Its harder than I thought to post on Proust because...its hard to let go. Everything seems to lead to everything else. I should also add that although I am re-reading Painter's Biography of Proust I don't find the biographical approach to reading very satisfying. I'm just interested in reading the Narrator's Narrative for its own sake, in its own terms or, as we used to say? Hermeneutically. I'll try to keep Proust and the Narrator separate but I may slip a bit.
As I read Proust this time around I take out my pen and I find almost every word to be so carefully chosen, placed like a tiny stone in an immense mosaic, that I feel the need to circle and connect every word and phrase--forward and backward in the book lines scrawl across the page like Proust's own copy which, eternally emended and annotated, glued out with flying bits of paper, is like an enormous post-it note avant la lettre. Its all here, every opposition and metaphor and allusion of the book--and despite his extreme sensuality and profligacy of words and of imagery I do think there is a very clear structuralist style rigidity underlying his vision. One is always either the traveller heading home, or out into the unknown, things are always either light or dark. Maybe that's just being French or maybe he spends more time in the mid-tones than I give him credit for at this moment. I think I might even have changed my mind about this by the end of the third paragraph. (yes, I will).
I'll jump back to the very beginning of the book--what is Proust doing in the very first pages? He's tackling the very subject of the entire work: Memory. He is going to explore in a dry, literary format something that is profoundly wet and slippery: how memory functions, how it is born, how it is understood, how it builds us as we build it. He does so, to my mind, with a complicated joke: the text begins with something atextual--a reference to music. The beginning is the "Overture." Right away, as we scan the page, we see that Proust is going to joggle up our senses and ask to us hear with our eyes and read with our hearts and noses. Information from one sense is going to contradict, or expand, on information from other senses. The goal is to recreate and explore the very foundations of the self and the ego in the transient and idiosyncratic and sensual experiences of the person, from child to adult. Experiences which can only occasionally be reduced to a single set of sense perceptions.
But OK, enough of that: What does Proust think about Memory? Its something which is necessary to us--we can't even understand what we see, hear, taste, touch without the memories which secretly enrich the experience. But Memory is also a thing that happens in particular times and places. In fact its the thing that your mind does when your body is at rest, isolated from the very society which is the focus of your interest. In the first pages he describes, tediously to some, bizarrely to others, his anxiety over being left alone in his bedroom as a child and, later, the many bedrooms and instances of loneliness have marked his existence. In describing this terrible isolation and loneliness he raids science, art, and an ethnoscience of the body to explore how memory and consciousness iteslf, is composed, held, reflected upon, recaptured, lost, revalued, enjoyed.
This section rockets from the quotidian to the obscene. Proust runs through a number of the Narrator's experiences as a child alone in bed, including memories of his fear of having his hair pulled by a Great-Uncle (why is it always Great Uncles?), his memory of erotic dreams and fantasies, hell he even tells us about his nocturnal emissions. And we are only on page three! We barely know the guy. But he's trying to tell us something, or trying to figure something out, about how a typical time of day, state of posture, and of rest can produce a unique individual, an "ego" which is composed of so many tiny, moving, parts. About how we need time and habitude, and travel and fear and isolation and society, in order to create meaningful memories and perhaps how we need that lonely bedroom in order to review and understand our memories.
He begins: "For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself: "I'm falling asleep."" Proust says this happens so fast that nothing intervenes--but he will soon show us that a lot happens during that seeming instant. Embedded in this terse and rather flat sentence--it might be one of the only "just the facts" sentences in Proust--are all the themes he is going to explore: time, duration, habitude, light, sleep, eyes, self perception, understanding, speech (self instruction, self observation)--these are right there in the first lines. If we pass over this too quickly or think that Proust is just interested in a boring recitation of the facts we miss the point. He's going to return again and again to each of these concepts.
As a child the Narrator's experience of falling asleep was mediated and softened by the familiarity of the room and the tedium and anxiety of being separated from his mother and grandmother. His mother used to read to him to help him sleep, but on important social occasions she would be forbidden to come to him and he would have to get himself to sleep. Some kind soul had given him a "magic lantern" which projected onto the wall a series of images from literature--children's fairytales and myths. He found these both absorbing and horrifying. Even here, in his pre-literate youth you can see the importance of literature, books, and text in shaping his understanding of the world around him. Right from the start of the book the Narrator's memory of the bedroom and his isolation in it is actually peopled with...people, experiences, and texts even if those things are phantasmagorical (as when he is afraid of the curtains), mythical (the magic lantern slides), or mere memories of people and jokes and incidents from a time long past. The viewpoint of the first pages slides from the viewpoint of the child Narrator to that of the Writer/Philosopher Adult Narrator. Although his earliest memories may be pre-textual, or involve an intermediary like the Magic Lantern or his mother, he will continue the practice of wakefulness and review into his adult life. He will continue putting the world into order by telling over his acquaintance (as one "tells the bees"), the day's incidents, and past experiences, at night in bedrooms far distant from the one he describes in the beginning of the book. In fact one of his points is that when you wake in a strange bedroom you don't really know you aren't back to being one of your earlier selves, in another bedroom, on another street, in a long lost town.
I said in the first paragraph that Proust is a typical structuralist and binary thinker. I think I have to take that back, here, because a closer reading of the text demonstrates that Proust is interested in the gray area between categories and between states of mind. Take his discussion of falling asleep while reading a book--which happens on the first and second pages. For a reader the book and the individual are separate--we hold the book and we read it, we take in the information and perhaps we put it down and turn to another book. We are "free" the Narrator says later "to apply [ourselves] to it or not." Perhaps Proust is insinuating that ordinary people think in this binary fashion--we are either a person or a book, awake or asleep, conscious or unconscious--but not the Narrator. The Narrator often exists between states and he is exploring this in between place. In fact, for this Narrator, in this half awake state when he rouses from slumber, the person ("I myself") turns out to be the subject of the book that sent him to sleep. "I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V." A common, dreamy, error? Natural to all who read themselves to sleep, a byproduct of the drowsy period between wakefulness and dreams? Sure. But ultimately, of course, this is the central fact of the Novel itself: the Narrator is the subject of his own book. Not only that--the way the book will be written and the vignettes and metaphors Proust is going to use--hell, his tendency to put his readers to sleep--is going to be an attempt to evoke in the reader a near identical set of emotions and recognitions as those his Narrator undergoes. In uncovering the Narrator's experience of his own life we are going to end up incorporating this Narrator and his experiences into our lives. His memories, and his memory of memory, are going to become ours.
The identification of the text with the dreamer, the hazy world in which the Narrator is entwined with the Narration and the reader with the book lasts for but a moment and then we return to the darkened bedroom and the half awake state. The previous dream state "would begin to seem unintelligible as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to apply myself to it or not; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for my eyes, but even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, something dark indeed." (1)
Although his eyes are open and the dark is "pleasant and restful..." the state of being awake when others sleep, being alone when one could be with others, being isolated in the bedroom is pretty terrifying to the Narrator. He goes in and out of awareness, in and out of a perception of where he is and who he is or has been. He agonizes over being alone, he passes in review memories of other rooms and times. He goes in and out of human consciousness entirely and sometimes ends up, or has to begin again, as a lower life form or a caveman ("for then I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, I could not even be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal's consciousness; I was more destitute than the cave-dweller...") [ I particularly like the notion that cave dwellers were "destitute" of things to think about, as though things to think about are identical to objects that you might own, real property. It reminds me of a line from Henry James "It seemed to her she had been living a life utterly devoid of festoons." It also seems to confuse the idea of a "dawn of time" with some notion that humanity, itself, was waking up from a confused dream state.]
The Narrator is slowly recalled to the present time and his present self through sound ("I could hear the whistling of trains...") But even the actual sound is refracted through a typically long Proustian social metaphor composed of art ("perspective"), nature ("bird in a forest,") dialogue and society ("the conversation he has had...farewells exchanged) and a focus on an identity as a traveller travelling between the known and the unknown, the dark and the light, conversation and silence.
"I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, showed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller is hurrying towards the nearby station and the path he is taking will be engraved (1a) in his memory by the excitement induced by strange surroundings, by unaccustomed activities, by the conversation he has had and the farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp, still echoing in his ears amid the silence of the night, by the imminent joy of going home."
That sounds all very well--one is, after all, rushing home! But in reality, as the Narrator recalls it, one often became fully conscious, again in the same frightening state (alone) in the same terrifying place (the bedroom). The horror of awareness without social connection--to be alone in that bedroom!--strikes the Narrator as a terrible fate. Proust compares the experience of being fully awake and alone, again, to being a traveller and also to being an invalid- both in many ways are in the same position as a child because both are forced to wait for the servants to arrive to care for them. Midnight is "the hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to set out on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakened by a sudden spasm, sees with glad relief a streak of daylight showing under his door. Thank God, it is morning! The servants will be about in a minute...."(2) The traveler's belief that the servants will be there any minute is a trick of the night, in reality it is Midnight and there are hours to go before he is relieved.
This is part of his other interest--not in capital "M" Memory so much as his formative memory of life itself: isolation, illness, alienation and the state of demanding, helpless, rage that both the invalid and the child feel when they must wait for others to care for them. He's looking for a way to touch the reader with a description that they can intuitively and instantly grasp as perfectly evocative of a shared experience. This is one of his extended, Scheherezadhian social metaphors when he brings you along, by degrees, by making his experience stand in for yours, making a quintessential experience of a certain social time and place (an invalid, a traveller, alone, with friends, heading home, heading away from home) into a way of understanding a state of being (awake/asleep, aware/unaware).
(1) Is it totally uncool to have a footnote in a blog post? Probably. I just want to point out that for the Narrator "things without a cause" are "dark." It makes me think of the beginning of genesis when (KJV Genesis 1:2):
"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."
(1a) We are going to hear a lot about Engravings in the first fifty pages--the Narrator's grandmother doesn't like anything that isn't elevated from the boring and utilitarian by time and artifice so she prefers engravings of artistic renderings of real places to photographs of real places.
(2) I recently read The Hare with the Amber Eyes and the descriptions of the lives the upper class Jewish women--the real life sister-in-law of one of the models for Proust's Swann--is quite striking for this one comparison: women and invalids were very much at the mercy of their servants. This made the little metaphor of the sick traveller leap out at me. In THWTAE the writer's great-grandmother is described as spending hours in her dressing room choosing her various toilettes. Some of her clothes were so fitted that she had to be sewn into them by her faithful maid. It is only quite late in the novel that this dependence on her servants to dress and undress her and care for her clothing is tied to the fact that her many, serial, love affairs were thus by definition common knowledge in the Servant's hall. The Narrator in Proust (and Proust himself as an invalid of a certain class) was a prisoner of the conventions surrounding travellers, invalids, and the upper class in which they can do nothing for themselves. The model of this, of course, in the Novel is Aunt Leonie who is the owner and prisoner of her own household.