These notes span from p. 173 to p. 332 in the Modern Library edition (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright) of "Time Regained," Volume VI of In Search of Lost Time.
Walden strode in first, with a plate of ginger-chocolate cookies. Steve entered through the kitchen, bearing an apple tart, strawberries, grapes. Lucie popped in with her usual joie de vivre.
Then the high drama: the door swung open and Jeff appeared, bracing himself against the wall, breathless, with cheeses, paté and bread.
A moment later Don stood among us with his usual élan. Florence, generous as always, brought with her another one of her unusual bottles of wine. Dave, Marie-José, Tamara, Jeanne, Setenay and Ken... more and more joined us, bearing gifts and warmth, and the room soon filled up. (We missed Françoise, Heather, Miriam, Alex, Jennifer, Devyani... Everybody come to the final meeting! That means you too, Suzie! Rachel! Yann! Nasi! Dirk!)
At 8:40, we settled in the living room to begin our discussion.
1. Florence's Experiment: on the Relationship Between Aromas and Artistic Creation
For her presentation Florence handed out a colorful pinwheel chart of the various smells available to the human nose, insofar as they can be described. They range from the "sulfury" to the "soapy"...
(Please see Florence's handout in the previous post to read the notes that go with this visual.)
Then she led us in a hands-on experiment.
She urged each of us to dab a mysterious vial of clear liquid on the back of one of our hands. Which we did. After a period of extended sniffing, we were instructed to jot down (on a note card which Florence helpfully provided) whatever thoughts the aromas of this liquid inspired in us.
When we were done Florence revealed that the vial contained a distillation of -- Tamara guessed it exactly! -- geraniums and rose.
Florence then shared with the group her own response to these geranium and rose aromas -- in the form of a poem that she had composed after sniffing the same liquid. (For those of us who do not speak French, Marie-José was kind enough to give us a translation "on the fly.")
Florence's poem read:
Ma boucle d'oreille limée par le temps
En forme de cercles noirs, isoles,
N'aura jamais ton gout divin, trop nouveau aujourd hui
Ce nectar gris perle qui suinte au travers moi...
Ou pousses tu dans les pres, Rose metallique?
Ou puis je te retrouver, pres des dahlias sombres?
Camouflée au pied des hortensias bleuis par l ardoise,
Ou peut etre ecrasee par les amants trop presses d'un hangar fouilli,
Les reves lancinants me le rappelleront
et decouvriront seulement ton parfum de demi-mort
qui est la vie aussi, trop belle aujoud hui!
After listening to this evocative meditation (and its translation), we soon found ourselves... afloat in a sea of questions.
What is the nature of artistic creation?
What is the point of a using words to respond to an aroma (or any burst of sense-data) anyway?
What value do our words add, if anything?
Lucie spoke up to say that, for her, smells are so sensual, so direct, that she is not inclined to respond to them with words. (The aroma had conjured for her, very prosaically, the memory of mosquito repellent. So she had simply drawn a campfire on her note card.)
I mentioned that, according to Proust at least, in every process of artistic creation there must be an act of "translation" -- in which the artist's encounter with the raw sense-data of this world is reconstructed into something... quite different. As Marcel puts it concisely:
"The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator" (TR, 291).
And it is only by way of this act of translation, Proust suggests, that someone -- the reader, the viewer, the listener -- can imaginatively enter into an otherwise sealed and private experience.
In other words, each of our sniffs was sealed, until we translated them with words. (Which I have to say makes it sound like a most unhygienic and dubious thing we did on those note cards... unsealing sniffs and all.).
So when Florence read to us of the "metallic rose" or the "gray pearly nectar seeping from within" we are not directly encountering any sense-data as we listen, but rather we are experiencing her subjective translation of her own encounters with sense-data, and matching these translations, comparing notes if you will, against our own.
The Proust scholar Roger Shattuck suggests that we can visualize how this works in a Venn diagram, with the artist's experience as (A), the reader's experience as (B), and the sense-data around them as (S).
Just imagine the artist's and the reader's direct experiences with sense-data as lying forever separate, at the outer edges of their respective ovals. But then notice the overlap occurring in the center: this is where the artist's translation of such data and the reader's interpretation of it meet. This is the place where the mystery of art happens.
Renée spoke up to say that whenever she views or reads or listens to great art this is what moves her the most: the intimation of another person's subjectivity, wholly different from her own.
Later that night (after everybody went home -- lucky me, I get to stay up with her!) she read to me the following passage from Proust, which further develops this theme:
"Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from another than those which revolve in infinite space, world which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance" (TR, 299).
So Florence's experiment had led us directly to the core question for this months' reading!
Is it true then?
Does art allow us to communicate in a way that other human activities do not?
(More on that below, in section #4.)
2. So Does That Mean Marcel Is a Snob About the Superiority of Artists? Was Proust?
Before we plunged deeper into these probing questions as to the nature and purpose of art, however, we had to ask a threshold question first. It was a question that, unfortunately, came up for a number of us when reading this month's pages...
Simply put: has Marcel grown up to become a snob? Was Proust himself a snob?
Of course both of them are snobs in the high society sense! We have long ago had to come to terms with that. But that's not what we were asking.
What some of us felt compelled to ask was whether they are snobs in the more rarified sense of deeming artists to be superior in some sense to all other human beings?
For, you have to admit, after stumbling on a paving-stone outside the party at the Prince de Guermante's house, Marcel does seem to elevate himself to a new and nearly divine status, doesn't he?
Rising out of his abject despair, he is, quite suddenly, now one of the select few, the artists, who alone, through their talent and dedication, can perform that aforementioned act of "translation" for the pleasure and edification of the masses.
No doubt, Proust does belong in the company of Rembrandt and Vermeer; he too is capable of that special radiance. We can agree with that -- as readers of this astonishing novel.
But must we also agree that the members of this exclusive club -- the fictional Marcel and the non-fictional Proust, among them -- have a sort of superior status that sets them apart from all other people, in addition to their talent?
Certainly there are quite a few passages in this month's reading which seem to suggest that a nearly instantaneous process of self-aggrandizement takes place as soon as Marcel trips on that paving-stone.
For example, I read aloud to the group the disparaging remarks that Marcel makes in an attempt to distinguish himself from his late friend Swann.
Marcel seems to suggests that he has access to more profound insights and a more pure joy in his encounters with the world, a depth of experience that is reserved for writers and artists, whereas Swann is stuck with the tawdry emotional baggage of a love affair as though he were confined to one of Dante's circles of hell:
"...I said to myself, 'Was this perhaps that happiness which the little phrase of the sonata promised to Swann, and which he, because he was unable to find it in artistic creation, mistakenly assimilated to the pleasures of love? Was this the happiness of which long ago I was given a presentiment... which Swann was never privileged to hear...?" (TR, 272).
So we are left with a picture of Swann as powerless, despite his evident longing, to sound the depths of the call of Vintueil's music -- due to his lack of the inclination (or ability? or "privilege," whatever that is?) to make art.
We have to ask: according to Marcel, can anyone hear this call other than artists? Or are they the only ones to know this "extra-temporal joy" (TR, 272) of which he speaks?
This presumption sits awkwardly with our Narrator's previously generous and doubt-filled observations about other people, and his usual skepticism about easy categories... does it not?
Later he comments, even more brutally, about those people who go to the trouble to express the pleasure they take in art, when they cannot do it with the nuance that Marcel requires...
"They are the first attempts of nature in her struggle to create the artist, experiments as misshapen, as unviable as those first animals that came before the species of today and were so constituted that they could not survive for long. And... the art-lovers are as touching to contemplate as those early machines which tried to leave the ground and could not..." (TR, 294).
So let's get this right. The great bulk of humanity, unable to achieve the act of so-called translation that goes into making art, are in Marcel's view... "misshapen"... "unviable"... "touching to contemplate" in their frustrated desires.
Passages like this one struck not a few of us as disappointing.
We had waited so long for Proust's Narrator to find his way in the world, to develop a coherent and stable vantage point on the people and settings around him, and now he turns out to be so narrow-minded about the diversity of human pursuits and personalities?
Renée mentioned that she saw Marcel articulating here, very well, the vantage point of an introvert with a highly developed aesthetic sensibility, which of course he is -- so far so good.
It's just too bad, Renée added, that he then extrapolates from his own (very personal) experience to suggest that these same aspirations and values hold true for all of us.
"Exactly," I chimed in. "Proust seems to be blind to so many experiences that are commensurate with art for most people. Some will find the extra-temporal joy and value of which he speaks in art... but others find it in their long-term loving relationships, in the experience of parenting their children over many years, in doing charitable works, in meditating on a mountaintop, in training for an Iron Man triathlon... you name it!"
The artist's way, I concluded, is only one way to translate the raw sense-data of experience, not the only way.
(Although at this point, if I remember correctly, Renée did concede that, for her as for Marcel, art is the most direct way to these kinds of 'ah-ha!' moments, the oceanic feeling, that sense of timelessness and connectivity, call it what you will. And this confession slightly undermined her stated resistence to Marcel's -- and Proust's -- snobbery, in that it seemed to confirm that he may be right. She ended by saying she wanted more time to thiink about it...)
In regard to the question of whether Marcel/Proust gets more narrow just as he finishes growing up, Setenay brought our attention to the circular, closed nature of the structure of the novel.
The Narrator-as-protagonist becomes Author-as-protagonist; it loops back on itself. In one sense, then, we might say that the entire novel can be seen as a (very long) victory lap of self-justification!
(Replace "Chickens" and "Eggs" with "Author" and "Narrator," and this illustrates Setenay's point perfectly, I think.)
Walden and Marie-José argued, to the contrary, that they did not think that Marcel is elevating his own status above others, or proselytizing the artistic life for anybody else. They insisted instead that he is just making the case for himself -- and why shouldn't he?
Walden observed that, for him, the more "solipsistic" Marcel becomes over the course of the novel... strangely, the more sympathetic he becomes too.
Yes, human beings may be subjective, even solipsistic, but that's how each one of us comes to know ourselves and develop our unique style! No use resisting it! According to Walden, then, Proust is showing us the world as it actually is, not as we want it to be. He is creating his own myth.
Marie-José had yet another take. She actually responded to these passages in a diametrically opposite way from those of us who resisted them.
In her view, at the end of his novel Proust celebrates the life of the artist and makes the case for the superiority of artists... And she found that bold affirmation immensely satisfying to read (she herself is a visual artist). The very note of self-aggrandizement that grated on some of us (notably, Don, Setenay, Renée, me), represented to Marie-José a satisfying resolution. Don't worry if it doesn't apply to non-artists, Marie-José urged the group, for it wasn't written for everybody! If you are an artist, it was written for you! Embrace it.
I responded to this that they seemed to me to be trivializing what Marcel is proposing in this month's reading. Marcel's extended talk about the nature of artistic creation and its implications for what is "real" and valuable in this section struck me as not merely descriptive of the life of an artist, but prescriptive for everybody.
We might as well take it seriously as philosophy, I suggested, even if it might strike some of us as snobby or off-putting.
If we don't, we will be, in effect, ignoring the background values of the novel, and only looking at the foreground. That would be like reducing Rick's progress in Casablanca to an example of a man discovering the possibility for... a beautiful friendship. There is a lot more going on than that. There are important choices to consider, based on the specific values underlying the Marcel's individual path to becoming an artist.
3. On the Road to Damasc-- Strike That -- On the Road to the Guermantes
Even though we didn't do it at the meeting, I think I should take a moment, for purposes of these notes, to review what happened to Marcel in this crucial section of the novel. What led him from utter despair at his own failure as an artist to, in a matter of minutes, a hitherto unknown sense of confidence and destiny...
Before this inflection point (or as Walden called it, his "conversion experience") we find Marcel inconsolably lost and disillusioned. Even nature's unremitting expressive beauty -- say, "the glitter of gold and orange which the sun splashed upon the windows of a house" (TR, 239) -- strikes him as meaningless. He has renounced his ambitions to write altogether.
So he decides to resume his social relations, as a kind of last gasp for connection. Or so he he hopes, as he makes a concerted effort to lower his expectations...
"Perhaps in the new, the desiccated part of my life which is about to begin, human beings may yet inspire in me what nature can no longer say" (TR, 238).
(Desiccated. Good word. I looked it up. Means dried out.)
But when he stands outside the Prince de Guermantes' house, Marcel comments, worrisomely, that even the proximity of such an high-status residence means nothing to him anymore: he has passed "the age of beliefs" and "lost that privilege" (TR, 242).
When you don't care about the play of gold and orange sunlight on a window, and your arrival at the door of the Guermantes' has no power to thrill, what are you going to do? Where can you look for meaning?
Indeed, even that old fall-back the "life of the mind" (as preached by the likes of Bergotte), holds little attraction for Marcel at this point. He grumbles:
"[H]ad fate granted me another hundred years of life and sound health as well, it would merely have added a series of extensions to an already tedious existence" (TR, 254).
Things are bad.
"Three times within the space of a few minutes..." (TR, 259):
1. He stumbles on a paving-stone (evoking memory of standing in baptistery of St. Mark's in Venice) (TR, 255-256)
2. Inside the Guermantes' house a servant knocks a spoon against a plate (evoking a memory of a railwayman hammering a wheel on a train when he was still a boy). (TR, 257)
3. He wipes a starched napkin against his mouth (evoking the stiff towel with which he used to dry his face while staring at the sea through his window at Balbec). (TR, 258)
And he suddenly understands why life seemed so empty before; he grasps the flaw in his approach that held him back:
"I understood that the reason why life may be judged to be trivial although at certain moments it seems to us beautiful is that we form our judgment, ordinarily, on the evidence not of life itself but of those quite different images which preserve nothing of life--and therefore we judge it disparagingly" (TR, 260).
We are usually consumed with the stuff that our intelligence has worked on and gradually turned into mere "undifferentiated memory" (TR, 260). These concerns fill most of our days. (This is the stuff, by the way, of bad art and crtiticism, he later informs us, TR, 292.)
But when we crack open the "sealed vessels" of the past (TR, 260), by evoking it through the transposition of a new experience and an old, as in the tea-dipped madeliene, the uneven paving-stone, the spoon knocking on the plate, etc., etc., then we
"...breathe a new air, an air which is new precisely because we have breathed it in the past, that purer air which the poets have vainly tried to situate in paradise and which could induce so profound a sensation of renewal only if it had been breathed before, since the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost" (TR, 261).
Thus, when we conjoin two like events we become "an extra-temporal being and therefore unalarmed by the vicissitudes of the future" (TR, 262). According to Marcel, we are not even afraid of death at this point.
By containing time, by way of an extended metaphor between the past and present, suddenly -- poof! -- we make it disappear.
And so here we are, at the pay-off of this long, long journey at last:
"This [extra-temporal] being had only come to me, only manifested itself outside of activity and immediate enjoyment on those rare occasions when the miracle of an analogy had made me escape from the present. And only this being had the power to perform that task which had always defeated the efforts of my memory and my intellect, the power to make me rediscover days that were long past, the Time that was Lost" (TR, 262-263).
The capital letters hint that this is really it, the prize for which we have been waiting.
Still, in the present, we may feel disoriented. But stabilization is possible by the application of present experience to past memory.
"So often, in the course of my life, reality had disappointed me because at the instant when my senses perceived it my imagination, which was the only organ that I possessed for the enjoyment of beauty, could not apply itself to it, in virtue of that ineluctable law which ordains that we can only imagine what is absent. And now suddenly, the effect of this harsh law had been neutralized, temporarily annulled... so that my imagination was permitted to savor it, and in the present, where the actual shock to my senses of the noise, the touch of the linen napkin, or whatever it might be, had added to the dreams of the imagination the concept of 'existence' which they usually lack, and through this subterfuge had made it possible for my being to secure, to isolate, to immobilize-- for a moment brief as a flash of lightening -- what normally it never apprehends: a fragment of time in the pure state" (TR, 263-264).
Here he swerves (regretfully in my opinion) into a form of Platonic idealism, or essentialism: "This being is nourished only by the essences of things, in these alone does it find its sustenance and delight" (TR, 264). NO.
But let's not get side-tracked. However he gets there, at bottom Marcel's is a claim of value. These subjective experiences, that seem to abolish Time with a capital T, are more "real" than other experiences...
"In the observation of the present, where the senses cannot feed it with this food, it languishes, as it does in the consideration of a past made arid by the intellect or in the anticipation of a future which the will constructs with fragments of the present and the past, fragments whose reality it still further reduces by preserving of them only what is suitable for the utilitarian, narrowly human purpose for which it intends them. But let a noise or a scent, once heard or once smelt, be heard or smelt again in the present and at the same time in the past, real without being actual, ideal without being abstract, and immediately the permanent and habitually concealed essence of things is liberated and our true self, which seemed -- had perhaps for long years seemed -- to be dead but was not altogehter dead, is awakened and reanimated as it receives the celestial nourishment that is brought to it" (TR, 264).
It can't last, of course. Marcel acknowledges this.
"But this species of optical illusion, which placed beside me a moment of the past that was incompatible with the present, could not last for long" (TR, 265).
Yet while it does, it is intoxicating. I read aloud to the group this image (which describes the transposition of an involuntary memory of Balbec with his present moment in Paris) in particular, which appealed to me:
"The marine dining-room of Balbec with its damask linen prepared like so many alter-cloths to receive the setting sun, had sought to shatter the solidity of the Guermantes mansion, to force open its doors, and for an instant had made the sofas around me sway and tremble as on another occasion it had done to the tables of the restaurant in Paris" (TR, 267).
In the end, luckily, the present always overpowers the past.
"Always the present scene had come off victorious, and always the vanquished one had appeared to me the more beautiful of the two... And if the present scene had not very quickly been victorious, I believe that I should have lost consciousness" (TR, 267).
I hope that gives an overview of what Marcel learned in this section: his technique of regaining (more precisely perhaps, abolishing, time) and the aesthetic theory that grew out of it.
Note that Proust accepts that this experience of the "translucid" doubling of past and present, and the ecstasy that results from it, is available to everybody, not only artists.
This "extra-temporality" is what M. Swann experienced when he first heard the Vinteuil sonata, after all. A present moment -- with Odette next to him among Mme Verdurin's guest -- combined with some stirring of an involuntary memory of emotions and longings from his past (we can imagine his childhood?), which had been evoked by that unique arrangement of musical notes in Vinteuil's music.
Experience. Recollect. Reinterpret through analogy.
4. The Background Values of the Novel
Where does this leave us, though?
Back to our original questions, provoked by Florence's experiment at the beginning of our meeting...
Assuming that all Marcel says is true about how we experience art -- that it provides a container for abolishing time, and so on, what is the point and purpose of doing this?
Is it so special, after all, so much so as to elevate artists to a status all of their own?
Is art the only way to get there?
And anyway, is this experience of "extra-temporality" just another form of pleasure in life, or something in a different category altogether?
As we began this part of the discussion, I first suggested that Marcel's ultimate aim seems to be... joy. He follows the pleasure principle. And this would suggest, again, that art is not unique. For example, he talks at length about the "genuine and fruitful pleasure" (TR, 268) which these extra-temporal moments provide.
Setenay rightly pointed out, however, that at other times Marcel emphasizes that the aim is not happiness; that on the contrary, the artist's work emerges out of suffering.
Here are a few examples of this kind of talk from Marcel:
"As for happiness, that is really useful to us in one way only, by making unhappiness possible. It is necessary for us to form in happiness ties of confidence and attachment that are both sweet and strong in order that their rupture may cause us the heart-rending but so valuable agony which is called unhappiness" (TR, 316).
"... a writer's works, like the water in an artesian well, mount to a height which is in proportion to the depth to which suffering has penetrated his heart" (TR, 318).
"The happy years are the lost, the wasted years, one must wait for suffering before one can work" (TR, 319).
But we may ask, if not happiness, then what is Marcel's aim in his artistic creation?
Here we arrived at what we agreed was the supreme background virtue to which he is committed: communication.
It is by way of the "translation" discussed above that artists and artists alone, in Marcel (and Proust's) view, can share their unique visions of the world with other people.
This is what the artist can do, then, that the regular folk can't.
He or she can crack the code, written in "hieroglyphics" (TR, 273) in the dull, observable world, and discover hidden meaning. As Marcel explains, the only way to make this last is by giving these extra-temporal moments a permanent form:
"And this method, which seemed to me the sole method, what was it but the creation of a work of art?" (TR, 273)
The "inner book of symbols" (TR, 274) must be deciphered, written out in plain language, and only a special few are equipped to do it.
"At every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the last true judgment" (TR, 275).
By doing this, Marcel argues, the artist is able to penetrate the lives of others.
"But art, if is means awareness of our own life, means also awareness of the lives of other people-- for style for the writer... is a question not of technique but of vision: it is the revelation... of the qualitative difference, the uniqueness of the fashion in which the world appears to each one of us, a difference which, if there were no art, would remain for ever the secret of every individual" (TR, 299).
Wow. Brings us back to that question of whether Marcel / Proust is a snob about the superiority of artists over the rest of humanity.
And pretty much answers it in the affirmative.
5. Critiques of Proust's Philosophy
Don said that while reading this month's reading he thought of how upset I might be about some of its assertions. For he knew that I had long worried over hints that Proust's novel would conclude with a quasi-religious apotheosis of artists.
I answered that I did have some criticisms, though my overall feeling was positive because I found his aesthetic theories (when considered alone, as descriptions of how we experience art) are so convincing and brilliant.
My critiques, though, started to spill out as we talked. They were as follows:
Critique #1 Rhetorical Inflation
Of course we all recognize this wonderful sensation that Marcel describes. When we have an 'ah-ha!' moment -- when we transpose a present experience and a past experience in the way that Marcel does, whether at the theater or reading a book or wandering a gallery (or seeing our child getting married? Or gazing at our old dog by the fire after 20 years of companionship?) -- we do feel a sense of timelessness. We are made aware of our small part in the great tapestry of existence (or the great maw, choose your metaphor depending on your mood), and it gives us a rush.
Biologically and chemically speaking, however, I argued, it is of course not a "timeless" moment at all. When these ecstatic states happen we are merely experiencing, very much materially in our brains, the transposition of these two (or more) experiences, two (or more) neural networks are lighting up. They are linking in new ways, which give us pleasure. As the old Loony Tunes had it, "That's all, folks!"
Therefore it seems to me, I continued, that Proust doesn't need to dress it up the way he does. "Supraterrestrial"... "extra-temporal"... "spiritual"... "celestial."
Unusual for Proust, who is so precise with language, to fall back on this kind of inflated rhetoric. And I think that he does because it has a quasi-religious effect: O death, where is thy sting? etc.
My hunch is that the flesh-and-blood Proust, lying in his bed, was scared of dying and was grasping for that old false consolation of escape from the mortal world.
In one particularly annoying passage, Marcel makes this point explicit, even claiming that he has come to accept the physical deterioration of the body and the onset of death because of its rewards:
"Let us accept the physical injury which is done to us for the sake of the spiritual knowledge which grief brings; let us submit to the disintegration of our body, since each new fragment which breaks away from it returns in a luminous and significant form to add itself to our work..." (TR, 315).
And so on.
To which I say: Nah. Let's not.
That would be even better, if we didn't disintegrate, wouldn't it? This "spiritual" knowledge that we gain from it, after all, is only a concurrence of neural networks in our brains; spiritual is here, as always, a word largely without meaning (except it captures a feeling of smallness in the vastness, or something like that, which we all know). Surely this knowledge that we gain in our lives does not have anything "luminous" about it -- that is just pretty talk.
Jeff was amazed to hear that I believe that EVERYTHING we experience is locked in time, and terrestrial, and material.
"That's all you think it is?" he asked. "For me, Tom, there is some linkage, some mysterious connection between, say, your great great grandmother's life and your own. Or when I hear of lightening striking a tree the other day in Berkeley and blowing it apart I do not think merely about electric currents moving from positively charged particles to negatively charged particles. No. I feel in awe for something beyond this world. I feel there is... something else."
"What do you mean... God?" asked Lucie from the couch.
"I don't know," Jeff answered. "Something. Seriously. Tom, you think your experiences are entirely biochemical?"
"WHAT ELSE COULD THEY POSSIBLY BE?" I answered, perhaps too aggressively, but all in good fun.
"It cracks me up when people want there to be more than this mortal world," I continued "When they want there to be more than their own inescapably subjective, biochemically induced experiences. Why is that not enough? Isn't it astonishing enough, to be a bipedel primate on the surface of this planet, of which we are a part? And to have our powerful, often irreconcilable urges and cognitively limited perspectives, and yet collectively, over time, build these edifices of art and poetry and science? Isn't that awe-inspiriing enough?"
(At this point we deviated into an extended sideshow argument over religion and Platonic idealist thinking and my rejection of those approaches in favor the naturalist/materialist counter-narrative in Western intellectual history, the question of whether science has values of its own (yes! I can't help myself: truth-telling, relying on evidence, parsimony, verification by others) or whether it is merely a technique, and so on. I won't rehearse those arguments since they will be the rich and fertile soil for next October's reading group, The Philosophical Circus!)
Critique #2 Implausible Plot Points
I brought up, too, that I didn't buy the sudden, transformative power of these events: the paving-stone, the spoon on the plate, the stiff napkin, the book from his childhood.
I accept that Marcel is vulnerable and lost. I accept that he could have an emotionally-charged breakthrough. But for the entire novel to hinge on these events, and his entire outlook on life to come into focus, because his foot wobbled on a paving-stone that reminded him of another awkward step he took in a church in Venice once?
Walden insisted that these sorts of conversion experiences do happen.
I have no doubt they do, I agreed, but mostly because people want them to and willfully create the illusion for themselves. That is exactly what con-men and cult leader exploit, that unconscious asking-for-it. But the character Marcel is too intelligent, too skeptical, too bracingly honest, for this kind of singular transformative event, I countered. It just doesnt ring true to me.
Critique #3 This is Just How Proust Needs to Connect
Back to the earlier point that Proust's background value is the need for communication and connection between people.
What he fails to see, I argued, is that Marcel's drive to produce a work of art, his insistence that only through art can we communicate our otherwise sealed and private subjective experiences of the world, is merely reflective of the specific desire of his own dysfunctional personality (no judgment intended -- all of us being dysfunctional in our own ways). Some people -- Marcel, but also... who comes to mind?...Philip Glass, Jane Campion, I don't know -- are drawn to artistic creation as their primary means of reaching out to others. But some other people -- many, many everyday friends and family members -- are drawn to spending quality time with their loved ones, doing things with them, showing up when their are challenges to be met. And other people still -- extroverted achievers like Larry Ellison, Paul Ryan -- are drawn to achievement in the business or political worlds, in which their interactions are with other people are often brusque and motivated, but if nothing else, frequent.
I am not trying to say that all of these different ways to employ one's resources and talent are equally generative of insight or joy. Some promote more of one aspect of life or another, I would guess.
But what I am saying is that Proust, uncharacteristically, attaches himself to only one of these outlooks and overlooks all the others. His portraits of people as varied as Mme Verdurin and Odette and Brichot were so varigated, so generous, so encompassing of their quirks and blocks but also their redeeming features. And yet here, at the end, he mistakes his own need to make art with a universal need.
6. Winding Up
Towards the end of the evening, we touched on how the approach of our Proust group over the past three years matches quite well with Marcel's understanding of the importance of having a personal engagement with a book, as opposed to arid academic scholarship or a vain attempt at comprehensive knowledge.
As Marcel observes, when speculating about the library he would create if given the chance:
"So it is that, if I had been tempted to become a bibliophile like the Prince de Guermantes, I should only have been one in my own peculiar fashion... [T]he historical beauty of a book would not be lost upon me. But it is rather in the history of my own life, and not simply as a connoisseur of the past in general, that I should see this beauty... As for particular copies of books, I should have been able to take an interest in them too, but in a living sense" (TR, 286-287).
Reading this, I told the group, I felt encouraged that Proust would have approved of the often very personal and digressive approach we have taken to discussing his novel, always engaging with it "in a living sense."
Finally, Marie-José ended the evening by drawing our attention to yet another demonstration of the genius of Proust the writer. Specifically, how he continues to play with our ideas and assumptions about fiction and non-fiction, narrator and author, content and form. She read us the passage in which he out of nowhere addresses us not as Marcel but as Proust himself:
"In this book in which there is not a single incident which is not fictitious, not a single character who is a real person in disguise, in which everything has been invented by me in accordance with the requirements of my theme, I owe it to the credit of my country to say that only the millionaire cousins of Francoise who came out of retirement to help their niece when she was left without support, only they are real people who exist" (TR, 225).
It turns out, Marie-José informed us, that the Lariviere family, named here by Proust, were indeed a real family (her French edition has a note to that effect; which was helpful, since Jeanne and I had Googled the name and found nothing, and so had assumed that this was yet another layer of fiction, another head-fake!).
Although here's a thought, M-J... the moment that a writer uses a name in a fictional work in this manner, can we really say that the name on the page is the same Lariviere family at all?
Well, that about does it.
But I can't end there. If only for our resident Puritan Jeff's sake, I feel I should end these notes with one more, completely unrelated quote from the month's reading.
This one struck me as so funny -- and true:
"The social setting or the natural scene which surrounds our love-making barely impinges upon our thoughts. The tempest may rage over the sea, the ship roll and plunge in every direction, the sky pour down avalanches convulsed by the wind, and at most we bestow the attention of a single second, forced from us by physical discomfort, upon this immense scenic background against which we ourselves are insiginificant, both we and the body we long to approach" (TR, 208).
I like to think of Proust in the backseat of a covered car with his chauffeur Albert, parked far out in a country field during a storm, thunder and lightening crashing all around him, but for once unable to be distracted.
We might say, busy as a bee.