During today's coffee
discussion, which briefly touched on the philosophy of Henri Bergson
, I struggled to recall part of Paul Valéry's
discourse on Bergson, quoted in Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read
Here's the section I was trying to remember, starting with Bayard's snarky comments and leading in to Valéry's lecture, which we are told, was delivered at the Académie Française occasion of the Bergson's death.
The remainder of the text is far from reassuring:
The very ancient and for that reason very difficult problems with which M. Bergson dealt, those of time, memory, and above all the evolution of life, were through him given a new beginning, and the position of philosophy as it appeared in France fifty years ago has undergone a remarkable change.
Saying that Bergson worked on time and memory — what philosopher has not? — can heardly be passed off as a description, even a succinct one, of his work in its originality. With the exception of a few lines on the opposition between Bergson and Kant, the rest of the text is so vague that, although it describes Bergson perfectly well, it could equally apply to many other philosophers:
A very lofty, very pure and superior examplar of the thinking man, and perhaps one of the last men who will have devoted himself exclusively, profoundly, and nobly to thinking, in a period when the world thinks and meditates less and less, when with each day that passes, civilisation is further reduced to the memories and vestiges we keep of its multifarious riches and its free and abundant intellectual production, while poverty, suffering, and restrictions of every kind discourage and depress all intellectual enterprise, Berson seems already to belong to a past age and his name to be the last great name in the history of the European mind.
As we see, Valéry is unable to resist ending on a malevolent note, the warmhearted phrase "the last great name in the history of the European mind" mitigating only with difficulty the harshness of the one preceding it, which cordially consigns Bergson to "a past age." Reading these words, in full recognition of Valery's passion for books, one may well worry that he chose to emphasize the philosopher's out-moded position within the history of ideas in order to dispense with opening any of his works.
Bayard, P., (2008), How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, Trans. J. Mehlman, Granta, 26–28