The Study of Feelings


Proust’s characters reveal themselves to us only as fast as Marcel understands them. Jacques Rivière, publisher of Proust at the La Nouvelle Review Française, shows how this is done in Analytic Tradition.

He makes nothing appear unless he starts from within; he does not think of repeating the echo of lost Time; he tries only to give back to Time, little by little, its entire content. And he does  the same individually for each emotion that he has experienced, for each character who reappears before his eyes. Immediately, he seeks their nuances, their intimate diversity; only by dint of discovering their differences does he hope to recall them to life.

Jacques Boulenger very subtly noted in L’Opinion that Proust portrayed others only “by retracing the reflection they had left in him,” and thus went on to seek their image in the depths of some inner mirror, as it were. It is important to understand the implications of this process. However hard we may try, we can make no truly profound description of character unless it is based upon the narrow and solid understanding of ourselves. Before we can turn toward the outside with the hope of some chance of success, the analysis must have been etched strongly within. At least, this is the law among us French. What was lacking in Flaubert and in all the novelists of his school was the knowledge of how to seize themselves first. Because they wanted to be immediately and directly objective, they condemned themselves simply to placing objects in front of themselves, without animating them, diversifying them, lighting them up from within.

Proust sees all things, even those which are exterior, at the angle from which he sees himself. And as he has acquired the habit of refraction, his glance immediately decomposes, makes specific. He succeeds thus in never separating a human being from his detail, and in showing him to us always completely concrete, as rounded out inwardly as he is outwardly, astonishing but, at the same time, known.

The great classic tradition is what he thus renews. Does Racine not seek others in himself? Having once set his understanding upon the traces of his feelings, gradually, by their profitable interplay, he becomes a creator. And in this way only: nothing is raised up directly. By understanding, by analysis and knowledge, he gives birth little by little to different human beings. And before the eyes of the reader or of the spectator, these human beings, thanks to the progressive development of understanding within themselves, take form. In the very beginning, the poet turned his back upon their totality and refused to accept the  appearance they might have assumed; he wanted only to absorb them better, to enter their souls as he had first entered his own, that is, completely armed with attention. From what other source do Hermione, Nero, and Phaedra slowly emerge before our eyes than from the depths of those feelings by which we see them being torn apart? Here there is no creation in the true sense of the word, but only invention, that is, something  found, perceived, unraveled, a verification, so to speak, of the consciousness of another.

Proust goes back to this method, using a large canvas, working more slowly, more minutely, less dramatically. In everything, he once again finds the road inward. And he does so not by an effort of concentration and sleep, in imitation of the style of Bergson, but on the contrary, by the peaceful unfurling of lucidity and discernment. As naturally as a poet who, forgetful of himself, projects images before himself, so does Proust plunge into himself and ask questions, explore, guess, recognize, and gradually explain people and things to himself. His mind very gently eats away all that is obscure or opaque in his subjects, destroys all that refuses to be revealed, all that would tend to make just an impression. In this way he invents them merely by making an inventory, merely by the calm perpetuity of the attention he grants them. To produce his subjects, he demonstrates them. He tries to make them manifest on the page he is writing, and through ten thousand words, he goes in search of them. He does not acknowledge their shadows; these, too, must be filled with traits that can be and must be seized: for the lack of better, he will people them with his hypotheses.

The great, modest journey through the human heart which the classics had initiated begins again. “The study of feelings” once more makes progress. Our eyes open anew upon inner truth. Our literature, choked by the ineffable for a time, once more becomes openly what it has always been essentially: a “discourse on the passions.” (44-46)

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