- The Crisis in Modernism: Bergson and the Vitalist Controversy, and: Inventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde
In his fine contribution to the collection of essays in The Crisis in Modernism, Richard Lehan observes that Bergson “undid the notions of mechanism and teleology, undercut both Enlightenment and Darwinian assumptions, gave weight to the modernist belief that art is the highest function of our activity, and helped establish the modernist belief that the universe is inseparable from mind and that the self is created out of memory. If the moderns did not have Bergson, they would have had to invent him” (311). Of course the moderns did have Bergson, but the fact did not prevent them from inventing him anyway, and the overly eager appropriations and reformulations of his thought prior to the Great War were so widespread that it was common to speak of an international “Bergson mania.”
The point is worth making because, though no one would dispute Bergson’s central importance to modernism, we are, more than a hundred years after the publication of Time and Free Will (1889), far from reaching a consensus on the extent or the consequences of that influence. It seems implausible, not to say outlandish, to claim that Bergson is a neglected figure in twentieth-century intellectual and cultural history. Nevertheless, the editors of The Crisis in Modernism are entirely justified in suggesting that Bergson’s work may well represent “a repressed content of modern thought” (7), and their provocative and various collection of essays serves to substantiate that view.
The volume is divided into three parts: historical background; vitalism in twentieth-century philosophy and science; and vitalism in twentieth-century literature and aesthetics. There is considerable slippage in this organization (George Rousseau’s essay on the background of vitalism, for example, carries well into the twentieth century, and Sanford Schwartz’s and Richard Lehan’s essays in the third section supply historical backgrounds of their own) but the arrangement is more or less satisfactory.
In part 1, George Rousseau supplies a broad and highly particularized historical background to the vitalist movement, beginning with its origins in the biological debates between preformationists (mechanists) and epigeneticists (vitalists) in the Enlightenment and the manifold responses to Cartesian dualism and mechanistic hypotheses that cast doubts upon the active hand of a living creator. He follows the intricate course of vitalism through such romantics as Goethe, Novalis, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, and ends with a consideration of the “new vitalism” of the German scientist and philosopher Hans Dreisch and Bergson. The concluding section of Rousseau’s essay serves in addition as an introduction to a never before translated essay by Mikhail Bakhtin entited “Contemporary Vitalism”—a thoroughgoing critique of Dreisch’s vitalism as founded upon unscientific metaphysical postulates, in particular his notion of equipotential systems and his revivification of Aristotle’s concept of entelechy as an explanatory principle.
The first section is completed by more focused essays on particular antecedents to twentieth-century vitalism. Jack H. Hager considers Coleridge, in Hints Towards the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life and some of his unpublished writings, to have anticipated Bergson in several ways, but as having stopped short of articulating a full-blown immanentist philosophy. Frederick Burwick explores Sir Charles [End Page 175] Bell’s vitalist challenge to William Paley’s mechanistic Natural Theology; particularly in his study of the human hand, Bell argued that a mechanistic physiological explanation of how the sensory organization of the nervous system transmits information to the brain is deficient and requires the study of vital systems, rather than positing the concept of a vital essence to give a full account of this mystery. Finally, Frederick Amrine contests Nietzsche’s status as a Lebenphilosoph; his concept of life is essentially a drained one, at best a “semantic halo” (143). “If Nietzsche stands in...