Corey Latta borrows the title of his When the Eternal Can Be Met from CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce. The book is a study of the influence of Henri Bergson’s theory of time on the post-conversion writings of Lewis, TS Eliot, and Auden. 

He notes that none of these writers entirely discarded their previous training and conceptuality in becoming Christian apologists, and argues that for each the problem of time was a central preoccupation before and after conversion. In fact, each retained a Bergsonian conception of time after conversion, putting it to Christian uses.

Latta writes, “How Lewis, Eliot, and Auden conceived and executed the theme of time created a crucial intersection between twentieth-century ideology and Christianity. To negotiate that intersection for these writers of Christian commitment meant not only that their faith had to address the motif of time but also subsume it by infusing it with theological meaning. This theologizing of time amounts to a thematic redemption, an addressing of the theme through a Christian paradigm, of what all three authors knew to be a major concern for twentieth-century thinkers” (30).

Along the way, he provides a lucid summary of Bergson’s philosophy of time, centering on the concept of “duration.” Borrowing from Einstein’s relativity, Bergson argues that “time exists, operates, and is experienced in ways as variously subjective as the human consciousness” (45; Latta’s words). He distinguished particularly between inner and outer understandings of time and the actions that take place in time. For the person moving his arm, the movement is all one, a smooth unity; he can step outside himself and consider it in segments, just like the outside observer sees it, but apart from this self-objectification, the moment and moment is experienced as a unit.

Time is change: “we change without ceasing,” Bergson says (quoted 54). If that’s truly the case, though, it means that “there is no essential difference between passing from one state to another and persisting in the same state.” Staying the same “is more varied than we think,” but by the same token changing from one state to another “resembles - more than we imagine - a single state being prolonged: the transition is continuous.” We are blind to the “unceasing variation of every physical state,” and for that reason when change becomes so “formidable” that we cannot ignore it, we recognize that we are in a new state. But then we assume that this new state is static until change against before too big to ignore (54; all quotations from Bergson). 

When we segment time into moments, we are falling into the bad habit of spatializing time. Bergson writes, “when we speak of time, more often than not we think of a homogenous milieu where the events or facts of consciousness line themselves up, juxtaposing themselves as if in space, and succeed in becoming a distinct multiplicity.” Insofar as moments are external to one another, just to that extent we spatialize time - because time as experienced in real life is ceaseless change, ceaseless heterogeneity: “qualitative differences are everywhere in nature. . . heterogeneity . . . constitutes the very foundation of our experience” (61; all quotations from Bergson).

Duration is thus “the form taken by the succession of our inner states of consciousness when our self lets itself live, when it abstains from establishing a separation between the present state and anterior states” (62).

Mechanistic accounts of time, he charged, could not account for duration as the true quality of temporal experience. Even Darwinian evolution does not really capture the dynamic nature of real life (51). Deterministic views of time, including Darwinism, begin and end with the assumption that “all is given,” another spatialization or “cinamatographical” treatment of time. Bergson’s duration implies an epistemology which emphasizes man’s ability to “know through,” a knowing that requires experience and an “entering into” the thing to be known (55).

Bergson’s duration posits a transitive notion of time. If change is ceaseless, then there is nothing but transition (as in music!). As Lewis, Eliot, and Audten recognized, this is change so ceaseless that it resembles eternity.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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