Schopenhauer and Proust


Many commentators have noted the influence of Schopenhauer’s aesthetics on Proust. In his philosophy, the will to live is directionless and can only result in pain and loss. Our only salvation is in art, which can afford us glimpses of the Platonic ideal or essences, which inhabit a world outside the aimless will. This view is, of course, also that of the Search: the protagonist’s pursues illusory goals, suffers from disappointment and is redeemed by art. It is easy to see Schopenhauer’s influence on Proust’s aesthetics. Take the decision every young writer must face: what to write about? And what not to write about.

Marcel very early on knows he wants to be a writer. Living in an enchanted setting on the Vivonne, he can find nothing elevated enough to serve as his subject.

And then it happened that, along the Guermantes way, I sometimes passed beside well-watered little enclosures, over whose hedges rose cluster of dark blossom. I would stop, hoping to gain some precious addition to my experience, for I seemed to have before my eyes a fragment of that fluvial country which I had longed so much to see and know since coming upon a description of it by one of my favourite authors. And it was with that storybook land, with its imagined soil intersected by a hundred bubbling watercourses, that Guermantes, changing its aspect in my mind, became identified, after I heard Dr. Percepied speak of the flowers and the charming rivulets and fountains that were to be seen there in the ducal park. I used to dream that Mme de Guermantes, taking a sudden capricious fancy to me, invited me there, that all day long she stood fishing for trout by my side. And when evening came, holding my hand in hers, as we passed by the little gardens of her vassals she would point out to me the flowers that leaned their red and purple spikes along the tops of the low walls, and would teach me all their names. She would make me tell her, too all about the poems that I intended to compose. And these dreams reminded me that, since I wished some day to become a writer, it was high time to decide what sort of books I was going to write. But as soon as I asked myself the question, and tried to discover some subject to which I could impart a philosophical significance of infinite value, my mind would stop like a clock, my consciousness would be faced with a blank, I would feel either that I was wholly devoid of talent or that perhaps some malady of the brain was hindering its development. (I,243-244)

Here is Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Representation, on the content of art.

It follows from the previous chapter and from my whole view of art that its object is to facilitate knowledge of the Ideas of the world (in the Platonic sense, the only one which I recognize for the word Idea). But the Ideas are essentially something of perception, and therefore, in its fuller determinations, something inexhaustible. The communication of such a thing can therefore take place only on the path of perception, which is that of art. Therefore, whoever is imbued with the apprehension of an Idea is justified when he chooses art as the medium of his communication. The mere concept, on the other hand, is something completely determinable, hence something to be exhausted, something distinctly thought, which can be, according to its whole content, communicated coldly and dispassionately by words. Now to wish to communicate such a thing through a work of art is a very useless indirect course; in fact, it belongs to that playing with the means of art without knowledge of the end which I have just censured. Therefore, a work of art, the conception of which has resulted from mere, distinct concepts, in always ungenuine. If, when considering a work of plastic art, or reading a poem, or listening to a piece of music (which aims at describing something definite), we see the distinct, limited, cold, dispassionate concept glimmer and finally appear through all the rich resources of art, the concept which was the kernel of this work, the whole conception of the work having therefore consisted only in clearly thinking this concept, and accordingly being completely exhausted by it communication, then we feel disgust and indignation, for we see ourselves deceived and cheated of our interest and attention. We are entirely satisfied by the impression of a work of art only when it leaves behind something that, in spite of all our reflection on it, we cannot bring down to the distinctness of a concept. The mark of that hybrid origin from mere concepts is that the author of a work of art should have been able, before setting about it, to state in distinct words what he intended to present; for then it would have been possible to attain his whole end through these words themselves. It is therefore an undertaking as unworthy as it is absurd when, as has often been attempted at the present day, one tries to reduce a poem of Shakespeare or Goethe to an abstract truth, the communication whereof would have been the aim of the poem. Naturally the artist should think when arranging his work, but only that idea which was perceived before it was thought has suggestive and stimulating force when it is communicated. (II, 408-409)

This is a statement of the core Proustian aesthetic: The impressions of the artist must be rescued from the oblivion of time and restored to life through art.

 

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