These notes cover the final 200 pages of Time Regained, from p. 332 to p. 532, in the Modern Library edition (Moncreiff / Kilmartin / Enright) of In Search of Lost Time.
This is it, the notes to our final meeting. We have finished the novel.
It's hard to believe.
Makes me think of what Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary after reaching the last sentence of her novel, The Waves:
"Anyhow, it is done; and I have been sitting these 15 minutes in a state of glory, and calm... How physical the sense of triumph and relief is!"
We gathered one more time in the dining room, already feeling a touch nostalgic even as we enacted our familiar roles.
Jeanne brought plump, green grapes and a berry tart.
We poured tea, uncorked wine, popped champagne.
A few of us even shared a bottle of "honey mead" that Renée had produced to commemorate the occasion. (Except for Miriam. She rejected this honey mead with such vehemence that she seemed to heap scorn on the entire culinary life of the Middle Ages. But then... what did we expect? She is an unusual woman, full of dark resentments and unpredictable desires, is she not?)
At 8:30 pm, or maybe a few minutes later, I chimed a spoon on a glass for the last time and invited everybody to take their seats in the living room for our final discussion.
1. Tom's Presentation: What I Learned from Proust
Once again, we forgot to take a volunteer for a presentation at the last meeting...
So, in the spirit of getting things going, I offered to the group an off-the-cuff list of some of the ways that Proust's novel has changed my outlook.
Of course, I acknowledged, this is a blunt and reductive exercise. Certainly all of the most important aspects of the novel, experienced as a work of art, are too elusive to get across with words.
But I thought it would be interesting to hazard a summary of some of the ways that Proust's conceptual framework, as a whole, has affected me -- as one reader among many.
So here goes:
What I have learned along the way.
i. We can, each of us, take our subjectivity seriously, and we need not apologize for it.
"[I]n all perception there exists a barrier as a result of which there is never absolute contact between reality and our intelligence" (TR, 420).
As we learned during Marcel's boyhood encounters with the world in Combray, even our earliest physical contacts with the material world are transformed by our minds into something subjective.
And this state of subjectivity is what we commonly call “experience.”
It is unique to each of us, tinged with emotion and layered with associations.
So, I told the group, Proust has taught me that there is no direct contact with the world to be had, despite the assertions of our contemporary culture.
Forget all those practitioners of "no-nonsense" and "straight talk," all those guardians against "self-indulgence" and the dangers of "an overwrought imagination" in our time.
It's "beloved hawthorns" all the way down, baby.
And this is liberating! Subjectivity is to be valued!
For Marcel's beloved hawthorns, like all of the things we notice and care about, are not merely fibrous organic material drawing water up through their roots and undergoing photosynthesis... There is no objective "hawthorn" -- no way for him to "get real, kid," even if he wanted to!
To some botanists, they may be flowers of a certain genus... To Marcel, they are far more: they are colorful emblems that represent the awakening mind of a child, the sense of being separate from others, and the urge to grasp after an ecstasy not yet known but anticipated…
They are powerful portals to mystery and beauty, loss and decay.
They are ravishing. They are cataclysmic.
They are truly his beloved, as are all things we concerns ourselves with in this world: human, animal, organic, even inert, when we transform them inside of us.
ii. We can give up trying to "solve" our relationships.
As we learned in Swann in Love while Marcel led us through the tangled tale of Swann and Odette, even in our most intimate relationships of love and friendship we only encounter one another... intermittently.
Our knowledge of other people is necessarily filtered and informed by our mythologies, our blind spots, our ever-shifting needs. (Oh, and over and beyond that, everything changes in time; see section iii below for more on that.)
Does Swann ever know Odette? Can he? How much of their relationship represents actual contact between two distinct people, and how much represents habit, misdirection, misplaced or outdated assumptions?
This too, I would argue, is an encouraging, and again even liberating, insight into the nature of our experience.
It suggests that we are wrong when we ever think we have somebody "figured out." It suggests to me that our casual acquaintances, our closest friendships, even our marriages, can fruitfully undergo continual reevaluation and reinterpretation.
Nothing is fixed. Nothing is set. We can reframe and re-inspire one another in infinite ways.
Stay open-minded. Stay generous. Look again. Think again. Listen again.
Like Charles Swann, you might even find yourself someday wildly in love with someone who is "not your type"! (I did! Best thing that ever happened to me.)
So don't jump to conclusions. Forget formulas or received rules. Relationships are much more complicated and surprising than you could ever imagine.
iii. There is no one "you," anyway.
Each of us is constantly changing in time. So even our most fiercely defended principles, our most obvious characteristics, our deepest understandings of our place in the world, are changing too.
Thus when we ask ourselves who we are and what we want and whom we love, we must remember that we are only asking in the present-tense; there is no fixity in ourselves or others.
iv. Art is best understood as a system of metaphors.
As we age, we bring our own individualized sensory map – whether it includes hawthorns (Marcel), that faded superhero cape Mom made from an old tablecloth (me), the startling snort of a horse eating a carrot from your hand (Renée), or anything else – onto our present-day experiences.
These layers create cascades of associations, opening up new possibilities for pleasure in art, feelings of nostalgia, perhaps (it must be acknowledged) a sense of gloom -- longings of all kinds.
So when we hear a song or view a painting or read a poem we are as much re-experiencing as we are experiencing.
If we are to believe Proust (drawing from Ruskin and others), art is a form of metaphor-making, reaching from the present moment back into each individual’s past, and creating resonances between these two states.
Proust calls this process “transposed sensation” (TR, 335). Note that this phrase does not point to some objective truth underlying the ephemera of experience: it merely describes the movement between experiences.
So, in my reading anyway, we can finally get rid of all that Romantic hogwash of the artist as seeing more deeply into things.
This clarification into the nature of art frees me to enjoy its ecstasies (think of listening to "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles on a cloudy day while gazing out a window, or disappearing into the color fields of a well-lit Rothko painting) without striving vainly for a deeper capital-M Meaning.
The meaning is powerful and may evoke tears or wonder, yes, but knowing that is individualized -- and ultimately personal -- allows me to enjoy it, even to treasure it, without a false sense of inadequacy, or striving to grasp something "higher" or "transcendent."
It plants me more firmly in this life, and I like that feeling.
2. The Party
After a brief back-and-forth over my presentation, if I remember correctly, we then started talking about the party at the Prince de Guermantes' house.
We noted Marcel's realization that he is... growing old.
We talked about the way that the characters have continued to change, right up to the end of the novel: Gilberte into a stout old matron; the Duchess de Guermantes into an embittered slanderer of Gilberte ("she is a bitch"); Morel into an unlikely moral paragon who can sway law courts by the mere fact of his testimony; Rachel into a hideous-looking celebrity, given to settling scores; Bloch into a new person altogether, having renamed himself "Jacques du Rozier" and now sporting a monocle.
And of course we mentioned the reappearance of Mme de Forcheville (aka Mme Swann, aka Odette), with her hair now dyed blonde, looking like a "big mechanical doll" (TR, 377).
I remarked how it hurt me, somehow -- I felt a sharp stab of sadness -- when Marcel describes her, as a "rose that has been sterilized" (TR, 380). And how horrifying it is that she is now the lover of the Duke de Guermantes, who himself is described as a "ruin now, a magnificent ruin" (TR, 483). What a pair.
We all age, and Marcel is shocked as we all are by reminders of our existence in time.
3. Time as a Novelistic Device
Don pointed out that this realization about growing older is linked to Marcel's new-found resolution, as a writer, to employ a "telescope" in describing his characters, rather than what his friends call it, a microscope (TR, 520).
For Marcel, as he explains, seeks to capture each of his characters in the flow of time:
"...as endowed with the length not of his body but of his years and as obliged -- a task more and more enormous an in the end too great for his strength -- to drag them with him wherever he goes" (TR, 528).
At another point he explains that this incorporation of time is, in fact, integral to his art:
"...in a book which tried to tell the story of a life it would be necessary to use not the two-dimensional psychology which we normally use but a quite different sort of three-dimensional psychology..." (TR, 505).
The 3D part being... that we grow older and change over time. As he says in the unforgettable closing of the novel, we are "giants plunged into the years..." (TR, 532).
Marcel's ambition is to incorporate the ravages of time directly into his story, even if it is, at times, terrifying:
"A feeling of vertigo seized me as I looked down beneath me, yet within me, as though from a height, which was my own height, of many leagues, at the long series of the years" (TR, 531).
4. The Last Stand of Dirk and Jennifer
Dirk, who hasn't read along with the group for the last two years (he stopped after Combray), spoke up to say that all this talk of a "sterilized rose" and the ravages of time makes him feel... like the last Japanese soldier discovered many years after WWII, still fighting long after everyone else moved on.
For Dirk left off, back in the spring of 2012, with the rapturous descriptions of nature around Combray, and freckle-faced young girls, and gleaming church spires in the parks along the river Vivonne. The rest of it (that is, the thousands of pages he missed) sounded to his ears like a drag.
I couldn't help myself, but I had to respond to that. I spoke up to say that, in my understanding, the novel works in stages. And in Proust's schema at least, Dirk remains...
"Well... sorry to say it," I said. "But according to Proust you are still stuck in stage one!"
I then made something like the following indictment of my dear friend Dirk.
"In stage one, we experience the ecstasy of subjectivity as we encounter the physical world in all of its beauty. It is my impression that this is exactly what you relished when reading Combray.
"But this ecstasy proves impossible to sustain as we grow older.
"The world grows more complex, and habit and routine (and hormones!) begin to crowd out our perceptions. And so, as we begin stage two, in Swann in Love, and continuing in Within a Budding Grove, we find our attempts to recapture this pure experience, in adolescent and then adult relationships, failing us. We fail in ways similar to Swann, similar to Marcel. There are no exceptions.
"Sure, we can carry on pretending -- living the life of a hedonist or a dilettante, for example -- but over time the pursuit of direct, sensual pleasures begin to sour. (See, e.g., the last act of Mozart's Don Juan, Oliver Stone's The Doors, or more recently, The Wolf of Wall Street. The theme is so common as to be a cliché.)"
I carried on:
"Our habits grow around us, right? What Proust calls our "intelligence" (and today we tend to call our "consciousness") inevitably dulls our childlike wonder. Social obligations and all their necessary compromises crowd our lives.
"Hence stage three, the dark before the dawn. As we move through Sodom and Gommorah, The Captive, The Fugitive, and the first part of Time Regained, Marcel begins to grow ever more disillusioned. He flails around, trying to find something nourishing and ecstatic, but in the end his efforts turn possessive, and this spirit of possessivenes poisons everything he touches. Case in point: Albertine.
"Finally, he comes to stage four, which we encounter in the second half of Time Regained, wherein Marcel finds a way back to the ecstasies of his childhood, after all. But this time they are no longer merely sensual; they are informed by memory, by awareness of loss, by the tragic sense. They are, as he says, in three dimensions.
"They require close attention, discipline, work, to translate them into art. Thus he has found a more lasting beauty, even, he claims (though I dispute this, of course) a "timeless" one. He even insists that he no longer fears death because he has learned to accept the passage of time, and all its corresponding changes, inextricably linked to lived experience. We die every day, he tell us, so death is nothing but more of the same (to this last point I say: yeah right, keep telling yourself that).
"So you see, Dirk?" I concluded, "Lacking this tragic sense, you are, according to Proust at least... arrested at stage one."
Wow, that was some insult, huh? Only in a three-year-long Proust group could it get so below-the-belt.
Jennifer, who for some time has given voice to her strong distaste for certain aspects of this novel (and Proust/Marcel's outlook generally), leapt to Dirk's defense.
"No Tom," she said. "You have got it all wrong. Dirk is not trying to find some impossible, child-like, 'sustained ecstasy'! He is not stuck anywhere at all. He is just articulating what I too have experienced... And it's a straightforward observation: that the beauty we found in the first volume is not matched by the ones after it!"
"But that's a symptom of a deeper disagreement, Jennifer!" I answered. "Isn't it? I get that you and Dirk don't appreciate very much of the beauty of the later volumes -- in fact, you don't even consider it beauty. That's my point."
Jennifer raised her eyebrows as if to say, "So what?"
"Don't get me wrong. I understand that you and Dirk have your own understanding of 'beauty' different from Proust's. And yours is just as valid as his! (Who is he -- or who am I? -- to insist that his -- or mine -- is right and yours is wrong?)
"We don't disagree on that. But my effort, in responding to Dirk, was to explain why you both, perhaps for different reasons, have this view... at least according to Proust.
"The two of you are, as I say, in his schema, only going... so far. Or to put it another way, Proust might say that you are stopping at the "Gosh, gosh, gosh!" (in French the "Zut, zut, zut!" Remember that from Combray?).
"And this "Gosh, gosh, gosh!" though wonderful as a sensation, leads to a kind of... wantonness, according to Proust. A skittishness. A superficiality. You feel that the novel drops away from 'beauty,' but for Proust those early ecstasies of sensation and observation, flooding him so frequently as a boy, call for a deeper investigation. He can't just stay there.
"In fact he takes them so seriously that he pursues them avidly in Balbec, tries to live them in his relationship with Albertine, and ultimately tries to assault them, from every angle, with doubt and reason to see what is left standing. If you don't read the full novel, as Dirk hasn't, or if you find yourself aesthetically and even morally in opposition to much of it, as you have, then, yes, you will likely feel there is a falling off... We would expect that, wouldn't we? Just as I feel when I try to read, say, Jonathan Franzen. He seems to see people as motivated by singular and explicable (albeit changeable) purpose, and I don't. Our outlooks on the world are simply too different."
When I was finally done with my indictment, Dirk calmly spoke to say that he rejected my characterization. He simply feels that the growing interiority of the Narrator -- and behind him, Proust? -- prevents him from staying alive and awake to the exquisite beauty of this world. As a reader, he was hoping for increased awareness, increased presentness as the novel progressed, and instead he got status games, money games, avarice, deception, jealousy, blah.
How do we resolve this? How do we ever resolve questions of taste and judgment?
Certainly, I believe, there is no impartial ground upon which any of us can stand to render a verdict.
In my biased sense of what is going on, though, I will give it a try... I think Proust's sensibility is simply too... impure for Dirk and Jennifer, in the context of their worldview.
Whereas for the rest of us, to varying degrees, his sensibility resonates more closely with our understanding of the world as it is.
This is question of moral orientation and aesthetic taste.
Nothing new in this kind of disagreement. Some people love The Eagles; others (like me) find them cloying and condescending. Some people (like me) love Bob Dylan; others find him enigmatic and contradictory and too snarly. Am I right and those other listeners wrong? No. We are different people, with different orientations towards the world. Thank god the world is not filled only with Dylan fans who love Kafka. That would make me never want to get out of bed.
My guess is that, on some level, the sensibility of Dirk and Jennifer is simply too far removed from Proust's for them to resonate deeply with the novel. As Jennifer insists, she does enjoy many aspects of it -- but up to a limit and then her interest tails off quickly.
5. Proust as Vehicle for Self-Empowerment
In fact, Jennifer made the case that her biggest take-away from the novel is that reading it has empowered her to own up to her taste and judgment, in opposition even to the "brilliant" Proust!
She explained to the group that the fact that she so often disagreed with the Narrator's interpretations of his characters' behavior (even while she concedes they are his characters, she can still disagree on his interpretations of them!), led her to feel a renewed confidence that, when you get right down to it, other people's views about her are "all shit." Rejecting Proust's outlook, therefore, gave her confidence that she can stand on her own. (If we can paraphrase the lyrics of an old song here... "If she can make it there... she can make it ANYWHERE! No Proust, no PROUST!")
Marie-José observed that Jennifer's comments dovetail very nicely with Proust's description of the independence he urges for his readers. "In reality," Marcel comments,
"every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without his book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself" (TR, 322).
Miriam brought up a quote (from last month's reading) to say that Proust does acknowledge the value of his readers individuality, too, when he comments that he prefers the judgments of the "general public" to that of the superficial verbiage and changing criteria of the established judges of literature" (TR, 296).
"See, he's not acting so snooty and superior, after all, Tom!" a few members of the group insisted, referencing last month's discussion of my sense of Proust's error in his typical Modernist apotheosis of the artist.
6. Proust as Snob, Revisited
Walden, especially, made the case that in these last pages Marcel seems ever more modest in his assessment of the role of the artist. He acknowledges, for example, that even his books will eventually be lost:
"No doubt my books too, like my fleshly being, would in the end one day die... We accept the thought that in ten years we ourselves, in a hundred years our books, will have ceased to exist. Eternal duration is promised no more to men's works than to men" (TR, 524).
(Funny that, his modest thought, when this year happens to be the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first volume and all over the world people are still reading it!)
Walden also mentioned Proust's description of his novel as an "unfinished" cathedral (TR, 508).
Yet I countered with another quotation:
"To me it seems more correct to say that the cruel law of art is that people die and we ourselves die after exhausting every form of suffering, so that over our heads may grow the grass not of oblivion but of eternal life, the vigorous and luxuriant growth of a true work of art, and so that thither, gaily and without a thought for those who are sleeping beneath them, future generations may come to enjoy their déjeuner sur l'herbe" (TR, 516).
"Eternal life"? Keep dreaming.
We could trade quotations endlessly, I submitted, but I think it is undeniable that Proust thinks great artistic work captures something eternal (timeless, translucid, take your pick), and that it pierces to truths otherwise undecipherable by non-artistic human beings.
I argued that, for me, this remains a small occlusion in the otherwise extraordinary diamond of Proust's work: this insistence on the qualitative difference of the artist (as opposed to this quantitative difference -- more vivid images, more analogies, more surprising word choices, better pacing, than the rest of us could pull off).
But how is Shakespeare different? asked Walden.
"Shakespeare includes a multiplicity of perspectives," I answered, "and no one has access to any final truth -- not even Hamlet, Falstaff, Prospero, Lear (well, maybe Rosalind, but she doesn't share it). I think the Elizabethan era had a more accurate understanding of the artist: they understood the artist as an entertainer and a provocateur. Recall that Shakespeare didn't even publish his plays in his lifetime -- they were passing fancies, to be enjoyed in the here and now. It was only later that the build-up of the "artiste" began. But Proust is of his time, and Modernism did its best to substitute the artist for the God that had gone missing."
"Well," Walden said, "I, for one, have no problem saying that Proust is a superior writer and thinker to me."
"Neither do I!" I said. "But this is a different question. He has superior talent and a tremendous ability to observe life. But as I say, I would argue that this is a quantitative difference from us, not a qualitative one. In the end, as I tell young people when I talking about a life in the arts, I think it is important to remember that every person has an equally teeming emotional life, with cross-currents of passion and pain, vital in all ways. The difference with an artist is not that he or she is more passionate, more full of pain, a deeper person. The difference is merely that he or she has, through talent and hard work, acquired the skills to convey this passion and pain to others. With Proust I sense a pride -- perhaps brought on by fear of encroaching death -- in more than having acquired a particular skill set, but in having, himself, a secret egress to a truth that reaches beyond what lies within other human beings. It is minor note. It is completely understandable, for a man shuttered away from the world and nearing his death. But I don't see evidence that he drops this presumption at the end of the novel."
We pretty much left it there.
7. On Friendship
The last topic that I recall was a brief conversation about Marcel's lack of friendships -- and his occasional denigrating words about them.
I read what I called Marcel's "introvert's credo" to the group:
"What use would it have been that, for a few more years, I should waste hour after hour at evening parties pursuing the scarcely expired echo of other people's remarks with the no less vain and fleeting sound of my own, for the sterile pleasure of social contact which precluded all penetration beneath the surface? Was it not more worthwhile that I should attempt to describe the graph, to educe the laws, of these gestures that they made, these remarks that they uttered, their very lives and natures?" (TR, 437).
We talked about his only interest in social interaction, once he begins his writing, is to have occasional "little amorous dalliance with young girls in bloom... like the famous horse that was fed on nothing but roses" (TR, 438). What a vision.
Florence commented that it saddened her that Proust seemed to lack an appreciation for friendship.
I did read aloud a quotation that leans slightly the other direction, in that it suggests a certain value in friends as foundational myths, however. At one point, in reflecting on the cast of characters in the room at the Prince de Guermantes' party, Marcel remarks that all of "his relations..."
"...had had their origin almost in legend, in a delightful mythology which still at a later date prolonged them into the past as into some Olympian heaven where they shone with the luminous tail of a comet" (TR, 418).
Reading this made me feel encouraged to enjoy the origin myths of my own friendships -- to celebrate their details, their happy coincidences, their sudden reverses -- and to use these myths, with a sense of humor perhaps, to revitalize my present relationships with these same friends.
But Renée pointed out, in this respect, that for Marcel these myths actually make the present-day relationships more difficult, as he is constantly matching people up against his mythic background for them and finding them wanting (e.g. Albertine in the next room over cannot compete against the Albertine set against the green sea). So, in his case, the myth-making doesn't really revitalize his friendships as much as to block them.
In the end we agreed that one of the most edifying aspects of the experience of this three-year journey has been the fully vital friendships that have come out of it!
We have grown fond of one another, even while disagreeing, even while coming to understand the fugitive nature of identity in time, even while arguing over and experiencing the tragic sense of life.
I will miss you all. Thank you so much for being so passionate, so painful, so genuine, so dedicated, so kind, so fierce, so intelligent and so delightful a group of human beings as we grappled with this novel.