These notes cover to p. 173 in Volume VI, TimeRegained, in the Modern Library edition (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright) of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time.
Florence brought fresh oysters from Hog Island Oyster Company in Tomales Bay. Others brought wine. We gathered in the living room to begin our discussion at 8:40.
1. Tom's Presentation on What Proust Learned at the Sanatorium
I explained that, in preparation for the meeting, while doing a little online investigating into the sanatoriums that Proust visited, I stumbled upon more than a few articles about a stay at one sanatorium in particular.
In December of 1905 Proust began a six-week visit to a sanatorium under the care of a certain Dr. Paul Sollier.
It turns out that Dr. Sollier published a number of books on memory and the emotions, and some of his work in the field of cognitive and behavior neurology may have been an inspiration to Proust. Here is the link to the first article that caught my eye, so you can read it for yourself if you are interested.
I mentioned that this discovery was double-edged for me. On the one hand, it is fascinating to find that Proust was actually drawing from the most up-to-date scientific research of his day for some of his insights into the workings of memory. On the other hand, I find it not a little sad to give up the idea that our dear mustachioed recluse in his cork-lined room hadn't, entirely on his own, come up with much of what modern neuroscience would later confirm.
But of course, as someone in the group pointed out, every writer needs source material, and it is valuable to remember that Proust's father was a doctor and so his son had been steeped in the books and articles generated by that profession from a young age. It couldn't all come from Dostoevsky and John Ruskin!
2. France and World War I
Next we talked about the Great War, and the French experience of it in particular.
Marie-José described how every small village in France has its memorial to the many dead.
Jeff, having recently read on the war while researching his own novel-in-progress, helpfully led us through some of the decisive turning-points of the war, including the Battle of Verdun, the late but decisive contribution of the Americans, and the Second Battle of the Marne.
We talked about what it meant for a nation to lose 377,231 men in a single battle (as France lost in Verdun), and we talked about how, unlike in previous wars, the rate of fatalities in the officer corp was nearly as high as enlisted men.
We wondered how the war could have reached so far as Combray, until we remembered that even though Proust based Combray on his memories of Iliers, the village is in the end a product of the imagination, so he could move it East across the map as far as Alsace-Lorraine, if that is what he wanted to do.
I mentioned one passage, describing life in Paris during wartime, that stood out to me in particular. In it, the Narrator describes seeing a soldier out on the pavement, peering through the glass window of a restaurant:
"When the time came for dinner, the restaurants were full; and if, passing in the street, I saw a wretched soldier on leave, escaped for six days from the constant danger of death and about to return to the trenches, halt his gaze for a moment upon the illuminated windows, I suffered as I had in the hotel at Balbec when fishermen used to watch us at dinner, but I suffered more now because I knew that the misery of the soldier is greater than that of the poor, since it combines in itself all miseries, and more touching still because more resigned, more noble, and because it was with a philosophical shake of the head, without hatred, that on the eve of setting out again for the war the soldier would say to himself, as he saw the shirkers jostling one another in their efforts to secure a table: 'You'd never know there was a war going on here'." (TR, 63-64)
Jeff talked a little bit about how, towards the end of the war, many French soldiers were deserting (like Morel, TR 57) and mutinying. Along these lines, Heather read another powerful passage that gives a sense of the unreality that many young men (and some women too, no doubt) felt when they returned to their hometowns from the carnage they saw in the trenches:
"[I]t was from the shores of death, wither they would soon return, that they came to spend a few moments in our midst, incomprehensible to us, filling us with tenderness and terror and a feeling of mystery, like phantoms whom we summon from the dead, who appear to us for a second, whom we dare not question, and who could, in any case, only reply: 'You cannot possibly imagine.' For it is extraordinary how, in the survivors of battle, which is what soldiers on leave are, or in living men hypnotised or dead men summoned by a medium, the only effect of contact with mystery is to increase, if that be possible, the insignificance of the things people say" (TR, 97).
Setenay mentioned the Turkish narrative of the war, which has the Germans launching an offensive against Russia under the flag of the Ottomon Empire, and hence drawing Turkey into the conflict. She said that for the Ottomon Empire, or as it has been called, the "sick man of Europe," the Great War was the final hammer blow that brought it down.
Marie-José told us about the French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, who was assassinated in 1914 at the start of the war for his efforts to keep France out of the conflict. In discussing the causes of the war, others mentioned how the festering humiliation of the German occupation of the Alsace-Lorraine region, following the conclusion of the Franco-Prussion War in 1871, led France into the war. Renée read the passage in Proust in which the Baron de Charlus mocks the growing nationalism of the French people as the war drags on:
"Why is it that the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine seemed to France an insufficient motive for embarking on a war, yet a sufficient motive for continuing one, for redeclaring it afresh year after year?" (TR, 155)
3. The Baron de Charlus as... Anti-War Agitator?
I commented on the curious phenomenon of Charlus' seeming humanitarianism when he speaks out against the war. He is described by the Narrator as delivering a "loud harangue" on the boulevards and astonishing passers-by with his anti-war rants (TR, 159). Come to think of it, isn't Charlus a natural for Code Pink?
But I say curious because, unlike most humanitarian positions, his is rooted not in concern for his fellow human beings but rather in his own relentless self-interest.
Charlus is, if nothing else, psychologically astute (as he has to be, being a closeted gay man in a homophobic society). But he is also, we can agree, completely lacking in principle. And this is exactly what makes him resist his countrymen's nationalistic fervor. It is interesting, I observed, that in times of fast-moving world events, such as World War I (or more recently in the lead-up to the War in Iraq in our own country), it is sometimes those who are least principled who can see the most clearly.
Charlus reveals the true motives behind his seeming humanitarianism in the following passage:
"We hear talk of vandalism, of the destruction of statues. But the destruction of so many marvellous young men, who while they lived were incomparable polychrome statues, is that not also vandalism?... What pleasure can I get from dining in a restaurant where I am served by moth-eaten old buffoons... In these changed times, if you wish to rest your eyes on someone nice-looking in a restaurant, you must look not among the waiters who are serving but among the customers who are eating and drinking" (TR, 151).
So it is his frustration at not being able to make eyes at a cute waiter while he orders his peas that leads Charlus to want world peace.
Whatever gets you there, right?
At least, as someone in the group remarked, his myopia is not as extreme as Mme Verdurin's.
Marcel damningly describes her as reading of the sinking of the Lusitania in the morning newspapers and exclaiming, "How horrible!" while at the same time carefully dipping her croissant into a cup of coffee. Despite her distress for the thousands dead, he notes that "the expression which spread over her face, brought there (one must suppose) by the savour of that so precious remedy against headaches, the croissant, was in fact one of satisfaction and pleasure" (TR, 120-121).
Let that be a terrible reminder for us all, in regards to the limits of our capacity for empathy -- for those outside our immediate circle of friends and relations. The corner of a croissant dipped in warm coffee overwhelms the abstraction of a watery death for nameless thousands. Once again Proust is ahead of his time in recognizing some of the quirks of the human mind. (Did Dr. Sollier write on that one too?)
4. The New (and Improved?) Saint-Loup
Saint-Loup, now a lover of men, or of one man anyway, is more distant and cagey with the Narrator than he had been before.
We talked about how hurtful this is, when our friends change over time. We wondered, in this context (as we do with all of our long-lost friends), whether Saint-Loup is now more true to himself, in the sense that his earlier bonhomie with the Narrator and others of his friends in Balbec was false, or whether he is now less true, having to shield his love affair with Morel from prying eyes and lie to Gilberte and his friends repeatedly.
I didn't mention it at the meeting, but did anyone else notice how contemporary some aspects of the Narrator's description of Saint-Loup are? For example, Marcel observes in Saint-Loup "a desire, the older he grew, to appear young, and also the impatience characteristic of those perpetually bored and perpetually cynical men" (TR, 12). And from there he goes on to speculate:
"No doubt idleness, in these men as in others, may express itself in inertia. But in these days especially, when physical exercise is so much in favour, there exists also, even outside the actual hours of sport, an athletic form of idleness which finds expression not in inertia but in a feverish vivacity that hopes to leave boredom neither time nor space to develop in" (TR, 13).
Zumba for everybody!
Saint-Loup is starting to sound like a contemporary Californian, is he not? Determined to look forever young -- whatever it takes. And to keep himself too busy to think.
Before we left this part of the discussion, we all expressed our astonishment at how much that young pianist Morel gets around... from Charlus to Jupien's niece to Albertine to Prince Guermantes and now to Saint-Loup...
I mentioned that, if I am correct, our very own Marie-José once slept with him! We gave her a round of applause as she looked shocked -- shocked -- at the insinuation.
5. The Goncourts, Marcel, and Different Approaches to Art
Marie-José (who of course never went that far with Morel, I was just joking) drew our attention at this point to the exquisite pastiche of the Goncourt brothers' writing that Proust achieves.
We talked about how Marcel both praises their observational powers... but also hints that he has qualities all of his own. As Marcel puts it:
"Certainly, I had never concealed from myself that I knew neither how to listen nor, once I was not alone, to look... [Yet] my incapacity for looking and listening, which the passage from the Journal had so painfully illustrated to me, was nevertheless not total. There was in me a personage who know more or less how to look, but it was an intermittent personage, coming to life only in the presence of some general essence common to a number of things..." (TR, 38-39).
He continues to muse on his own unique talent (still unable to find fruition), its weaknesses and its strengths:
"So the apparent, copiable charm of things and people escaped me, because I had not the ability to stop short there -- I was like a surgeon who beneath the smooth surface of a woman's belly sees the internal disease that is devouring it. If I went to a dinner-party I did not see the guests: when I thought I was looking at them, I was in fact examining them with X-rays" (TR, 40).
Marie-José and Renée got into a back-and-forth, for a good five minutes or so, about whether the Narrator is slyly impugning the Goncourts as more superficial and limited than he is (M-J), or whether, to the contrary, he is despairing of his own limitations (R), dragged down by his need to find a "general essence common to a number of things".
Trying to play peacemaker, I volunteered that perhaps he is not making a judgment either way, but merely examining how different artistic inclinations and talents produce very different works. As Marcel argues, by way of analogy:
"If, in the realm of painting, one portrait makes manifest certain truths concerning volume, light, movement, does that mean that it is necessarily inferior to another completely different portrait of the same person, in which a thousand details omitted in the first are minutely transcribed...?" (TR, 40)
This led the group to a discussion about how each and every one of us has a unique "X-ray" ("radiograph" in French) in our heads, which omits certain details and selects others. And this way of looking at the world turns out to be largely responsible for choosing our friends and shaping our lives.
I mentioned how when I look back I am amazed at how many talented and vivacious people I neglected to pursue as friends in college and in every phrase of my life. Why? Because there was something in me that filtered so many details, including so many diverse personalities, out -- for lack of interest!
It's quite similar, really, to the way in which Marcel recognizes that he filters out some of the more Goncourtian details of his social life -- e.g. the latent talent of M. Verdurin, or the black pearl necklace that Mme Verdurin might have occasionally worn at her Wednesday salons (and which the Goncourts describe with gusto).
Hearing this, Heather (reliably sane) yelled out: "We all do that, Tom! That's natural. You have to choose your battles!"
And it is true, isn't it, that when we are thrown back into the same circumstances with the same people again -- say at a school reunion -- we find ourselves X-raying and filtering, and what have you, in much the same way we did the first time. No regrets.
But anyway -- back to Proust.
6. Marcel's Despair at His Own Lack of Productivity
At a number of points in this month's reading we encountered Marcel teetering at the edge of despair, due to his total lack of creative output.
He speaks of the "infirmity of [his] nature," and wonders if he has been "barking up the wrong tree" (TR, 46). The sanatorium is one escape. Another, as we shall see in next month's reading, is the resumption of an active social life (that he had previously broken off, in the hope of turning his attentions to writing).
Indeed, the Narrator seems to be struggling with his identity during this section. Is he or is he not an artist? Is he or is he not a writer? He observes that the succesful artist or writer "is not the man with the liveliest mind, the most well-informed, the best supplied with friends and acquaintances, but the one who knows how to become a mirror and in this way can reflect his life, commonplace thought it may be" (TR, 44-45). Can he do that?
Marcel seems to be getting closer and closer to an understanding of what it takes to be a writer, but is still not ready to make the leap himself. In fact he continues to be concerned that it is an "illusory magic" (TR, 46), which, even if his talent proved up to the task, would in the end disappoint.
7. The Tough, Silent Type vs. The Passionate Advocate
As the meeting gathered steam I had a chance to read aloud, for fun, some of the passages in which the Narrator outlines for his reader the differences between heterosexual and homosexual men's ideas of virility.
As for straight men, Marcel exposes their basic idea of themselves:
"In its crudest form it is simply the gruffness of the man with the heart of gold who is determined not to show his emotions, the man who at the moment of parting from a friend who may very possibly be killed has a secret desire to weep, which no one suspects because he conceals it behind a mounting anger which culminates, at the actual moment of farewell, in a sort of explosion: "Well now, damn it! Shake hands with me, you old ruffian, and take this purse, it's no use to me, don't be an idiot" (TR, 78).
I commented on how this remains with us today, as emotionally available as we believe we have become.
"Yo! Have a good time in the desert," we can imagine a friend telling another friend, who is departing for his 10th tour in Iraq. "Call me if you want, and if I'm not too drunk maybe I'll answer."
"Whatever dude," the soldier responds. A long look passes between them. "You suck." (meaning, of course, "I love you, my friend, I'm going to miss you.")
(Most of Hemingway is a variation on this same conversation, when you think about it.)
The Narrator goes on to explain, though, that homosexuals like Saint-Loup have a very different ideal, "but it is just as conventional and just as false" (TR, 80). Their falsehood, he continues, "consists for them in the fact that they do not want to admit to themselves that physical desire lies at the root of the sentiments to which they ascribe another origin" (TR, 80).
So these men wax poetic about the "courage" and the "readiness for battle" of soldiers, while all the while suppressing their lust for their bodies. This explanation led me to note that, in contemporary U.S. politics, it seems to be more frequently on the Republican side of the aisle that you hear these impassioned speeches about the courage and might of our armed forces, whereas Democrats speak in a more clipped, Hemingwayesque manner about the troops. "These dedicated men and women... who keep us safe..." etc.
Setanay added that there is much talk in Turkey about the "courage" and "glory" of their soldiers -- which is surprising, because if you ask many people there they will tell you that there are no homosexuals at all in that country, none at all, just not possible.
8. On Objects of Scorn in the Popular Press
We talked briefly about Brichot, who has over the course of the war become a luminary in the French newspapers for his political opinion pieces. I mentioned that the mixed reception of his articles reminded me of the views that circled around columnist Thomas Friedman during the War in Iraq. Just as for Brichot, it became fashionable to put him down and mock his inanity (some may recall the infamous "Friedman unit"), while still reading him (the comparable discussion of Brichot on TR, 150).
9. Last Thoughts
I know there was much more! I do feel that we covered this month's reading quite thoroughly; it was a rewarding meeting.
It comes down to this: Proust is seeking to uncover and experience “[f]ragments of existence withdrawn from Time” (TR, 268).
That’s his aim.
But what does that mean?
In the last section of the novel he finally reveals his sense of what he wants to do with his remaining life: he wants to set about matching up his past experiences – available to him in their full sensual detail, through the power of involuntary memory – with his present experiences, which just so happen to echo or reflect or reorient or elaborate or otherwise present a variation of these past experiences.
He feels he can do this by drawing from his own "current of pain" (TR, 204) -- the travails of his life so far -- and matching what he finds there with his present interpretations and variations of similar experiences.
This matching game will, along the way, provide nothing less than the structure and the content for his novel (which is, in fact, the very one we are already reading).
The first thing to note is that this matching exercise absolutely requires the operation of time.
For, think about it, first there is
...before they can be paired together.
That is, time has to be "found" before it is "lost" (and finally, "regained").
Quite obviously then, these two experiences – A and B – cannot be too close together in time, or the sensation of "extratemporality” (TR, 262) would not be attained.
(By the way, Freud famously called a similar sensation “the oceanic feeling." Spinoza, Wittgenstein and others in traditional philosophy have borrowed from Latin to dress it up, referring to the possiibilty of viewing the world sub specie aeternitatis... Seen in this context, Proust's claim of the achievement of "extra-temporality" is actually quite modest.)
Proust's aim, then, is to abolish time, by first letting it play out... and then snapping it shut in a container of his own creation.
By transposing two like experiences, you catch it and -- poof! -- it vanishes.
That is what his novel represents: a willfully undertaken "optical illusion" that abolishes Time.
A first quibble: I would question whether this rhetoric is a bit inflated.
Really, when you think about it, the transposition of experience A and experience B does not create extra-temporality or timelessness, but merely the sensation thereof. Right?
Question: once we see through the optical illusion, once we learn how to perform the trick, does it still work?
That aside, though, let's ask a deeper question: what does Proust's discovery of this "extra-temporal" sensation mean for us, the readers, in our own lives?
Well, according to Proust, we must first live – awkward, tongue-tied, usually overwhelmed by the flood of sense-data coming at us – then we must recollect, in an involuntary manner, these sensations and reinterpret them, if you will, through our ever-changing “I” in the present (TR, 288).
He rests nearly all his understanding of the meaning of life on this repeated two-step (arguably three-step?) process.
Indeed, to Proust, this is the supreme value of art, i.e. that it provides an opportunity for these kinds of “real but not actual” (TR, 264), “translucid” (TR, 271) experiences to occur.
His novel represents one example of this. Art, after all, is the method by which he claims this is best achieved.
Oh, and there's one important, additional benefit...
According to Proust, art allows us to communicate with others – enter into their imaginative worlds and them into ours – through this “translation” and shared experience of the “common essences of things”.
The reader “reads himself” (TR, 322) in the work of art of another.
More than that: it's a brilliant theory of aesthetics.
We are all indebted to Marcel Proust for his achievement in this great novel (indebted as he is to Schopenhauer, Bergson, Ruskin, et al.).
I am clearer than I have ever been about the nature of my experiences when I am moved by art. Aren't you?
But I want to ask: why does Proust stop at art?
I could offer, just off the top of my head, a number of examples of similar seemingly “extra-temporal,” oceanic experiences that lie outside the realm of art:
They can happen during the contemplation of, or immersion in, nature. (As Proust himself experiences in Combray, walking among his beloved hawthorns.)
They can happens during physical exertion. (Probably unknown to Proust; rarely known to me but I have heard tell...)
They can come in the form of intellectual epiphanies. (Proust says these are “sterile,” but in fact they can give great pleasure, perhaps equal to that of art, in my experience.)
Love makes them possible (He knows this, but claims that love degenerates quickly, turns possessive, jealous, etc., and so is not the same.)
Friendship (Surely, if cultivated, friendships grow richer and richer as we age.)
Parenting (An experience entirely unknown to Proust, but, we may imagine, known to his mother and grandmother.)
So my first criticism of Proust’s solution to the riddle of life, as presented in the novel, is that it is unnecessarily limited to art.
Do you disagree?
Is art unique in some way that I am not grasping?
If so, why?
What then, is the point of life according to Proust?
His answer to this question, as far as I understand it, is simple and straightforward: the point is to experience joy, just as he did when he was a boy, but even more deeply felt, as a grown-up.
Make yourself available to those “intermittencies of the heart,” as he calls them.
Fine. No criticism from me there.
I agree that this is all we can ask for, really.
But here is my severest criticism for Proust.
It seems to me that, to be more accurate, Proust should openly acknowledge that the work he is engaged in is not really all that important once he is dead! It is merely a form of animal activity that gives him pleasure, acute pleasure.
Yes, yes, as we have seen, he emphasizes the communicative potential for art (TR, 299-300).
But even if this is true, he does not articulate a moral imperitive behind this communication. He never does say why such communication is intrinsically important in some way. (My own view is that it is beautiful and pleasing, just like friendship, no more.)
I would argue that Proust could not articulate why we need to communicate with others, even if he wanted to... For there is no moral imperative; there is only his urge to do so. (Charlus and Madame Verdurin and the Duchess and Bloch could tell you that. So could Marcel.) There is only a mix of conflicting motives and values (justice, pleasure, loyalty, equity, excitement, tranquility, etc.), each of us having our own unique brain, influenced by our won unique experiences, for as long as we live.
So where I am heading with this?
I am heading to this.
Granted, this book need not say anything. It is astonishing and beautiful on its own terms.
But to the extent that it has an argument embedded inside of it, this argument strikes me as a justification of the work of a writer or any artist.
And this part -- what we finally get to in Time Regained -- is admittedly very insightful, particularly on how the experience of ecstasy works in a kind of mulitiple-staged process, necessarily involving the operation of time.
But I want to point out that we could imagine a parallel book that justified, instead of the work of a writer, the work of... I don't know.... an Iron Man Triathlete?
It would show her losing faith, gradually building her strength in muscle and mind, interacting with other competitors and friends. In the end she would learn to run the full Iron Man, and the memories – full of sensual data – would inform the present moment in a way that, as she crossed the finish line, would create a feeling of “extra-temporality”…
Just so we’re straight on that.
Proust hasn't found anything timeless, it seems to me. Rather he has shared with his readers his preferred way through life, as someone inclined to aesthetic and ethical contemplation. That is all. And that is enough.
So the curiously unstated, but deeper conclusion I draw from Proust's novel is: to each his or her own.
Live your ecstasy.
If it's writing a 3000 page novel...
Or if it is training for an Iron Man...
Whatever you do, though, I agree with Proust: just don’t be a dilettante. (He resents this term when Charlus tries to apply it to him, calling his tacit acceptance of it "idiotic," and adding, "I could not be accused of the slightest suggestion of dilettantism" TR, 172.)
No, don't glance along the surface. If you find your ecstasy, Proust's novel and his life together suggest, go all the way into it.