Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Daily Proust

The day before yesterday the Boston Marathon Bombings occurred in my backyard, as it were.  I decided, in revulsion at the horror, to start re-reading Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past."  The three volume, silver bound, paperback, edition--translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, is not the most recent translation but it is the translation I had in Nepal twenty some years ago, when my Great Uncle (such a Proustian relationship) sent me all three volumes straight from the 8th street bookstore to my little village in Nepal, three days walk from the end of the road.  Did it really come to me on someone's back?  Or am I misremembering and did it come to me in Kathmandu and did I bring it in with me? I didn't write it down, and I don't remember.

That, too, is Proust, by the way, that we only apprehend reality and ourselves and even our own lives slowly, through a process of composition and reflection, reduction to writing and reading of the works of ourselves and others--which is different from, adjacent to, but necessary to lived experience.  We don't remember reality, we remember how things made us feel. We don't know the world, we build up how we will remember it from associations that stretch backwards and anticipations that stretch forwards along our own personal timeline, in terms of our own personal and limited viewpoint and experiences.  The more we discover--the more we see, hear, smell, touch, read, view, analyse, or are told the more we rewrite our own history and that of the people around us, the closer we come to an approximation of our reality and their reality--but its always at a distance, always a construct.

 At the time it was a refuge from the blooming, buzzing, confusion of life in my village. Now it feels like a refuge from our anarchic, ungovernable, riven and crazed society.  I pulled it off the shelf and started reading it again, sinking deeply into the prose and pulling out my pen for the kind of close reading my beloved highschool English teachers JS and ED taught me. This time I didn't need my mother's "first fifty pages"dispensation, under which you are not required to read the first fifty pages but can take a running jump.  In 3000 or so pages just how important can the first fifty be, after all?  Twenty--no, twenty-five years on--I'm a different person and I covered those first fifty pages with annotations and exclamations as fast as the book itself, dried and untouched for 15 years on the shelf, began to spring apart and shower me with hardened glue and drifting signatures.

Let me cut to the chase: Proust is right about everything and though I read him to escape, he actually brings me, painfully, closer to the world that surrounds me.  At first his prose pushes you away--it is purple, to say the least, and the sentences wander on for pages. He's obsessed with comparing everyday life with then popular art or imaginary music, obscure historical references and descriptions of churches and prostitutes.  But the deeper you go into it, marking out his use of color, light, imagery, history, and acerbic observation the more you realize that what is distinctively and alienly French or 19th century dissolves into the universal: who are we? Who are the people around us? How do we know what we know? What is memory? How do we gain access to our own interior life and motivations, let alone those of others?

This morning this ugly little twitter exchange threw itself over my transom:

Burn it down. Burn Twitter to the ground.

What does Proust have to tell us about this?

Rather a lot, actually. Here's what he says about the human inability to empathize and sympathize with the sufferings of certain kinds of others (as we'd say today) and specifically the role of texts in creating in us a connection to others that we enjoy and explore and then renounce when it becomes too painful.

In the first pages of the Novel Proust is describing the foundational experiences of his childhood, his visits to his Great Aunt Leonie, who lives a pampered invalid in her house in the village of Combray, waited on by her servant Francoise.  Proust slides imperceptibly between his understanding of this duo, and this world, as a child and as a young man returning after his Aunt has died.  He describes incidents in minute detail, but seems only slowly to uncover the human reality underneath the incidents he observed.  One thing he more or less stumbles across is the tragi-comic but epic battle between Francoise, the most important servant, and the scullery maid, who he calls (in a typically Proustian elevation of the mundane into the artistic) "Giotto's Charity." He sees its effects, but does not know its cause, except in retrospect:

"There is a species of hymenoptera observed by Fabre, the burrowing wasp, which in order to provide a supply of fresh meat for her offspring after her own decease, calls in the science of anatomy to amplify the resources of her instinctive cruelty, and, having made a collection of weevils and spiders, proceeds with marvellous knowledge and skill to pierce the nerve center on which their power of the same way Francoise had adopted, to minister to her unfaltering resolution to render the house uninhabitable to any other servant, a series of stratagems so cunning and so pitiless that, many years later, we discovered that if we had been fed on asparagus day after day throughout that summer, it was because their smell gave the poor kitchen-maid who had to prepare them such violent attacks of asthma that she was finally obliged to leave my aunt's service."

What does it have to do with Glenn Reynold's tweet? Well, this:

"For my Aunt Leonie knew (though I was still in ignorance of this) that Francoise, who for her own daughter or for her nephews, would have given her life without a murmur, showed a singular implacability in her dealings with the rest of the world...I began gradually to realise that Francoise's kindness, her compunction, her numerous virtues, concealed many of these kitchen tragedies, just as history reveals to us that the reigns of the kings and queens who are portrayed as kneeling with their hands joined in prayer in the windows of churches were stained by oppression and bloodshed.  I came to recognise that, apart from her own  kinfolk, the sufferings of humanity inspired in her a pity which increased in direct ratio to the distance separating the sufferers from herself.  The tears that flowed from her in torrents when she read in a newspaper of the misfortunes of persons unknown to her were quickly stemmed once she had been able to form a more precise mental picture of the victims.  One night, shortly after her confinement, the kitchen maid was seized with the most appalling pains; Mamma heard her groans, and rose and awakened Francoise, who, quite unmoved, declared that all the outcry was mere malingering, that the girl wanted to "play the mistress."  The doctor, who had been afraid of some such attack, had left a marker in a medical dictionary which we had, at the page on which the symptoms were described, and had told us to turn up this passage to discover the measures of "first aid" to be adopted.  My mother sent Francoise to fetch the book, warning her not to let the marker drop out.  An hour elapsed, and Francoise had not returned; my mother, supposing that she had gone back to bed, grew vexed, and told me to go myself to the library and fetch the volume.  I did so, and there found Francoise who, in her curiosity to know what the marker indicated, had begun to read the clinical account of these after-pains, and was violently sobbing, now that it was a question of a prototype patient with whom she was unacquainted. At each painful symptom mentioned by the writer she would exclaim: "Oh, oh, Holy Virgin, is it possible that God wishes a wretched human creature to suffer so? Oh, the poor girl!"

But when I had called her, and she had returned to the bedside of Giotto's Charity, her tears at once ceased to flow; she could find no stimulus for that pleasant sensation of tenderness and pity with which she was familiar, having been moved to it often enough by the perusal of newspapers, nor any other pleasure of the same kind, in her boredom and irritation at being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night for the kitchen-maid; so that at the sight of those very sufferings the printed account of which had moved her to tears, she relapsed into ill-tempered mutterings, mingled with bitter sarcasm, saying, when she thought that we were out of earshot: "Well, she should have been careful not to do what got her into this! she enjoyed it well enough, I dare say, so she'd better not put on any airs now!..." (133-134. My emphasis.)

For the sake of argument lets say, as my father in law would say "I'm sure Glenn Reynolds is a fine fellow."  But is not his tweet the perfect example of how he both empathizes with (certain) others and as soon as he is tasked with actually ministering to them determines that they got what they deserved and no further action is needed on his part? The closer he gets to needing to behave like an actual human, at some apparent discomfort to himself, the more he pushes back and rejects the very cause of his discomfort. He transforms the victim into the aggressor--why? So that he can comfortably go back to bed, like Francoise wants to, and wrap himself in his own imagined virtue.


  1. You're so badass you fire up the blog again and throw down with Proust.

    I love the passage, even though I suspect Reynolds doesn't even achieve the selective empathy of a Françoise. (Glibertarians don't do empathy. There have even been studies on it!) Still, Françoise and Reynolds are both extremely territorial, with Françoise defining her territory in terms of the house (and power in it) and Reynolds defining it in terms of tribal politics and his own privilege. As you note, any ethical (or empathetic) behavior on their part is solely conditional. Reynolds only likes democracy when his side wins. He views not letting him win as inherently disrespectful (not that he's reflective enough to realize that). He's been justifiably lambasted for that tweet, and the projection really is extraordinary.

    Anyway, welcome back! (Yeah, you did some posts at NMMNB, and much of your work has always been in comments, but I'm a fan of the posts.)

    Also, too: Obligatory.

  2. Thanks for leaving the comment. I know we have been kicking around the empathy thing on the blogs but I just can't really believe that someone is devoid of empathy for everyone. Not because I'm starry eyed about people but because even people like Scalia, or Thomas, seem to form some friendships and familial relationships (however sick and debased). One of the things you see in the early pages of Proust is an entire society focused on "right feeling" and "right acting" with respect to family--it reminds me of something Fred Clark talks about at Slactivist "Orthopraxis" or right action vs Orthodoxy. If you took Proust seriously you'd end up with the sense that the entire of French society, that he's aware of, is basically sociopathic in some profound sense.

  3. You're absolutely right about them caring for someone (there's that old Suskind story with the image of Karl Rove entertaining kids at Christmas). I was just struck by the idea that Françoise could feel empathy for someone in the abstract and then not feel empathy for the real person in the flesh. (We humans definitely do that sometimes! Sure, poverty sucks, now out of my way, you damn panhandler!) My only point was that I don't think Reynolds gives a damn about his political opponents in the abstract or in the flesh (but I could have expressed that more clearly). I don't think his problem is a disconnect of empathy so much as it's a semi-conscious rejection of it. He, Malkin and the rest of the gang are waging what I call the War on Compassion Itself(tm) and want to shred the social contract that's done so well for them (not that they acknowledge that). Alternatively, you could define the issue as Reynolds drawing his circle of people-who-deserve-empathy very narrowly, and get to the same place. (Perhaps this is just conservatives and the arts, as at Roy's place, all over again – liking or disliking something based on politics first. No empathy for thoughtcriminals.) Your final image is definitely on point – he doesn't have to worry his "beautiful mind" about such things.

    While I do think that Reynolds, based on his writing of the past years, is a broken human being, I think his (characteristic) stance here not only reveals personal failings but is a point of ideological pride. This touches on a major divide between liberals and conservatives. For instance, I sometimes joke that I'm a civic-minded misanthrope, in that my misanthropic streak actually makes me support the social contract and the Commons more, on the grounds that they'll cause me less headaches in the long run. Given a good policy (say, universal health care) and a political opponent who's a clear asshole (say Andrew Breitbart was still alive and not wealthy), someone left-leaning might have one of three positions:

    1. This great policy should be denied to Breitbart because he's such an asshole.
    2. Breitbart doesn't deserve this policy, but for the system to work, he has to get it, too, dammit.
    3. Even though Breitbart is an asshole, I still want him and his family to get good health care (and maybe it will even help him chill out over time and stop being such an asshole).

    Bleeding heart types aim for #3, but sometimes have to settle for #2. (Not everyone can be Gandhi, not all the time.) In contrast, when it comes to the political arena, I don't think Reynolds, Malkin and the rest are capable of #2 or #3, to the degree that they can even understand them. Almost all their positions boil down to spite, tribalism and privilege. Basically: I don't deny Reynolds' humanity, but I'd argue it's a feature not a bug that he often rejects it himself. (And that's before getting into his robot body stuff.)

    Sorry, rambling and going a bit off-topic. Proust said everything better. Perhaps we should fund the arts, huh?

  4. No, not rambling. A good point. I'm still thinking about this confluence of events. I did manage to keep up my Proust reading, but not my writing, over the chaotic day and then the calming weekend. Now I'm working on another post. Stay tuned.