The Strangeness of Words


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)

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