«Introduction It takes only a little first-hand knowledge of Bergson’s texts to enable one to move beyond the stereotypical interpretation of ...»
Life, Movement, and the Fabulation of the Event
John Mullarkey, University of Dundee
It takes only a little first-hand knowledge of Bergson’s texts to enable one to move beyond
the stereotypical interpretation of Bergsonian vitalism as a notion regarding some mysterious
substance or force animating all living matter. His theory of the élan vital has little of the
anima sensitiva, archeus, entelechy, or vital fluid of classical vitalisms. This is a critical
vitalism focused on life as a thesis concerning time (life is continual change and innovation) as well as an explanatory principle in general for all the life sciences. In respect to the latter, its unique contribution to the philosophy of biology of its day was that it was explanatory in a non-reductive manner, concerning itself with meaningful explanation rather than causal explanation: Bergson wanted to give biology ‘the very wide meaning it should have’, so that we stay within the domain of the living when attempting to explain life. 1 This hermeneutical thesis leads to an anti-mechanistic approach cautioning us against excessive objectivism in biology. Indeed, his Creative Evolution simply describes vitalism as ‘...a sort of label affixed to our ignorance [as to the true cause of evolution], so as to remind us of this occasionally....’ He also adds that it is the mechanistic interpretation of the development of life, such as the neo-Darwinian one, that ‘...invites us to ignore that ignorance’. 2 But there is more to add to this retreat from substance-vitalisms. Amongst the many meanings of the élan, what stands out from Bergson’s last major work, The Two Sources of Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Notre Dame Press, 1977), p.101, translated by R.
Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Brereton, with the assistance of W. Horsfall Carter from Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion (1932). Henceforth in notes TSMR.
Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (London, Macmillan, 1911), p.44, translated by Arthur Mitchell from L’Evolution créatrice (1907).
Morality and Religion, is its quality as an obstacle to totalising explanation: it stands for the intractability of any complete ‘physico-chemical explanation of life’, for the ‘inadequacy of Darwinism’, the ‘mysterious character of the operation of life’, and finally for ‘what is still unknown’ in our philosophy of life. 3 Here Bergson’s élan seems to be an epistemological corrective. Indeed, Richard Green goes even further, citing the élan as an idea that was never intended ‘to explain anything; he [Bergson] merely wanted this poetic expression to mark that about living things which could not be understood in mechanistic (or in finalistic terms)’. 4 From this approach, it could be argued that Bergson’s vitalism has transformed what was (and perhaps still is) an inexplicable and inexpressible force into a principle of inexplicability and ineffability.
From hermeneutical thesis to epistemological corrective to poetic expression: in such ways one can read Bergsonian vitalism as a philosophy concerning the representation of life as much as being one directly about life. In what follows, I’ll be complicating this picture by explaining the origin of our ‘representation of life’ in Bergsonian and evolutionary terms, to wit, through his concept of the fabulation of the living event. This is Bergson’s evolutionary epistemology applied to the case of the living – how we perceive movement as something life-like, and why we do so. As a type of ‘seeing as’, the fabulation of life is a form of mediation, and it is the notion of mediation that will also direct the course of this analysis. Hence, another aim of this essay is to explore a form of mediation, a fabulation of the living event with the concrete example of a film, namely James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).
Too often, no doubt, films are employed by philosophers merely to illustrate a philosophical issue. The challenge for both philosophers and film-theorists has always been TSMR, pp.112, 113, 114, 116.
Richard Green, The Thwarting of Laplace’s Demon: Arguments against the Mechanistic World-view (NY: St.
Martin’s Press, 1995), p.170.
to imagine how film (or perhaps any visual art) itself can philosophise without reducing it to textual forms of philosophy. We hope to attempt just that by interrogating the Bergsonian fabulation of the living via a cinematic event. Significantly, films (especially disaster films) give us examples of the fabulation of the living as an event that both illustrate philosophical views like these as well as reform these views in what I deem to be a type of truly filmic philosophy. They don’t just reflect philosophy like a mirror held up to its own narcissism, they also refract it and mediate it through its own ideas. Film thinks about events, in its own way, to be sure, but it is still a form of philosophy no less valuable than a traditional, textually mediated work.
Though it connotes fabrication, fabulation is not wholly unnatural, nor unfounded: it is not fictitious or purely relative to individual whimsy. Indeed, Bergson’s fabulation of events is connected to the ‘paradox of fiction’, to the problem of why we feel real emotions for unreal (fictitious) people and the events that befall them. The answer from Bergson is that fiction makes events (and the people involved in events) come alive for us, not just in make-believe, but at a very present and real (though primitive) level of our perception. And filmed fiction is an exemplary instance of this make-believe because it exploits one of the main conditions necessary for such a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, namely movement. It is the movingimage, central to the art of cinema, that entices us to turn fiction into a (living) reality.
We will tackle this topic firstly by introducing Bergson’s notion of fabulation (Section One). It will then connect fabulation with the idea of an event, in particular, the event of a disaster, which, for Bergson, is an essential pre-requisite for our fabulation of any set of processes into a single, living event: every event has its roots, no matter how distant, in a memory of a past, stressful process, a disaster (Section Two). Section Three will then shift into the field of film theory to discuss themes (such as that of Other Minds) that pertain both to Bergson’s theory of fabulation (which is basically a theory of how our imagination sees events as mindful personalities), and current thinking within the field, such as Gregory Currie’s notion of imaginative empathy when watching films. The fourth and final section brings these ideas together through a discussion of disaster films and in particular an empirical study of a central scene from Cameron’s Titanic. What we will find, however, is that this film not only illustrates the preceding argument but also adapts it through its own filmic reflection, such that we will have to reform our ideas thus far.
Section One: Bergsonian Fabulation In Bergson’s account from The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, the concept of ‘fabulation’ concerns the primitive state of mind in us all. It is a ‘virtual instinct’ 5 that works by creating rudimentary forms of religion (such as animatism and animism), 6 as well as relating us to the world as such, by anthropomorphising its processes and activities as events and actions, by creating other personalities, other spirits, in a phrase, ‘Other Minds’. It is imprecise to think of fabulation as a species of imagination, still less a form of play, simulation, or pretence, for it is far more primitive than all of these and seems to lie at their source. 7 Fabulation has precise sociobiological origins and until those origins are fathomed, until its source is analysed, we will not see beyond the general similarities with other faculties that tempt us to confuse it with them. 8 That said, while fabulation is this quite precise tool for Bergson, what is of interest for us is how its origins are linked to representation per se and especially in the notion of disturbance, shock or accident being its stimulus. With fabulation, Bergson tells us, we are dealing with ‘the reactions of man to his perception of things, of events, of the universe in TSMR, p.110.
There are four stages to Fabulation in the construction of animatism, animism, theism (be it polytheism or monotheism), and finally pantheism. However, we will not be interested in pursuing the religious argument here.
TSMR, p.107. TSMR, p.195: fabulation is another faculty, not a variation on general theme.
I won’t, in part because I can’t, vouch for the originality of Bergson’s theological and sociological analyses visà-vis the origins of religion. His interest – and mine – is philosophical.
general’. 9 So clearly, Bergson’s discussion of fabulation concerns more than just religion, for this faculty lies at the origin of fiction and a good deal of our more creative representations of the world – he mentions children’s play, writing, theatre, and hero-worship in quick succession. 10 There are four stages of fabulation (animatism, animism, theism, and pantheism), that can also be seen as four forms of mediation, four forms of creative representation or ‘seeing as’. The second form is most interesting as a differential mediation marked by the shift from animatism to animism, the incursion of a dualism in our interpretation of the world, moving us from a vision of the entire universe as animate to one which divides the universe into that which is animated (with spirits) and that which is inanimate. What spurs this first dissociation in fabulation is what Bergson regards as the ultimate disaster for the mind: the representation of its death. The evolution of intelligence brings with it the double-edged sword of the foresight of death. 11 Intelligence can thereby lead to a ‘disturbance of life’ and the ‘intellectual representation which thus restores the balance to nature’s advantage is of a religious order’, concerning life and death. 12 The traumatic representation of death (and its depressive effects on our animal will to live) must be dampened by the formation of quasi-hallucinations, fictions, myths, and ultimately the whole panoply of religious symbolism which, at source, is a supplement from nature to compensate for the effects of this shock to thought. Myth, TSMR, p.162.
TSMR, p.108: that said, all these other forms of representation come back to fabulation in its religious origins.
Bergson’s investigation foreshadows a type of structural anthropology: by studying the structure of myths and myth-making without prejudice, (TSMR, pp.108-9) that is, by taking their content seriously, Bergson hopes to see what function they perform. He is thus critical of Levy-Bruhl’s idea that primitive mentality is unique to primitives: the human mind works the same throughout the population, but on different material. (TSMR, pp.103,
104) There is the same ‘psychological origin of superstition’ for all.
TSMR, p.204 man is ‘alone in knowing that he must die’.
understood in the broadest terms possible, is a refinement of a proto-religious faculty of mind to animate nature with intentions and actions. 13 So, there is the shock generated by an intelligent representation (the vision of death), and there is the reply to that shock, which is also generated as a representation, this time of a spiritual world that embodies the promise of survival post-mortem. Our intelligence goes beyond its original function by abstracting death from the particular (certain others) to the general (everyone, including itself). In turning its reflective power onto itself, it interferes with its own infinite vision and purpose (to live), refracting it (through this scene of deadly finitude) such that a distorted view of the infinite is generated: the fantasy of survival. Death refracts or mediates life into an image of life or sur-vival, a kind of super-life or meta-life. This image of life is a spectre that comes in various forms: animatist force, animist spirit, theist person, each one all the more individuated, more integrated, as the felt experience of our body is superseded
by its visual image: I quote:
So this spirit-life is facilitated in part by Bergson’s own mirror-stage, whereby we see our reflection in water, a false, whole (visual) image that we dissociate from a felt (tactile) image.
But what forces the dissociation is the idea of death, the image of our finitude. 15 Fabulation, then, is a ‘partial anthropomorphism’, 16 an intentionalisation and vitalisation of nature, beginning with diffused, impersonal forces, 17 then crystallising those TSMR, p.125: if not yet a full personality TSMR, p.133.
Of course, Jacques Lacan sees the visual image in terms of a false spatial continuity (ego identity) where Bergson sees it as the false promise of temporal continuity (survival). See Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (Tavistock Publications, 1977).
forces into spirits localised in particular places (animism), and then imparting increasingly more human personality to those spirits while at the same time detaching them from the world, until we have a full-blown monotheism with a divine that transcends its creatures. Here is Bergson’s depiction of this faculty in operation in the vital second phase, animism, in regard to a water spring. The meaningful action of giving water, for instance, was once a ‘datum provided directly by the senses’ with its ‘own independent existence’. But then it became the ‘spirit of the spring’, localized firstly in a thing and then in a person. It is the ‘persistence’ (or repetition) of this activity of giving water, that set it [the action] up as the animating spirit of the spring at which we drink, whilst the spring, detached from the function which it performs...relapse[d] the more completely into the state of a thing pure and simple.
So this is fabulation – somewhere near the beginning of a centripetal process that both deanimates matter while (eventually) animating immaterial Gods. 19 The activity of the spring – the giving of water –has been extracted as an immobile idea, leaving the spring to ‘relapse’ into a state of inert materiality.