Archive for the ‘Days of Reading’ Category

Other Souls

November 28, 2010

In the little book Days of Reading we find this passage on staying in strange bedrooms:

I leave it to people of taste to decorate their homes with reproductions of the masterpieces which they admire and to relive their memories of the trouble of preserving a precious image for them by entrusting it to a carved wooden frame. I leave it to people of taste to make of their bedrooms the very image of their taste and to fill them only with those objects of which it can approve. For myself, I only feel myself live and think in a room where everything is the creation and the language of lives profoundly different from my own, of a taste the opposite of mine, where I can rediscover nothing of my conscious thought, where my imagination is exhilarated by feeling itself plunged into the heart of the non-self; I only feel happy when I set foot–in the Avenue de la Gare, overlooking the harbour, or in the Place de l’Eglise in one of those provincial hotels with long cold corridors where the wind from outside is winning the battle against the efforts of the central heating, where the detailed map of the locality is still the only decoration on the walls, where each sound serves only to make the silence apparent by displacing it, where the bedrooms preserve a musty aroma which the fresh air washes away but cannot erase, and that the nostrils breathe in a hundred times to carry it to the imagination, which is enchanted by it and makes it pose as a model to try and recreate it within itself with all it contains by way of thoughts and memories; where in the evenings, when you open the door of your bedroom, you feel you are violating all the life that remains dispersed there, taking it boldly by the hand as, the door once closed, you enter further in, up to the table or the window; that you are sitting in a sort of free promiscuity with it on a settee made by the upholsterer in the county town in what he believed was the Parisian style; that you are everywhere touching the bareness of this life in the intention of disturbing yourself by your own familiarity, as you put your things down in this place or that, playing the proprietor in a room filled to overflowing with the souls of others and which preserves the imprint of their dreams in the very shape of the firedogs or the pattern on the curtains, or as you walk barefoot over  its unknown carpet; then you  have the sense of locking this secret life in with you, as you go, trembling all over, to bolt the door; of driving it ahead of you into the bed and at last of lying down with it in the great white sheets which come up above your face, while, close by, the church tolls for the whole town the hours that are without sleep for lovers and for the dying. (60-61)

 While he preserves his love of the all-encompassing sentence, Proust’s feelings about staying in strange rooms has changed by the time he writes the novel.

It is our noticing them that puts things in a room, our growing used to them that takes them away again and clears a space for us. Space there was none for me in my bedroom (mine in name only) at Balbec; it was full of things which did not know me, which flung back at me the distrustful glance I cast at them, and, without taking any heed of my existence, showed that I was interrupting the humdrum course of theirs. The clock–whereas at home I heard mine tick only a few seconds in a week, when I was coming out of some profound meditation–continued without a moment’s interruption to utter, in an unknown tongue, a series of observations which must have been most uncomplimentary to myself, for the violet curtains listened to them without replying, but in an attitude such as people adopt who shrug their shoulders to indicated that the sight of a third person irritates them. (II,333)

Although habit will make the new room comfortable, eventually, the source of Marcel’s discomfort is more elementary. If his presence means nothing to the new setting, then this is a foretaste of mortality, of a world that is ignorant of his past and uncaring of his future.

Perhaps this fear that I had–and that is shared by so many others–of sleeping in a strange room, perhaps this fear is only the most humble, obscure, organic, almost unconscious form of that great and desperate resistance put up by the things that constitute the better part of our present life against our mentally acknowledging the possibility of a future in which they are to have no part; a resistance which was at the root of the horror that I had so often been made to feel by the thought that my parents would die some day…a resistance which was also at the root of the difficulty that I found in imagining my own death…(II,338)

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