- Bergson and American Culture: The Worlds of Willa Cather and Wallace Stevens
Tom Quirk's purpose in Bergson and American Culture is twofold: to chronicle the influence of Henri Bergson on American cultural life in the decade before World War One and, more specifically, to consider how Bergson's vitalism helped to transform the art of Willa Cather and Wallace Stevens. Although acknowledging that his work is an "influence study," Quirk is less interested in pursuing the usual source hunting than in tracing how Bergson's vitalist aesthetic met the imaginative needs of two writers who sought to reconcile what they perceived as a schism between art and life. Neither, Quirk stresses, trafficked in philosophical ideas or sought to add a Bergsonian patina to their work. Bergson's was a more subtle presence, bodied forth in an organic vision of life and earth that was nourished by Bergson's vitalist biology.
As preface to his discussion of Cather and Stevens, Quirk considers the intellectual, cultural, and literary flavor of the era in which they matured. The hesitancy and self-questioning of their apprentice years, Quirk believes, was fed by two then-current philosophical views: a deterministic positivism which reduced human agency to the merely mechanical; and a vague transcendentalism that placed its faith in an ultimate reality divorced from human contingency. Neither provided an asethetic that anchored the "creative imagination" in the quotidian. Around 1910, however, the perception of a "new reality" emerged for which Bergson "served as an integrating and luminous intelligence."
Quirk's opening chapters provide a lucid summary of key features of Bergson's philosophy as well as a valuable account, heretofore largely neglected, of his considerable [End Page 567] influence on the historical, political, and feminist thought of the period. In the "case study" of Willa Cather that follows, Quirk deftly argues that Cather's reading of Bergson's Creative Evolution in 1912 confirmed her own artistic intuitions and enabled her to exchange "a mechanistic view of the world for an organic one." Beginning with O Pioneers! Cather's art bespeaks the primacy of Bergson's moi fundamentale, deeply attuned to an immanent "life impluse" which it both intuits and channels. Equally, in her following work, especially The Song of the Lark, Cather conveys the power of what Bergson called "pure perception"—moments when the imagination dispenses with secondary symbolic modes and immerses itself in the "dreamlike state" of pure duration.
Quirk's final chapters outline the striking parallels between Stevens' faith in the "transmuting power of the imagination" and Bergson's philosophy of immanence. Like Bergson, whom Stevens mentions in several essays, Stevens' loving colloquy with a "fluent mundo" reveals the intuitive power of the mind not only to grasp and shape reality but also to forge a poetry that is bound to the earth, to life itself. Misplaced, therefore, is the oft-heard charge of "hedonism and aestheticism"; rather, Quirk holds, Stevens' distrust of rationalism and transcendental pieties, and, conversely, his Bergsonian belief in the creative imagination as a "fundamental way of metaphysical knowing," testify to a poetic vision that expresses the fullness of our humanity.
Quirk perhaps overly insists that Bergson's thought is free of the least whisper of the mystical when, in fact, as many have pointed out, the explicit mysticism of Bergson's later work was implicit from the start. Indeed, Bergson's élan vital as well as his intuitionalism was welcomed by the more mystically inclined artists of the Steiglitz group, a convergence of thought that Quirk curiously neglects. Even so, his elegant and compelling study is the best and most extensive account of Bergsonism in America we have.