My rating: 4 of 5 stars
More than a year has intervened between my reading of the last volume and this one; and yet I find that my reaction to Proust has remained constant. Constant, yes, and complicated.
I have this relentless back and forth, tug-of-war reaction to Proust, a mixture of the most intense admiration and absolute disgust. My thinking and writing bear the scar of his influence; it is a scar I wear proudly, but which still stings if I poke at it. Whenever I read Proust, I feel so irritated and sometimes so dreadfully bored—a palpable and suffocating boredom—that I want to tear my hair out by the roots; and when I finish I have the mad desire to yell vulgarities at the top of my lungs, both as a celebration and a way to vent pent up anger. But I keep coming back, I keep rolling the rock patiently up the hill, and I keep watching it tumble back down.
I have had difficulty identifying why I’ve had this reaction. In previous reviews I’ve attributed it to Proust’s Cartesianism: his entrapment in his own ego, his relentless subjectivity. But the fact that this book is so deeply rooted in the first-person does not adequately explain the Proustian effect. There are plenty of autobiographies and memoirs that do not produce this same sensation of being trapped in the writer’s head and buried alive by their cogitations. No, it is not the subjectivism alone. Although you wouldn’t guess it from Proust’s elegant, smoothly drifting prose, or his perpetually calm narrative voice, the upshot of his reams of analysis is not only Cartesian, but deeply cynical. This passage perhaps sums up the cynicism better than any other.
The bonds between ourselves and another person exist only in our minds. Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.
For Proust, the essential error of human life is forgetting this essential subjectivity. This error is most obvious with love. We think we fall in love with other people; but we really fall in love with creatures of our own fancy. The person we love has only an oblique reference to the real person, and is mostly a collection of desires, hopes, fantasies, fears, memories, and other sundry emotions—a jumble of mental propensities only associated, by chance, with another person. Indeed, our beloved is not even singular; we have as many beloveds as we have moods. Proust goes even further. His bleak conclusion is that love not only has very little to do with the other person, but that love, far from a tender emotion, is just an expression of sexual jealousy.
In his Cartesian worldview, there is literally no action, however apparently generous and kind, that is not ultimately selfish. That is inevitable, since we can only ever know ourselves, and all our ideas of other people are just veiled ideas of ourselves. And can we even know ourselves?
Time is constantly stripping our identity away. Our thoughts can never stand still, but ceaselessly rush downstream, and the refuse is swept down the drain. We are trapped in our own perspective; and there is no stable point from which to even come to grips with that perspective. The mind reacts to this existential instability by imbuing its environment with meaning, and then trying to control it. We fall in love—thus imbuing a specific person with all the magic charm of our thoughts—and then do our best to keep our beloved near us. Sexual jealousy is just this attempt to control the beloved; and love, for Proust, is just the anguished feeling that our beloved, whose presence helps to define us, might break away. This is why love evaporates for Swann after marriage, and for the Narrator after Albertine’s death; they no longer feel jealous.
Without going into tedious argument, I will say that I disagree with this intense subjectivism. If you begin, like Descartes and like Proust, with the ego and then try to build the world back up again, you will find, like Proust, that you can’t and that you’re stuck with your own ego. But far from being the most solitary of animals, humans are the most social. And the very fact that the world doesn’t make sense when you take your solitary ego as the starting point—which Proust’s Narrator continually finds—is why you ought not to. Yes, we see other people through the distorting lens of our own personality—as any mortal creature must—but experience so often shows that we are much better judges of other people than they are of themselves, and even, in a way, we know them better than they know themselves—something impossible in Proust’s world.
This is not to say that there isn’t a great deal of truth in Proust’s perspective. Specifically, I think he is brilliant at showing how our happiness depends on our interpretation of events rather than events themselves. Like any patient historian, he catalogues all the ways that the Narrator interprets, misinterprets, and re-interprets Albertine’s words and actions; and he shows again and again that the Narrator’s emotional state depends exclusively on these interpretations, not on the words or actions themselves. He is happy when he thinks Albertine loves him, desparing when he thinks she is cheating (but did she ever love him, and did she cheat?); and he begins to get over her when he stops defining himself in reference to her.
As you might have guessed, art plays a large role in Proust’s worldview. For it is only through art that we can, just barely, break out of our perspectives and reveal ourselves to others. The phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata is the prime example of this, which reappears in Vinteuil’s septet, transformed, in a different context, with different emotional overtones, and yet unmistakably the same basic phrase of music. This phrase communicated the stamp of Vinteuil’s mind so unmistakably because, being the product of focused and impassioned artistic creation, it carries with it something of the composer’s unchanging soul, an identity impossible to discern using formal analysis but which is immediately recognizable nevertheless. (Proust was, you see, no advocate of the death of the author.)
It is only through this artistic communion that we can transcend, however briefly, the limitations of our perspective: “the harmony of a Wagner, the colour of an Elstir, enable us to know that essential quality of another person’s sensations into which love for another person does not allow us to penetrate.” The reference to love is crucial here, since for Proust love is the false idol that leads most people astray. It is only through art, not love, that we really get to know another person; it is only through art that the boundaries that separate mind from mind are bridged; and this, presumably, is why Proust is writing this in the first place. Here is Proust putting this into his own inimitable words:
… is it not true that those elements—all the residuum of reality which we are obliged to keep to ourselves, which cannot be transmitted in talk, even from friend to friend, from master to disciple, from lover to mistress, that ineffable something which differentiates qualitatively what each of us has felt and what he is obliged to leave behind at the threshold of the phrases in which he can communicate with others only by limiting himself to externals, common to all and of no interest—are brought out by art, the art of a Vinteuil like that of an Elstir, which exteriorises in the colours of the spectrum the intimate composition of those worlds which we call individuals and which, but for art, we should never now? A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect of things of Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we really do fly from star to star.
Notice how intense is Proust’s subjectivism here. Even if we go visit another planet, he thinks, we really only see ourselves. The exterior world has almost nothing to do with what we observe, think, or feel, and it is only through art, which opens up other perspectives, that we have a window to something new, a temporary escape from ourselves.
At present, I am not sure I agree with Proust about the ability of art to transcend the boundaries that separate consciousness from consciousness; and I certainly do not agree with his cynical views on love, or his subjectivist vision of human life. As a writer of prose, in short bursts I find him extraordinarily eloquent, and in longer sittings I find him soporific and tedious. His books simply wear you out. Proust himself died at 51 while completing the last volume; and his English translator, Scott Moncrieff, died at 40 midway through the same volume. I myself feel as if every page of Proust ages me internally. Time is not only a theme of this book, but an essential aspect of reading it. In The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann says:
Can one narrate time—time as such, in and of itself? Most certainly not, what a foolish undertaking that would be. The story would go: “Time passed, ran on, flowed in a mighty stream,” and on and on in the same vein. No one with any common sense could call that a narrative.
But Proust comes perilously close to narrating time. His prose never changes pace, never speeds up nor slows down, but slides by like time itself, uniformly moving along, flowing, drifting, with the same mannerisms repeated again and again, the same sorts of observations, the same themes that repeatedly return—a placid voice narrating a story that makes me neither laugh nor cry, only yawn on occasion—and yet, and yet, you cannot make your way through these pages without being transformed, however subtly, in the process. Just as Proust’s Narrator feels as if great artists and musicians allow him to see the world with a hundred eyes, I feel as if I have lived several lives so far; when I put down Proust my bones ache and I feel weary, I feel weak and dizzy as if I were just breathing a thin atmosphere. And yet, and yet, who would change a word, who would alter a line, and who would consider any time spent in these pages to be lost?