Abstruse Engima


Landy uses the indent method to diagram Proust’s sentences, a method I have also found useful. It can bring out rhythm, sense and structure in a graphic way. Here is an example from Landy, along with his commentary.

How could I have guessed
    then
what I was told afterwards
    (and of whose truth I have never been certain,
       Andree’s assertions
          about anything that concerned Albertine,
                 especially later on,
          having always seemed to me to be highly dubious,
              for,
                  as we have already seen,
              she did not genuinely like my friend
              and was jealous of her),
something which
    in any event,
        if it was true,
was remarkably well concealed from me
    by both of them:
that Albertine was on the best of terms with Morel? (IV,586)

Another “Zenonian hundred-yard dash,” this sentence is an object lesson in how the mind can, under pressure, turn a simple question into an impossibly abstruse enigma. The nucleus, represented in the original by the first and last five words, is straightforward: “How could I have guessed … that Albertine was on the best of terms with Morel?” It is repeatedly interrupted, however, by qualifications, justifications, and justification of justifications.

To start with, an opposite (optimistic) hypothesis makes it appearance almost immediately: perhaps Albertine was not on the best of terms with Morel, in which case there is no point asking the question. This being the hypothesis of the intellect, it is appropriately backed up by argument (Andrée may be lying), and that argument in turn backed up by a causal explanation (Andrée may be lying), and that argument in turn backed up by a causal explanation (Andrée is jealous of Albertine). It is not entirely convincing: Marcel says he has “always” distrusted Andrée, “especially later on”; the two temporal adverbs stand in a certain amount of tension.

Next, Marcel feels compelled to defend his obliviousness, saying that he had no way of knowing what was going on; and he interrupts his excuses, for good measure, to give voice once again to the optimistic hypothesis (“if it were true”).

What we are left with is a muddle, and the impression of a mind spinning its wheels in irremediable uncertainty, moving from ignorance to blind guesswork and thence to total confusion. At first Marcel knew nothing; later he learned that Albertine and Morel were in cahoots; later still he put that idea into question, ending up worse off than he started (still as ignorant, but even more racked with doubt).

The sentence is as contorted as the mind that produced it. It not only speaks of but instantiates the intellect’s failure to reach reliable conclusions concerning other minds. And it intimates, sotto voce, the one success to which intellect can still aspire: that of rationalizing away what we do not wish to believe. 148-149)

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