MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Proustiana

240x775July is my favorite birthday month for artists (Mahler, Kafka, Hesse, Neruda, Thoreau, GB Shaw, Klimt, Janáček, etc.), so it’s always pleased me that Proust, one of my supreme idols, managed to be born in the heart of summer.

In honor of Marcel Proust’s 145th birthday (10 July), here are some reflections that have been circulating recently.

Biographer William C. Carter, who believes À la recherche du temps perdu is “arguably the best book ever written about perception,” on Why You Should Read Proust:

I think he helps us to see the world as it really is, not only its extraordinary beauty and diversity, but his observations make us aware of how we perceive and how we interact with others, showing us how often we are mistaken in our own assumptions and how easy it is to have a biased view of another person.

Daniel Mendelssohn, one of  Literary Hub‘s Six Writers on the Genius of Marcel Proust rails against the cheapening of the term “Proustian,” which has come “nowadays to refer to pretty much anything sepia-toned, anything having to do with ‘memory.'” Time, he asserts:

is not just the subject, or one of the subjects, of In Search of Lost Time; it is also the medium in which the novel must be read, if it is to be understood. To read this novel takes time; there is no faking it, there are no short-cuts, like five-minute yoga (one of the many fatuities of a frenetic era that is obsessed with “wasting” time, as if to spend time on anything were somehow a loss).

And Laure Murat ponders How the French Reread Proust:

To read or reread Proust brings about this symbolic identification at every level. From the first example to the last, it has really only ever been a question of being named or naming oneself: from “I am a writer” to “I am asthmatic”(or both), the Remembrance systematically determines names given and names taken individually, thereby establishing a relationship between the reader-rereader, the author, and the book that has no other parallel in the accounts of rereading other texts I have gathered.

 

Filed under: anniversary, Proust

The Endurance of Proust

Proust

Summers were the time for Mahler to compose, and for me summers always seemed the perfect time to become immersed in Proust’s universe, so there’s something pleasing about the fact that both share July as their birthday month.

Here’s another association that intrigues me: the philosophical underpinnings of Proust’s lifelong project. Consider these brief extracts from the philosopher Henri Bergson — an enormous influence on early Modernism and an actual relative of Marcel Proust through marriage (his wife was a cousin of Proust) — on his concepts of time, duration, and consciousness:

The truth is that we change without ceasing, and that the state itself is nothing
but change.

This amounts to saying that there is no essential difference between passing from one state to another and persisting in the same state. If the state which “remains the same” is more varied than we think, [then] on the other hand the passing of one state to another resembles — more than we imagine — a single state being prolonged: the transition is continuous.

Yet, just because we close our eyes to the unceasing variation of every physical state, we are obliged when the change has become so formidable as to force itself on our attention, to speak as if a new state were placed alongside the previous one. Of this new state we assume that it remains unvarying in its turn and so on endlessly.

[…]

[O]ur duration is not merely one instant replacing another; if it were, there would never
be anything but the present —- no prolonging of the past into the actual, no evolution, no concrete duration.

Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances. And as the past grows without ceasing, so also there is no limit to its preservation.

[…]
From this survival of the past it follows that consciousness cannot go through the same state twice.

Meanwhile, the critic, scholar, and writer Daniel Mendelssohn recently observed the following on Proustian “resurrection” in an interview with the Paris Review:

It’s true that “In Search of Lost Time finishes” ‘well.’ There is a sort of optimism in thinking that a work of art can allow us to recreate and to preserve the past. It’s different for me, though. I never claimed that my writing would be able to do anything at all for my family, long gone. The past is the past, the dead are the dead, that is an unchangeable reality.

If literature is able to bring something to life, it’s the writer — and the writer alone — who reaps the benefits, not those he writes about. This is true in the case of Proust’s narrator. All the characters he mixes with have the same fate — transformation into literary fodder, to allow his own reinvention, as a writer.

Filed under: aesthetics, literature, philosophy, Proust

The Budding Buddhist

Buddha

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.

A recreation of Proust's cork-lined bedroom (Musée Carnavalet in Paris)

A recreation of Proust’s cork-lined bedroom (Musée Carnavalet in Paris)

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.

Filed under: aesthetics, Beethoven, Buddhism, creativity, Proust, spirituality

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