The Dialectics of Proust

For Richard Macksey, in his essay The Architecture of Time: Dialectics and Structure (in Proust, A Collection of Critical Essays), the central dynamic of the novel is the tension between the inner and outer life, realized self and desire for the other, art and life and the dialectic that the artist experiences in finding a way to reconcile these contrasting forces.

For Proust originality was a quality of “vision,” a way of seeing the world whole and unique; he saw his own task as that of enclosing his world in a new structure which, like the parish church of Saint-Hilaire, would include in its unity the “four dimension of space–the name of the fourth being Time.” Although the vocabulary of Proust’s extended architectural metaphors frequently recalls his apprenticeship to John Ruskin, two insistent points in such comparisons are peculiarly characteristic of the novelist’s own vision: the possibility of creating a dialectic between inside and outside, a living space within which the artist can translate the world;  and the possibility, usually represented by the gothic arch or rose window, of bringing into immanent contact two apparently opposed views or ways of life.

The  world outside, beyond the walls of the family or of Combray, is always the object of the Proustian character in his  moment of dispersion; the mechanism by which he reaches out in a vain attempt to appropriate the shifting surfaces out there for his own may be called love or snobisme or even chauvinism, but the trajectory is always the same, a flight from the inside, from the center of the self….The first movement in each case is outward toward the flux, the second a turning back on the center. But for Proust the experience of change and the succession of affective state which it brings is absolutely essential to the later, positive phase of the dialectic–the remembering and reconstituting of these experiences. (105-106)

The Swann novella and the life of Charlus are accounts of a failed “reconstitution.”

Like the narrator he [Swann] cherishes some of the same art objects, and like him thinks by vital analogy and similitude. But unlike the narrator at the  end of his journey, Swann chooses to enlist the world of art and its message into the service of love. He converts the petite phrase of Vinteuil, which calls to him from that world, into the “national anthem” of his love affair with Odette de Crécy. He tries to find in the world of flux the stability of a painting by Botticelli.

In external circumstance or physical appearance the Baron de Charlus bears little similarity to Charles Swann. Yet in their gifts of sensibility and intelligence, more especially in their ways of responding to art and love, they betray an intimate identity. Between them they suggest the range of object and similarity of mechanism which Proust finds in his analysis of the centrifugal force of desire. Both men respond quickly to the stimulus of art, but both pervert its message. Just as Swann demeans the music of Vinteuil by involving it in his affair with Odette (so that eventually the petite phrase “says nothing to him”), so Charlus, amateur of Balzac, confuses the events and characters of a fictional world with this own–and disastrously puts his faith in the reality of the latter.

The parallelism of Swann’s career and choice with those of Charlus is further reinforced by the skillful articulation of details of plot. The Baron is associated in the narrator’s mind with his childhood memories of Tansonville as the “gentleman in twill,” friend of Swann and an ambiguous admirer of Odette. The great soirée at the Princess de Guermantes’ in Sodome et Gomorrhe I marks the point when Charlus inherits Swann’s legacy, the point where the former comes to the center of the stage and the latter vanished into the wings. Even the downfall in love of each, the moment of rejection, is engineered by the same hostess, Mme Verdurin, largely because of her jealousy for the same rival, Mme de Guermantes. Finally, the same musical theme (although radically transformed) orchestrates both events. (110-111)

Marcel transcends Swann and Charlus, not in type and quality of life experiences, but in creating a vast inner cathedral where the experiences can be translated to art.

His faith in metaphoric expression, the ritual action of his art, is to become the ky to the narrator’s  own vocation. The two Proustian emotions turn on the axes of love and art: intense suffering and total joy. Both can serve the narrator in his search for his vocation. Thus, the dialectical opposition of the way of love and the way of art, already foreshadowed in the career of Swann, is first revealed to the narrator in the paradoxes and associations of his first love affair. Although love is here and in the future a failure as a means of appropriating reality, it does provide a valuable by-product–the feelings–which can be translated through a very different process into the material of art. (117)

 With Husserl, Proust ultimately rejects “psychologism” as a means to certainty. Like the philosopher, he insists that an experience cannot be objectified as things can be; thus knowledge of the consciousness must be entirely different from knowledge of the physical. Husserl argues that the psychical can only be grasped by a special kind of reflective experience, an Erlebnis; a temporal depth is demanded. But true reflection is inseparable from what is reflected upon: I cannot know what a flower is until I live  reflexively my own consciousness of the flower.

There is for Proust a similar reflective character in this prise de conscience, which suggests the final dimension of his edifice: Time. This destroyer of all external objects of desire becomes, in turn, a creative force: it allows recollection. Value resides only in past experience possessed and translated in the present. The artist’s two means to achieve this vital simultaneity are memory and metaphor. Both require for Proust, as for Coleridge, “the reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness with difference.”

The great danger in Proust’s affective psychology is that all past moments will remain discrete and yet indistinguishable from one another–like the shattered images of the world outside. The task is to compose them like the minute pieces of glass in the rose window of his cathedral into felt relationships. In the Proustian dialectic of the temporal and intemporal, even the very intermittency of time has a vital role to play. As moments are separated from each other like the successive spatial planes of Cézanne’s landscapes, a new law of perspective is possible, unexpectedly combining  (like the dancing spires) instants which could not be contiguous in any sort of continuous time.

In this final architectural image–the imposition of spatial relations on time–Proust at once suggests the character of his own creative act, a kind of achievement of simultaneity through analogy, and he offers direction to the readers who will visit the edifice after him. His ideal reader would come not once but again in order to comprehend the original experiences and their network of associations. As early as the Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust argued that to be nourished by art is “to distinguish a subtle harmony…between two impressions or two ideas,” one past and one present. thereby the viewer of two pictures by the same artist “perceives something which is in neither the first nor the second but in some way exists between them, a sort of ideal picture which he sees projecting itself in spiritual substantiality outside of the picture; he has been nourished, and begins to live and be happy again.” (119-120)

See a video of Richard Macksey’s library:


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