Proust Portraits

February 11, 2015

Proust has not been well served by portraitists. Perhaps the most insipid is by Jacques-Émile Blanche, yet it is reproduced everywhere. May I propose a somewhat improved and less well-known version? This is Portrait of Proust 1950 by Richard Lindner:

Proust Portrait Richard Lindner

The Careful Reader

July 28, 2014

Towards the end of The Fugitive, Proust drops a little bombshell that has startled many careful readers of the novel. It occurs in a passage where Proust is addressing the relationships involved in two weddings, that of Jupien’s daughter to the Cambremers’ son and Gilbert to Robert de Saint-Loup:

Yet another mistake which any young reader not acquainted with the facts might have been led to make was that of supposing that the Baron and Baronne de Forcheville figured on the list in the capacity of parents-in-law of the Marquis de Saint-Loup, that is to say on the Guermantes side. But on this side they had no right to appear since it was Robert who was related to the Guermantes and not Gilberte. No, the Baron and the Baronne de Forcheville, despite these deceptive appearances, did figure on the wife’s side, it is true, and not on the Cambremer side, not because of the Guermantes, but because of Jupien, who, the better informed reader knows, was Odette’s first cousin. (V,915)

I had noted this curious passage on a post long ago without knowing what to make of it. Had this this curious cousin relationship been mentioned earlier in the novel and we had missed it? Or was Proust introducing a theme here that he did not have time to develop?  It came to my attention again on the Goodreads Year of Reading Proust group site. Alert reader Inderjit wondered if he had missed something. Indefatigable reader Marcellita Swann pointed him to my post, which I’m afraid does not add much. I Googled the passage to see if anyone else had any insight. I didn’t find anything except for an alternate translation of the passage. In the original Scott Moncrieff Modern Library edition, the passage is: “...the reader must now be told…”, which would favor the undeveloped theme explanation. So, is this is a translation issue, with Kilmartin changing the phrase to “the better informed reader knows“? But which is the better translation?

Marcellita marshaled her resources and received from Bill Carter the Pleiade original: “Jupien, dont notre lecteur plus instruit sait…”. It seems then that Kilmartin is closer to the original, “better informed” for “plus instruit.”  Further, her source James Connelly mentions “The notes indicate that he reminded himself to develop this with an unknown character, Rigaud, but death intervened.” :

Albertine Disparue (The Fugitive) definitely feels unfinished. Like the last 3 volumes of La Recherche it was published posthumously (and edited by Marcel’s brother, Robert Proust, and Jacques Rivière from Gallimard). We can only imagine what a few more years would have allowed Marcel to write, probably adding a few more volumes in the process.

There is consequently no definitive text of Albertine Disparue. In 1986 a Proust heir unveiled a “dactylographie” where Proust had removed about 150 pages of the text, leading to a new, shorter version of Albertine, which was even less satisfying… More on this here (in French):

Re Odette & Jupien’s relationship, it was never mentioned before this passage. My sense is that Marcel talks of “notre lecteur plus instruit” (our better informed reader) by opposition to the younger people (“les jeunes gens des nouvelles générations” and “tout jeune lecteur”) who do not know precisely the complex genealogy of the aristocraty, pleasantly assuming that his reader (“notre lecteur”) knows all this as well as he does.

This seems the best answer. Proust juxtaposes The “well-informed reader” to the “young reader”, which occurs both in this paragraph and a couple of pages earlier. This section of The Fugitive titled “New Aspect of Robert de Saint-Loup” deals with the constant regeneration of society. The young contemporaries just beginning to move about society tend to see the current order as fixed and ancient. Proust counters with the stories of the elevation to nobility of a tailor’s daughter to the titled Mlle d’Oloron and her marriage to the son of the engineer’s daughter and nephew of the self-styled Legrandin de Meseglise (later self-enobled to Comte de Méséglise), the Marquis de Cambremer. And with the marriage to the genuine noble Robert de Saint-Loup to the daughter of the coquette Odette.

Proust developed these histories in the way described by Book Portrait, as a comparison of the views of the young and naive to those of their better informed elders: “…but many young people of the rising generation..” (V,913) and repeated in “Yet another mistake which any young reader not acquainted with…” to their more knowledgeable elders “the better informed reader…”.

But the earlier explanations we came up with still holds merit. Scott Moncrieff, by changing “better informed” to “the reader must now be told” obscures, if not entirely hides, Proust’s parallel construction. And Connelly is surely correct in saying that Proust intended to further develop the Jupien-Odette cousin story.

Ontological Metaphor

June 20, 2014

Proust gave great importance to metaphor in his novel. The problem is, as Gerald Genette has pointed out, that most of Proust’s so-called metaphors are actually metonymies. In rhetoric, a metaphor is a comparison between two seemingly unrelated objects which somehow expands our understanding of the original target object. Whereas a metonymy is a comparison between two objects that share a common space, so that our understanding is expanded by identifying close kinships. The most prominent type of metonymy in Proust is that involving spatial relations. Just consider how the two great themes of bourgeois and aristocratic life are identified as the ways by the Swann and Guermantes estates. Albertine is Balbec, the beach, the ocean. The contiguity can take other forms than purely spatial. The hundreds of painting references are mostly similarities of appearance.

The problem I mention is not so much of the right rhetorical term to use. It’s that metonymy is based on objective criteria of comparison, in the way that words in a dictionary are defined by synonyms. But Proust wants to reveal essence, something not easily done when comparisons reveal only established similarities. Landy admits as much but he often sees a subjective quality that reveals more.

Marcel says it himself: the reason that women find themselves linked, in his mind, to their geographical site, and that many gain their very “prestige” from the connection, is because he imagines that they can deliver the essence of a place. What he seeks in the peasant girls of Roussainville is, as we just saw, “the intimate savour of the country”; what he seeks in Mme de Stermaria is the ile de Bretagne; what he seeks in Gilberte is, among other things, the Tansonville hawthorns; and what he seeks in Albertine is, in good measure, the sea at Balbec. (74)

Beistegui wants to transcend these rhetorical definitions and find a more purely philosophical definition of Proustian metaphor. We saw earlier that he identifies the source of Marcel’s disillusionment in the unavoidable, necessary absence in the present, the real:  “…at the heart of our relation to the world there’s a lack.” And it is this perception of absence, of incompleteness in perceived reality that creates the need for metaphor. Metaphor completes the merely real thing. In just this sense metaphor arises in the nature of being, is ontological.

Proust and then Beistegui:

Almost all the works I could see about me in the studio were, of course, seascapes done recently here in Balbec. But I could see that their charm lay in a kind of metamorphosis of the things depicted, analogous to the poetical device known as metaphor, and that, if God the Father had created things by naming them, Elstir recreated them by removing their names, or by giving them another name. (II, 566)

The key-term here is obviously metamorphosis. It’s the only one likely to lead us to a real understanding of metaphor. In metamorphosis, which is clearly similar to what’s referred to here as “the poetical device known as metaphor,” it’s the things themselves that are changed. It’s the things themselves that are given in the seascapes. And yet, those things only really become themselves by being changed, by undergoing a metamorphosis. They are more themselves, if you like, closer to what they truly are in Elstir’s painting than in the images that we usually have of them – images that are diverted and perverted by the practical and utilitarian nature of our perception, by habit and by the theoretical understanding that we have of the world. It’s a discovery and a paradox. It’s not enough for God to have created the world. For Proust, God’s act of creation is unfinished until it’s resumed and completed by the artist on another level. Why would there be artists, after all, if the created world were perfect? (80)

…metaphor’s rooted in the being of the world and comes out of it. It’s nature itself that shifts like that, that’s swept away in its own transposition, its own excess or overflow. And this, in fact, is where its beauty lies. So far as Proust’s concerned, if we want, like Elstir, to capture the beauty of the sea, we need to avoid fixating on it since, like everything else, it’s essentially not in its place. It’s really not where we’d expect it to be, even though it’s actually there. It is and reveals itself only through the process that characterizes it, to wit its movement of expansion and encroachment, of displacement and deviation, in short, of transposition. (85)

One element is still missing before metaphor becomes art: style.

And while impression’s the only “criterion of truth” for the writer, it’s still not enough: it needs the assistance of the mind in order to “elucidate its truth.” Metaphorical effort or “style” aren’t the simple expression of a brute impression: they are its continuation, its depth and lining. Beginning with an impression, they lead us beyond it. Sympathizing with matter isn’t the same as representing it. But it’s also not clinging to it in some sort of immediate and pre-linguistic presence. Rather, it means transposing and translating it (“the writer’s task and duty are those of a translator”), not into a radically different language or another reality altogether – thinking along these lines simply reinstates the idea of a world in itself and a world of phenomena, a supersensible world and a sensible world – but into this implicit or tacit language that’s the language of the world itself. Ultimately, the impression is “for the writer what an experiment is for the scientist, except that for the scientist the work of the intelligence precedes it, and for the writer it comes afterwards.” (88)

Finally, there is the question of the permanence of metaphor, its persistence in time.

This way of seeing things is the artist’s way, a way of seeing that brings “two different terms together permanently.” Such is, it seems to me, precisely the work of style and of metaphor in particular. And metaphor’s at its peak when it schematizes involuntary memory as the supplement to the lack that the present itself is. When it turns time into the very object of its figure, it becomes the very symbol of literature and art in general: (91)

One can list indefinitely in a description all the objects that figured in the place described, but truth will begin only when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, the analogue in the world of art of the unique relation created in the world of science by the laws of causality, and encloses them within the necessary armature of a beautiful style. Indeed, just as in life, it begins at the moment when, by bringing together a quality shared by two sensations, he draws out their common essence by uniting them with each other, in order to protect them from the contingencies of time, in a metaphor. (VI, 289)

Finding Joy (involuntary memory)

February 21, 2014

What is the source of the joy that arises from episodes of involuntary memory? While originating in the senses, the sensation itself cannot be the source, however pleasant the taste of the tea and cake. Nor is it in the evoked memory, the dull visit with your hypochondriac aunt.

Beistegui’s paradox number 1: Joy comes not from the senses but from essence.

“Where could it have come to me from–this powerful joy?” Marcel asks after dipping his piece of madeleine into his spoon of tea. The answer to his question comes, as we know, only at the end of the novel and it’s a one-word answer: time, and especially that time that, because we misconceived it, we though we’d lost forever, namely the past. (46)

A past–whatever it may be–can be the reason for our happiness, provided it returns differently. In fact, if it initially involves an intense sensation, its identical repetition will never be as intense because of its distance from the source. And if it involves sadness or some feeling of relative indifference, its identical return won’t ever be miraculously reversed into its opposite. So the nature of this unique experience won’t be uncovered through its repetition, by taking another sip of tea or by managing to trip again on the paving-stone, something the young Marcel eventually realizes as he’s smelling the hawthorns:

“I continued, even at the risk of making myself the laughing-stock of the crowd of chauffeurs, to stagger, as I had done a moment before, one foot on the raised paving-stone, the other foot on the lower one. Each time I simply repeated outward form of this movement, nothing helpful occurred…” (46-47)

“And then it seemed as though the signs which were to bring me, on this day of all days, out of my disheartened state and restore to me my faith in literature, were thronging eagerly about me, for, a butler who had long been in the service of the Prince de Guermantes having recognised me and brought to me in the library where I was waiting, so that I might not have to go to the buffet, a selection of petits fours and a glass of orangeade, I wiped my mouth with the napkin which he had given me; and instantly, as though I had been the character in the Arabian Nights who unwittingly accomplishes the very rite which can cause to appear, visible to him alone, a docile genie ready to convey him to a great distance, a new vision of azure passed before my eyes, but an azure that this time was pure and saline and swelled into blue and bosomy undulations, and so strong was this impression that the moment to which I was transported seemed to me to be the present moment: more bemused than on the day when I had wondered whether I was really going to be received by the Princesse de Guermantes’s house, unfolded for me— concealed within its smooth surfaces and its folds— the plumage of an ocean green and blue like the tail of a peacock. And what I found myself enjoying was not merely these colours but a whole instant of my life on whose summit they rested, an instant which had been no doubt an aspiration towards them and which some feeling of fatigue or sadness had perhaps prevented me from enjoying at Balbec but which now, freed from what is necessarily imperfect in external perception, pure and disembodied, caused me to swell with happiness.”

(Proust, Marcel (2012-02-06). The Modern Library In Search of Lost Time, Complete and Unabridged 6-Book Bundle: Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-VI (Proust Complete) (Kindle Locations 54422-54434). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

The lesson here–a lesson that the hawthorns already hinted at–is this: the experience of joy–of that highest form of joy, the kind that’s synonymous with delight, that makes us indifferent to death–doesn’t come from colours, smells and flavours as such, from objects qua material objects; rather, it comes from that part of those objects which exceeds this materiality and does so from the very heart of the material itself. And here’s where Proust’s account differs from that of the psychologists, who still think of experience as physiological data. As long as Marcel insists on seeing material joy as the means to happiness and on the present as the condition of his joy, he’s bound to be disappointed. What the experience of involuntary memory reveals is the–non-temporal or at least not present–truth that can be drawn from any perception. Perception, though, insofar as it’s immersed in the here and now, isn’t every going to be able to do this. The tendency to sees anything that’s not present is what’s essential about time; as a result, we tend to mistake the fact that a given expression might have been forgotten simply because it no longer had any role to play in the present situation with the fact that its corresponding reality has now vanished. (47-48)

Paradox number 2: Joy comes not from perception but from recollection.

Underneath habit, and forgotten by it since it served no purpose, impressions lie unaltered, tucked away but always ready to resurface: a rainy breeze, the smell of mould or smoke, the taste of a cake dipped in a cup of tea. Habit’s selective; it leaves all sorts of impressions, sensations and perceptions aside, on the edge of consciousness which, through its intelligence, strives to find its place within the world. So it’s selective, but it doesn’t erase such perceptions….We might have expected Proust to appeal to the other form of memory, involuntary memory, but instead he appeals to the notion of forgetting, not in negative terms, but in the terms that are usually ascribed to memory itself: forgetting isn’t just what erases and destroys, but it’s also what maintains and preserves, protects and safeguards. Images from the past don’t take refuge in memory and, even less so, in consciousness; rather they end up in the unconscious. (48-49)

Time as something fleeting and ungraspable, made up of an indefinite succession of endlessly repeated cycles, time as the time of suffering and death, is finally brought to a close by the methodical recollection of the day’s events, of an entire life, and from one life to the next. The exaltation of memory aimed at leaving the time of existence–the time of forgetting–and returning to the divine, to a time that doesn’t age, to the immortal and imperishable time celebrated in the Orphic verses under the name Chronos agèraos. (50)

Time in its pure state is time freed from the law of Kronos, time insisting beneath the time that passes (or exists). It’s the sort of time that digs tunnels in order to connect through a sort of paradoxical contiguity events that Kronos works to drive apart (and, as we’ll see later on, this is what, in the realm of art, we call metaphor). (52) [He conflates here Chronos and Kronos, as we do now with Father Time and the scythe. The Titan Kronos castrated Uranus with the scythe; Chronos is a separate deity, the incarnation of time. JE]

Paradox number 3: Joy only ever happens the second time around.

In other words,  we never know what the past will be made of or what surprises it might have in store for us. Its return is a first since what returns is the immaterial (and eternal) part of the present and what causes our joy is the experience of a reality in itself or an essence: some concentrate of Combray or Balbec, childhood or adolescence of the purest kind. Marcel’s joy consists precisely in being this pure past, this moment that doesn’t pass. (54)

Kronos procreates, yes, but he also devours his offspring. Unlike Mnemosyne, however, who rescues something from each existence and gives birth to the muses. Time’s an artist, then, even providing art with its model that effaces, destroys and kills the reality it creates–a truly monstrous form of infanticide and one that, despite the best efforts of human memory, whether natural or technical (writing, printing, photography, cinema, computer science), despite the whole culture, morality, religion and polities of memory, remains irreversible–he’s also subject to this other time that’s created somehow behind the back of the first and at the same time as it, which it doubles and carries elsewhere, traversing it, interrupting it and turning man into a god. (55)

The Titan Kronos eating his children by Goya.

The Titan Kronos eating his children by Goya.

Mnemosyne by Rossetti

Mnemosyne by Rossetti

But now a novel must be written…

Events alone, and certainly not facts, not even childhood memories, will yield (good) literature. Unlike facts, which are given and always situable in time, events need to be drawn out from the way, each time distinct, in which  they affect bodies and impress minds. An event’s not a date but a process, a becoming, through which the subject experiences his or her own transformation. There’s quite clearly a chronology at work in Proust’s novel, one that’s been reconstructed often enough and which Proust doesn’t try to hide or obliterate. This would be to give it too much importance. The time that the novel’s in search of and to whose meaning the narrator only gradually awakens is the time of events–a time of slow gestation and evolution broken up by sudden accelerations and violent turmoils…..Time’s the true developer–not chronological time, which records facts and sets up sequences, but Time the artist, which creates as it develops, that is, as it transforms: only Time the artist can turn the duc de Guermantes into a character by Moliere, the baron de Charlus into King Lear and monsieur d’Argencourt into a sublime dodderer. What Time reveals is nothing but the negative from which it started; in the end, though, it’s something else altogether. If Time’s truly artistic, then it’s in its capacity to make things recognizable, whether particular beings or the past itself, by changing them into different beings altogether. (64)

The excess of life that each one of us carries within us lies in the unlived experience that “doubles” every lived experience. And this doubling’s never  more apparent than in involuntary memories which make clear the structure of experience as irreducibly divided into the lived and the unlived present…into what’s actual and what’s virtual, into what happens for the first time and what only happens the second time around. reminiscences, as Deleuze rightly points out, are metaphors of life and metaphors are reminiscences of art. What they have in common is the fact that they determine a relation between two radically different objects, “in order to protect them from the contingencies of time.” Reminiscence and art (understood as metaphor) have the same relation to the world of essences: reminiscence is the analogue of art and involuntary memory is the analogue of metaphor. (65)

Beistegui on Memory

February 13, 2014

Beistegui devotes a chapter to the psychology of memory, especially the associationist school that was prominent in the nineteenth century. Wikepedia: Associationism is the idea that mental processes operate by the association of one mental state with its successor states. Most important to Proust’s thought was Hippolyte Taine (apologies to Bergson).

In Search of Lost Time depends on a theory of memory that involves Proust in a conversation with the psychologists and philosophers of his time, Taine, Ritbot and Bergson in particular. For example, his critique of the view that it’s “intelligence” that affords us access to the truth of the world and to our experience of it, as well as the positive role that he gives memory in all this, wouldn’t have been possible without the ideas developed in On Intelligence (De l’intelligence), in which Taine defines intelligence as understanding or as intellect, i.e. as the faculty of knowing.

The associationists recognize the same three types of memory as Proust.

First there’s this form of memory based on sedimentation. It’s a bodily and completely involuntary form of memory (although it’s also completely different from what Proust calls involuntary memory). It’s a kind of memory, too, that proceeds by way of accretion and that takes place in the here and now. It’s aimed mainly at action and retains from the world only what’s useful to it. It’s selective, therefore, and its ultimate goal is survival. This form of memory is what we most normally think of in terms of that process of picking up habits by which our body can then deal with the world, those habits thanks to which the body’s worldly surroundings become familiar to it, allowing it to find its bearings, ifs points of reference, without ever even having to think about or envision their process of doing so. (28-29)

It’s the kind of memory based on adaptation and compromise that we have in common with all living organisms. Just as our muscles have their memory, therefore, so the single cell of the amoeba has its own. Life is very much a a habit. We live out of habit”Habit,” as Beckett has it in the wonderful book on Proust, “is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.” (29)

The second is voluntary memory, the one so despised by Proust.

The transition towards the second type of memory–voluntary– is easy to see. Will and intelligence are identified  and criticized from the viewpoint of their capacity to restore the true past: “for me,” Proust says, “voluntary memory, which above all a memory of the intellect and of the eyes, gives us only facets of the past that have no truth.” (34-35)

Taine writes:

I saw this yesterday; and now as I write I see it again–dimly, it is true, but still I see it. The colours, forms, sounds, which struck me yesterday, are now renewed, or nearly so. Yesterday, I experienced sensations excited by the immediate contact of thing and immediate action of the nerves. Today, impressions analogous to those sensations, thought remotely so, arise in me, notwithstanding the want of this action and contact, notwithstanding the presence of other actions and contacts. It is a semi-revival of my experience; different terms might be used to express it, we might call it an after-taste, an echo, a representation, a phantom, in image of the primitive sensation; it matters little; all those comparisons mean no more than that after a sensation excited by the outer world, which resembles the sensation, and is accompanied, though not so forcibly, with the same emotions, which is pleasurable or the reverse, but in a less degree, and is followed by some, but not all, the same mental conclusions. The sensation repeats itself, though with less distinctness or force…” (35-36)

The third and final form of memory is involuntary. Proust goes beyond associationists here, making it the foundation of his aesthetics.

Proust in fact becomes a writer precisely because he stops seeing writing as the revival of a lived experience (what in German is termed Erlebnis) and capturing what I’d call its eventuality, i.e. the aspect of its lived experience that’s still likely to surprise us. (38)

Proust writes:

[…] but should a smell or a taste, met with again in quite different circumstance, reawaken the past in us, in spite of ourselves, we sense how different that past was from what we thought we had remembered, our voluntary memory having painted it, like a bad painter, in false colours. (38)

Beistegui links involuntary memory to metaphor:

What seems to hold Proust’s attention, from a literary perspective at least, is the capacity of these kind of memories to alter the time and place of the narrative quire unexpectedly, to transpose narrator and reader alike from one space-time to another, without any transition. But isn’t this power of transposition the same as what we call metaphor in literature? Later on, I’ll need to look at whether there’s not some phenomenon, rooted in unconscious remembrance as well as in metaphor, that unites the two. I’ll need to consider the particularly deep rooted connection between memory and writing. (43)

Iris and Hawthorn

January 31, 2014

I happen to be reading Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil and came across the passage cited below. A priest (who confesses to being an atheist) is arguing with a philosopher (who has an uncompromising belief in the truth of rationality). They pass a hawthorn…

They were just passing a hawthorn bush, it could scarcely be called a tree, which was putting out, amid its healthy shining thorns, sharp little vivid green buds.

‘The beauty of the world,’ said John Robert. ‘Unfortunately I am insensitive to it. Though it might have point as contrast to art. Art is certainly the devil’s work, the magic that joins good and evil together, the magic place where they joyfully run together. Plato was right about art.’

‘You enjoy no art form?’


Murdoch inverts Proust’s hawthorn scene: In the absence of art the hawthorn is all thorns, a ragged bush.

To leave on a positive note, here is a detail of a scan of a glad:

Scan of a gladiolus

Scan of a gladiolus

Proust as Philosopher: Looking for Joy

January 27, 2014

The arc of ISOLT might be described as a long chain of disillusionment followed by a triumphant, joyful epiphany. Miguel de Beistequi, in Proust as Philosopher, The Art of Metaphor, breaks this arc into the stages of looking for, finding and giving joy.

Whenever we think we’re sowing the seeds of happiness, life’s busy planting those of disillusionment. Whenever we think we’re working carefully towards contentment we are, in fact, hurtling towards our doom. A single life can hold more disillusion and disappointment than we can imagine: every second of happiness will fade, every fleeting joy will quickly be replaced by ever increasing sorrow; every desire fulfilled will end up either boring us or making us insatiable,in thrall to the ever more urgent exercise of the will….And? Is this the lesson of Proust’s novel?…Nothing, though, could be further from the truth, nothing more at odds with the spirit of Proust than this sort of of pseudo-Stoic or -Schopenhauerian lesson. Why? Because it’s precisely this sort of suffering that hones our senses and sharpens our intelligence. (1)

This lack or wanting is not psychological but ontological. Literature unmasks this false perception of reality and provides a tool for doing so, metaphor, which promises to reach beyond it traditional role in  rhetoric by transforming “matter into spirit.”

…at the heart of our relation to the world there’s a lack. This lack isn’t nothing, however, but is rather, a lack or wanting of being, a lack or want that functions as the sign of a truth that lies beyond or, more accurately, at the heart of present reality. This lack is original and structural and so isn’t something that could be remedied by a strategy of compensation, by recapturing or reproducing the “thing” that is lacking. (2)

…literature doesn’t believe in the solidity of being, in raw being, in short in what is commonly referred to as reality or life, and which so many forms of literature claim as their subject-matter. Its “faith” isn’t that of simple perception. Instead, it takes being to be that which, from the outset, is carried away and caught in a system of reference devoid of any actual origin or end. And it’s from this fundamental structure that is draws its own poetic law, through it that it elevates style beyond mere technique, elevating it to the status of “vision.” It’s through the thread of metaphor–the only one that isn’t illusory–that it relates to the real. As such, the metaphor that it weaves isn’t the product of fancy, as Coleridge has it, or the creation of “the part of the human being which dominates, this mistress of error and falsehood” that so unsettled Pascal. Rather, it’s the figure of the real in its self transposition or transfiguration. Metaphor believes in transubstantiation, in the conversion of matter into spirit, which it carries out, but only as an implicit dimension of matter itself, inscribed within it from the start. (2-3)

Just how metaphor has this power is the subject of de Beistegui’s book (and in this blog here, here, here and here).

As examples of the lack at the heart of reality, de Beistegui looks at the objects of Swann’s and Marcel’s desires: Odette and Albertine. Proust intentionally gives us portrayals of these two characters that reveal little of their inner selves. We are meant to see them as the rest of the world does, as shallow figures inexplicably worshiped by their lovers. But their lovers have augmented reality with their imaginations.

The disappointment that the narrator can’t help but experience when confronted with the real would be entirely of a piece with the conflict between imagination and perception. Whether imagination is anticipating the real or, in  its presence, carrying it elsewhere and transforming it, thereby giving it a meaning and a purpose, it is always a prosthesis or supplement to the real. It could be, then that the real isn’t self-sufficient and can’t, in fact, proceed on its own. It’s always waiting on something else, always truly elsewhere. Odette de Crécy is neither truly beautiful nor particularly moving, in Swann’s eyes at least. And yet, once she starts to remind him of Botticelli’s Zipporah, his pleasure in seeing her is justified and her beauty established…It is as if, remorseful at having “limited his life to worldly relationships, to conversation” and ashamed of the frivolity of his own existence, Swann’s able to elevate it, to grant it some value by imagining his world as the reflection of a great artist’s. Anyone who fails to see Odette in such a light or fails to see her through that other, magical and distorting lens, a lens ground by imagination, isn’t going to find her all that attractive….From which it follows that pretty women are the province of men with no imagination. (4)

In fact, the narrator himself only starts loving Albertine when he “suddenly” sees in “the real Albertine, the one [he] saw every day, [and] who [he] thought was hidebound in bourgeois prejudices,” the embodiment of the imaginary Albertine,far more attractive than the real one, namely the Albertine “who, at a time when [he] did not even know her, [he] had thought was taking furtive looks at [him] on the esplanade, the one who, when she saw [him] walking off, had seemed to be wending so reluctantly her own way home.” Meeting the gaze of an unknown woman is enough to make him fall in love with her, since those eyes contain everything he could ever know of a thought, a wish, a memory. “The hope of taking possession of all that,” Proust writes, “is what gives her eyes their value, much more than any mere material beauty.” (5)

If Proust’s attitude towards love seems somewhat abrasive, his take on friendship is harsher still. It’s hard to imagine anything more cruel than his exposure of friendship as a mirage and his denunciation of its pointlessness….The friendship between Marcel and Saint-Loup is like the love between Swann and Odette: it consists in a misunderstanding that brings some joy to the narrator only insofar as Saint-Loup appears to him, as in a work of art, under the guise of the “nobleman,” i.e. as a type or essence “for [his] thoughts to toy with in an ideal moment.” And if Marcel manages to experience intense joy in his company, it’s not, as Saint-Loup would have hoped, as a result of his intellectual or moral qualities, but “to glimpse through him the earlier, immemorial, aristocratic self that Robert sought to avoid being.” (10-11)

Reality lives in the present, in the realm of impressions where we must act, and which requires augmentation by imagination. Can reality be expanded so that it can be enjoyed?

Perception lives in the present since we can only ever act in and  on the present alone. Its link with the world (and its knowledge of the world) is wholly material: what I perceive is matter and matter saturates my being in the world as an immediately present being. Perception can act on the present but it can’t dream the present or imagine it. Such a dream, such an imagining of the present even, requires that perception should loosen it grip on the material world and let the mind expand, wander until it connects with a different world. The imagination–like memory, an even more determining phenomenon, as I’ll try to show later on–presupposes, then, a transformation of the world of perception into that of the mind….Right up until the final revelation, though, however foreshadowed it’s been throughout the novel, the narrator can’t reconcile his thirst for truth and his disappointment, the power of  the imagination and the deficiency of perception, possible time and real time. (14-15)

Whatever some people have wanted to say, Proust’s “solution” isn’t Schopenhauer’s: while both are solutions mediated by art, for Proust art doesn’t coincide with any sort of suspension of neutralization of the will, of desire, of sensibility, in short; instead, it coincides with the latter’s actualization and with its truth. At the same time, such a reversal of nihilism is as far from Platonism as it’s possible to be, despite some commentators having seen the novel as decidedly Platonic in places: because Proust talks about Ideas as those realities that are truer and richer than the reality of the immediate present, it was assumed that he posited the existence of the intelligible world above or behind the world of appearances. As I’ll show, though, Proust’s Ideas are embodied and sensible. (15)

True joy will be neither the joy of the senses nor that of the imagination. (16)

de Beistegui finds a “dialectical reversal” out of this impasse in the passages in “Combray” where Marcel engages in the mystery of the hawthorns. The flowers are surely pleasant to the senses, but…

Marcel intuits that something’s being pleasant isn’t enough to make us love it, whether were taking about a woman, a flower or a work of art. For this to happen, they have to be beautiful….By finding the flowers more than just pleasing, more than just pleasant, he endows them with a metaphysical value and draws out a new meaning of our being in the world; by experiencing, in such personal terms and in such a localized way in space and time, something universal, he discovers the possibility of a communion, not just with the object of his judgement but with every rational being as well. In doing so he discovers the possibility of a true communication: not the communion of love or of friendship, which rest on the illusion of transparency, but the kind of communication postulated by the aesthetic experience and the judgement of taste. (17-19)

[B]ut in vain did I make a screen with my hands, the better to concentrate upon the flowers, the feeling they aroused in me remained obscure and vague, struggling and failing to free itself, to float across and become one with them. (Kindle Locations 2894-2896. Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition)

The insistence on not going beyond the impressions or the sensation, on getting as close as possible to the phenomenon in the hope of grasping the feeling that arises from it, necessarily results in missing the latter. At other points in the novel, the narrator makes fun of those who allege that, upon listening to some sonata for the hundredth time, they can still experience the same pleasure and exclaim “how beautiful! What a gem, ” thus giving themselves the feeling of being immersed in this music, of becoming one with it and merging with it completely, without ever wondering about the origin of their pleasure or providing themselves with the means to look into its meaning. There’s no point in shaking all over, like Madame Verdurin, and claiming that, if the music does not stop, she will end up crying or even falling ill because she “feels” the music with such intensity. This doesn’t help our understanding of the feeling of pleasure that we’re experiencing. Until something useful can be extracted from this impression, we’ll grow old “useless and unsatisfied, like celibates at the shrine of art.” Because his pleasure is wholly contained in the flowers under his eyes, Marcel thinks that its origin can be grasped through the closest possible encounter with their materiality, by drinking  in their presence and, intoxicated, embracing it completely….Something in them, though, escapes him. His pleasure’s wholly located in these flowers; it depends on them unconditionally. Something else, though, something that’s seemingly bound up in this pleasure, at once preserved and embodied in it, seems to want to escape it. But where? And for whom? His thought process itself is no help at all. But how could it be since it’s the process of thought and thoughts aren’t sensations?  (20-21)

The pleasure he gets from seeing them in this way is specifically not derived from his ability to imagine them as young girls or from the power of the imagination and, consequently, from the fascination that this power exerts upon us; instead, it stems from this ability to sense some secret agreement linking the imagination and nature, to feel the nature itself is the inspiration behind these images. It seems as if–and let’s consider “as if” as pivotal here–nature itself and nature as such presented itself in this form, as if it wished to surpass itself, to extend itself into the spiritual world (symbolized here by the religious celebration). It’s as if nature, as the set of laws subject to strict determinism, aimed to suggest some compatibility or, rather, some convergence, with the spiritual laws, beyond the clear opposition that Kant establishes between mechanical and free causality, or between the phenomenal and noumenal world. (22-23)

What the pink of the hawthorn reveals, through the unctuous, fresh, sweet appearance of the puddings and biscuits of childhood, is the reason for our attachment to it: i.e. the childhood that’s settled and that can be found there again at will, the promise of a unique world (as opposed to a divided if not torn one) where everything communicates with everything, accessible de jure. What comes back to the surface in the experience of the hawthorns, what emerges before these flowers, is the singularity of childhood, its world of colours, tastes, flavours, its religion, its myths, in short all the differences that constitute “Marcel” the subject. This isn’t something he’s able to realize yet. He only realizes it halfway, so to speak. His wonder, his joy, his emotion are markers of its, however, unquestionable signs. (25)

The literary problem the young Marcel must solve is to find a way to unite sensuous joy with the permanence of art.

…if literature’s going to exist, it must be as a probing device, a depth-exploring tool. Granted, Marcel thinks, it must have some relation with the pleasure that the sight of a roof, a reflection on a stone, the smell of a path or a flower might evoke in us. But it’s not enough to note, in the immediate aftermath of his experience of the steeples at Martinville, “the shape of their spires, the shifting of their lines, the sunlight on their surfaces,” as Marcel does in his first go at writing. On the contrary, as he senses he has to do in the presence of the hawthorns, he needs to exhaust the impression, to understand what is hiding behind this movement, behind this movement, behind this light, to grasp what seems to dwell and steal away simultaneously in its midst–something the young Marcel’s unable to do for practically the whole novel. For him, if art’s to exist at all, it must yield happiness, reverse the course of dissatisfaction and bitterness; in short, it must reconcile us with life. (25)

What would be the mediation via which it could be grasped? Involuntary memory is the emergence of that other reality or, rather of reality as unanticipated and unimagined. It implies the insistent and somewhat miraculous presence of what was thought to be dead, the rebirth of a forgotten past. The value of this experience is wholly included in the return itself and not in the content of what returns. It signals the existence of a time that isn’t the time of anticipation and desire, ultimately doomed to an ever disappointing reality, or the time  of the sole present and of perception, devoid of meaning in themselves, but the time of the contiguity of the present and the past. We know that, through the mediation of involuntary memory, Proust ultimately assents that we can surpass the disappointment entailed by the real. This view implies the perennialization of these fleeting moments through the creation of a work of art. (26)

Next: Finding Joy.

Getting Down

January 1, 2014

Unable to sleep in an unfamiliar guest room, I pulled a book down from the library shelf, Why New Orleans Matters by Tom PiazzaI opened it and serendipitously read the following passage where the author cites the noted musicologist Dr. John to restate Proust’s central aesthetic concern. Metaphor is not limited to a rhetorical device; it can be a very physical, time erasing bridge from the present moment to our most intensively lived past, to essence. 

Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, once told me that when a brass band plays at a small club back up in one of the neighborhoods, it’s as if the audience–dancing, singing to the refrains, laughing–is part of the band. They are two parts of the same thing. The dancers interpret, or it might be better to say literally embody, the sounds of the band, answering the instruments. Since everyone is listening to different parts of the music–she to the trumpet melody, he to the bass drum, she to the trombone–the audience is a working model in three dimensions of the music, a synesthesic transformation of materials. And of course the band is also watching the dancers, and getting ideas from the dancers’ gestures. The relationship between band and audience is in that sense like the relationship between two lovers making love, where cause and effect becomes very hard to see, even impossible to call by its right name; one is literally getting down, as in particle physics, to some root stratum where one is freed from the lockstep of time itself, where one might even run backward, or sideways, and something eternal and transcendent is accessed. (Why New Orleans Matters, page 25).

The Richardson Proust Portraits

December 9, 2013

David Richardson has recently published the portraits of many of the characters appearing in ISOLT. The book is a limited edition (translation: very expensive) and the production quality is very high. Richardson is a vibrant colorist, recalling to my mind the portraits of Matisse. I have copied a few random portraits from each artist for you to make the comparison.

(The book, as well as individual prints, is available at

Matisse:Matisse Portraits 2


Selected Matisse portraits (Google Image Search)




Richardson Portraits 2 - Copy

Richardson Proust portraits taken from

The Madeleine Stories

January 21, 2013

The title of Anka Muhlstein’s new book, ‘M. Proust’s Library’, at first struck me as odd, since Proust did not have much of a book collection. Proust seems to have committed large sections of whatever he read to memory, making the ownership of books superfluous. But she has the wider meaning of library in mind. One of her threads helped me to better way frame the famous madeleine incident.

Proust’s Search can actually be condensed quite a lot once we ignore all the Marcel flashback stuff. A middle-aged man, in anguish over how to become a writer, has a pleasant glow of reminiscence after the taste of a pastry dipped in warm tea creates a kind of space-time wormhole to his childhood. But the glow fades. He takes a walk in the Bois in order to bring back more of these unforced memories. The walk ends in gloom as he is reminded simply of the loss of beauty in his life. He visits a childhood friend—but their conversations do not show him a way forward as an artist. He commits himself to some sort of asylum for renewal, which he interrupts to take a short trip to Paris during the war years. He sees startling events, but still cannot figure out how to knit them together into a narrative.  Years later he returns to Paris again and accepts an invitation to a soirée filled with characters he had known throughout his childhood and youth. It is here that everything changes.

Muhlstein writes about the moment of his artistic self-discovery:

At the very end of the novel, the Narrator suddenly sees François le Champi on a shelf in the Prince de Guermantes’s library, and the mere sight of the volume triggers the memory of “the child I had been at that time, brought to life within me by the book, which knowing nothing of me except this child it had instantly summoned him to its presence, wanting to be seen only by his eyes, to be loved only by his heart, to speak only to him. And this book which my mother had read aloud to me at Combray until the early hours of that night… [A] thousand trifling details of Combray which for years had not entered my mind came lightly and spontaneously leaping, in follow-my-leader fashion, to suspend themselves from the magnetized nib in an interminable and trembling chain of memories… [and re-created] the same impression of what the weather was like then in the garden, the same dreams that were then shaping themselves in [my] mind about the different countries and about life, the same anguish about the next day.”  George Sand is the only writer Proust read as a child whom he comments upon in La Recherche…. (pages 7-8)

So this book-inspired unforced memory, about a country waif adopted by (and later married to) a woman named Madeleine, is the more powerful of the madeleine stories, touching as it does not only on Marcel’s artistic breakthrough and its source in literature, but also Proust’s deepest psychological nature.