Awakening in/to Proust

January 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

…all I had, in its original simplicity, was the sense of existence as it may quiver in the depths of an animal; I was more bereft than a caveman… (‘The Way by Swann’s’ 9)

What is being described is the moment of awakening, which holds a special place in the oeuvre of Marcel Proust. Here its primitivity is established under the philosophical sign of existence before essence. Sleep is represented as a chaotic, frightening world where things can be without being defined. Being born(e) from that space, “[i]t is not clear what dictates the choice nor why, among the millions of human beings we might be, it is the being we were the day before that we unerringly grasp” (The Guermantes Way 85). Proust elucidates a little later: “We constantly strive to give our life form, but by copying, in spite of ourselves, like a drawing, the features of the person we are & not the person we should like to be” (GW 184—85). This is a startling comment on self-determination, in spite — or on account — of its simplicity.

More subtly, it is also a revelation of Proust’s indifferent attitude to falsity. Integrity does not exist if essence is a decision; to be true to existence alone is to forfeit one’s humanity. If anything, in this thinking the abandonment of self-truth & a secure identity is privileged for, everyone must agree, it is a weak art to trace over the work of yesterday.

In Search of Lost Time was initially conceived as a two-volume tome (in publication, these have become the first & third of seven) as a type of Bildungsroman — typically known to utilise the trope of awakening as a coming into being. The two books were to have a relatively basic thesis that mimic two possible walks in the narrator’s childhood residence at Combray, “[f]or in the environs of Combray there were two ‘ways’ which one could go for a walk, in such opposite directions that in fact we left our house by different doors when we wanted to go one way or the other” (WS 135). Rather than paths, or decisive fates, they ought to be looked upon as stages in life just as the road is essentially time as space, visually & experientially. The way by Swann’s of the illegitimate, foreign path & true friendship are to the left. The Guermantes, who are society, good introductions, & falsity, whose path that follows along to the right. A very obvious image is formed of the fork in the road, the right & what’s left — if you will.

We may look upon them as integrity & vanity, both of which are to play an important role in the life of a young artist. The narrator imagines himself an author by the sole virtue of calling himself one. He is marked by ambition & recognised in society for it.* Like the world of sleep, the blank page is infinite & infinitely terrifying; the relationship with time is no longer linear for “it is only in the sciences, & not in art, that there can be progress or discovery” (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 417). In the subconscious spheres, the temporal effect mimics memory by taking elements & events at random, usually without cohesion, without a progressive narrative.** It is for the same reason that our dear narrator hasn’t the audacity to sit & compose his great, much spoken-of work. He amuses himself with desiring revered women & vanity instead.

This is a parallel anxiety to that of sleep with which the work opens. The worlds are collated at last by a “dream in which nature had taken lessons from art, in which the sea had become Gothic, this dream in which I longed to reach, & believed I was reaching the impossible” (GW 143). Art belongs to that world of dreams, then, in its difficulty (or weight) & non-progressive form, yet it is also the gateway “by awakening in us… showing us what richness, what variety, is hidden unbeknownst to us within that great unpenetrated & disheartening darkness of our soul which we take for emptiness & nothingness” (WS 352).

Such, the artist documents his early flirtations with greatness — the greatness of others, measured on a very different scale that esteems fabrics & gestures above all else. He is haunted by the inverse, by that which he does not choose. He fails to be instrumental in order to be instrument. He isn’t yet ready to look upon “emptiness & nothingness” as anything more, although he does sense something greater there. It has a voice. It has a call.

The paradox is simple: to awaken the true self, he needs first to embrace sleep, the unconscious. This is perhaps the most important distance of meaning Proust bridges to esteem quite simply the courage it takes not to trace the self of yesterday every morning, to lift the lethargy from off the soul, & to begin action. Proust suffered from the same difficulty in writing that his narrator does. He was 38 years old when he began work on In Search of Lost Time, his only novel. As its achievement continued to astound him, the book took a more & more monumental shape. It is gently didactic, quotable tirelessly. It is penitent to lost time, while remaining aware that this is precisely what is needed to sit down & read the 1,200,000 words that make it up.


* It is the circles described in GW that are especially prone to this lack of concern for achievement. The distinction is kept so pristine that any true conversation that might pass between characters is glossed over in this manner: “Our rare conversations alone together, & this one in particular, have assumed, in retrospect, the status of important turning points” (GW 411). The Verdurins’ “little clan”, meanwhile, who occupy a large portion of WS, attempt a very different salon which collects artists & thinkers & is supposedly concerned with talent over talk. While the two salons accurately accompany the respective volumes, each comes to a similar stand-still in a milieu that studies actions but is ignorant of the moment (in the manner of immediacy). Love is the only human contact that can hope to break from the vainglorious, as it “sharpens discernment & our power to make distinctions” (SYGF 485).

** In a later post, I will show how Proust describes the human imagination’s capacity of tying the incohesive. This will be called “bridging distance” after terminology used by the narrator.


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