Modernism, time and consciousness: the influence of Henri Bergson and Marcel Proust

Matthew Taunton explains how the work of a French novelist and a French philosopher influenced the way many modernist writers, including Virginia Woolf and T S Eliot, depict consciousness and time.

The chiming of Big Ben is a constant refrain in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925). In a novel set (like Joyce’s Ulysses) on a single day, Woolf follows her characters through the streets of London, the narrative voice constantly interrupting itself and changing direction to produce the sense that we are following the characters’ thoughts. But in this novel, that exploration of personal time – where a rush of thoughts can occur in seconds, or hours may pass barely disturbing the surface – is always running up against the clock:

For having lived in Westminster – how many years now? over twenty – one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.[1]

This passage captures a basic tension in Mrs Dalloway. The free flow of Clarissa’s thoughts is constrained by the regular and predictable chiming of the clock, the division of the day into seconds and minutes and hours. Clarissa is forced into an incessant drama of anticipation, inserting subordinate clauses and repetitive redundancies. For example, the ‘indescribable pause’ in the sentence above refers to the same thing as the ‘suspense’: the one repeats the other, and is effectively semantically redundant. It is as if Clarissa’s thoughts, and with them Woolf’s prose, were merely marking time until the arrival of the sentence’s main event, when ‘Big Ben strikes’.

Woolf’s use of Big Ben – part of the Houses of Parliament, the centre of the British Empire and the seat of male power – gives this tension between personal time and clock time a distinctive political charge. In the terms of Woolf’s novel, Big Ben is a symbol of patriarchy itself: we hear elsewhere that it rings ‘as if a young man, strong, indifferent, inconsiderate, were swinging dumb-bells this way and that,’ or that it was ‘all very well with his majesty laying down the law, so solemn, so just’.[2] Those ‘leaden circles’ – a phrase we hear repeated several times in the novel – represent the inflexible heaviness of a temporal organisation imposed by unthinking and arrogant men, under whose yoke Woolf’s characters struggle to think and feel as humans.

Notebook drafts of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (Volume II)

Notebook drafts of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (Volume II)

‘There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable’: Big Ben strikes the narrative, from the manuscript draft of Mrs Dalloway, 1924.

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Henri Bergson

Woolf’s fascination with temporality has often been understood in relation to the theories of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, whose work had a profound influence on the ways in which modernist literature represented time and consciousness. Bergson was very much in vogue in early 20th-century Britain, where in the years 190911 over 200 articles about his theories were published in British journals.[3] Bergson had argued in his doctoral thesis (published in Britain in 1910 as Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness) that Western thought as a whole had adopted a ‘spurious concept’ of time, because in attempting to quantify it, to divide it into countable units, it tended to see it in spatial terms.[4]

As a way to recuperate the qualitative, subjective experience of time, Bergson developed an influential concept of ‘pure duration’, which he argued ‘might well be nothing but a succession of qualitative changes, which melt into and permeate one another, without precise outlines’. The difficulty of Bergson’s prose is partly a result of his desire to talk about duration without quantifying it or using spatial metaphors: the challenge was to think of time not as a line, or a chain, or a succession of hours and minutes, but as ‘pure heterogeneity’.[5] For many modernists, these arguments licensed the modern writer to set aside the temporal structure of the conventional plot to facilitate a deeper exploration of what Bergson called ‘the immediate data of consciousness’. As Woolf wrote in a manifesto-like essay of 1919: ‘Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness'.[6] Bergson’s theories left a deep imprint on modern fiction.

Marcel Proust

This was also true in France, where Marcel Proust was at work on his vast, multi-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time (191327). Here is a novel that experiments with slowing down and magnifying experience, and with going forwards and backwards in time, to follow the promptings of consciousness and ostentatiously to flout clock time. In the book’s most famous scene, the narrator, Marcel, takes a bite of a madeleine (a small French cake) dunked in tea, and is transported back in memory to his childhood in Combray:

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before Mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.[7]

The madeleine unleashes a string of involuntary memories, such that fictional narrative itself (in the universe of Proust’s novel) is propelled not by the forward march of clock time, but by the impulses of memory. Time – for Proust as for Bergson – was better understood as the accumulation of qualitative impressions than as a quantifiable and progressive movement. Proust’s work profoundly influenced British modernism: Dorothy Richardson drew on this in her own 13-volume novel-sequence Pilgrimage, as did Woolf.

Indeed, Woolf called the experimental central section of To the Lighthouse (1928) ‘Time Passes’, apparently in homage to the man she called ‘the greatest modern novelist’.[8] But Woolf’s experiments here go beyond the Proustian juxtaposition of clock time and pure duration:

Then again silence fell; and then, night after night, and sometimes in plain midday when the roses were bright and light turned on the wall its shape clearly there seemed to drop into this silence this indifference, this integrity, the thud of something falling.
[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]

A passage like this shares with Proust an obsession with the workings of narrative time, but Woolf also jarringly plays with perspective. She describes the passing of the seasons at the Ramsays’ summer residence, using the continuous past to create a sense of time passing without significant event. But in a short inset paragraph in square brackets, the perspective shifts to France, where the First World War is being fought. Suddenly the thuds which seemed a regular background noise – ‘night after night’, like the ticking of a clock – become subjectively calamitous: an exploding shell ends the lives of many young men, including Andrew Ramsay, one of the novel’s characters. Woolf neatly inverts Proust’s technique, condensing a pivotal moment in the subjective lives of her central characters by placing it in brackets and thereby subordinating it to the onward march of the objective time of the calendar, which continues oblivious to the deaths of Andrew and of Mrs Ramsay. The effect is both ironic and devastating.

Vanessa Bell dust jacket for To the Lighthouse

'Vanessa Bell dust jacket for To the Lighthouse

‘Time Passes’, the middle section of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse (1927), is set during the First World War.

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T S Eliot and Bergsonism

Of all the writers of the modernist generation, it was perhaps T S Eliot who read most deeply in Bergsonian philosophy, attending Bergson’s lectures in Paris in 1910–11 and then returning to Harvard to undertake a PhD in philosophy that grappled with Bergson’s ideas. His early poetry shares Woolf’s later concern with Bergsonian ‘pure duration’, contrasting it with the rigid demarcations of the clock. In ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, written in 1911, the clock time is announced at regular intervals and, as in Mrs Dalloway, there is a tension and a discrepancy between those objective markers of time and the speaker’s experience of pure duration:

Twelve o’clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum (ll.19)

The progress of time through the deep of night drives Eliot’s speaker forward like a ‘fatalistic drum’, through ‘Half-past one’, ‘Half-past two’, ‘Half-past three’ and finally ‘Four o’clock’. By contrast, the speaker’s consciousness points backwards, as every new thing he encounters takes him back though chains of association to painful or banal memories. The ‘divisions and precisions’ of the clock, its ‘clear relations’, are locked in conflict with a human consciousness that is forever doomed to live in retrospect, insulated against fresh experiences by the stale crust of memory.

However, where Bergson was optimistic that our ‘spurious concept’ of time could be subsumed in the experience of pure duration, Eliot’s poem seems much more pessimistic, with the speaker’s thoughts ushering him robotically home to bed:

The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes by the door, sleep, prepare for life.

Consciousness, in Eliot’s poem, ultimately offers no escape from a routinised existence governed by the clock. Indeed, the critic Jewel Spears Brooker has recently argued that ‘Rhapsody’ can be read as an early manifestation of Eliot’s disaffection with Bergsonism, which he developed into a full-blown philosophical disagreement in a lecture he delivered at Harvard in 1913 called ‘Inconsistencies in Bergson’s Idealism’.[9]

Prufrock, and other observations by T S Eliot

Prufrock, and other observations by T S Eliot

‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ is included in Prufrock, and other observations, T S Eliot’s first collection of poetry published by The Egoist in 1917.

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Time and Western Man

The ideas of Bergson and Proust fundamentally changed the ways in which modernist and postmodernist writers depicted time and consciousness. But as Eliot’s increasing scepticism suggested, they did not receive universal assent among the modernist intelligentsia. Percy Wyndham Lewis was also initially receptive to Bergsonian ideas, but later distanced himself from them in his fascinating polemic, Time and Western Man (1927). Here, Lewis argued that modernist writers had become the victims of a ‘time-cult’, which was deeply romantic. ‘Bergsonian durée, or psychological time, is essentially the “time” of the true romantic,’ Lewis wrote, comparing it to ‘disbelief of the reality of life’.[10] This reaction against Bergson came from a very political frustration. For Lewis, modernism’s temporal infatuations – with Bergson’s ‘pure duration’ and with Proust’s madeleine – were solipsistically individualistic and anti-political, revelling in individual sensory experience and memory to the extent that social and historical reality was spurned.[11] We need not accept Lewis’s argument: as the above example from To the Lighthouse suggests, modernist temporal experimentation often did address historical crises. In juxtaposing the abrupt announcement of Andrew’s death in France with the uneventful passage of time in his family home (empty but for the servants), Woolf’s novel dramatises and problematises the relationship between global conflict and the domestic scene. Nevertheless, Lewis’s intervention shows that this new thinking about time was important not only as an inspiration for writers like Proust, Eliot and Woolf who sought to break with the temporal assumptions of 19th-century literature. It was also important because to others it appeared as a pervasive cause of modernism’s dangerously subjectivist inward turn, against which a more stridently political artistic practice needed to define itself.


[1] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.34.

[2] Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, pp. 41, 108.

[3] Mary Ann Gillies, Henri Bergson and British Modernism (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1996), p. 28.

[4] Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. by F L Pogson (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1910), p. 98.

[5] Bergson, Time and Free Will, p. 104.

[6] Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction’, in Selected Essays, ed. by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 612 (p. 10).

[7] Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time Volume 1: Swann’s Way, trans. by C K Scott Moncrieff (London: Vintage, 2005), pp. 53–54.

[8] Virginia Woolf, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Nigel Nicolson, 6 vols (London: The Hogarth Press, 1975–80), III, p. 385.

[9] Jewel Spears Brooker, ‘Eliot and Bergson: 'Rhapsody on a Windy Night' and the Intractability of Dualism’, Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, 13.1 (2015), 117.

[10] Percy Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1993), p. 8.

[11] James Mansell, ‘Sound and the Cultural Politics of Time in the Avant-Garde: Wyndham Lewis's Critique of Bergsonism’, in Wyndham Lewis and the Cultures of Modernity, ed. by Andrzej Gąsiorek, Alice Reeve-Tucker and Nathan Waddell (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011), pp. 11126 (p. 120).

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  • Matthew Taunton
  • Matthew Taunton is a lecturer in literature at the University of East Anglia, specialising in literature and culture from the late Victorian period to the present. He is the author of Fictions of the City: Class, Culture and Mass Housing in London and Paris (Palgrave, 2009) and chapters and articles on various aspects of 19th and 20th century literature and culture. He is a major contributor to the Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism, and is currently working on a book about British literary responses to the Russian Revolution.

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