Gilles Deleuze wrote Proust & Signs in 1964. The book applies the study of signs, semiotics, to a literary analysis of ISOLT. He begins with a (to my mind) sensible statement of what Proust’s novel is and is not.
What constitutes the unity of In Search of Lost Time? We know, at least, what does not. It is not recollections, memory, even involuntary memory. What is essential to the Search is not in the madeleine or the cobblestones….What is involved is not an exposition of involuntary memory, but the narrative of an apprenticeship: more precisely, the apprenticeship of a man of letters. (3)
So Deleuze will be writing about the learning required for a literary apprenticeship.
Learning is essentially concerned with signs. Signs are the object of a temporal apprenticeship, not of an abstract knowledge. To learn is first of all to consider a substance, an object, a being as if it emitted signs to be deciphered, interpreted. There is no apprentice who is not “the Egyptologist” of something. One becomes a carpenter only by becoming sensitive to the signs of wood, a physician by becoming sensitive to the signs of disease….Proust’s work is based not on the exposition of memory, but on the apprenticeship of signs. (4)
Signs come in four categories: worldly, love, sensuous and art.
The first world of the Search is the world of, precisely, worldliness. There is no milieu that emits and concentrates so many signs, in such reduced space, at so great a rate. (5)
Nothing funny is said at the Verduins’, and Mme Verdurin does not laugh; but Cottard makes a sign that he is saying something funny, Mme Verdurin makes a sign that she is laughing, and her sign is so perfectly emitted that M. Verdurin, not to be outdone, seeks in his turn for an appropriate mimicry. Mme de Guermantes has a heart that is often hard, a mind that is often weak, but she always has charming signs. She does not act for her friends, she does not think with them, she makes signs to them. The worldly sign does not refer to something, it “stands for” it, claims to be equivalent to its meaning. (6)
The apprentice lover is consumed with trying to understand the signs emitted by his lover.
The second circle is that of love. The Charlus-Jupien encounter makes the reader a party to the most prodigious exchange of signs. To fall in love is to individualize someone by the signs he bears or emits. It is to become sensitive to these signs, to undergo an apprenticeship to them (thus the slow individualization of Albertine in the group of young girls). It may be that friendship is nourished on observation and conversation, but love is born from and nourished on silent interpretation. (7)
The lover wants his beloved to devote to him her preference, her gestures, her caresses. But the beloved’s gestures, at the very moment they are addressed to us, still express that unknown world that excludes us. The beloved gives us signs of preference; but because these signs are the same as those that express worlds to which we do not belong, each preference by which we profit draws the image of the possible world in which others might be or are preferred. (8)
Sensuous signs are at the heart of experiences of involuntary memory.
The third world is that of sensuous impressions or qualities. It may happen that a sensuous quality gives us a strange joy at the same time that it transmits a kind of imperative….But whatever the examples–madeleine, steeples, trees, cobblestones, napkin, noise of a spoon or a pipe–we witness the same procedure. First a prodigious joy, so that these signs are already distinguished from the preceding ones by their immediate effect. Further, a kind of obligation is felt, the necessity of a mental effort to seek the sign’s meaning (yet we may evade this imperative, out of laziness, or else our investigations may fail out of impotence or bad luck, as in the case of the trees). The sign’s meaning appears, yielding to us the concealed object–Combray for the madeleine, young girls for the steeples, Venice for the cobblestones… (11-12)
Each of these three types of signs have a material base, the world, the lover, the physical sensation. The signs of art rise above the material and provide meaning to the apprentice.
At the end of the Search, the interpreter understands what had escaped him in the case of the madeleine or even of the steeples: that the material meaning is nothing without an ideal essence that it incarnates. The mistake is to suppose that the hieroglyphs represent “only material objects.” But what now permits the interpreter to go further is that meanwhile the problem of art has been raised and has received a solution. Now the world of art is the ultimate world of signs, and these signs, as though dematerialized, find their meaning in an ideal essence. (13)
With these tools defined, we can now see how Deleuze uses signs to gain insights in the text of the novel. Consider the disappointments Marcel inevitably feels when he encounters what he had only imagined before.
Disappointment is a fundamental moment of the search or of apprenticeship: in each realm of signs, we are disappointed when the object does not give us the secret we were expecting. And disappointment itself is pluralist, variable according to each line. There are few things that are not disappointing the first time they are seen. For the first time is the time of inexperience; we are not yet capable of distinguishing the sign from the object, and the object interposes and confuses the signs. Disappointment on first hearing Vinteuil, on first meeting Bergotte, on first seeing the Balbec church…How is the disappointment, in each realm, to be remedied? On each line of apprenticeship, the hero undergoes an analogous experience, at various moments: for the disappointment of the object, he attempts to find a subjective compensation….The hero passionately longs to hear Berma, but when he does, he tries first of all to recognize her talent, to encircle this talent, to isolate it in order to be able to designate it. It is Berma, “at last I am seeing Berma.” … It is because the sign is doubtless more profound than the object emitting it, but it is still attached to that object, it is still half sheathed in it. And the sign’s meaning is doubtless more profound than the subject interpreting, but it is attached to this subject, half incarnated in a series of subjective associations. We proceed from one to the other; we leap from one to the other; we overcome the disappointment of the object by a compensation of the subject. (35-36)
Now consider the nature of involuntary memory, which provides the closest approximation to art.
At what level, then, does the famous involuntary Memory intervene? It will be noticed that it intervenes only in terms of a sign of a very special type: the sensuous signs. We apprehend a sensuous quality as a sign; we feel an imperative that forces us to seek its meaning….Combray rises up in a pure past, coexisting with the two presents, but out of their reach, out of reach of the present voluntary memory and of the past conscious perception. “A morsel of time in the pure state” is not a simple resemblance between the present and the past, between a present that is immediate and a past that has been present, not even an identity in the two moments, but beyond, the very being of the past in itself, deeper than any past that has been, than any present that was….”Real without being present, ideal without being abstract.” This ideal reality, this virtuality, is essence, which is realized or incarnated in involuntary memory. Here as in art, envelopment or involution remains the superior state of essence. And involuntary memory retains it two powers: the difference in the past moment, the repetition in the present one. But essence is realized in involuntary memory to a lesser degree than in art; it is incarnated in a more opaque matter. (53-61)
Deleuze concludes part one of his book with a comparison of Proustian method to that of Socrates.
But the Socratic demon, irony, consists in anticipating the encounters. In Socrates, the intelligence still comes before the encounters; it provokes them, it instigates and organized them. Proust’s humour is of another nature: Jewish humor as opposed to Greek irony. One must be endowed for the signs, ready to encounter them, one must open oneself to their violence. The intelligence always come after; it is good when it come after; it is good only when it comes after. As we have seen, this distinction between Proust and Platonism involved many more differences. There is no Logos; there are only hieroglyphs. To think is therefore to interpret, is therefore to translate. The essences are at once the thing to be translated and the translation itself, the sign and the meaning. (101-102)