Proust and Signs II


Deleuze calls Proust a modernist because of the radical replacement of the loss of certainty with a human certainty that can only be discovered after blind encounters with the world. While Plato and Proust both emphasize memory, Proust rejects the logos of Plato.

There is one aspect, however concealed it may be, of the logos, by means of which the Intelligence always comes before, by which the whole is already present, the law already known before what it applies to: this is the dialectical trick by which we discover only what we have already given ourselves, by which we derive from things only what we have already put there. (Thus we will recognize the vestiges of a Logos in Saint-Beuve and his detestable method when he interrogates an author’s friends in order to evaluate his writing as the effect of a family, a period, a milieu, even if Sainte-Beuve also considers the work in its turn as a whole that reacts on its milieu. It is a method that leads him to treat Baudelaire and Stendhal somewhat  in the way Socrates treats Alcibiades: as nice boys well worth knowing. Goncourt too employs crumbs of the Logos, when he observes the Verdurin dinner party and the guests gathered “for entirely superior conversations mingled with parlor games.”) (105-106)

Proust illustrates the limits of formal knowledge with three minor characters.

Now each in his way reveals the bankruptcy of the Logos and has value only because of his familiarity with mute, fragmentary, and subjacent signs that integrate him into some part of the Search. Cottard, an illiterate fool, finds his genius in diagnosis, the interpretation of ambiguous syndromes. Norpois knows perfectly well that the conventions of diplomacy, like those of worldliness, mobilize and restore pure signs under the explicit significations employed. Saint-Loup explains that the art of war depends less on science and reasoning than on the penetration of signs that are always partial, ambiguous signs enveloped by heterogeneous factors, or even false signs intended to deceive the adversary. (107)

 For Proust, the logos is emergent, not pre-existing.

This is precisely the originality of Proustian reminiscence: it proceeds from a mood, from a state of soul, and from its associative chains, to a creative or transcendent viewpoint–and no longer, in Plato’s fashion, from a state of the world to seen objectivities. (110)

The dragons of Balbec, the patch of wall in the Vermeer, the little phrase of Vinteuil, mysterious viewpoints, tell us the same thing as Chateaubriand’s wind: they function without “sympathy,” they do not make the work into an organic totality, but rather each acts as a fragment that determines a crystallization….Such a work, having for subject time itself, has no need to write by aphorisms: it is in the meanders and rings of an anti-Logos style that it makes the requisite detours in order to gather up the ultimate fragments, to sweep along at different speeds all the pieces, each one of which refers to a different whole, to no whole at all, or to no other whole than that of style. (115)

 The beginning reader of Proust always feels a lack of plan, of unity in the novel.

To claim Proust had the notion–even vague or confused–of the antecedent unity of the Search or that he found it subsequently, but as animating the whole from the start, is to read him badly, applying the ready-made criteria of organic totality that are precisely the ones he rejects and miss the new conception of unity he was in the process of creating. For it is surely here that we must begin: the disparity, the incommensurability, the disintegration of the parts of the Search, with the breaks, lacunae, intermittences that guarantee its ultimate diversity. (116)

How does this new conception of unity emerge? Consider the cup of tea and the madeleine.

The true container is not the cup, but the sensuous quality, the flavor. And the content is not a chain associated with this flavor, the chain of things and people who were known in Combray, but Combray as essence, Combray as pure Viewpoint, superior to all that has been experienced from this viewpoint itself, appearing finally for itself and in its splendor, in a relation of severance with the associative chain that merely came half the way toward it. The content is so completely lost, having never been possessed, that its reconquest is a creation. (119)

 The novel becomes a sort of machine that produces these truths.

Why a machine? Because the work of art, so understood, is essentially productive–productive of certain truths. No one has insisted more than Proust on the following point: that the truth is produced, that it is produced by orders of machines that function within us, that it is extracted from our impressions, hewn out of our life, delivered in a work. This is why Proust rejects so forcefully the state of a truth that is not produced but merely discovered or, on the contrary, created, and the state of a thought that would presuppose itself by putting intelligence “before,” uniting all one’s faculties in a voluntary use corresponding to discovery or to creation (Logos). “The ideas formed by pure intelligence have only a logical or possible truth, their choice is arbitrary….” (146-147)

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