Henri Bergson, TS Eliot and Time

There are certain pieces of literature that have an inescapable gravity. For some time I have been fixated on TS Eliot’s masterpiece, Four Quartets. Eliot draws off of a cacophony of settings and images in a polyphonic witness to Christianity in the modern era. The further I have delved into Eliot’s work, the more acquainted I have become with some of his sources. One of the towering figures in Eliot’s intellectual heritage was the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson was married to the cousin of the great novelist Marcel Proust, and his philosophy had a marked impact on Proust’s work In Search of Lost Time. My quest to understand Eliot has lead me to read some of Bergson’s philosophical writings, where he elevates the place of intuition in the quest for knowledge, and ponders the human experience of time. The following line from Eliot’s first poem in Four Quartets, Burnt Norton is quintessentially Bergsonian:

Time past and time  future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

In Four Quartets, the term ‘point’ has a two-fold use. Eliot’s first use describes ‘point’ is a vector which can point toward or away from something in the human experience of time. The second, and use is ‘point’ as the fixed axis around which everything rotates, like the hub as the immobile ‘point’ of the wheel. Eliot takes this up in his rendering of the eternal point around which everything moves. Take for example his musings on the Christian notion of how God’s a-temporal eternity transects human time in his lines, also in Burnt Norton:

     At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh, nor fleshless;

Neither from or towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor


Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.

And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.


In Bergson’s seminal essay, “An Introduction to Metaphysics”, he describes analysis as an important mode of inquiry of knowing about an object that is abstracted in time. However, for Bergson, analysis can only ever lead us to know about an object (persons, places, scientific discoveries, etc). In order to truly know and object, one must dispense with mere analysis and engage in an intuitive process that includes a sympathy for the object known. I find this to be much closer to the biblical concept of knowing, which is fundamentally relational, and never merely a series of propositions that can be analyzed. It is one thing to know about God through theological inquiry and analysis, it is still another thing entirely to know him truly. In the final estimation, God has revealed himself in Jesus, everything that the Father thinks of himself he has spoken in his Word (the Divine Logos) who was Incarnate in space and time when the Word was joined to human flesh in Jesus. Faith is, in some senses, very much similar to the sympathetic/intuitive process of knowing that Bergson describes. I could write much more on this, but for now I will share a sketch of a reflection – a ‘wild and wandering cry’ to steal one of Tennyson’s lines – that I came up with the other night as I search out what it means to be both a Christian and an artist:

The mists of memory are all of the past that remains in the present, yet in that cloud the present takes shape and moves in time toward the future. Time defies all analysis. Any knowledge of duration is the soul’s province. It is through the subrational and suprarational intuitions that cannot be touched by the empirical process that knowledge-of begins to take shape. The facts of the past are always debatable, and as Napoleon famously noted, history is a set of lies that everyone agrees upon. Certainly this is, at least in part true, but Napoleon lies even in his attempt at the truth. That the events of human experience actually occurred is a fact that cannot, in the final estimation be disputed. But, what these events were and what they mean in the present can only be known through a recursive and sympathetic intuition where the artist more than the historian; the poet more than the journalist; the mystic more than the dogmatist can render with prophetic prescience the reverberating inflections of meaning – a narrative of hope or of doom or of both.

The artist understands that historical persons are more than facts of history, they are characters. These characters, all individuals really, are part of an unfolding story that can be grasped through empathy and intuition. People and events are a nexus of dynamism, full of potential and contradiction that play a vital part as the story of history is being drawn to its conclusion, the very end for which the story exists. The end of all history is in its beginning, where the Word of the Father is spoken and Incarnate through the Spirit, is both Alpha and Omega. All things are summed up in him because all things are spoken and exist in him. The language of nature and the song of the soul belong to him, and their melodies, harmonies, discords, and crescendos can be heard in the inaudible echoes of eternity. The Word spoken and the Word Incarnate are one in the same. He is the fixed, eternal point around whom all time and all who exist in time dance, and to whom all things point. In him all time points to its beginning and its end, and he is and always will be known in the present which transects both time and eternity.

I don’t know if any of this will ever make much sense to the reader, nor am I sure it makes much sense to me. But, as Tennyson says in his Preface to In Memoriam:

We have but faith, we cannot know,

For knowledge is of things we see,

And yet we trust it comes from Thee,

A beam in darkness, let it grow.




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