Sunday, January 25, 2009

Thinking of Proust

A librarian ponders reading Proust, often accompanying her thoughts with Masao Yamamoto's photographs.

[Thanks to The English Teacher.]

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Breaking through Appearance

Cross-posted from Unpacking My Library.

It may be wholly coincidental that dissociation—the disintegration of a person’s psychological integrity—figures in Moby-Dick and Swann’s Way as a way to break through Appearance to what the narrator perceives as Truth. Early in Moby-Dick, Ishmael experiences a disconcerting dissociative experience when waking to find Queequeg beside him in bed. “My sensations were strange,” remarks Ishmael, who goes on to recount a similar experience when he was a child. “The circumstance was this,” he tells us.

I had been cutting up some caper or other - I think it was trying to crawl up the chimney, as I had seen a little sweep do a few days previous; and my stepmother who, somehow or other, was all the time whipping me, or sending me to bed supperless, - my mother dragged me by the legs out of the chimney and packed me off to bed, though it was only two o'clock in the afternoon of the 21st June, the longest day in the year in our hemisphere.

Ishmael lay in bed for a time, calculating how many more hours he’d be condemned to his room. Finally, in desperation, he went to his stepmother, begging to be released from his punishment, but “she was the best and most conscientious of stepmothers, and back I had to go to my room.” Eventually falling asleep, then into a nightmare, he slowly awoke.

I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bedside. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all...

In his Melville biography Andrew Delbanco argues this passage signifies Ishmael’s release from the bonds of tradition and a society that strictly defined and rejected those who did not share its values. Whether Delbanco means the childhood punishment or the recounting of it isn’t clear, but the dissociation is, in any case, the ground on which Ishmael can stand to establish his friendship with the cannibalistic, Polynesian harpooner.

The young Marcel has a similar, if less troubling, experience while watching a magic lantern in his Combray bedroom. The lantern projects a scene from the medieval story of Geneviève de Brabant. The seducer Golo rides toward her castle, his “mind filled with an infamous design.” “The body of Golo himself,” Marcel says,

being of the same supernatural substance as his steed's, overcame all material obstacles--everything that seemed to bar his way--by taking each as it might be a skeleton and embodying it in himself: the door-handle, for instance, over which, adapting itself at once, would float invincibly his red cloak or his pale face, never losing its nobility or its melancholy, never showing any sign of trouble at such a transubstantiation.

As the lantern opens “mystery and beauty” onto Marcel’s bedroom, he feels an “anesthetic effect,” just as Ishmael’s sense of bodily disengagement characterizes his waking from the nightmare. In both cases, a momentary disintegration of the narrator’s sense of psychological coherence reveals mystery.

Ishmael and Marcel are alike also in their reluctance to embrace the dissociation that each experiences. Ishmael tells us that “for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery.” As he laid next to Queequeg recounting his childhood banishment, his “sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg's pagan arm thrown round me.”

Yet, he quickly is able to place himself in the inn and integrate his recent memories “one by one, in fixed reality.” Instead of mystery accompanied by terror, Ishmael finds himself this time “alive to the comical predicament.”

Marcel too is shaken by the radical alteration of the familiar. “I cannot express the discomfort I felt at such an intrusion of mystery and beauty into a room which I had succeeded in filling with my own personality,” he writes. He is disturbed by the effect dissociation has had on his customary life. Opening the door-handle of his room had been habitual and unconscious; it “was different to me from all the other doorhandles in the world, inasmuch as it seemed to open of its own accord and without my having to turn it.” The lantern had transformed it into “an astral body for Golo” and—introducing a point that Proust returns to many times in the Search—the momentary replacement of habit by mystery became a threat to simply going on with life.

This threat is dramatically illustrated in "The Try-Works" chapter of Moby-Dick. With responsibility for steering the Pequod, Ishmael is drawn into the nighttime activity of the crew working the try works. Watching the “fiend shapes” as they moved about the deck, he began to see “kindred visions” and an “unaccountable drowsiness” descended upon him.

But that night, in particular, a strange (and ever since inexplicable) thing occurred to me. Starting from a brief standing sleep, I was horribly conscious of something fatally wrong. The jaw-bone tiller smote my side, which leaned against it; in my ears was the low hum of sails, just beginning to shake in the wind; I thought my eyes were open; I was half conscious of putting my fingers to the lids and mechanically stretching them still further apart. But, spite of all this, I could see no compass before me to steer by; though it seemed but a minute since I had been watching the card, by the steady binnacle lamp illuminating it. Nothing seemed before me but a jet gloom, now and then made ghastly by flashes of redness … Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way, inverted.

Ishmael had turned himself around, facing the stern of the Pequod. “In an instant I faced back, just in time to prevent the vessel from flying up into the wind, and very probably capsizing her.” Melville and Proust both show us that dissociation may yield mysteries unseen without the momentary dissolution of one’s personality, but it carries with it the danger of radically disrupting life.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Reading Moby-Dick

Having finished In Search of Lost Time, I'm reading Moby-Dick and leading a group through Melville's masterpiece beginning next month. I'll be posting occasional musings on the novel at UnpackingMyLibrary.

I hope to read Swann's Way again in 2009, and perhaps lead another group through Proust's first novel of the Search. Of the seven, it's my favorite and, I believe, the one novel that can give first-time readers of Proust a feeling for the texture of the entire Search.

Happy reading to all!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Paintings in Proust

Eric Karpeles' compilation of paintings in Proust is receiving attention before the holidays. For a slide show with corresponding passages, see The New York Times. David Carrier has a dissenting opinion in

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Search Ends

The Richard Hugo House Proust Reading Group finished In Search of Lost Time with a celebration at a local French bistro. (With apologies to Marcel Proust), the group came “to endure the Search like a form of fatigue, build it up like a church, follow it like a medical regime, vanquish it like an obstacle, win it like a friendship, cosset it like a little child, create it like a new world without neglecting those mysteries whose explanation is to be found probably only in world other than our own and the presentiment of which is the thing that moves us more deeply in life and in art.” In short it became part of our lives, and we part of the lives of each other.

Bonne lecture!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Observations on Writing and Art

As I mentioned earlier, one of our reading group reduced Marcel's thoughts on writing and art to one-sentence summaries. Below is her list, in the order they occur as Marcel waits to enter the Guermantes salon in Time Regained.

1. Memory of madeleines, Balbec…render death unimportant.
2. Memory frees us from the order of Time.
3. Impressions have spiritual equivalents.
4. Genius = instinct; importance of spontaneity
5. The artist “discovers” reality.
6. Naturalism is not art.
7. Rejects literary theories
8. Artists submit to reality within different selves over time.
9. Relationship of reading and memory: reading substitutes another memory for original memory
10. Artist fears to lose first impressions.
11. Truth = extracting common essence and reuniting in metaphor
12. The writer translates essences for the reader.
13. Reality is a private experience, in rather than outside the mind.
14. Art lovers remain ignorant of the essence of the work.
15. Discerning reader adds nothing to literature.
16. Value of literature: lays bare and illuminates real life immanent in all men
17. Art makes us known to ourselves and others.
18. Work of artist is to render our “essences” whole.
19. Value of suffering: Illumination of things hidden from us
20. Reality is outside of habit. Habit obscures essences.
21. Truth derived from intellect has no depth; it is merely an outline.
22. Suffering leads to divine form reflected in others (Platonic Ideal)
23. Material of work of art is the artist’s experiences.
24. All experience nourishes writing.
25. Experience is stored in his memory.
26. Writer remembers “general” which is common to many people.
27. Therefore, artist MUST suffer.
28. Writing is cleansing for the writer.
29. Book = cemetery
30. People and relationships = “models’
31. Writers life = writer’s work
32. Value of unhappiness: transforming idea through grief
33. Necessity of happiness and unhappiness
34. Literature is a composite of writer’s experience.
35. Literary criticism is futile.
36. Only ideas exist.
37. Grief is multiple.
38. Writing = encounters with suffering
39. Sorrow leads us to truth and death.
40. Thought grafts memory onto anything.
41. Reader reads himself.
42. Dreams = mode of recovering Lost Time
43. Everything is in the mind.
44. Dreams are second muse.
45. Experience becomes literature.
46. Solitude not a prerequisite to writing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Marcel's Manifesto

“I must admit this much: the passages that I like least in Proust…. Are precisely these resurrection which emerge for his “second memory”… those disillusioned discoveries of familiar places which have shrunk and become unrecognizable when one returns to them after a long absence; those amalgams of a name and an image, of a feeling and a circumstance, of the sound of a heating installation and a period of one’s life, of a smell and the memory of a great love…. Yes, all that is true; it all happens to us, but we have to admit that it does not possess much interest except for ourselves.”

Jean-Francois Revel, On Proust

I wonder about the distinction between “ourselves” and others in Proust’s masterwork. Isn’t the whole of the Search Marcel’s? As we read into Time Regained, doesn’t the blurring of boundaries between Marcel and others become more evident as he meets old acquaintances? Don’t Marcel and readers of the Search meld, becoming “ourselves?” M. Revel argues that Proust is best when describing social events, the numerous descriptions of soirees, dinners, tea parties. Instances of involuntary memory? M. Revel would like to run away each time he encounters one.

M. Revel, whose thoughts on Proust are penetrating, must have sprinted from his reading when he reached the first transition in Time Regained. The transition moves us from wartime Paris to the city in 1926. Marcel has returned after a long stay at a sanatorium. We find him in the anteroom of the Princesse de Guermantes where he has arrived late and must wait until the music in the inner chamber has finished before joining the soiree. As he waits he experiences three involuntary memories in succession. First, tripping on the stones in front of the Princesses’ home evokes the vision standing on uneven stones in Venice’s St. Mark’s. This involuntary memory is soon followed by the clinking of a spoon, which brings up the memory of dispassionately seeing trees from a railway car during his return to Paris. Lastly, wiping his mouth with a napkin brings up an azure vision of his first day in Balbec. Reading of these involuntary memories, I sympathized briefly with M. Revel in his dislike of these private, inward moments. Three seemed a bit much. But, the accumulation of three involuntary memories propels Marcel, as presumably one or two might not, into the realization that he can become a writer. And, of more interest to me, the three memories show Marcel what is a worthwhile subject for the writer.

There follows a prolonged exploration of art and its value. One of our Proust group declared this Marcel’s manifesto, reduced each exploratory foray to a sentence, and read the sentences one after another to great comic effect. The joke hinges on presenting Marcel’s assertions linearly. Proust, we know long before coming to Time Regained, is hardly a linear writer. He presents an idea, circles around it, leaves it and returns to circle again. Nor is Proust reducible (despite Monty Python). Put him in a box, wrapped and ready to be presented, and you’ll find that he’s squeezed out while you were proudly finishing tying the bow.

The three memories yield Marcel’s breakthrough insight: description is worthless without involuntary associations between disparate things. Description without association is “a mere vain and tedious duplication of what our eyes see and our intellect records.” This puts to rest the anxiety Marcel experienced when reading the Goncourt journal; no matter how brilliant it seems, and how lacking Marcel feels to achieve that descriptive power, the result is not worth the effort because it lacks involuntary association. For it is association that reveals the essence of things, which are “immanent in all men no less than the artist.” But it is the artist who translates these truths, becoming “a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceive in himself.” The metaphor of the optical instrument recurs throughout the Search and once again leads one to ask: Does the artist see Truth or a truth that resonates with the reader?