On Reading Difficult Literature

October 27, 2012

Gary Gutting, a philosopher who contributes to the NYT blog The Stone, has written an insightful piece on what it means to read difficult literature. He explores the ideas behind our idea of “guilty pleasure” reading, a notion that depends on two assumptions: “that some books (and perhaps some genres) are objectively inferior to others and that “better” books are generally not very enjoyable.” He notes that the latter category generally includes Proust.

But many intelligent, widely-read people do not like Proust, so does that make literary tastes completely relative? Perhaps to a degree, but whatever genre we read we each have standards about who are the better writers. Gutting himself finds “In Search of Lost Time” “a magnificent probing of the nature of time and subjectivity…”. Others find Proust, Joyce, Eliot wilfully obscure.

The deeper question is why we find difficulty a barrier to reading. Many of us, after all, will run a marathon, endure the pain and then call it fun. That said, I think most readers who get past the first passages find Proust enjoyable. Still, you will encounter pain. At some you point you will wish that Albertine slap Marcel in the face and bring him to his senses. Gutting concludes, “But the sign of a superior text of whatever genre is its ability to continue rewarding—with pleasure—those who work to uncover its riches.”


2013: The Year of Reading Proust

September 4, 2012

I have recently learned of a Proust reading group that begins the novel next year. It should be a good opportunity to read the novel with many supportive readers. http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/75460-2013-the-year-of-reading-proust

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” (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n06/michael-wood/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.’

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

March 18, 2012

Jonah Lehrer’s thesis in Proust Was a Neuroscientist is that Proust’s intuitive understanding of the power (and fallibility) of memory is supported by modern memory research. He supports this idea with several lines of narrative.

First, involuntary memory sparked by taste and smell has a particular force that sets it apart from other forms of memory. The reason appears to be that these memories are non-verbal at their source.

When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

(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 1173-1176). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

Neuroscience now knows that Proust was right. Rachel Herz, a psychologist at Brown, has shown—in a science paper wittily entitled “Testing the Proustian Hypothesis”—that our senses of smell and taste are uniquely sentimental. This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory. Their mark is indelible. All our other senses (sight, touch, and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus, the source of language and the front door to consciousness. As a result, these senses are much less efficient at summoning up our past. Proust intuited this anatomy. He used the taste of the madeleine and

(Lehrer, Jonah (2008-09-01). Proust Was a Neuroscientist (p. 80). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.)

More emotional impact, yes, but not necessarily more accurate than other types of memories. Proust did not give us Marcel’s experience the next time he ate a madeleine, but it surely would have been emotionally diluted by the recall of the original epiphany.  Memories, after all, at some point have a biological basis of synapses and proteins.

How do memories last? How do they escape the withering acids of time? After all, the cells of the brain, like all cells, are in constant flux. The average half-life of a brain protein is only fourteen days. A small subset of our hippocampal neurons dies and is reborn; the mind is in a constant state of reincarnation. (p. 91).

When Proust remembers the madeleine in Swanns Way, it wasn’t because he’d eaten lots of madeleines. In fact, the opposite was true. Proust’s memory is hauntingly specific and completely unexpected. His memory of Combray, cued by some chance crumbs, interrupts his life, intruding for no logical reason, “with no suggestion of its origin.” Proust is shocked by his past. These literary memories are precisely the sort of remembrances that the old scientific models couldn’t explain. Those models don’t seem to encapsulate the randomness and weirdness of the memory we live in. They don’t describe its totality, the way memories appear and disappear, the way they change and float, sink and swell. Our memories obsess us precisely because they disobey every logic, because we never know what we will retain and what we will forget. (pp. 90-91).

Lehrer goes on to describe a promising theory of how memories are formed, preserved and altered (it involves prions).  The science, though, is the more accurate (and entertaining) part of his story. I would object, for instance, to his statement “When Proust remembers the madeleine…”. Marcel remembers, not Proust. The first time he attempted to write this scene, Proust has a piece of toast or zwieback trigger the memory. But, in sum, he makes a good case for the convergence of a novelist’s insights and science.

It’s an approach I find deeply sympathetic to my own way of reading Proust, which is no doubt so atypical that I will add a short autobiographical note.

My earliest intellectual passion, one that I pursued completely independent of any academic requirement, was astronomy. I wanted to know both how stars burned and how they looked in my telescope. This interest broadened to cosmology and the origins of things and this turned out to be my intellectual anchor. After learning what I could of the Big Bang and its physics, I turned to biology and its creation story, natural selection, as the next stage in cosmic evolution: matter becoming alive. This in turn lead to the nature of human consciousness. I read the philosophers like John Searle and Daniel Dennet. I read the behavioural side in writers like Oliver Sacks. And then the neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Christopher Koch. The final stage of cosmic evolution for me was to go beyond exterior explanations of consciousness and best representations of the interiorness of consciousness. This has been the most satisfying stage of all, leading me especially to all forms of modernism in art: Cezanne and Matisse, Mann, Joyce, Musil and best of all, Proust. So there you have my own version of how Proust was a neuroscientist.

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)

Oceanic Feelings

December 17, 2011

Nattiez reflects on Swann’s progressive understandings as he re-discovers the Vinteuil sonata. They come in two waves.

On the one hand, the qualities peculiar to the sonorous material which lead him to speak of ‘purely musical impressions’: the violin line is ‘slender’, ‘robust’, ‘compact’ and ‘commanding’; the mass of the piano part ‘multiform’, ‘indivisible’, ‘smooth’ yet ‘restless’; the music evokes arabesques and surfaces of varied dimensions. At the beginning the sensations are of the order of ‘breadth’, ‘tenuity’, ‘stability’ or ‘capricousness’. Then, when perception becomes more precise, Proust introduces more objective judgements, such as ‘symmetrical arrangement’ and ‘notation’. As for the little phrase, we are told that it is ‘secret’, murmuring, detached,…airy and perfumed…dancing, pastoral, interpolated, episodic’. We thus have an abundance of concrete observations, corresponding to the first impressions of a Swann literally submerged.

For – and this is the second aspect of the evocation – mixed up with these purely musical impressions, in a ‘deep blue’ and iridescent’ atmosphere, we find observations which are indeed descriptive but the same time rather vague, relating to the wold of the sea: ‘the mass of the piano-part beginning to emerge in a sort of liquid rippling of sound’ evokes ‘the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight’. The words ‘submersion’, ‘liquidity’, ’emerge’, ‘plunge’, ‘tumult of the waves’ should also be noted; and the phrase is located ‘above the waves of sound.’

Why this atmosphere of the sea? By way of preparation, no doubt, for the first movement of the Septet, in The Captive, but also because the sea is indissolubly bound up in Proust’s mental geography with the emergence of woman: one has only to think of the girls on the sea-front at Balbec. The little phrase will soon be associated with an unknown woman, then more specifically with Odette. (Nattiez, 41-42)

I am not entirely convinced of this last statement. While true enough, it lacks psychological force. Proust would object, but some biographical background fills out the connection between music and sea.

Proust and Reynaldo Hahn spent the summer of 1895 in and around Brittany, ending with a stay near the village of Beg Meil. Proust turned twenty-four that July and Hahn twenty-one in August. Proust was feeling in good health and the two of them, along with the American painter T. Alexander Harrison, made frequent walks to the beach to view the sunsets over the ocean (read William C. Carter’s Proust in Love for a full account). Earlier in the summer they had met Camille Saint-Saëns and it was at Beg Meil that Proust and Hahn became entranced with his Sonata I for piano and violin, opus 75. Proust would ask Hahn to play the opening movement over and over and it became emblematic of their love for each other. And it became, of course, the model for Vinteuil’s “little phrase.” Here is Proust retelling this time in his first novel (unpublished in his lifetime), Jean Santeuil.

He had recognized that phrase from the Saint-Saëns Sonata which almost every eventing in the heyday of their happiness he had asked for, and she had played endlessly to him, ten times, twenty times, over, making him sit quite close to her so that she could embrace him while she played….Far from her now and all alone, having had  this evening not so much as a single kiss, and not daring to ask for one, he listened to the phrase wich when they were happy, had seemed to greet them with a smile from heaven, but now had lost its power to enchant. (quoted in Carter, 45)

It seems to me it is the combination of seaside setting and the powerful impact of this music on his love affair with Hahn that is the true source of Proust’s oceanic metaphors to describe the music.