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  • The Difficulties of Reading with a Creative Mind: Bergson and the Intuitive Reader
  • Paul Ardoin

Philosopher Henri Bergson has written at length about the creative process of artists and poets: the poet starts from “a fuller view of reality” than that of most people and then “plumb[s] the depths of his own nature in so powerful an effort of inner observation that he lays hold of the potential in the real, and takes up what nature has left as a mere outline or sketch in his soul in order to make of it a finished work of art.”1 The result “enables us,” the audience for art, “to discover in things more qualities and more shades than we naturally perceive.”2 According to Bergson, our view of reality is thereafter altered, and we begin to realize “that an extension of the faculties of perceiving is possible” (TCM, p. 136). For Bergson, then, the primary use of art and literature is to urge us toward a philosophical life and a closer identification with our inner life and the various durations surrounding us. Art does important but limited work; it “dilates our perception, but on the surface rather than in depth. It enriches our present, but it scarcely enables us to go beyond it” (TCM, p. 157).

In order to go beyond that, Bergson argues, we need philosophy, through which “all things acquire depth—more than depth, something like a fourth dimension which permits anterior perceptions to remain bound up with present perceptions, and the immediate future itself to become partly outlined in the present” (TCM, p. 157). This is not the only moment in which Bergson places “the art of reading” in contrast to “the intuition I recommend to the philosopher,” despite “a certain analogy, be it said in passing,” he makes between the two (TCM, p. 87). It is my aim here to use Bergson’s ideas to connect the two—the act [End Page 531] of reading and the exercise of intuition—more closely (and in a way consistent with his own philosophy).

When he contrasts the act of reading with the philosophical act that creates “something like a fourth dimension,” Bergson assumes that art and literature are experienced in a particular vacuum that isolates the viewer or reader from her past. This is an assumption that seems to be shared with even the most apparently Bergsonian of authors (Proust, for example). But the assumption is not only false, it is contrary to much of what Bergson demonstrates throughout his body of work—in Matter and Memory, for example, Bergson argues “every perception is already memory. Practically, we perceive only the past.”3 We know from Bergson that we cannot avoid bringing our prior experience into any present perception, including the perceiving of a work of art; I argue that we can then use that experience to expand the role of reading beyond a mere push toward a more philosophical life. In fact, we can approach literature itself philosophically and become truly Bergsonian readers, who enter a work of literature without shedding the past and, instead, utilize that past toward a creative reading experience.


Proust, in his multivolume novel In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), frequently returns to the image of the kaleidoscope, one of several metaphors for the rearrangements that spur involuntary memory.4 Ultimately, these rearrangements and Marcel’s experiences will lead that protagonist to become the artist capable of producing the novel itself, or one like it. The novel is well-known for demonstrating the power of involuntary memory, and certainly might lead a reader to realize “that an extension of the faculties of perceiving is possible” (TCM, p. 136), but, Bergson might suggest, it cannot do much more than that at the level of content, which is necessarily restrictive.

The medium of the written word, for example, brings with it numerous problems: words are not—Bergson tells us—the thought, only its expression: the thought is “above the word and above the sentence.” It only “expresses itself by means of a sentence, that is, by a group of pre-existing elements” (TCM, p. 121). This limits...


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