the development of Nabokov’s thought—and most useful in its understanding today.  It is for this reason all the more surprising that the profound links between the two writers have gone relatively unremarked upon by critics of Nabokov.  One is pleased to note that the editor of The Garland Companion dedicates an entry to their relation, but one is disappointed to find that, given the importance of the connection, that the entry in question fails to take into account the points on which Nabokov and Bergson most powerfully agree and disagree.  The Bergson studied in The Garland Companion is the mystical Bergson, the Bergson who left no visible traces in Nabokov’s work but who, following the author of this entry, shared with Nabokov a belief in another world beyond this one.  Writers who believe in another world beyond this one are not rare in this or any other century and thus the mere presence of this theme in both writers hardly seems important enough to dedicate such attention to it (no case is made in said entry that Nabokov’s belief in immortality, or his manner of evoking it, was directly or even indirectly conditioned or formed by his reading of Bergson). Nabokov repeatedly rejected organized religion and aligned his faith in another world and time-eternal with no system of beliefs; Bergson, on the other hand, was a practicing and openly religious man and wrote openly of his religiosity.  This is disappointing as an exploration of a shared “cosmogony” given that it is conducted to the detriment of the conceptions of time and memory which so link Nabokov and Bergson (and are which accorded a single summary paragraph).  Other critics have studied the relation, such as Michael Glynn, Brian Boyd, and others, and advanced its understanding. That said, I believe a more direct linking of the two men’s views can reveal essential insights into Nabokov’s conceptions of creativity and memory.  I propose, therefore, to align Bergson’s so-called “anti-intellectualism,” his dismissal of Einstein’s relativity, his definitions of image, reality and perception and his theories about the memory and time with Nabokov’s very similar views on those questions.  In doing so I will stress the ways in which Nabokov’s conception of memory sharply differs from Proust’s, and is extraordinarily close to Bergson’s.  The goal is a clearer understanding of the relation between what Nabokov calls in Speak, Memory “the prison of time” and art’s way out of it.

Leland De la Durantaye is the author of Style is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov and Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction, and the translator of Jacques Jouet’s Upstaged. He is Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College.