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Sunday
Feb242013

Proust

A famous and rather exquisite German novel once distinguished those who have read this French author and those who still read him (the novel wisely omitted those who think Proust is a type of champagne or peacock).  The obvious point being, one supposes, that most everyone has had some Proust in the way that most everyone has had some Shakespeare, or in the way that most everyone knows much more of the Bible than would ever be admissible in skeptical chit-chat.  The more subtle point lies in the unwaning affection that lifelong readers have for one of the greatest geniuses in any language.  In his extremes Proust has captivated many, in part because he himself had nothing that could be envied: he had no career or close friends, was refused time and again by literary society and both male and female love interests, and floated in a semi-permanent state of convalescence.  Yet he owes the intimidation he engenders to the typical insecurity regarding an unfinished book, often granted a level of cruelty akin to an unfinished meal left just outside and out of reach of a prisoner's window.  You will hear academic pundits proud of their achievement declaiming that if you have not ingested all two thousand two hundred pages, you cannot viably comment on Proust's greatness – never mind that the first five hundred or so tower above the rest of the project.  Proust is not meant to be read in the conventional sense, he is meant to become a repeated reading, a fixture on your bookshelf, an endless reference for life and its passions right next to our copies of King James and the Complete Plays and Sonnets.  With an aim that grand, therefore, we should perhaps be surprised at the insight of this slender monograph.    

The true impetus of such a study was, we learn, the conviction that despite brief success Proust was no longer being read.  Presumably the same torpor overcame the French literary world in the late 1920s that had murdered the career of the greatest of all American writers in the 1860s.  Taste was not with either man, with the only difference being that Melville bore witness to his own oblivion.  What was needed then was a pithy, precise apologia, preferably from a non-compatriot.  Beckett may have been ideal for this task because he was a Francophile, because he was in urgent need of a foil to his own notions of what comprises art, and because he was not an Englishman.  To enjoy the early Beckett, you must enjoy the awesome range of the English language; to enjoy the late Beckett, you must have a certain loathing for Romantic stickiness that can be best expressed by Goethe's phrase sollst entbehren (cited, as it were, in this trilogy).  Our very early Beckett has yet to choose between his two future selves, a pickle he would have gnawed on with particular relish.  What he has decided, however, may be rudely summarized in three points: Proust is a genius whose uniqueness stems from his emphasis of something called mémoire involontaire; Proust has no affinity for nor tendency towards morality, or any distinction of right from wrong; and, lastly, Proust's shunning of societal conventions was so exaggerated as to relegate him to a role not unlike that of a court clerk.  Beckett also casually mentions something of a weakness for the nobility but fails to suggest a reason why such a fetish plagued Proust for his entire life – yet this is the simplest question of all.  Nobility were once, and are no longer, prized for their God-given ability as well as the learning, poise, and grace their privileges bestowed upon them.  In a word, they were loved for being themselves, and they had no other destiny other than fulfilling what was already determined.  For an artist of acute sensibility there is nothing more delightful than being loved for one's essence, because that normally indicates that the artist has succeeded in making that essence translucent.  On the other hand, there is nothing worse for that same soul than being hated or dismissed for something misunderstood or distorted, especially when the misconstruer is of a vastly inferior intellect (compared to Proust, that would be nearly all of France).  Since Proust's family had money but no title he was afforded the company but not the status.  Very much like the humble clerk who is privy to all the intrigues of a trial but never allowed to comment, much less participate in its resolution.

This leaves us with two observations, one of which is as utterly correct as the other is so dreadfully wrong.  What is wrong about Beckett's assumption regarding Proust's view of morality is the woeful conclusion that someone who shuns society mindfully shuns the morals on which that society is structured.  Beckett's proof resides in a long segment on Albertine and "a couple of other Sapphists," whom he rightly terms vulgar and well beneath the gentle youth hovering in their vicinity in self-inflicted jealousy.  He then mentions Proust's proclivity for likening people to plants, and startles us with an odd passage:

He assimilates the human to the vegetal.  He is conscious of humanity as flora, never as fauna (There are no black cats and faithful hounds in Proust) .... This preoccupation accompanies very naturally his complete indifference to moral values and human justices.  Flower and plant have no conscious will.  They are shameless, exposing their genitals.  And so in a sense are Proust's men and women, whose will is blind and hard, but never self-conscious, never abolished in the pure perception of a pure subject.  They are victims of their volition, active with a grotesque predetermined activity, within the narrow limits of an impure world.  But shameless.  Homosexuality is never called a vice: it is as devoid of moral implications as the mode of fecundation of the Primula veris or the Lythrum salicoria [sic].

We know that Beckett subscribed to this philosopher's thoughts on the agony of animals; yet it is telling that a self-proclaimed non-believer would genuflect before some of the most restrictive of Catholic creeds, and even more telling that of the two plants used in his metaphor, one would be misnamed.  Beckett's categories, it seems, were always as hard and uncompromising as the bicycle handles, headboards, and other appurtenances that plagued some of his characters.  And while it seems humorous to think of the notoriously unhandy Proust studying a parterre for his literary needs, it may also be important to remember that as a mysophobe, hypochondriac, valetudinarian, and breathtakingly shy and neurotic person, he much preferred to gaze upon something that, in turn, did and could not pay him the least bit of attention.

With memory, and what our simple memories mean – here is where Proust separates himself from the rest of literature.  Re-reading Beckett's monograph I recalled quoting it in a graduate school paper; specifically, I savored the filthy shape of his comparison of habit – the most reviled term in all of Proust's pages – to "the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit."  I also recalled that the page of the edition used fifteen years ago was twenty-six (my current edition has it on nineteen), which allowed me to consider myself at twenty-six when I found life to be particularly enchanting.  I then remembered my twenty-sixth birthday in Moscow, the specific bean dish that a friend of mine ordered, the flower woman on the corner who accosted us hesitantly, and then the ice slipping beneath my feet, the pinkness of my cheeks, and the heady cologne that I still wear even though for some reason it does not remain with me as long.  That exact concatenation, what has been strived for time and again in the stream-of-consciousness narrative, is finally engirded in system in Proust.  It is the animal reflex when habit is forgotten, when we are unconscious of our surroundings, distracted, lost in thought (which implies that we are merely lost from habit) – this is when we gain truth:

No amount of voluntary manipulation can reconstitute in its integrity an impression that the will has so to speak buckled into incoherence.  But if, by accident, and given favourable circumstances (a relaxation of the subject's habit of thought and a reduction of the radius of his memory, a generally diminished tension of consciousness following upon a phase of extreme discouragement), if by some miracle of analogy the central impression of a past sensation recurs as an immediate stimulus which can be instinctively identified by the subject with the model of duplication (whose integral purity has been retained because it has been forgotten), then the total past sensation, not its echo nor its copy, but the sensation itself, annihilating every spatial and temporal restriction, comes in a rush to engulf the subject in all the beauty of its infallible proportion.

This engulfing restores the childhood pleasures of the most saccharine of melodies, of the newness of spice and smell, of an unexpected touch, of that shimmering hint of revelation that vanishes after a few succulent moments.  Did Proust understand this phenomenon better than anyone else or was his morbid lifestyle simply better equipped to permit him such pensiveness?  Maybe that should be pondered over a very fat book.

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