Friday, June 06, 2008

Proust and me

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz


It was the summer of 19__. I was at Oxford. I was sixteen. Now Oxford is a big industrial town, a bit gritty, but my college was on the fringes, and out there it was countryside. There were even a few gas lamps by the roadside, and when you walked out beyond, the woods and flowers were far older even than those antiquated lamps, and you got the feeling that you'd escaped from time. When I think of that summer, I think of the sun, pouring down like a blessing, dappling the grassy meadows, setting leaves aglow on a long hedge by whose side a dirt path meandered. I liked to walk that path, and I remember a girl who went with me from time to time. We boated down the narrow stream they call a river, through the fields, through the woodland hugging the water, out past farmhouses and sleeping villages, and I used to row even though you're supposed to use the punt pole, and I remember the splash of the oar and the little band of water droplets gleaming like transitory diamonds.

Now there was a whole band of older boys I tried to join. They would come trooping in to tea, all in a group, and since I was young and naive and American, they seemed impossibly elegant, their friendship unattainable, bathed in sunlight, golden. And that summer all they seemed to talk about was Proust. They were all reading it, and from what I could see it deeply moved them. So that was my first impression of Proust, and the name became a sort of magic totem to me, and whenever I think of it, even now, so many years later, it is inextricably tied up with that band of laughing jeunesse dore, and with sunlight on the hedges.


Shortly after the Great War ended, Proust locked himself in a soundproof room, and there he spent the rest of his life, writing. I don't know if the room had any windows, but I think it didn't. Proust was far away, drifting among sights, smells, sensations, vanished worlds of long ago. I once heard that on one occasion he left his room and traveled halfway across Paris to see a hat which a woman had worn to a party twenty years before. Often, a trivial thing, the sight of a hat, the taste of that famous madeleine, would without warning immerse Proust in a flood of sensation, all the thoughts and feelings he'd had when he had first seen that hat, the way things were for that person who, many years before, had been Proust. For Proust, like all of us, had been many people, his passions and dreams as a child so different from today that his resurrected glimpse into that child's world was like a view into an alien mind. And, like a master quilter stitching a work of art out of rags and snippets, out of those tastes, those glimpses, those fears and passions recalled, he built his novel.

For "Remembrance of Things Past" is indeed a novel, fiction, though it is easy enough to forget this. For one thing, Proust was homosexual, so there was no Albertine. Or in a way there was, there were a thousand Albertines, a thousand people in each of whom he found a bit of Albertine. And this is true of all the characters that inhabit the humdrum yet bizarre, generic (in the sense in which truths about it are applicable to any group of people) yet unforgettable world that springs to being in these pages.

Reading this novel, unlike any other, we demand that there be some link with Proust's actual life. The characters are fiction, the events are fiction, more or less, but the sensations must be real. Proust actually felt them, all those incessant longings and anger and fear. This link to reality is necessary because Proust claims to have written, not merely a novel, but a treatise of psychology, a guide to, if not understanding the world, at the very least a hint on how to view it.

Or showing that other views are possible... by allowing us a glimpse into another person's world (or into his world as a ten-year-old, which he considers that of another person than his adult self), he also allows us to see the laws and processes common to both. He wrote this in the midst of a discussion on the goal (or, better, Holy Grail) of art:

"To grasp again our life -- and also the life of others; for style is for the writer, as for the painter, a question, not of technique but of vision. It is the revelation -- impossible by direct and conscious means -- of the qualitative differences in the way the world appears to us, differences which, but for art, would remain the eternal secret of each of us. Only by art can we get outside ourselves, know what another sees of his universe, which is not the same as ours and the different views of which would otherwise have remained as unknown to us as those there may be on the moon."

I've written elsewhere that sometimes it seems as if as if Proust and Wittgenstein (who after all was his comtemporary and in some ways grew up in the same milieu) were covering the same territory. The limits of language, the existence yet utter unknowability of the other, the tragedy of longing and yearning and loving that which must always elude our grasp. Wittgenstein seems to map the boundary, Proust strives to push and struggle and expand it every way he can, using music and art as another, more basic language to describe or at least indicate entities whose essence we cannot fathom. And the composer Vinteuil and painter Elstir, who make their appearance in the novel, are not based on real artists at all. Rather, they are fictional creations invented by Proust because in his long descriptions of their fictional compositions, he can expound his view of the world. The long description of Vinteuil's sonata uses the music to hint at other worlds which are infinitely precious and totally, except as glimpsed in art, beyond our ken... glimmering dings an sich which we cannot hope to know but which give life its value.

And in the end, the fictional, as well as the real, Proust remains a hazy enigma. Thousands and thousands of pages, and so much is left out. Years and years skipped over, the most important events barely alluded to, or left out for the reader to deduce. And yet, we grasp the essence. And what a tragedy it is! "The heart changes," wrote Proust, "and that is our worst misfortune." Yet for Proust it was not so much change as an endless, painful cycle, which he fully perceived but was powerless to escape. An intense fear of abandonment pervades his earliest memories, and whenever he met a girl whom he feared would cuckold him, this fear was triggered and its intensity would make him fall in love with her. Of course, his fear was a prudent instinct and would be triggered only by the sort of girl who would betray him repeatedly, incurably. But without this jealousy, for Proust there was no love. Quite literally, love -- the thing for which he lived his life -- was pain.

For Proust, the things which give most of us life's joy and meaning -- friendship and helping others -- were a waste of time. And so he spent his life being blown about by his twisted love, searching love's unattainable happiness. And yet, as his book proved, it was not really love, or happiness, or gratification he was after. It was a search for the reality of things, pursued with such zeal and devotion that he gave up all for it, became a hermit with more rigor than the most religious monk for it, and ultimately died for it. I've always thought that the gap from qualia, from sense-perception, to a deeper reality was unbridgeable. But somehow Proust leapt across it, carried perhaps on wings of angels.