T.E.Hulme - for and against Henri Bergson

But perhaps I was unfairly predisposed against it from the start. When it was offered to me for review I thought it was going to be a whole book by Mark Antliff, and that could have been very interesting. Antliff was the author of the influential study Inventing Bergson, (3) published in 1993. He argues there that the intellectual atmosphere in which Cubism was born in Paris had been deeply affected by a controversy that had broken out in the ranks of the right wing monarchist movement Action Francaise. The founding theorist of Action Française, Charles Maurras, had proclaimed the seventeenth century and the reign of Louis XIV to be the high point of French culture. The Latin spirit, he believed, was necessarily classical and continuous with the tradition of Greece and Rome. But another tendency had developed within the movement which had Socialist sympathies but rejected the Socialist emphasis on material well-being. They had turned to Action Française as a vehicle for the assertion in politics of what might be called spiritual values but believed that the primacy of spirit had been established on a scientific, or at least firm philosophical basis in the philosophy of Henri Bergson. Bergson stressed the manner in which our understanding of spatial categories (and therefore of material reality) were undermined by the action of time, and he argued for 'intuition' - of the sort assumed to be possessed both by artists and by animals - as a means of grasping the reality of the world that was more direct and more complete than could be achieved by intellectual analysis. The best known writer associated with what we might call this 'left wing' of Action Française - though he was not actually a member - was Georges Sorel.

(3) Mark Antliff: Inventing Bergson - cultural politics and the Parisian avant-garde, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1993.

I as it happens think Antliff exaggerates the importance of this for Cubism, particularly with regard to its political implications, but there can be no doubt of its importance for French culture as a whole. It also touches closely on the intellectual history of Vorticism, most obviously in the person of T.E.Hulme, who, in 1914, came forward as a major defender and theorist of the new art.

Hulme was particularly closely associated with Pound who recognised him as having been, in 1909, the real originator of his own 'Imagist' school of poetry, though Hulme's own poetic output was famously slight. After he had renounced poetry for philosophy what claimed to be his 'complete poetical works' were published as an appendix to Pound's Ripostes in 1912. In a series of articles written in the most impressive of the 'small reviews' of the time - A.R.Orage's The New Age - Hulme had established himself as a leading British defender and interpreter of Bergson, publishing a translation of Sorel's Reflections on Violence in New York in 1912 and of Bergson's Introduction to Metaphysics in 1913.

In 1924 a selection of his writings was published, edited by Herbert Read, under the title Speculations. (4) Wallace Martin points out in his study The New Age under Orage (5) that though its polemics against 'Romanticism in literature, Relativism in ethics, Idealism in philosophy and Modernism in religion' appeared quite startling in 1924, they seemed less unusual in the context in which they first appeared. 'In fact, the reaction against Romanticism and the philosophy of Liberalism (which Nietzsche defined as the "transformation of men into cattle") was one of the most significant features of The New Age during these years.' (pp.212-3. The quotation on Romanticism comes from Hulme's 'Humanism and the religious attitude' in Speculations)

(4) T.E.Hulme: Speculations - Essays on Humanism and the philosophy of art, 2nd ed, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co Ltd. 1st published 1924.

(5) Wallace Martin: The New Age under Orage - chapters in English cultural history, Manchester University Press, 1967.

In an essay published in Speculations - 'The Philosophy of Intensive Manifolds' - Hulme presents Bergson's philosophy as a defence against what he calls (quoting Huxley) 'the nightmare of determinism' - essentially the nightmare that as everything can be explained, everything can be seen as inevitable. Hulme interprets Bergson as seeing this as a necessary consequence of over-reliance on the intellect. While the intellect and its methods of analysis can 'deal with matter ... it is absolutely incapable of understanding life. In explaining vital phenomena it only distorts them, in exhibiting them as very complex mechanical phenomena. To obtain a complete picture of reality it is necessary to employ another faculty of the mind which, after defining it, Bergson calls "intuition".' (p.174) The world that could be analysed, spread out in its different aspects, was called the 'extensive manifold'; the world of the real experience of life, continuous in time and indivisible, therefore not subject to analysis, was the 'intensive manifold'. Hulme believed that by such means the real integrity of the human person, possessed of free will, could be defended in opposition to the mechanical conception of the Universe.

Around 1911-12, however - just about the time when the body of ideas that would issue in Vorticism was forming - Hulme began to declare a disillusionment with Bergson, apparently as a result of his interest in the thinking of Pierre Lasserre, editor of the Revue de l'Action Française and himself very much located on the 'classical' side of the movement, best known for his polemics against Le Romantisme Française. Hulme visited Lasserre in April 1911 and Lasserre seems to have persuaded him that to accept Bergson's notion of the 'élan vital' as the driving force of 'creative evolution' would be to envisage an infinite and unpredictable process of change running not just through nature but through human nature. Such a view would be destructive of human culture since it would imply that the past belonged to a quite different human species and therefore had no relevance to the future. In this view Bergsonism was a variety of romanticism, understood as the conviction that man, free of inhibiting rules and taboos, was capable of an infinite process of self perfection.  Bergson's élan vital is not God - at least not God as traditionally conceived standing outside nature - but a force of nature, and we are its manifestations. There is nothing higher than ourselves except the future which is infinite in its possibilities.

As Alan Robinson points out in his excellent Poetry, Painting and Ideas, 1885-1914 (6) there is a period in which Hulme divides himself in two on the question of Bergson. He continues to defend him under his own name in his series of 'Notes on Bergson' in the pages of the New Age. But at the same time, under the pseudonym Thomas Gratton, he developed Lasserre's anti-Bergsonian argument in the pages of a small right wing journal called The Commentator in which he also wrote a series of articles on The Tory Philosophy. "Then in November 1911 in the New Age under the protection of his pseudonym the Begsonian 'disciple' revealed a crisis in his allegiance to the master while later in the month (as 'T.E.Hulme') defending Bergson in the New Age's correspondence columns, continuing his 'Notes on Bergson' and undertaking to translate Bergson's Introduction to Metaphysics." (p.109) Robinson points out that at more or less the same time T.S.Eliot, who would soon be closely associated with Pound and Hulme, was undergoing a similar reaction against Bergson.

(6) Alan Robinson: Poetry, painting and ideas, 1885-1914, London, Macmillan, 1985.

In contrast, then, to Bergson's emphasis on flux and change as the major characteristic of reality, Hulme began to feel the need for fixity and continuity in human affairs. A useful article by Henry Mead on The Evolution of T.E.Hulme's Thought (7) quotes him as saying in 1912:

'There is always at the back of romanticism a certain characteristic exhilaration ... It betrays itself in certain clichés, breaking down barriers, freedom, emancipation, and the rest of it; but above all, it betrays itself in the epithet NEW. One must believe that there is a NEW art, a NEW religion, even a NEW age.'

(7) Accessible on the Brown University/University of Tulsa 'Modernist journals' website. This is a remarkable venture that gives complete runs of many of papers of the period, including The New Age, Blast and The Tyro.