Proust Without Presuppositions

Morgan Meis urges you to approach Marcel Proust’s writing without a rigid interpretive scheme, letting his beautiful prose carry you along:

The entire structure of Remembrance of Things Past, insofar as it has a structure, is meant to create a loose scaffolding for these incredible sentences, for these moments when Proust burrows his prose deepest into the murky core of his own existence and shines a light on aspects of his being, and thus our own experience, that we rarely get to see. For this reason, reading Swann’s Way can feel like falling into a dream. Pages will drift by light as ether. You sometimes forget you are reading. You get lost in the stories, the memories. Is Proust still unfolding that memory of his grandmother in Combray or have we moved back to the present tense again? You have to re-read Proust more than you do other authors. You have to move back and forth in the text, finding your place again. The dream world puts you to sleep. That’s okay. Let it do that. Let yourself fall away into the sleepy prose and then you will have the experience of snapping awake, suddenly, when Proust goes into one of his rhapsodies. The prose itself will shake you awake. “Now,” Proust will say, “now, I really have something to tell you.”

You cannot have an entire book of luminous sentences, just as you cannot have an entire musical composition made of poignant “little phrases.” The endless trivial babble of Proust’s various great-aunts provides necessary resting places, stretches of boredom from which extraordinary moments of Being can finally be plucked. But that is how experience is. Proust found a way to make his prose as numbing as the emptiest of conversations. And then, when you’ve started to loose the thread of the narrative completely, the urgency of his writing will start to jump and tremble on the page again and you’ll feel yourself convulsed “in one of those sobs which a fine line of poetry or a piece of alarming news will wring from us.”

Update from a reader:

I began reading Remembrance of Things Past back in 2008, and I have very slowly been making my way through the series since then. I am currently about a third of the way through “Cities of the Plain”. One of the more interesting aspects of these books, I find, is that as I have gotten deeper into the series they seem to be less and less defined by the hypnotic prose-poetry that Meis describes.

The Guermantes way takes place almost entirely in drawing rooms and society parties, and is preoccupied with the social rises and falls of its dozens of characters. Proust himself seems to acknowledge as much, going so far as to justify his change in focus as an examination of the changing society in which he grew up. Just like great works of art, he says, the fortunes of Parisian socialites are worth our scrutiny because they can show us how a new age is coming into being. In Proust’s view, the telltale sign is the dispute over the Dreyfus case. The anti-Dreyfusards/Nationalists, symbolizing the old world aristocracy with its easy condescension and thoughtless anti-Semitism, are fading away in the face of the Dreyfusards: modern, wealthy, of low birth but high station.

Compare this social analysis to the beautiful opening passages of Swann’s Way and the difference is striking. One has the impression that memories that are nearer to Proust’s present are less enshrouded in the beautiful poetic fog that immerses his younger days at Combray. Swann himself makes a dramatic reappearance at the end of The Guermantes Way, as an older and sicker man whose confession of a terminal illness fails to move his once close friend, Oriane Guermantes, that emblem of old world high society.

Proust closes this third volume with Basin Guermantes’ utterly vulgar encouragement to Swann (a Jew and a Dreyfusard): “Don’t worry old boy, I’m sure you’ll outlive us all!” In one moment, Proust captures the entirety of his social critique. The callousness and racism of the old guard, condescending to the new high society even as it predicts the very rise of that new high society. Swann himself (I assume) will not fulfill Basin’s prediction, but the irony is that Basin is quite right: the Dreyfusards will write history, and they will write aristocrats like the Duc de Guermantes out of it.

Ok, now back to my day job. You probably catch flak for it but let me say I always love your Proust coverage (if that’s the word for it).