remembrance of things past
the world is the self
Marcel Proust's great classic, Remembrance of Things Past, is one of the longest novels ever published, comprising more than three thousand pages in the large-format, three-volume Random House edition. It weighs several pounds. You are not likely to carry it to the beach. When you open it up and start reading, you encounter a dense prose style, with lengthy sentences, ambitious metaphors, and little discernible plot. It appears to describe, in great detail, a bygone world: French society of the early twentieth century. For these reasons, you might well imagine that this book-whatever fame may be ascribed to it-is likely to be an arduous read, a massive project devoted to distant things, an impersonal act of labor.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Proust's epic novel actually resembles those exploration narratives of the Renaissance in which entire new worlds came into view, the accounts of Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Cortés, and others. But the New World coming into view here is you. And the energies that fuel this long book, page after page, are truly colonizing energies: They are out to lay bare the landscape of self, the new cartography of the human interior. Whereas the conquest of the New World was filled with blood and tears and racial conflict, Marcel Proust's grand exploration-larded though it is with scenes of incomprehension or jealousy-offers its readers a profound pleasure: the enlargement of oneself, the discovery of one's actual but never suspected contours and depths. And with this discovery comes a still greater second pleasure: a recovery, a possession of that which must be counted our very greatest good: our own life. Not some afterlife, but our life itself. There is nothing moralistic or judgmental about Proust's tidings, inasmuch as he does not indict the flesh or material things as such, in the name of some higher spiritual realm. On the contrary, the ringing, even frightening challenge of Proust's work is more insidious, for it says: We do not know ourselves, we do not possess our own estate, we do not grasp our own story. Against this absolute loss, all of our so-called possessions-wealth, career, even relationships-come across as weightless, as mirage-like. Remembrance of Things Past is dedicated to the pursuit of ultimate richness and treasure: our own life.
Therefore this long and heavy book is worth its weight in gold. It has an epic scope to it, yes, but, then, so too does your own existence. If you are able to read my prose, then you have been living for many many years already. Can you recall these years? Are they "yours"? And if you do have their outline still clear-dates, events, perhaps snapshots and scattered memories-can you access the pulsing feelings that went into them, that constituted their very life, your very life? If not-and for most of us, I think the answer is negative: We cannot retrieve this living past-where has it all gone? Is life just an hourglass in which all our doings and strivings simply-fatally-disappear into the bottom, sink into oblivion, never to return? If so, then you could say that the condition of living is that of being buried alive: of having the pith and marrow of life stolen from us by time itself, exiling us into a thin and unechoing present from which there is no reprieve.
One of Adrienne Rich's poems is entitled "Diving into the Wreck"; it is a Proustian title inasmuch as everyone's past is a wreck that needs diving into, is a cemetery of past lives that need resurrecting. Proust's utterly secular book is about that resurrection, that act of ultimate retrieval whereby we achieve our longitudinal form, our actual contours, our true measure. Here is a drama as passionate and significant as the great fables of the Bible and Shakespeare. How does Proust do this? In the pages ahead, I want to explore this great novel by bringing us further and further into it. As we penetrate into this fictional world, we shall see that we are also going further and further into the looking glass, and that the reaches and riches coming to light and life are our own.
Since I am attempting to map nothing less than a fictional universe, and since explorers need guidebooks, a preview of what is coming may prove of use. The first note struck is Proustian plenitude: a view of self that is not only huge but often despotic. The remarkable volume of things in this novel is at once amazing and counterintuitive, since whole worlds can emerge from tiny precincts, as is the case with the famous episode of the madeleine, which leads to the resurrection of the narrator's past, coming out of a teacup. What is despotic is the sheer egocentrism of the book, its principled willingness to explore to the outer limits what the world looks like when we can never get clear of ourselves, when we are always locked into our own perceptual system. It is not hard to imagine the ethical implications of such a philosophy.
Yet this massive project of portraiture turns out to be brazenly subversive, especially when it comes to negotiating Proustian prose; it all looks familiar and readable and clear-no narrative high jinks here-but in fact it is devious and riddled with surprises, requiring that readers be wary, but also rewarding them richly for their efforts. I term such writing "false-bottomed" in order to point out how dependent we are on "bottoms," on knowing what the truth is. Our focus on issues of perception and transformation-issues beautifully materialized in Proustian prose with its stunning metaphors and figurative logic-will lead into the more heated and explosive area of sexuality: its peculiar praxis in Proust, as well as its remarkable narrative presentation. Given that all surfaces in Proust end up being coats of many colors, it is not surprising that sexual behavior follows suit. What is surprising is the way in which these matters open up the fictional world, making it into something rich and strange; and the unsettling payoff of such a view derives from the challenge it metes out to our fixed assumptions, our complacent sense that we understand what is in front of our eyes. In Proust's work we begin to grasp the insidious effects of habit, the ways in which our take on life is pre-scripted and blinding; and we also learn about the kinds of surprises and horrors that can jump out of the box when habit is routed, when familiar things leap out of their skins, when perception gets clear of preconception.
Proust is never merely descriptive, and hence we need to measure the emotional and ethical ramifications of his worldview. Lying will be seen as a central activity, both in public and in private, leading to incessant deceptions, both large and small. But the familiar gambit of social climbing and societal charade pales in color and in vehemence when we ponder the human consequences of lying in the intimate sphere of erotic ties, and Proust emerges as one of the supreme theorists of jealousy: its pain, but also its odd grandeur, its outright novelistic character. The very possibility of love-at least of sustainable and reciprocal love-is on the docket in this long novel, as the narrator's ongoing relationship with Albertine richly illustrates. One often feels that Proustian psychology and Proustian diagnosis are withering and unflinching in their ceaseless exposure of illusion and naive belief, leaving us with a straitened and narrower picture of our affairs.
Yet we shall see that the polar opposite is true: Proust explodes the small notions we have about life-about our own lives-by illuminating our fuller reach and dimensionality, by recovering the longitudinal scale of human existence. To see ourselves and others in time is a mighty challenge, for it means transcending the snapshot images that daily life offers us, and it means factoring not only memory but also death into our equation. Nonetheless, this plenary vision is exhilarating rather than morbid, for it restores richness to our affairs, to our own story. Proust shows us what a long shadow we cast, and in doing so, he exposes the "cheat" of ordinary perception, suggesting that our conventional way of going about life constitutes a set of blinders, robs us of our treasure, misconceives the real shape of our fellows, substitutes false coins for true ones. It will surprise no one that Art is called upon to make good on this revolutionary project, but the art in question has little to do with some pantheon of great creators; on the contrary, every human being is embarked on the sole work of art that matters: possessing one's own life. Proust saw his work as a mirror for the reader, an opportunity to discover one's indigenous lines of force, one's untold psychic and emotional history, one's evolving form. Let us begin.
The most radical, magic moment in modern fiction occurs when a tired, middle-aged man dips a pastry, what the French call a "madeleine," into his cup of tea, and thereby recovers his past. This justly celebrated passage, recognized by many readers throughout the world (whether or not they have ever read Proust), epitomizes the French novelist's astonishing breakthrough, his revolutionary new conception of what a novel is, and why we might read it. Everything that the realist nineteenth-century novel stands for, is upended here, stood on its head. New vistas, on the order of new planets, are coming into view.
Consider, for a moment, what the great novels of the nineteenth century offer us: a form of historical portraiture. Balzac chronicles the "new" capitalist order in his Le Père Goriot of 1835, in which the traditional allegiances of family and love are brutally torn asunder by the cash nexus. Dickens gives us his version of the same story in book after book, perhaps never more perfectly than in the adventures and misadventures of Pip in Great Expectations. Of course, such novels have memorable characters, but their mission seems to be one of social illumination, to reveal to a hungry and curious readership the real workings of their contemporary society. Stendhal's accounts of post-Napoleonic France map out with great acuity the new political horizons. Tolstoy tackles nothing less than the great Napoleonic wars themselves, in his saga War and Peace, in which individual subject, family, gesture, and fate are inscribed in the convulsions of Europe at war, of Russia under siege. These are all large-souled enterprises, bent on delivering a new kind of map, one that registers the tremors produced (in people and in societies) by changing values, by political upheaval, by social unrest. Readers flocked to these stories, which often appeared in serial form, in order better to grasp their own conditions. The novel was in its prime; you read this "walking mirror" to gauge your own circumstances by understanding the world around you.
Fast-forward to 1912, when Proust publishes Swann's Way (Du Côté de chez Swann): "What is going on here?" The rules of the game have changed, and the result is a complex, convoluted narrative whose bottom seems to have dropped out. "Where's the beef?" one might legitimately ask. What, where is the story? Capitalism, Napoleon, London and Paris and St. Petersburg have gone up in smoke. Stendhal's moving mirror is still there, but the depiction of society-Realism's central agenda-no longer matters, has disappeared from the page. In its stead, one encounters . . . a piece of pastry dipped in tea. Many readers in 1912, and many readers since 1912, have thought that Proust's book was absurdly narrow in its charge, too limited in its focus, locked into the thoughts and sensations of one (neurotic) figure, and hence locked out of fiction's supposed goal: to paint a picture of the world we live in.
Of course, Proust is doing exactly that, but in new ways: painting the world we live in. But that world is the self. Here is indeed the brave new world. Proust's mission, far from being narrow or solipsistic, is to show you that the self is a world, is the world we live in, the world we can never get out of, and-most provocatively of all-it is the world we do not know, the world we can live in and die in without ever knowing. But why a madeleine dipped in tea? Isn't this really too precious, too quaint, to yield anything on the order of this magnitude?
The best way to understand this question is to look at Proust's actual prose. The passage goes like this: The narrator raises to his lips a spoonful of the tea in which the morsel of cake has been soaked, and is suddenly transformed, metamorphosed, via a sense of pleasure so exquisite and overpowering that everything else in his life-his daily cares, his material and emotional circumstances-is eclipsed, annihilated in favor of this ecstatic feeling of deliverance, of salvation. How is this possible? he wonders, and soon enough, logically enough (even if incredibly), he understands that the madeleine has somehow wrought this miracle. But how? Why? A second mouthful of tea repeats the pleasure but yields no answer; a third mouthful yields less still; he then comprehends that the ineffable pleasure may indeed be inseparable from the tea-soaked pastry, but is of a different nature altogether, in short, an elusive something (an elusive "everything," he feels) that is lodged somewhere inside him, and to which this flavor-experience points.
But how to retrieve it? A great quandary, this: How to descend into your own depths and emerge with the secrets that are buried there?
Mustering all the concentration he can, the narrator seeks with all his might to bring this tantalizing, beckoning, precious, yet buried feeling to the surface. And fails. As if Proust wanted to show that the most faraway and unknowable planet for human beings to visit is their own inner self, existing an infinity of years from our present moment, yet somehow, miraculously, stirred and brought back to life here, through the senses, but only momentarily, and already fading. It is as if one glimpsed, far away on the inside, locked in the dark interior, a genie in the bottle, a genie who was signaling, a magic genie who wanted out: one's own genie. But the sight starts to blur, to recede, taking one's magic and salvation with it. The narrator tries with all his might to hold on, to bring it up.
And then it happens. "I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed" (I, 49). Balzac had declared, in a famous passage in Le Père Goriot, "Paris est un océan!" That city-ocean-Paris-London-St. Petersburg-which Balzac and the other realist novelists explored has become in Proust the infinite oceanic self, and the project of diving into it and retrieving his hidden treasures is as arduous as rescuing the Titanic from its watery grave. The retrieval of memory is exactly that: titanic. Proust's narrator knows that this ecstatic sensation heralds, almost like a divine annunciation, the emergence of our buried life.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Recovering Your Story by Arnold Weinstein. Copyright © 2006 by Arnold Weinstein. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.