Fabulation and esprit de corps as worldforming in Bergson

Esprit de corps was a fundamental notion in Bergson’s Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion,[1] where it appeared closely related to the idea that one’s social self was like a ‘moi supérieur devant lequel la personalité moyenne s’incline:’[2]

Si l’on admet […] une ‘mentalité primitive’, on y verra le respect de soi coïncider avec le sentiment d’une telle solidarité entre l’individu et le groupe que le groupe reste présent à l’individu isolé, le surveille, l’encourage ou le menace, exige enfin d’être consulté et obéi […]. La pression du moi social s’exerce avec toutes ces énergies accumulées. L’individu n’obéit d’ailleurs pas seulement par habitude de la discipline ou par crainte du châtiment : le groupe auquel il appartient se met nécessairement au-dessus des autres, […] et la conscience de cette supériorité de force lui assure […] toutes les jouissances de l’orgueil. […] Il suffit d’observer ce qui se passe sous nos yeux dans les petites sociétés qui se constituent au sein de la grande, quand des hommes se trouvent rapprochés les uns des autres par quelque marque distinctive qui souligne une supériorité réelle ou apparente, et qui les met à part. […] Tous les membres du groupe ‘se tiennent’ ; on voit naître un ‘sentiment de l’honneur’ qui ne fait qu’un avec l’esprit de corps.[3]

Bergson, at first glance, seemed to present a synthesis of the thoughts of authors like Durkheim, Tarde, Palante, or Terraillon: esprit de corps was a tribal process of collective self-glorification. But Bergson’s use of inverted commas was connected to the fact that for him this ‘feeling of honour’ was not true or natural, but rather a necessary fiction, a ‘fabulation’.[4]

Fabulation was for the author an intelligent capacity to manipulate symbols and fictional narratives in order to generate common beliefs. It functioned like a form of ‘virtual instinct’:

C’est de l’instinct virtuel, entendant par là qu’à l’extrémité d’une autre ligne d’évolution, dans les sociétés d’insectes, nous voyons l’instinct provoquer mécaniquement une conduite comparable, pour son utilité, à celle que suggèrent à l’homme, intelligent et libre, des images quasi hallucinatoires.[5]

In Latin, fabulari meant to speak and invent a story.[6] Bergson suggested that language, ideology and storytelling could help to create a mindset, a second nature, that simulated animal instinct to a certain extent. Esprit de corps was a form of collective hallucination, a contagious social fiction, a more or less permanent altered state of consciousness — this would justify the use of the term esprit as a form of spiritual possession. The paradox here was that freedom and rationality (‘intelligent et libre’) were associated with illusion and insect-like instinct. How could one be free and at the same time hallucinating? How could one be intelligent and model one’s conduct on a fable?

The answer, according to Bergson, lay in our plastic capacity to recreate new ideologies, to modify our narratives, to co-create our evolving virtual instinct, to which we then gave our near-blind consent, at least momentarily, for the sake of action and communion. Not unlike others before him, but more systematically, Bergson distinguished two interdependent and dialectical modes of human solidarity, one more conservative, the other more creative. The first one, based on obligation and social pressure, was comparable with the instinct of eusocial animals like ants and bees. It formed an effective human second nature via ‘habitude’, language, and social fictions.[7] In this case, the cohesion of the group was also maintained through its opposition to an outside territory, an outgroup. It was, when ripe, a circular force, hostile to the new:

Entre la société où nous vivons et l’humanité en général il y a […] le même contraste qu’entre le clos et l’ouvert. […] Qui ne voit que la cohésion sociale est due, en grande partie, à la nécessité pour une société de se défendre contre d’autres, et que c’est d’abord contre tous les autres hommes qu’on aime les hommes avec lesquels on vit ?[8]

In other words, esprit de caste was inevitable. But a more creative form of esprit de corps existed, if ephemerally; one that was about love and openness rather than antagonism.

Bergson thought that the mortar that joined the bricks of a closed society was ‘discipline’, which prepared for an ‘attitude’ of ‘guerre’ in front of an ‘ennemi’, a defensive mindset that subsisted even when covered by the ‘vernis’ of ‘devoirs moraux’.[9] There was a collective pressure on the members to remain united in a hermetic corps, and surrender part of their individuality to the duties of the in-group, for the sake of battles won. But because life was dual, both structured and structuring, both spiritual and natural, because it was a process of ‘creative evolution’,[10] human societies, according to Bergson, manifested a meta-historical flow of sentimental universalism, a slow and widening creation of fraternity that kept creating renewed and larger fabulations. This second tendency, representative of our cosmic freedom, could be incarnated by spiritual figures who were at the forefront of the ‘élan de vie.’[11]

[1] Henri Bergson, Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1990 [1932]).

[2] Ibid. p. 65.

[3] Bergson, Les deux sources, p. 66–7.

[4] Ibid., p. 111.

[5] Ibid., p. 114.

[6] ‘Fabuler’, Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales, <www.cnrlt.fr> [Last accessed 15 March 2016].

[7] Bergson, Les deux sources, p. 23.

[8] Ibid., p. 27.

[9] Bergson, Les deux sources, p. 27.

[10] Bergson, L’évolution créatrice (Paris, Alcan, 1907).

[11] Bergson, Les deux sources, p. 56.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s