Opening Theme


After situating Proust in French literature, Fowlie begins a close reading of the novel. Here he summarizes its chief theme, man’s struggle against time.

 A preoccupation with time and its irrevocability is a familiar human experience. With Marcel Proust it becomes a veritable obsession. The changes brought about in nature, in human beings, in society, by the passing of time are sung by him almost as a lament. Time is the relentless force that attacks the beauty of the human body, the stability of human personality, the freshness and the completeness of works of art–a painting, for example, or a cathedral. Proust grew to look upon life itself as a constant struggle against time. Much of the so-called pessimism of his book comes from the hopelessness of this struggle, from the inevitable failure of life to preserve itself intact from the encroachments of time.

He analyzes one after the other those major experiences of life that are the most hallowed efforts of man to reach some absolute within time, some stable value that will oppose the flow of time: the loyalty of friendship, for example, the passions of love, the steadfastness of convictions, either theological or philosophical or political. Proust the novelist discovers that even such experiences, which, when they are real, seem absolute, are, in time, subjected to change and even oblivion. The human self, immersed in time, is never exactly the same two days in succession. All the elements of personality are constantly being affected by time: they are either being weakened or strengthened. They are receding or in the ascendant. Even the self which is in love, deeply, jealously and passionately, will change, according to Proust, and become  disillusioned.

The self is never one but a succession of selves. If this is true–and the substance of the book as well as the method of writing are based upon this Bergsonian assumption–what happens to the selves we once were? Do these selves, which were once real, sink into oblivion? Proust answers this question with a vigorous no! They are not lost. They do not disappear. They are in us, in that part of us that is often called the subconscious. They lie in our dreams and indeed at times in our states of consciousness. The opening theme of Proust’s novel is the protagonist’s literal awakening. This is a familiar experience for everyone every morning when we leave the state of sleep for the state of consciousness. Proust looks upon this emergence as an effort to recover our identity, to find out who we are, where we are, and what particular self we are inhabiting. (52-53)

A very good introduction to the opening pages of Swann’s Way.

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