Like modern physicists, practitioners of contemporary literary theory of the post-structuralist persuasion trade in ideas that can seem uncannily reminiscent of the ancient insights of Buddhism: ideas like the slippery elusiveness of language, the self/author as an illusion.
But even without the filter of once-fashionable theory, certain artists themselves trigger comparison with aspects of the Buddhist quest. Beethoven’s final piano sonata, the Opus 111, replaces the conventional design with a two-movement dialectic that is frequently likened to a transition from Samsara (the stormy world of struggle of the C minor first movement) to Nirvana (the serene variations of the Arietta). “The farewell of the sonata form,” as Thomas Mann’s character Kretschmar in Doktor Faustus puts it.
According to the writer Pico Iyer, Marcel Proust is another artist who brings Buddhism to mind. Proust “ventures into the farthest reaches of self-investigation and reflection on subjectivity, but brings his understandings back into language and archetypal episodes that anyone can follow.”
The Buddha, as I understand it, ultimately devoted himself to the simple exercise of sitting still and resolving not to get up until he had looked beyond his many delusions and projections to the truth of what he was (or wasn’t) and how to make his peace with that.
Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds very much like someone in a cork-lined room, almost alone for years on end and turning a fierce and uncompromising light on all his experiences and memories so as to see how much of them might be wishful thinking, and what they owe to illusion and the falsifications of the mind? Marcel Proust never formally meditated, so far as I know, and he never officially quit his gilded palace to wander around the world, practicing extremes of austerity and cross-questioning wise men. But if I want to understand the tricks the mind plays upon itself—the ways we substitute our notions of reality for the way things are and need to dismantle the suffering false thoughts can create—I can’t think of a better guide and friend than the author of “À la recherche.”
Proust’s genius, like that of his compatriot Cartier-Bresson (who called himself “an accidental Buddhist”), is to register every detail of the surface and yet never get caught up in the superficial. Here is the rare master who saw that surface was merely the way depth often expressed itself, the trifle in which truth was hidden thanks to mischievous circumstance (or, others would say, the logic of the universe). It takes stamina, bloody-mindedness, concentration, and a fanatic’s devotion to stare the mind down and see how rarely it sees the present, for all the alternative realities it can conjure out of memory or hope. Proust had the sense to belabor us with little theology, academic philosophy or overt epistemology; yet nearly every sentence in his epic work takes us into the complications, the false fronts, the self-betrayals of the heart and mind and so becomes what could almost be called an anatomy of the soul. I’m not sure sitting under a tree in Asia 2,500 years ago would have produced anything different.