Beckett on Proust: Time


Samuel Beckett’s Proust is brief, only 72 pages, but is dense with insight. It is loosely organized on the themes of time, memory, love and artistic vision. In this post, which will require little commentary on my part, I will select passages related to time.

He accepts regretfully the sacred ruler and compass of literary geometry. But he will refuse to extend his submission to spatial scales, he will refuse to measure the length and weight of man in terms of his body instead of in terms of his years….Proust’s creatures, then, are victims of this predominating condition and circumstance–Time; victims as lower organisms, conscious only of two dimensions and suddenly confronted with the mystery of height, are victims: victims and prisoners. There is no escape from the hours and days. There is no escape from  yesterday because yesterday has deformed us, or been deformed by us.  (2)

We are not merely more weary because of yesterday, we are other, no longer what we were before the calamity of yesterday. A calamitous day, but calamitous not necessarily in content. The good or evil disposition of the object has neither reality nor significance. The immediate joys and sorrows of the body and the intelligence are so many superfoetations. [I looked it up for you: The conception of a second embryo, during the gestation of the first. JE] Such as it was, it has been assimilated to the only world that has reality and significance, the world of our own latent consciousness, and its cosmography has suffered a dislocation….The aspirations of yesterday were valid for yesterday’s ego, not for to-day’s. We are disappointed at the nullity of what we are pleased to call attainment. But what is attainment: The identification of the subject with the object of his desire. The subject has died–and perhaps many times–on the way. (3)

 The individual is the seat of a constant process of decantation, decantation from the vessel containing the fluid of future time, sluggish, pale and monochrome, to the vessel containing the fluid of past time, agitated and multicoloured by the phenomena of its hours. Generally speaking the former is innocuous, amorphous, without character, without any Borgian virtue. Lazily considered in anticipation and in the haze of our smug will to live, of our pernicious and incurable optimism, it seems exempt from the bitterness of fatality: in store for us, not in store in us. On occasions, however, it is capable of supplementing the labours of its colleague. It is only necessary for its surface to be broken by a date, by any temporal specification allowing us to measure the days that separate us from a menace–or a promise. Swann, for example, contemplates with doleful resignation the months that he must spend away from Odette during the summer. One day Odette says: ‘Forcheville (her lover, and, after the death of Swann, her husband) is going to Egypt at Pentecost.’ Swann translates: ‘I am going with Forcheville to Egypt at Pentecost.’ The fluid of future time freezes, and poor Swann, face to face the future reality of Odette and Forcheville in Egypt, suffers more grievously than even at the misery of his present condition. (4-5)

The future event cannot be focussed, its implication cannot be seized, until it is definitely situated and a date assigned to it. When Albertine was his prisoner, the possibility of her escape did not seriously disturb him, because it was indistinct and abstract, like the possibility of death. Whatever opinion we may be pleased to hold on the subject of death, we may be sure that it is meaningless and valueless. Death has not required us to keep a day free. (6)

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