Archive for the ‘Critical Studies’ Category

Ontological Metaphor

June 20, 2014

Proust gave great importance to metaphor in his novel. The problem is, as Gerald Genette has pointed out, that most of Proust’s so-called metaphors are actually metonymies. In rhetoric, a metaphor is a comparison between two seemingly unrelated objects which somehow expands our understanding of the original target object. Whereas a metonymy is a comparison between two objects that share a common space, so that our understanding is expanded by identifying close kinships. The most prominent type of metonymy in Proust is that involving spatial relations. Just consider how the two great themes of bourgeois and aristocratic life are identified as the ways by the Swann and Guermantes estates. Albertine is Balbec, the beach, the ocean. The contiguity can take other forms than purely spatial. The hundreds of painting references are mostly similarities of appearance.

The problem I mention is not so much of the right rhetorical term to use. It’s that metonymy is based on objective criteria of comparison, in the way that words in a dictionary are defined by synonyms. But Proust wants to reveal essence, something not easily done when comparisons reveal only established similarities. Landy admits as much but he often sees a subjective quality that reveals more.

Marcel says it himself: the reason that women find themselves linked, in his mind, to their geographical site, and that many gain their very “prestige” from the connection, is because he imagines that they can deliver the essence of a place. What he seeks in the peasant girls of Roussainville is, as we just saw, “the intimate savour of the country”; what he seeks in Mme de Stermaria is the ile de Bretagne; what he seeks in Gilberte is, among other things, the Tansonville hawthorns; and what he seeks in Albertine is, in good measure, the sea at Balbec. (74)

Beistegui wants to transcend these rhetorical definitions and find a more purely philosophical definition of Proustian metaphor. We saw earlier that he identifies the source of Marcel’s disillusionment in the unavoidable, necessary absence in the present, the real:  “…at the heart of our relation to the world there’s a lack.” And it is this perception of absence, of incompleteness in perceived reality that creates the need for metaphor. Metaphor completes the merely real thing. In just this sense metaphor arises in the nature of being, is ontological.

Proust and then Beistegui:

Almost all the works I could see about me in the studio were, of course, seascapes done recently here in Balbec. But I could see that their charm lay in a kind of metamorphosis of the things depicted, analogous to the poetical device known as metaphor, and that, if God the Father had created things by naming them, Elstir recreated them by removing their names, or by giving them another name. (II, 566)

The key-term here is obviously metamorphosis. It’s the only one likely to lead us to a real understanding of metaphor. In metamorphosis, which is clearly similar to what’s referred to here as “the poetical device known as metaphor,” it’s the things themselves that are changed. It’s the things themselves that are given in the seascapes. And yet, those things only really become themselves by being changed, by undergoing a metamorphosis. They are more themselves, if you like, closer to what they truly are in Elstir’s painting than in the images that we usually have of them – images that are diverted and perverted by the practical and utilitarian nature of our perception, by habit and by the theoretical understanding that we have of the world. It’s a discovery and a paradox. It’s not enough for God to have created the world. For Proust, God’s act of creation is unfinished until it’s resumed and completed by the artist on another level. Why would there be artists, after all, if the created world were perfect? (80)

…metaphor’s rooted in the being of the world and comes out of it. It’s nature itself that shifts like that, that’s swept away in its own transposition, its own excess or overflow. And this, in fact, is where its beauty lies. So far as Proust’s concerned, if we want, like Elstir, to capture the beauty of the sea, we need to avoid fixating on it since, like everything else, it’s essentially not in its place. It’s really not where we’d expect it to be, even though it’s actually there. It is and reveals itself only through the process that characterizes it, to wit its movement of expansion and encroachment, of displacement and deviation, in short, of transposition. (85)

One element is still missing before metaphor becomes art: style.

And while impression’s the only “criterion of truth” for the writer, it’s still not enough: it needs the assistance of the mind in order to “elucidate its truth.” Metaphorical effort or “style” aren’t the simple expression of a brute impression: they are its continuation, its depth and lining. Beginning with an impression, they lead us beyond it. Sympathizing with matter isn’t the same as representing it. But it’s also not clinging to it in some sort of immediate and pre-linguistic presence. Rather, it means transposing and translating it (“the writer’s task and duty are those of a translator”), not into a radically different language or another reality altogether – thinking along these lines simply reinstates the idea of a world in itself and a world of phenomena, a supersensible world and a sensible world – but into this implicit or tacit language that’s the language of the world itself. Ultimately, the impression is “for the writer what an experiment is for the scientist, except that for the scientist the work of the intelligence precedes it, and for the writer it comes afterwards.” (88)

Finally, there is the question of the permanence of metaphor, its persistence in time.

This way of seeing things is the artist’s way, a way of seeing that brings “two different terms together permanently.” Such is, it seems to me, precisely the work of style and of metaphor in particular. And metaphor’s at its peak when it schematizes involuntary memory as the supplement to the lack that the present itself is. When it turns time into the very object of its figure, it becomes the very symbol of literature and art in general: (91)

One can list indefinitely in a description all the objects that figured in the place described, but truth will begin only when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, the analogue in the world of art of the unique relation created in the world of science by the laws of causality, and encloses them within the necessary armature of a beautiful style. Indeed, just as in life, it begins at the moment when, by bringing together a quality shared by two sensations, he draws out their common essence by uniting them with each other, in order to protect them from the contingencies of time, in a metaphor. (VI, 289)


Finding Joy (involuntary memory)

February 21, 2014

What is the source of the joy that arises from episodes of involuntary memory? While originating in the senses, the sensation itself cannot be the source, however pleasant the taste of the tea and cake. Nor is it in the evoked memory, the dull visit with your hypochondriac aunt.

Beistegui’s paradox number 1: Joy comes not from the senses but from essence.

“Where could it have come to me from–this powerful joy?” Marcel asks after dipping his piece of madeleine into his spoon of tea. The answer to his question comes, as we know, only at the end of the novel and it’s a one-word answer: time, and especially that time that, because we misconceived it, we though we’d lost forever, namely the past. (46)

A past–whatever it may be–can be the reason for our happiness, provided it returns differently. In fact, if it initially involves an intense sensation, its identical repetition will never be as intense because of its distance from the source. And if it involves sadness or some feeling of relative indifference, its identical return won’t ever be miraculously reversed into its opposite. So the nature of this unique experience won’t be uncovered through its repetition, by taking another sip of tea or by managing to trip again on the paving-stone, something the young Marcel eventually realizes as he’s smelling the hawthorns:

“I continued, even at the risk of making myself the laughing-stock of the crowd of chauffeurs, to stagger, as I had done a moment before, one foot on the raised paving-stone, the other foot on the lower one. Each time I simply repeated outward form of this movement, nothing helpful occurred…” (46-47)

“And then it seemed as though the signs which were to bring me, on this day of all days, out of my disheartened state and restore to me my faith in literature, were thronging eagerly about me, for, a butler who had long been in the service of the Prince de Guermantes having recognised me and brought to me in the library where I was waiting, so that I might not have to go to the buffet, a selection of petits fours and a glass of orangeade, I wiped my mouth with the napkin which he had given me; and instantly, as though I had been the character in the Arabian Nights who unwittingly accomplishes the very rite which can cause to appear, visible to him alone, a docile genie ready to convey him to a great distance, a new vision of azure passed before my eyes, but an azure that this time was pure and saline and swelled into blue and bosomy undulations, and so strong was this impression that the moment to which I was transported seemed to me to be the present moment: more bemused than on the day when I had wondered whether I was really going to be received by the Princesse de Guermantes’s house, unfolded for me— concealed within its smooth surfaces and its folds— the plumage of an ocean green and blue like the tail of a peacock. And what I found myself enjoying was not merely these colours but a whole instant of my life on whose summit they rested, an instant which had been no doubt an aspiration towards them and which some feeling of fatigue or sadness had perhaps prevented me from enjoying at Balbec but which now, freed from what is necessarily imperfect in external perception, pure and disembodied, caused me to swell with happiness.”

(Proust, Marcel (2012-02-06). The Modern Library In Search of Lost Time, Complete and Unabridged 6-Book Bundle: Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-VI (Proust Complete) (Kindle Locations 54422-54434). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

The lesson here–a lesson that the hawthorns already hinted at–is this: the experience of joy–of that highest form of joy, the kind that’s synonymous with delight, that makes us indifferent to death–doesn’t come from colours, smells and flavours as such, from objects qua material objects; rather, it comes from that part of those objects which exceeds this materiality and does so from the very heart of the material itself. And here’s where Proust’s account differs from that of the psychologists, who still think of experience as physiological data. As long as Marcel insists on seeing material joy as the means to happiness and on the present as the condition of his joy, he’s bound to be disappointed. What the experience of involuntary memory reveals is the–non-temporal or at least not present–truth that can be drawn from any perception. Perception, though, insofar as it’s immersed in the here and now, isn’t every going to be able to do this. The tendency to sees anything that’s not present is what’s essential about time; as a result, we tend to mistake the fact that a given expression might have been forgotten simply because it no longer had any role to play in the present situation with the fact that its corresponding reality has now vanished. (47-48)

Paradox number 2: Joy comes not from perception but from recollection.

Underneath habit, and forgotten by it since it served no purpose, impressions lie unaltered, tucked away but always ready to resurface: a rainy breeze, the smell of mould or smoke, the taste of a cake dipped in a cup of tea. Habit’s selective; it leaves all sorts of impressions, sensations and perceptions aside, on the edge of consciousness which, through its intelligence, strives to find its place within the world. So it’s selective, but it doesn’t erase such perceptions….We might have expected Proust to appeal to the other form of memory, involuntary memory, but instead he appeals to the notion of forgetting, not in negative terms, but in the terms that are usually ascribed to memory itself: forgetting isn’t just what erases and destroys, but it’s also what maintains and preserves, protects and safeguards. Images from the past don’t take refuge in memory and, even less so, in consciousness; rather they end up in the unconscious. (48-49)

Time as something fleeting and ungraspable, made up of an indefinite succession of endlessly repeated cycles, time as the time of suffering and death, is finally brought to a close by the methodical recollection of the day’s events, of an entire life, and from one life to the next. The exaltation of memory aimed at leaving the time of existence–the time of forgetting–and returning to the divine, to a time that doesn’t age, to the immortal and imperishable time celebrated in the Orphic verses under the name Chronos agèraos. (50)

Time in its pure state is time freed from the law of Kronos, time insisting beneath the time that passes (or exists). It’s the sort of time that digs tunnels in order to connect through a sort of paradoxical contiguity events that Kronos works to drive apart (and, as we’ll see later on, this is what, in the realm of art, we call metaphor). (52) [He conflates here Chronos and Kronos, as we do now with Father Time and the scythe. The Titan Kronos castrated Uranus with the scythe; Chronos is a separate deity, the incarnation of time. JE]

Paradox number 3: Joy only ever happens the second time around.

In other words,  we never know what the past will be made of or what surprises it might have in store for us. Its return is a first since what returns is the immaterial (and eternal) part of the present and what causes our joy is the experience of a reality in itself or an essence: some concentrate of Combray or Balbec, childhood or adolescence of the purest kind. Marcel’s joy consists precisely in being this pure past, this moment that doesn’t pass. (54)

Kronos procreates, yes, but he also devours his offspring. Unlike Mnemosyne, however, who rescues something from each existence and gives birth to the muses. Time’s an artist, then, even providing art with its model that effaces, destroys and kills the reality it creates–a truly monstrous form of infanticide and one that, despite the best efforts of human memory, whether natural or technical (writing, printing, photography, cinema, computer science), despite the whole culture, morality, religion and polities of memory, remains irreversible–he’s also subject to this other time that’s created somehow behind the back of the first and at the same time as it, which it doubles and carries elsewhere, traversing it, interrupting it and turning man into a god. (55)

The Titan Kronos eating his children by Goya.

The Titan Kronos eating his children by Goya.

Mnemosyne by Rossetti

Mnemosyne by Rossetti

But now a novel must be written…

Events alone, and certainly not facts, not even childhood memories, will yield (good) literature. Unlike facts, which are given and always situable in time, events need to be drawn out from the way, each time distinct, in which  they affect bodies and impress minds. An event’s not a date but a process, a becoming, through which the subject experiences his or her own transformation. There’s quite clearly a chronology at work in Proust’s novel, one that’s been reconstructed often enough and which Proust doesn’t try to hide or obliterate. This would be to give it too much importance. The time that the novel’s in search of and to whose meaning the narrator only gradually awakens is the time of events–a time of slow gestation and evolution broken up by sudden accelerations and violent turmoils…..Time’s the true developer–not chronological time, which records facts and sets up sequences, but Time the artist, which creates as it develops, that is, as it transforms: only Time the artist can turn the duc de Guermantes into a character by Moliere, the baron de Charlus into King Lear and monsieur d’Argencourt into a sublime dodderer. What Time reveals is nothing but the negative from which it started; in the end, though, it’s something else altogether. If Time’s truly artistic, then it’s in its capacity to make things recognizable, whether particular beings or the past itself, by changing them into different beings altogether. (64)

The excess of life that each one of us carries within us lies in the unlived experience that “doubles” every lived experience. And this doubling’s never  more apparent than in involuntary memories which make clear the structure of experience as irreducibly divided into the lived and the unlived present…into what’s actual and what’s virtual, into what happens for the first time and what only happens the second time around. reminiscences, as Deleuze rightly points out, are metaphors of life and metaphors are reminiscences of art. What they have in common is the fact that they determine a relation between two radically different objects, “in order to protect them from the contingencies of time.” Reminiscence and art (understood as metaphor) have the same relation to the world of essences: reminiscence is the analogue of art and involuntary memory is the analogue of metaphor. (65)

Beistegui on Memory

February 13, 2014

Beistegui devotes a chapter to the psychology of memory, especially the associationist school that was prominent in the nineteenth century. Wikepedia: Associationism is the idea that mental processes operate by the association of one mental state with its successor states. Most important to Proust’s thought was Hippolyte Taine (apologies to Bergson).

In Search of Lost Time depends on a theory of memory that involves Proust in a conversation with the psychologists and philosophers of his time, Taine, Ritbot and Bergson in particular. For example, his critique of the view that it’s “intelligence” that affords us access to the truth of the world and to our experience of it, as well as the positive role that he gives memory in all this, wouldn’t have been possible without the ideas developed in On Intelligence (De l’intelligence), in which Taine defines intelligence as understanding or as intellect, i.e. as the faculty of knowing.

The associationists recognize the same three types of memory as Proust.

First there’s this form of memory based on sedimentation. It’s a bodily and completely involuntary form of memory (although it’s also completely different from what Proust calls involuntary memory). It’s a kind of memory, too, that proceeds by way of accretion and that takes place in the here and now. It’s aimed mainly at action and retains from the world only what’s useful to it. It’s selective, therefore, and its ultimate goal is survival. This form of memory is what we most normally think of in terms of that process of picking up habits by which our body can then deal with the world, those habits thanks to which the body’s worldly surroundings become familiar to it, allowing it to find its bearings, ifs points of reference, without ever even having to think about or envision their process of doing so. (28-29)

It’s the kind of memory based on adaptation and compromise that we have in common with all living organisms. Just as our muscles have their memory, therefore, so the single cell of the amoeba has its own. Life is very much a a habit. We live out of habit”Habit,” as Beckett has it in the wonderful book on Proust, “is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.” (29)

The second is voluntary memory, the one so despised by Proust.

The transition towards the second type of memory–voluntary– is easy to see. Will and intelligence are identified  and criticized from the viewpoint of their capacity to restore the true past: “for me,” Proust says, “voluntary memory, which above all a memory of the intellect and of the eyes, gives us only facets of the past that have no truth.” (34-35)

Taine writes:

I saw this yesterday; and now as I write I see it again–dimly, it is true, but still I see it. The colours, forms, sounds, which struck me yesterday, are now renewed, or nearly so. Yesterday, I experienced sensations excited by the immediate contact of thing and immediate action of the nerves. Today, impressions analogous to those sensations, thought remotely so, arise in me, notwithstanding the want of this action and contact, notwithstanding the presence of other actions and contacts. It is a semi-revival of my experience; different terms might be used to express it, we might call it an after-taste, an echo, a representation, a phantom, in image of the primitive sensation; it matters little; all those comparisons mean no more than that after a sensation excited by the outer world, which resembles the sensation, and is accompanied, though not so forcibly, with the same emotions, which is pleasurable or the reverse, but in a less degree, and is followed by some, but not all, the same mental conclusions. The sensation repeats itself, though with less distinctness or force…” (35-36)

The third and final form of memory is involuntary. Proust goes beyond associationists here, making it the foundation of his aesthetics.

Proust in fact becomes a writer precisely because he stops seeing writing as the revival of a lived experience (what in German is termed Erlebnis) and capturing what I’d call its eventuality, i.e. the aspect of its lived experience that’s still likely to surprise us. (38)

Proust writes:

[…] but should a smell or a taste, met with again in quite different circumstance, reawaken the past in us, in spite of ourselves, we sense how different that past was from what we thought we had remembered, our voluntary memory having painted it, like a bad painter, in false colours. (38)

Beistegui links involuntary memory to metaphor:

What seems to hold Proust’s attention, from a literary perspective at least, is the capacity of these kind of memories to alter the time and place of the narrative quire unexpectedly, to transpose narrator and reader alike from one space-time to another, without any transition. But isn’t this power of transposition the same as what we call metaphor in literature? Later on, I’ll need to look at whether there’s not some phenomenon, rooted in unconscious remembrance as well as in metaphor, that unites the two. I’ll need to consider the particularly deep rooted connection between memory and writing. (43)

Iris and Hawthorn

January 31, 2014

I happen to be reading Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil and came across the passage cited below. A priest (who confesses to being an atheist) is arguing with a philosopher (who has an uncompromising belief in the truth of rationality). They pass a hawthorn…

They were just passing a hawthorn bush, it could scarcely be called a tree, which was putting out, amid its healthy shining thorns, sharp little vivid green buds.

‘The beauty of the world,’ said John Robert. ‘Unfortunately I am insensitive to it. Though it might have point as contrast to art. Art is certainly the devil’s work, the magic that joins good and evil together, the magic place where they joyfully run together. Plato was right about art.’

‘You enjoy no art form?’


Murdoch inverts Proust’s hawthorn scene: In the absence of art the hawthorn is all thorns, a ragged bush.

To leave on a positive note, here is a detail of a scan of a glad:

Scan of a gladiolus

Scan of a gladiolus

Proust as Philosopher: Looking for Joy

January 27, 2014

The arc of ISOLT might be described as a long chain of disillusionment followed by a triumphant, joyful epiphany. Miguel de Beistequi, in Proust as Philosopher, The Art of Metaphor, breaks this arc into the stages of looking for, finding and giving joy.

Whenever we think we’re sowing the seeds of happiness, life’s busy planting those of disillusionment. Whenever we think we’re working carefully towards contentment we are, in fact, hurtling towards our doom. A single life can hold more disillusion and disappointment than we can imagine: every second of happiness will fade, every fleeting joy will quickly be replaced by ever increasing sorrow; every desire fulfilled will end up either boring us or making us insatiable,in thrall to the ever more urgent exercise of the will….And? Is this the lesson of Proust’s novel?…Nothing, though, could be further from the truth, nothing more at odds with the spirit of Proust than this sort of of pseudo-Stoic or -Schopenhauerian lesson. Why? Because it’s precisely this sort of suffering that hones our senses and sharpens our intelligence. (1)

This lack or wanting is not psychological but ontological. Literature unmasks this false perception of reality and provides a tool for doing so, metaphor, which promises to reach beyond it traditional role in  rhetoric by transforming “matter into spirit.”

…at the heart of our relation to the world there’s a lack. This lack isn’t nothing, however, but is rather, a lack or wanting of being, a lack or want that functions as the sign of a truth that lies beyond or, more accurately, at the heart of present reality. This lack is original and structural and so isn’t something that could be remedied by a strategy of compensation, by recapturing or reproducing the “thing” that is lacking. (2)

…literature doesn’t believe in the solidity of being, in raw being, in short in what is commonly referred to as reality or life, and which so many forms of literature claim as their subject-matter. Its “faith” isn’t that of simple perception. Instead, it takes being to be that which, from the outset, is carried away and caught in a system of reference devoid of any actual origin or end. And it’s from this fundamental structure that is draws its own poetic law, through it that it elevates style beyond mere technique, elevating it to the status of “vision.” It’s through the thread of metaphor–the only one that isn’t illusory–that it relates to the real. As such, the metaphor that it weaves isn’t the product of fancy, as Coleridge has it, or the creation of “the part of the human being which dominates, this mistress of error and falsehood” that so unsettled Pascal. Rather, it’s the figure of the real in its self transposition or transfiguration. Metaphor believes in transubstantiation, in the conversion of matter into spirit, which it carries out, but only as an implicit dimension of matter itself, inscribed within it from the start. (2-3)

Just how metaphor has this power is the subject of de Beistegui’s book (and in this blog here, here, here and here).

As examples of the lack at the heart of reality, de Beistegui looks at the objects of Swann’s and Marcel’s desires: Odette and Albertine. Proust intentionally gives us portrayals of these two characters that reveal little of their inner selves. We are meant to see them as the rest of the world does, as shallow figures inexplicably worshiped by their lovers. But their lovers have augmented reality with their imaginations.

The disappointment that the narrator can’t help but experience when confronted with the real would be entirely of a piece with the conflict between imagination and perception. Whether imagination is anticipating the real or, in  its presence, carrying it elsewhere and transforming it, thereby giving it a meaning and a purpose, it is always a prosthesis or supplement to the real. It could be, then that the real isn’t self-sufficient and can’t, in fact, proceed on its own. It’s always waiting on something else, always truly elsewhere. Odette de Crécy is neither truly beautiful nor particularly moving, in Swann’s eyes at least. And yet, once she starts to remind him of Botticelli’s Zipporah, his pleasure in seeing her is justified and her beauty established…It is as if, remorseful at having “limited his life to worldly relationships, to conversation” and ashamed of the frivolity of his own existence, Swann’s able to elevate it, to grant it some value by imagining his world as the reflection of a great artist’s. Anyone who fails to see Odette in such a light or fails to see her through that other, magical and distorting lens, a lens ground by imagination, isn’t going to find her all that attractive….From which it follows that pretty women are the province of men with no imagination. (4)

In fact, the narrator himself only starts loving Albertine when he “suddenly” sees in “the real Albertine, the one [he] saw every day, [and] who [he] thought was hidebound in bourgeois prejudices,” the embodiment of the imaginary Albertine,far more attractive than the real one, namely the Albertine “who, at a time when [he] did not even know her, [he] had thought was taking furtive looks at [him] on the esplanade, the one who, when she saw [him] walking off, had seemed to be wending so reluctantly her own way home.” Meeting the gaze of an unknown woman is enough to make him fall in love with her, since those eyes contain everything he could ever know of a thought, a wish, a memory. “The hope of taking possession of all that,” Proust writes, “is what gives her eyes their value, much more than any mere material beauty.” (5)

If Proust’s attitude towards love seems somewhat abrasive, his take on friendship is harsher still. It’s hard to imagine anything more cruel than his exposure of friendship as a mirage and his denunciation of its pointlessness….The friendship between Marcel and Saint-Loup is like the love between Swann and Odette: it consists in a misunderstanding that brings some joy to the narrator only insofar as Saint-Loup appears to him, as in a work of art, under the guise of the “nobleman,” i.e. as a type or essence “for [his] thoughts to toy with in an ideal moment.” And if Marcel manages to experience intense joy in his company, it’s not, as Saint-Loup would have hoped, as a result of his intellectual or moral qualities, but “to glimpse through him the earlier, immemorial, aristocratic self that Robert sought to avoid being.” (10-11)

Reality lives in the present, in the realm of impressions where we must act, and which requires augmentation by imagination. Can reality be expanded so that it can be enjoyed?

Perception lives in the present since we can only ever act in and  on the present alone. Its link with the world (and its knowledge of the world) is wholly material: what I perceive is matter and matter saturates my being in the world as an immediately present being. Perception can act on the present but it can’t dream the present or imagine it. Such a dream, such an imagining of the present even, requires that perception should loosen it grip on the material world and let the mind expand, wander until it connects with a different world. The imagination–like memory, an even more determining phenomenon, as I’ll try to show later on–presupposes, then, a transformation of the world of perception into that of the mind….Right up until the final revelation, though, however foreshadowed it’s been throughout the novel, the narrator can’t reconcile his thirst for truth and his disappointment, the power of  the imagination and the deficiency of perception, possible time and real time. (14-15)

Whatever some people have wanted to say, Proust’s “solution” isn’t Schopenhauer’s: while both are solutions mediated by art, for Proust art doesn’t coincide with any sort of suspension of neutralization of the will, of desire, of sensibility, in short; instead, it coincides with the latter’s actualization and with its truth. At the same time, such a reversal of nihilism is as far from Platonism as it’s possible to be, despite some commentators having seen the novel as decidedly Platonic in places: because Proust talks about Ideas as those realities that are truer and richer than the reality of the immediate present, it was assumed that he posited the existence of the intelligible world above or behind the world of appearances. As I’ll show, though, Proust’s Ideas are embodied and sensible. (15)

True joy will be neither the joy of the senses nor that of the imagination. (16)

de Beistegui finds a “dialectical reversal” out of this impasse in the passages in “Combray” where Marcel engages in the mystery of the hawthorns. The flowers are surely pleasant to the senses, but…

Marcel intuits that something’s being pleasant isn’t enough to make us love it, whether were taking about a woman, a flower or a work of art. For this to happen, they have to be beautiful….By finding the flowers more than just pleasing, more than just pleasant, he endows them with a metaphysical value and draws out a new meaning of our being in the world; by experiencing, in such personal terms and in such a localized way in space and time, something universal, he discovers the possibility of a communion, not just with the object of his judgement but with every rational being as well. In doing so he discovers the possibility of a true communication: not the communion of love or of friendship, which rest on the illusion of transparency, but the kind of communication postulated by the aesthetic experience and the judgement of taste. (17-19)

[B]ut in vain did I make a screen with my hands, the better to concentrate upon the flowers, the feeling they aroused in me remained obscure and vague, struggling and failing to free itself, to float across and become one with them. (Kindle Locations 2894-2896. Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition)

The insistence on not going beyond the impressions or the sensation, on getting as close as possible to the phenomenon in the hope of grasping the feeling that arises from it, necessarily results in missing the latter. At other points in the novel, the narrator makes fun of those who allege that, upon listening to some sonata for the hundredth time, they can still experience the same pleasure and exclaim “how beautiful! What a gem, ” thus giving themselves the feeling of being immersed in this music, of becoming one with it and merging with it completely, without ever wondering about the origin of their pleasure or providing themselves with the means to look into its meaning. There’s no point in shaking all over, like Madame Verdurin, and claiming that, if the music does not stop, she will end up crying or even falling ill because she “feels” the music with such intensity. This doesn’t help our understanding of the feeling of pleasure that we’re experiencing. Until something useful can be extracted from this impression, we’ll grow old “useless and unsatisfied, like celibates at the shrine of art.” Because his pleasure is wholly contained in the flowers under his eyes, Marcel thinks that its origin can be grasped through the closest possible encounter with their materiality, by drinking  in their presence and, intoxicated, embracing it completely….Something in them, though, escapes him. His pleasure’s wholly located in these flowers; it depends on them unconditionally. Something else, though, something that’s seemingly bound up in this pleasure, at once preserved and embodied in it, seems to want to escape it. But where? And for whom? His thought process itself is no help at all. But how could it be since it’s the process of thought and thoughts aren’t sensations?  (20-21)

The pleasure he gets from seeing them in this way is specifically not derived from his ability to imagine them as young girls or from the power of the imagination and, consequently, from the fascination that this power exerts upon us; instead, it stems from this ability to sense some secret agreement linking the imagination and nature, to feel the nature itself is the inspiration behind these images. It seems as if–and let’s consider “as if” as pivotal here–nature itself and nature as such presented itself in this form, as if it wished to surpass itself, to extend itself into the spiritual world (symbolized here by the religious celebration). It’s as if nature, as the set of laws subject to strict determinism, aimed to suggest some compatibility or, rather, some convergence, with the spiritual laws, beyond the clear opposition that Kant establishes between mechanical and free causality, or between the phenomenal and noumenal world. (22-23)

What the pink of the hawthorn reveals, through the unctuous, fresh, sweet appearance of the puddings and biscuits of childhood, is the reason for our attachment to it: i.e. the childhood that’s settled and that can be found there again at will, the promise of a unique world (as opposed to a divided if not torn one) where everything communicates with everything, accessible de jure. What comes back to the surface in the experience of the hawthorns, what emerges before these flowers, is the singularity of childhood, its world of colours, tastes, flavours, its religion, its myths, in short all the differences that constitute “Marcel” the subject. This isn’t something he’s able to realize yet. He only realizes it halfway, so to speak. His wonder, his joy, his emotion are markers of its, however, unquestionable signs. (25)

The literary problem the young Marcel must solve is to find a way to unite sensuous joy with the permanence of art.

…if literature’s going to exist, it must be as a probing device, a depth-exploring tool. Granted, Marcel thinks, it must have some relation with the pleasure that the sight of a roof, a reflection on a stone, the smell of a path or a flower might evoke in us. But it’s not enough to note, in the immediate aftermath of his experience of the steeples at Martinville, “the shape of their spires, the shifting of their lines, the sunlight on their surfaces,” as Marcel does in his first go at writing. On the contrary, as he senses he has to do in the presence of the hawthorns, he needs to exhaust the impression, to understand what is hiding behind this movement, behind this movement, behind this light, to grasp what seems to dwell and steal away simultaneously in its midst–something the young Marcel’s unable to do for practically the whole novel. For him, if art’s to exist at all, it must yield happiness, reverse the course of dissatisfaction and bitterness; in short, it must reconcile us with life. (25)

What would be the mediation via which it could be grasped? Involuntary memory is the emergence of that other reality or, rather of reality as unanticipated and unimagined. It implies the insistent and somewhat miraculous presence of what was thought to be dead, the rebirth of a forgotten past. The value of this experience is wholly included in the return itself and not in the content of what returns. It signals the existence of a time that isn’t the time of anticipation and desire, ultimately doomed to an ever disappointing reality, or the time  of the sole present and of perception, devoid of meaning in themselves, but the time of the contiguity of the present and the past. We know that, through the mediation of involuntary memory, Proust ultimately assents that we can surpass the disappointment entailed by the real. This view implies the perennialization of these fleeting moments through the creation of a work of art. (26)

Next: Finding Joy.

Getting Down

January 1, 2014

Unable to sleep in an unfamiliar guest room, I pulled a book down from the library shelf, Why New Orleans Matters by Tom PiazzaI opened it and serendipitously read the following passage where the author cites the noted musicologist Dr. John to restate Proust’s central aesthetic concern. Metaphor is not limited to a rhetorical device; it can be a very physical, time erasing bridge from the present moment to our most intensively lived past, to essence. 

Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, once told me that when a brass band plays at a small club back up in one of the neighborhoods, it’s as if the audience–dancing, singing to the refrains, laughing–is part of the band. They are two parts of the same thing. The dancers interpret, or it might be better to say literally embody, the sounds of the band, answering the instruments. Since everyone is listening to different parts of the music–she to the trumpet melody, he to the bass drum, she to the trombone–the audience is a working model in three dimensions of the music, a synesthesic transformation of materials. And of course the band is also watching the dancers, and getting ideas from the dancers’ gestures. The relationship between band and audience is in that sense like the relationship between two lovers making love, where cause and effect becomes very hard to see, even impossible to call by its right name; one is literally getting down, as in particle physics, to some root stratum where one is freed from the lockstep of time itself, where one might even run backward, or sideways, and something eternal and transcendent is accessed. (Why New Orleans Matters, page 25).

On Reading Proust for the First Time

September 3, 2012

The reader who is planning to read Proust for the first time is no doubt nervous about how to tackle such a notoriously difficult writer. As a former first time reader, I can offer a short list of ideas that may be helpful.

Should you prepare by reading one of Proust’s biographies first, or at least alongside the novel? I would not recommend it. Of course if you should become a Proust enthusiast, you will read at least one of them. I have read William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust, am halfway through Jean-Yves Tadié’s Marcel Proust, A Life and I understand that George D. Painter’s Marcel Proust, A Biography is quite good. These biographies are full of insights into how much of the Search is autobiographical and who each of the characters may be based on. The problem is, generally speaking, once you know that M. Leblois de Charlus is based on the Parisian gourmand M. Avoir du Pois, you are worse off by muddying the Proustian character and learning next-to-nothing about the latter. The same point may be made about Proust himself: the biographical Proust is far less interesting than his novel. The Search is a direct look into the deepest recesses of his soul, a view not afforded by the best biography. The Proust left to us in letters and biographies is frankly a disappointment. I believe Proust himself would readily acknowledge this. You will be shocked by the passages where the narrator will condemn friendship as simply a diversion from the hard, solitary work of art. Proust’s reputation as a social lightweight was such that André Gide refused to read or consider publishing Swann’s Way. Wait on the biographies.

The same made be said for reading critical texts. I find it a joy to read reviews of Search by people who are more insightful than me. This blog is filled with pages that I have typed out of books by everyone from obscure academics to Samuel Beckett. Sample them here, but you don’t need an expert to explain what is happening in the novel. Proust’s prose is very clear, never obscure (albeit somewhat lengthy in places). You will not need critical help, at least in the way you might with Joyce’s Ulysses.

But the structure of the novel will at first be puzzling. You will need to read the whole thing, not just Swann’s Way, to get a clear grasp on the overall plan. Spoiler Alert! This is the whole plot: a youth longs to be a writer, but first he must overcome some illusions, which he does after witnessing a number of social events and observing and participating in love affairs marked by extremes of jealousy. The first thing you will notice is that there is virtually no plot. You will not find yourself turning pages late into the night to see what finally happens at the soirée. Proust is for slow, in the moment, readers.  

The novel is written in three voices, which in fact are all the same person. In the opening passages you will hear from an older man you may consider the Narrator at a point in his life not far from when he writes the novel you are reading. Shortly afterward you will meet a young boy, who the Narrator later names Marcel. Although this is the young Narrator, the point of view is strictly that of Marcel. The narrator rarely foreshadows the experiences of Marcel. You will move at Marcel’s pace through the novel. And occasionally Proust himself makes a sort of postmodern appearance, but that is rare. And then there is the problem of Swann in Love. Nominally, Marcel is recounting a love affair that happened before he was born and that he has later learned about. But it reads like an omniscient point of view, like an inserted novella. I remember being so deeply disappointed over this shift when I first encountered it; I had so totally suspended belief that I felt I was reading a real memoir up to that point.

Lastly, you will at times be confounded by the number of characters. The aristocracy will each have several names, as in Russian novels. (Get a copy of Patrick Alexander’s Who’s Who in Proust if necessary). But Proust has such a wonderful quality of dialogue writing that you will come to hear the characters distinctly. He was famous at the time for his pastiches, delivered live at parties when of contemporaries in society or in newspapers when of literary figures. He could perfectly mimic anyone. With authors he would read them until he had learned their inner music; he could then sing their prose in his head. This gift gives his characters their immediately recognizable voices. Unfortunately, Marcel almost never says a word, which leads you to wonder how he got invited out so much.

Relax and have a good read.


A Longer Sentence

April 7, 2012

News item:

One of the school system’s most notorious graduates, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, as the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver. (Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.) (NYT, 02/18/2008)

Following is Proust’s longest sentence. I have outlined in the form I used elsewhere: a level in indentation should be able to be read straight down, ignoring the indents. The indents, though, are the life of the sentence. I have never read a more lacerating, brutally honest statement. Yes, it could have been broken into sentences, but at the expense of its escalating intensity.

The sentence is separated by eight semicolons, each clause having homosexuals as the implied subject.

  • Their honour precarious,
    • their liberty provisional,
    • lasting only until the discovery of their crime;
  • their position unstable,
    • like that of the poet one day fêted in every drawing-room and applauded in every theatre in London,
    • and the next driven from every lodging,
    • unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head,
    • turning the mill like Samson and saying like him:
      • “The two sexes shall die, each in a place apart!” excluded even,
        • except on the days of general misfortune when the majority rally round the victim as the Jews round Dreyfus,
      • from the sympathy—at times from the society—of their fellows,
        • in whom they inspire only disgust at seeing themselves as they are,
        • portrayed in a mirror which,
          • ceasing to flatter them,
          • accentuates every blemish that they have refused to observe in themselves,
          • and makes them understand that what they have been calling their love
            • (and to which, playing upon the word, they have by association annexed all that poetry, painting, music, chivalry, asceticism have contrived to add to love)
          • springs not from an ideal of beauty which they have chosen but from an incurable disease;
  • like the Jews again
    • (save some who will associate only with those of their race and have always on their lips the ritual words and the accepted pleasantries),
    • shunning one another,
    • seeking out those who are most directly their opposite,
      • who do not want their company,
    • forgiving their rebuffs,
    • enraptured by their condescensions;
  • but also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism to which they are subjected,
    • the opprobrium into which they have fallen,
      • having finally been invested,
    • by a persecution similar to that of Israel,
      • with the physical and moral characteristics of a race,
      • sometimes beautiful,
      • often hideous,
      • finding
        • (in spite of all the mockery with which one who,
          • more closely integrated with,
          • better assimilated to the opposing race,
          • is in appearance relatively less inverted,
        • heaps upon one who has remained more so)
        • a relief in frequenting the society of their kind,
          • and even some support in their existence,
        • so much so that,
          • while steadfastly denying that they are a race (the name of which is the vilest of insults),
        • they readily unmask those who succeed in concealing the fact that they belong to it,
          • with a view less to injuring them,
            • though they have no scruple about that,
          • than to excusing themselves,
          • and seeking out
            • (as a doctor seeks out cases of appendicitis)
          • cases of inversion in history,
          • taking pleasure in recalling that Socrates was one of themselves,
            • as the Jews claim that Jesus was one of them,
          • without reflecting that there were no abnormal people when homosexuality was the norm,
          • no anti-Christians before Christ,
          • that the opprobrium alone makes the crime because it has allowed to survive only those who remained obdurate to every warning,
            • to every example,
            • to every punishment,
          • by virtue of an innate disposition so peculiar that it is more repugnant to other men
            • (even though it may be accompanied by high moral qualities)
          • than certain other vices which exclude those qualities,
            • such as theft,
            • cruelty,
            • breach of faith,
          • vices better understood and so more readily excused by the generality of men;
  • forming a freemasonry far more extensive,
  • more effective and less suspected than that of the Lodges,
    • for it rests upon an identity of tastes,
      • needs,
      • habits,
      • dangers,
      • apprenticeship,
      • knowledge,
      • traffic,
      • vocabulary,
    • and one in which even members who do not wish to know one another recognise one another immediately by natural or conventional,
      • involuntary or deliberate signs which indicate one of his kind to the beggar in the person of the nobleman whose carriage door he is shutting,
      • to the father in the person of his daughter’s suitor,
      • to the man who has sought healing,
      • absolution or legal defence in the doctor,
      • the priest or the barrister to whom he has had recourse;
  • all of them obliged to protect their own secret but sharing with the others a secret which the rest of humanity does not suspect and which means that to them the most wildly improbable tales of adventure seem true,
    • for in this life of anachronistic fiction the ambassador is a bosom friend of the felon,
    • the prince,
      • with a certain insolent aplomb born of his aristocratic breeding which the timorous bourgeois lacks,
      • on leaving the duchess’s party goes off to confer in private with the ruffian;
    • a reprobate section of the human collectivity,
      • but an important one,
    • suspected where it does not exist,
    • flaunting itself,
      • insolent and immune,
    • where its existence is never guessed;
  • numbering its adherents everywhere,
    • among the people,
    • in the army,
    • in the church,
    • in prison,
    • on the throne;
  • living,
    • in short,
    • at least to a great extent,
  • in an affectionate and perilous intimacy with the men of the other race,
    • provoking them,
    • playing with them by speaking of its vice as of something alien to it—
      • a game that is rendered easy by the blindness or duplicity of the others,
      • a game that may be kept up for years until the day of the scandal when these lion-tamers are devoured;
  • obliged until then to make a secret of their lives,
  • to avert their eyes from the direction in which they would wish to stray,
  • to fasten them on what they would naturally turn away from,
  • to change the gender of many of the adjectives in their vocabulary,
    • a social constraint that is slight in comparison with the inward constraint imposed upon them by their vice,
    • or what is improperly so called,
      • not so much in relation to others as to themselves,
      • and in such a way that to themselves it does not appear a vice.

Proust, Marcel (2012-02-06). The Modern Library In Search of Lost Time, Complete and Unabridged: 6-Book Bundle: Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-VI (Kindle Locations 29111-29148). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


April 1, 2012

Reading Evelyne Bloch-Dano’s Madame Proust, one realizes that Marcel’s childhood in Combray has a lot less to do with Illiers than with Auteuil. Illiers was the home town of Adrien Proust, the father of the author. Proust’s mother belonged to a large Parisian, Jewish family. Her uncle, Louis Weil, owned a large “country” house in what is now the rather staid and dull 16th arrondissement. He built a wing onto the house to provide summer accommodations to his favorite niece and her family.

Read a few of the descriptions of summer life in Auteuil and see how many appear in Combray:

Jeanne had a small, wrought-iron bed placed in his room that he could use when it was too hot to sleep in the big bed. “The flame of the night-light of Bohemian glass, in the shape of an urn, which hung from the ceiling by little chains” looked like a sacred object from the synagogue, transformed into an everyday accessory…

The new cook was busy. Would he last long? Auguste served as coachman, butler, and valet for Uncle Louis: his wife did the laundry, and their daughter helped with the cleaning. Jealous of his territory, this very devoted servant could not stand having any other domestics in the house. Yet they needed a cook. Auguste arranged things so that none of them lasted very long. Uncle Louis was taken in, but not Jeanne: she finally figured out the mystery of the cooks who served lukewarm leg of lamb and curdled or over-salted gravies. Auguste held back the dishes on purpose, or salted them secretly.

The teasing wasn’t cruel, and Adèle put up with it, though with a touch of sadness. Who knows if the needling hurt her feelings or not? It certainly shocked Marcel, who adored his grandmother. As in every family, each member was expected to play his or her role. Adèle was the expert on hygiene and health. She believed only in the benefits of nature, and in any kind of weather she roamed the garden paths, disturbed by the lack of taste shown by Gaillard, the new gardener, who wanted to align everything symmetrically and lacked, according to her, all feeling for nature…

The conversation died down. Only an occasional remark to no one in particular broke the heavy silence that followed summertime meals. The sweet peas close to the doorway looked pale in the midday sun. Around the pond, the pink blossom of the hawthorn was drooping a little…

In 1897 Louis Weil’s heirs put his house on the market…But an echo of those summer days can be heard in the  pages of Jean Santeuil that gave birth to the mos famous passages of In Search of Lost Time. Combray is still called Illiers or sometimes Eteuilles. From Auteuil to Eteuilles, from Jeanne to Jean, from sans-Auteil to Santeuil, there’s but a small step, years of maturation and crystallization, pages of writing. We now know that Marcel took “the little wing opening onto the garden that had been built for my parents behind it,” “the lively sound of the fountain,” the hawthorns, the lilacs, and the pink chestnuts from Auteuil; transported by involuntary memory, they come to life through the madeleines dipped in lime-blossom tea and mingle with images of his visits to Illiers. Other details aren’t as clear: the specialists hesitate. Illiers? Auteuil? Each place has its partisans. The roast goose? Probably from Auteuil, since it’s a traditional Alsatian dish. The roast lamb and peas? I’d vote Illiers. But what about the way the cook slaughtered the chicken? There was something  very kosher about the way she split the chicken’s neck under the ear instead of wringing it. Not to mention the hawthorns, the most sensitive topic of all. By making his memories of Auteuil part of the material for Combray, merging them into his memories of Illiers, Marcel has forever made them vibrant and indivisible. (Madame Proust, A Biography, Block-Dano, pages 63-66)

I would only add that by suppressing the largely Jewish nature of his childhood summer life in favor of jthat of his more remote Catholic relations, I am struck by the similar way he suppressed his own homosexuality in the character of Marcel. Perhaps, he thought, the novel is difficult enough without having a gay Jew as the protagonist.


March 25, 2012

Proust ends the goodnight kiss scene with a surprising insight.

It struck me that my mother had just made a first concession which must have been painful to her, that it was a first abdication on her part from the ideal she had formed for me, and that for the first time she who was so brave had to confess herself beaten. It struck me that if I had just won a victory it was over her, that I had succeeded, as sickness or sorrow or age might have succeeded, in relaxing her will, in undermining her judgment; and that this evening opened a new era, would remain a black date in the calendar.

Proust, Marcel (2012-02-06). The Modern Library In Search of Lost Time, Complete and Unabridged: 6-Book Bundle: Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-VI (Kindle Locations 1018-1021). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

In his victory is a mortal blow to his mother, “as sickness or sorrow or age might have succeeded.” I am grateful to Michael Wood in his LRB article, “Proust and his Mother” ( for providing the literary antecedents of this passage.

First, Wood shows the intensity of the mother/son relationship by recalling an intense argument Proust had with his mother and father where he grabbed one of his mother’s prized vases and smashed it to pieces. The argument may have started over a pair of gloves that his mother had bought for him (grey instead of yellow, as he had requested), or perhaps over a photograph that showed Proust in the close company of male friends. Note the reference to a Jewish wedding and the passive/aggressive post script:

My dear little one

Your letter did me good – your father and I were left with a very painful sense of things [une impression fort pénible]. I must tell you that I had not thought for a moment of saying anything at all in the presence of Jean [the servant] and that if that happened it was absolutely without my knowledge [à mon insu]. Let’s think no more and talk no more about it. The broken glass will merely be what it is in the temple – the symbol of an indissoluble union.

Your father wishes you a good night and I kiss you tenderly.


I do however have to return to the subject in order to recommend that you don’t walk without shoes in the dining room because of the glass.

A year and a half after his mother’s death, Proust wrote an article in the Figaro about a murder/suicide.  A man he had a vague acquaintance with killed his mother and then shot himself.  In the article Proust tries to understand the cause of the crime.

If we knew how to see in a loved body the slow work of destruction wrought by the painful tenderness that animates it, how to see the withered eyes, the previously indomitable black hair now defeated like the rest and going white, the hardened arteries, the blocked kidneys, the strained heart, the defeated appetite for life, the slow, heavy walk, the mind whose hopes were once invincible now knowing that it has nothing left to hope for, gaiety itself dried up for ever, that innate and seemingly immortal gaiety, which kept such pleasant company with sadness – perhaps the person who could see that … like Henri van Blarenberghe when he had finished off his mother with dagger blows, would retreat from the horror of his life, and throw himself on a gun, to die straight away.

In the letters Proust wrote during his grieving period that preceded this article, he accepted responsibility for Jeanne Proust’s death. This is how Wood describes Proust’s acknowledgement of his role in her death.

He writes of ‘the feeling that through my ill-health I was the sorrow and care of her life’; ‘the feeling that in worrying her through my health I made her life very unhappy.’ ‘I always afflicted my poor mother by my ill-health’; ‘this is the concern that added to her sadness, that now gnaws at me with remorse’; ‘I caused too much sorrow to Maman by always being ill … I poisoned her life.’ This goes on and on, for most of the year following Jeanne Proust’s death. There is a bid for morbid glamour here, as well as a lot of self-pity, but there is a terrific, ongoing grief too, and what Henri van Blarenberghe offered Proust was the astonishing image of a man who had lost his mother rather than killed her – or rather lost her by killing her, since he didn’t know what he was doing…

Virtual parricides can survive, and even become novelists. They can unkill the mother, so to speak, which is not the same as resurrecting her, and find through loyalty and labour the independence they are now able to imagine the dead lady wanted for them. I don’t know whether this extravagance is truer than the other. It has a highly stylised shape to it, and in Proust’s case the phrasing is a little contorted. But it is kinder than the other tale, and it offers a peace quite different from that of those Greek altars. ‘Maman,’ Proust writes in 1908 when he is already at work on his great book, ‘gives me the strength not to see only through her’ – ‘par elle’, by her, with her help – ‘for I know that death is not an absence and that nature is not anthropomorphic.’