Archive for January, 2012

The Strangeness of Words

January 15, 2012

Proust’s Search is as much a philosophical novel as The Magic Mountain, yet it is a more satisfying work of art. Angelo Caranfa, in Proust, The Creative Silence, explores Proust’s marriage of philosophy and art.

A central question regarding the artistic symbolization in Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu is the relationship between its metaphoric expressions and the phenomenal world to which these metaphors refer. Stated differently, the question becomes: what is the relationship between artistic creation and philosophic discourse? Artistic forms derive their power and significance from multiple levels of meaning and layers of symbols within which artists embed their vision of reality. Philosophic discourse, on the other hand, derives its power from the philosopher’s ability to isolate ideas and to express them clearly through language.
As a metaphoric expression of Proust’s vision of reality, the novel is indeed a work of art. At the same time, it embodies a philosophic inquiry into the nature of language. Whether philosophical or metaphorical, therefore, language is the expression of thought. Proust says:

‘So it is with all great writers: the beauty of their sentences is as unforeseeable as is that of a woman whom we have never seen; it is creative, because it is applied to an external object which they have thought of–as opposed to thinking about themselves–and to which they have not yet given expression.’ (II,170)

The beauty of the written word is ‘imprévisible‘ [unforeseeable] because for every given thought there is no formulable essence, no permanent speech, no objective idea for expressing reality; speech must be creative because  it must be changeable and flexible, always defining and redefining external objects. According to Proust, literary discourse is related to the phenomenal world as beauty is to an object that has never been seen and, ultimately, to an imaginary reality. (21)

The narrator recalls how as a youth he sometimes had difficulty understanding Bergotte’s speech. The reason for the strangeness of the words to his ears gets at the root of “the relationship between words and ideas they represent”. (23)

Moreover the quality, always rare and new, of what he wrote was expressed in his conversation by so subtle a manner of approaching a question, ignoring every aspect of it that was already familiar, that he appeared to be seizing hold of an unimportant detail, to be off the point, to be indulging in paradox, so that his ideas seemed as often as not to be confused, for each of us sees clarity only in those ideas which have the same degree of confusion as his own. Besides, as all novelty depends upon the prior elimination of the stereotyped attitude to which we had grown accustomed, and which seemed to us to be reality itself, any new form of conversation, like all original painting and music, must always appear complicated and exhausting.’ (II,171) [The core trait of modernity. JE]

The ‘conversation nueve,’ which employs figures of speech, , cannot be separated from the ideas, the images of things. Bergotte, the great writer, can only use reality, or phenomena, to expose the images, and he expresses them with metaphors because they give that unforeseeable quality, that plastic element to his words, which thereby allows him to preserve images in their ‘milieu vital and at the same time create new forms of discourse by which he soars above the stereotyped ideas of reality in which habitual or ordinary language is confined. Therefore, the word emerging from the thought of the great writer is at first confusing and exhausting to listeners because the latter are closed off to themselves in the familiar usage of words; they fail to see the image behind the words, the same images that constitute the writer’s self-awareness and this ‘conversation nueve’ of literary discourse verbalizes. Thus, to the extent that reality itself cannot be expressed except in metaphors (which are themselves real), even philosophic language must assume the same speech forms as literary discourse. (24-25)

What is the source material from which we create metaphors? It can be from reflective thought or it can be from memory. Memory has the stronger claim.

Those words that derive from memory, on the other hand, are the images that express the self’s creative power and artistic genius–provided that they are perceived as having a standard of truth, a verifiable point of reference in the idea of things. And the words that make visible ‘an image on which one cannot retrospectively impose an interpretation that is not subject to verification and objective sanction’ are not susceptible to modification and therefore are verifiable only by the self’s own memory, thoughts, and speech forms. Conceived this way, a word is a remembrance of things past on which a stream of images flows from the self’s own thought, articulating the idea, the form of things. Through words, then, ideas come streaming back, one image after another, unfolding reality, which is infinitely more rich and more profound yet narrower than thought itself or the mind. (26)

Thus the importance, I believe, of unforced memories.

…for memory is the outward projection of the past (archaic images) and the means by which the hidden and the impenetrable reserve (essence, form) is made visible and transparent. It is the tool by which lost images of places, objects, and people we have known are recaptured….This is so because it would become clear to them that what they know is not the stars, sky, atmosphere, earth, objects, events, people, and words but only what their own ears hear, their own eyes see, their own words express, their own minds imagine, their own memories inspire, and their own thoughts create. (28)


Created by a Human Being

January 8, 2012

To write about Proust’s aesthetics is necessarily to contradict Proust’s intentions. For him, art begins where rational explanation ends. Nattiez is aware of the risk. In this passage, for instance, he provides an insightful analysis of the importance of music in Search:

The philosophy of Schopenhauer is not an apology for suicide. Renunciation of the Will-to-Live means that exceptional beings–geniuses and saints–devote themselves to pure contemplation. The musician is the supreme contemplative, for when music does not debase itself in pictorial description it is ‘a direct copy of the will itself.’

Is not the joy of the Veda also the joyous call to creation that the Narrator hears at the beginning and at the end of the Septet? Yes indeed, it was Schopenhauer who wrote the Vinteuil Sonata, right down to the last detail: ‘The composer reveals the innermost  nature of the world, and expresses the profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand, just as a magnetic somnambulist gives information about things of which she has no conception when she is awake. Therefore in the composer, more than in any other  artist, the man is entirely separate and distinct from the artist.’ Herein reside Swann’s false trails: rational explanation, biographical explanation. We should also recall the Narrator’s speculation about a phrase in the Septet: ‘Perhaps…it had been inspired in Vinteuil by his daughter’s sleep.’ (83)

But Nattiez recognizes the inherent contradiction in writing about what cannot be written about.

In trying to show what the Sonata and Septet of Vinteuil owe to Schopenhauer, I have obviously gone against Proust’s intentions. If A la recherche itself is to be a redemptive work in the image of Parsifal or the Septet, it needs to escape from Time and become a pure object of philosophical, literary and aesthetic contemplation; the novel must free itself from its epoch and its author. It was not for nothing that Proust asked Céleste to burn his rough drafts, and there can be no doubt he would have done the same with all his notebooks and jotters if only he had time to experience the feeling that his work was finally complete. In all creative artists obsessed with the absolute…we find the same Utopian effort to efface the poietic dimension. It is Utopian, in the first place, because, as Proust shows very clearly with respect to Wagner, even of itself the text of a writer or composer will always bear traces–whether he likes it or not, and to a greater or lesser degree–of the labour that brought it into existence. It is Utopian, secondly, because the creative artist cannot obliterate all traces of his activity. If he destroys his rough drafts and sketches, his contemporaries will describe them. Even if he kills his contemporaries, that will not prevent the critic from comparing his texts and establishing connections (as I have done in this book). And it is Utopian, in the final analysis, because while all the metaphysicians in the world may say what they like about the Essence or the Idea being outside time, the books that deal with it or the works that are supposed to apprehend or translate it will always have been created by a human being, in  a given period, in a specific context. (88)