An essay on the essence of Marcel Proust’s literary effort in “In Search of Lost Time”
Je me sentis parfaitement heureux, car par toutes les études qui étaient autour de moi, je sentais la possibilité de m’élever à une connaissance poétique, féconde en joies de maintes formes que je n’avais pas isolées jusque-là du spectacle total de la réalite.
Marcel Proust: À l’ombre des jeunes Filles en fleurs, Éditions Gallimards, 1987, p.398
When faced with the enormity of Marcel Proust’s seven volume masterpiece “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” the question clearly poses itself when the time can possibly be right to venture into a soon to be published comment about the essence of his work. Is it when all seven volumes of his masterpiece have been diligently processed by the attentive reader? Is it when one has taken equal note of his other writings, including his equally vast personal correspondence? Or is it when one has duly studied the considerable amount of academic publications written about Marcel Proust and his work?
Noah denkt™ has done only a fraction of this. We have with great pleasure and focus read the first two volumes of his masterpiece. We have taken a cursory look at the Proust-related pronouncements that are readily available to the general public on the Internet. And we have run what we understood from our reading of the first two volumes against the general philosophical, poetic and cultural knowledge which we have acquired over the years. In other words, just like any good Skipper sailing the High Seas we have not waited until we have reached the final destination of our journey before trying to figure out where we are at a given point and where exactly we are heading to from here but we have felt obliged and justified to do so right from the early stages of our voyage.
It is hence with a sense of dedication and urgency that we have explored a series of hypothesis in the hope of uncovering what “À la Recherche du Temps perdu“ is first and foremost about. These possible theories which we have entertained for a while and then discarded later on are as follows (The reason why we have discarded a particular hypothesis is added on each count in brackets):
Is his Masterpiece best understood as:
- an effort to record the massive social changes which the advent of mass society brought about at the turn of the 20th century? (Clearly it is more than this)
- a “Magic Mountain”- like effort to explore the depths and limits of antagonistic civilisatory and sociocultural value-systems/mindsets? In the Proust-case it would obviously not be the Eastern Authoritarian Thought vs Western Liberalism- juxtaposition Thomas Mann wrote about but the contrasting of Aristocratic Identity and Refinement vs the less self-complacent, yet often times vulgar, can-do approach of the Bourgeoisie instead. (Michel Houellebecq in his latest book “Serotonine” (Flammarion 2019) kind of floats the idea of a certain degree of symmetry between the two masterpieces. Proust’s focus is however less theoretical and cerebral than that of Thomas Mann, – at least in our mind )
- a Heidegger-like attempt to bring the ontological question of Being and Perception back into the center of enlightened debate which otherwise seems to be in danger of getting high-jacked entirely by the warranted- assertibility-logic of the empirical-scientific school of thought? Is Proust’s work consequently a sort of anti-anti-A-Priori-philosophy and campaign? (Kind of, but he is not campaigning; in fact he does not seem too care all that much for contributing to an academic, philosophical or even epistemological debate; his laid-back, occasionally little structured style speaks against that)
- a Bergson-inspired effort (similar to B) to demonstrate the validity of a theory that views Memory and Mind as imbued with a faculty which enables us to transcend the confines of our material existence? (Yes, this hypothesis is probably the most adequate call so far. However the Bergsonian approach to Memory exploration is in essence a philosophic debate contribution; Proust’s narrative style, however, flows very naturally and cares precious little about what others might make of it).
- an effort to revive the earlier Etienne Bonnot de Condillac-approach which is decidedly empirical, sensual and pre-intelligent-driven and which aims at harvesting the powerful and intense sensitivities of early infancy instead of venturing into difficult to prove transcendence legitimizing theories? (No, Proust’s pre-intelligence references are not geared towards early infancy; in fact they show quite an interest in pointing towards the mystical/mysterious sources and depths of our perceptions, see Prof. Cottard’s mysterious healing wisdom)
- an Ubermensch-style (Nietzsche) attempt to break the spell of human ambiguity and ambivalence by comprehensively and intensively recording its different manifestations? (Nietzsche’s decidedly non-metaphysical nihilism is probably too harsh for the Bergotte/Anatole France in Proust)
- a Schopenhauer-inspired attempt that is on its way to advocating a Buddhist-like abstention from pursuing your earthly ambitions, since there is no other way to resolve the diabolical challenge which the inevitable ambiguity and ambivalence of any human will and desire generates for the individual and society at large? After all, it is probably quite legitimate to maintain that even a well-thought preference for a philosophical approach (i.e. the Big Bang Sheldon mathematical/empirical one versus the poetic Hegel Weltgeist one) is seriously influenced by the degree in which the thinker’s values and aspirations are being supercharged or thwarted by his/her subconscious fears of rejection. In other words, is he/her operating from an establishment position in the market, or has he /she as yet not been accepted and recognized by the Albertines, the markets and the peers of this world? (On page 407ff of “À l’Ombre des jeunes filles” Proust, however, argues that the wholehearted pursuit and living out of your dreams is the only sane way to go. So Schopenhauer: No)
- a launch of a new Impressionist, Anti-realism Poetic Manifesto? (Hard to believe, given the seven-volume- explanation which that supposed Manifesto would then have. Manifestos are usually concise and to the point.)
- an argument in favor of liberalization and freedom from mind- and value sets entrenched in the philosophies of materialism and realism which prevent the poet from developing its full creative potential? Such reasoning would at a later stage in the civilizational process lead to Aldous Huxley’s and Timothy Leary’s experiments with LSD and other mind enhancing drugs which all aimed at the physical improvement of cerebral activity and offering an alternative healing avenue. (Yes, but Proust is much softer and subtler than any can-do drug therapy approach can even fathom)
- an elaborate defense of individualism, and an implicit call for the respect of LGBTT rights and the need for a theoretically well-defined Psychology that understands the importance of the individual’s fear of rejection for that individual’s evolution? (Okay, but what about the elaborate reflections on art literature and poetry then?)
- a Bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) in the tradition of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and others, at the end of which the author not only discovers (or in the case of Wilhelm Meister abandons) his very own poetic calling but also acts on it? (Yes, but why then the extensive Swann-Odette-excursion, and why then the intense detailing of almost everything in the narrator’s life)
So there is quite a bit to be said in favor of almost each of the points mentioned above. But in the humble opinion of Noah denkt™ none of these hypothesis go straight to the heart of Marcel Proust’s literary effort and capture the essence of what his work it ultimately about.
IF IT IS NOT EXACTLY ONE OF THE ABOVE, WHAT IS IT THEN?
It only became clear to us what Marcel Proust is really conveying here when we stumbled on the following account of C.G. Jung’s near-death experience. Here is the key part of the pertaining text:
During his heart attack in 1944, C.G. Jung suffered repeated states of unconsciousness during which he experienced visions of unbelievable intensity and beauty. These images that occurred to him were so powerful that he felt close to death. (…) Similar to the descriptions of Hampe, Jung’s experiences were completely real. (…) In his Memoirs he explains: “I had the feeling as if all previous things would be stripped off of me … But something remained: because it was as if I had everything that I had ever lived and done, everything that had happened to me, now with me … I consisted of my story and had the feeling that it was me. ” […. ]
“The Afterworld, or the initial impression of it which recovering near-death patients later report, is very different from what we usually imagine it to be. It is the deepest peace, the most sublime beauty and the most rewarding meaning; returning to this earthly life is a painful sacrifice… “ (C.G. Jung in a letter to L Frey-Rohn)
(translated from : Aniela Jaffé, Liliane Frey-Rohn, Marie-Lousie von Franz: Im Umkreis des Todes, Zuerich 1984, p.50f / for the original text in German, please see footnote * )
Now compare this account of Jung’s near-death reflections to the Proust quote made in the context of the narrator’s first Elstir-meeting; – a quote which we have given you above but which we will translate into English now for your convenience:
I felt perfectly happy, because of all the art work that was around me, I felt the possibility of rising to a poetic knowledge, fertile in joys of many forms that I had not isolated until then of the total spectacle of reality. (À l’ombre des jeunes Filles en fleurs, Éditions Gallimards, 1987, p.398)
It seems quite likely to us that the poetic resource/knowledge to which Proust is alluding here and which is “féconde en joies de maintes formes” is not all that different from “the deepest peace, the most sublime beauty and the most rewarding meaning” that Jung invokes when talking about the Afterworld as envisioned in near-death experiences.
In fact, we would like to submit that the core of Marcel Proust’s “Recherche” is a rigorous literary effort to
communicate and articulate the depth of visionary reviews of his life he experienced either during wake triggered lucid dreaming or in more serious near-death, out-of-body-sleep situations, all of which he was prone to have due to his lifelong battle with severe asthma. Or to put it differently, Noah denkt™ believes that “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” is first and foremost a post-near-death artistic expression of the healing and enlightening effect which Mr. Proust’s mind experienced while his physical body was in some sort of a transitory state between life and death; because, in these instances, Mr. Proust’s mind, i.e. the narrator, “had everything that he had ever lived and done, everything that had happened to him now with him,… so that he consisted of his story and had the feeling that it was him”( see: C.G. Jung’s words above).
We are aware that this is quite an argument we are making here and we have no idea whether it has been made elsewhere before. Nevertheless, it seems as if the evidence would support our case. Just look at Mr. Proust’s narrative style, for instance. This style is focusing much more on relaying everything that is “with him” in a given episode rather than caring for easy-to-follow time lines or the build-up of a narrative suspense. On the other hand, there is no clickety-clack soundtrack coming with Mr. Proust’s narration the sort of which you tend to find in James Joyce’s Ulysses or in Dada literature (see for instance Ernst Jandl’s poetry). So, while
there is the free-wheeling subjectivity, the often contradictory and imprecise epistemology in the Proustian narrative that otherwise also characterizes stream-of-consciousness literature, Proust’s subjectivity not only aims at clarifying and elaborating past conundrums but also pursues a very focused, almost scientific approach when doing so. In other words, the Proustian goal is to unearth a good part of the mysterious, so far little understood groundswell of contextual human existence whereas Mr. Joyce would probably contend himself with signalling the accumulated, yet fragmented and haphazard presence of it.
In our mind, Mr. Proust’s forensic style is therefore best described as a unique mix of evolving character ambivalence, convincing social and psychological analysis, artistic self-therapy and philosophical positioning, – while, at same time, maintaining a strangely calm, patient and unhurried attitude of storytelling. To Noah denkt™ this is a larger-than-life storytelling perspective he is able to adopt here, – a perspective which has us believe that the post-near-death-literature argument we have made above is accurate.
In fact, it is Marcel Proust himself who points us towards the out-of-body-inspiration to his literary effort. He starts “La Recherche” with the narration of a momentary sleep/dream-generated reality confusion the sort of which a lot of us will probably have experienced ourselves sometime or another in our life. Here is how Marcel Proust sets the tone for his work at the outset of “La Recherche” in the very first sentences of “Du Côté de chez Swann”:
Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: “Je m’endors”. Et, une demi-heure après, la pensée qu’il était temps de chercher le sommeil m’éveillait; je voulais poser le volume que je croyais avoir encore dans les mains et souffler ma lumière: je n’avais pas cessé en dormant de faire des réflexions sur ce que je venais de lire, mais ces réflexions avaient pris un tour un peu particulier; il me semblait que j’étais moi-même ce dont parlait l’ouvrage: une église, un quatuor, la rivalité de François I et de Charles Quint. Cette croyance survivait pendant quelques secondes à mon réveil; elle ne choquait pas ma raison mais pesait comme des écailles sur mes yeux et les empêchit de se render compte que le bougeoir n’était plus allumé.” (p. 45 Librairie Générale Francaise, 1992)
Without a doubt, his physical condition was conducive to these kinds of out-of-body experiences. His very weak physical health which is a constantly present, first-in-line concern in “La Recherche” not just for the himself, but also for his parents, his grandma, the Swanns, Robert de Saint-Loup and others never really improved. He was forced to spend years of his life in bed where he was often alternating between sleep, wake and awake, or between being in a near-death dream experience of his existence and returning back again to a Berger/Luckmann “every day reality” (see also footnote **). In the end Marcel Proust died at age 51 and
the salvation he could get wasn’t of a physical kind but of spiritual/philosophical nature instead. And it is
this C.G. Jung-like post-dying-tranquility which he is in essence communicating to us.
If our theory with respect to the mind’s out-of-body healing experience in “La Recherche” is correct, the concept of lost time therein would obviously refer first and foremost to the fact that a good part of our physical existence is haunted by a sub-conscious fear of rejection (fear of rejection by our loved ones, by our parents, by our peers, by the markets and ultimately a fear of rejections by the Gods) which distorts our desires, aspirations and pleasures and thereby effectively prevents us from experiencing “the deepest peace, the most sublime beauty and the most rewarding meaning”. This perfect happiness which is “féconde en joies de maintes formes” is only possible later on when we can relive our beautiful life to the full again without fear of rejection in the context of our comatose transition to death when our body is largely passive but our mind highly active and fulfilling its most sacred and supreme task. Once that happens a different notion of time will guide our sense of being.
In other words, what Proust is alluding to in his work is that there is a very real prospect of joy, healing, salvation for us even if that may only come when our body’s vitality is at a minimum.
There is hence hope for all of us who study literature in Cambridge, Yale or elsewhere or bide our time on some Isla. The multitude of abuses and disdain we keep receiving from the likes of Aimée, Gilberte, the Verdurins, the Norpois and many others will not haunt us forever. The day will come when we will be able to liberate ourselves from the deep-seated fears of rejection, we suffer from. Once that happens we will be able to re-experience our wonderful life in full and actually enjoy the pleasures it has brought to us.
So we’ll leave you with these final words by Proust himself:
Du reste, quand le sommeil l’emmenait si loin hors du monde habité par le souvenir et la pensée, à travers un éther où il était seul, plus que seul, n’ayant même pas ce compagnon où l’on s’aperçoit soi-même, il était hors du temps et de ses mesures. (…)
Certes on peut prétendre qu’il n’y a qu’un temps, pour la futile raison que c’est en regardant la pendule qu’on a constaté n’être qu’un quart d’heure ce qu’on avait cru une journée. Mais au moment où on le constate, on est justement un homme éveillé, plongé dans le temps des hommes éveillés, on a déserté l’autre temps. Peut-être même plus qu’un autre temps : une autre vie. Les plaisirs qu’on a dans le sommeil, on ne les fait pas figurer dans le compte des plaisirs éprouvés au cours de l’existence. Pour ne faire allusion qu’au plus vulgairement sensuel de tous, qui de nous, au réveil, n’a ressenti quelque agacement d’avoir éprouvé, en dormant, un plaisir que, si l’on ne veut pas trop se fatiguer, on ne peut plus, une fois éveillé, renouveler indéfiniment ce jour-là ? C’est comme du bien perdu. On a eu du plaisir dans une autre vie qui n’est pas la nôtre.