The Writer in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past

April 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

To read Proust carefully is like looking closely at your own pupil. Curiosity pushes you up to the mirror so close that eventually the tool of perception itself is ineffective. Indeed you can’t see what’s doing the seeing. Likewise, putting up a microscope to Proust’s sentences makes you incapable of perceiving the whole. The sheer density of ideas in a sentence makes the sentence impervious to the sort of analysis Proust seems to demand of us: we need not dissect. We are forced to analyze our response, or else fall prey to the intellectual blur that plagues Marcel when he goes to see the Phedre. Thought, like sight, can annihilate itself.Which leaves us, at first, more confused. How can the idea and the sentence contradict? What is the writer’s function if not to inform, and how can one inform if not by the arduous process of instruction, and how can one instruct if one aims at ambiguity in the atoms of the huge world that is Proust?So, as we see, even the act analyzing the Highest Purpose leads to this strange realm of impossible abstraction and silly capitalization. I must stop, even here, to ask – as I asked time and time again while reading – where am I? This is all fluff. How can I even aspire to understand the writer if “chacun appelle idées claires” only if those ideas are “celles qui sont au même degré de confusion que les siennes propres”? (122, A L’Ombre) Or am I again pinning Proust too closely to what he says, when I mean to see what he means? What about what surrounds that passage? Maybe the clue is there.Certainly it is no accident that Marcel introduces that powerful line in between the emphasis when he is lambasting those who fail to understand the subtlety of Bergotte, the other writer of his magnum opus. Bergotte is the narrator’s favorite writer as a youth, and so the passage wherein we first meet the genius is especially resonant for the reader since he feels so belittled by Proust’s daunting cathedral of words.Little Marcel is so awed by the writer whom he will later supercede that the mere name, he says, made him “tressaute comme un bruit d’un revolver qu’on aurait déchargée sur moi.” (117) When, finally, he is right in front of him, he is nonetheless able to “entendre parfaitement ses paroles.” And Marcel’s first thoughts on hearing Bergotte speak are not those of child paralyzed in front of the metaphorical revolver of his imagination, but instead the careful analysis of one mind by another. The first line after we are told that Marcel was sitting very near to Bergotte is not even one of Proust’s terrifically impenetrable avalanches. Instead, we have a careful and short statement of fact: “Je compris alors l’impression de M. de Norpois.” Finally, as the reader, I see one idea simply phrased. Finally, I know something.The little sentence is a powerful slap of anticlimax, putting the prose to a stop when the moment should have for Marcel all the freshness of a dream. If he loves the writer, hearing words directly from his mouth should propel him – and thus our writer – to the beautiful waves of ecstasy that the reader expects. We too, as readers, have been waiting to meet Bergotte in the flesh ever since Marcel took up his works a few hundred pages earlier. What I thought I knew for certain has really turned into another question, and again I find no way to escape Proust’s blatant use of subtlety.Why should the idea and the moment oppose each other now for our adolescent hero? He cannot enjoy what he loves when he is faced with it. It is the question of the Phedre. The writer is so close that Marcel makes the same mistake I made initially: he reduces the infinite wonder of a possibility to a simple snapping of synapses in his mind. Indeed, the thought itself is a reference to someone else’s thought, M. de Norpois’, which separates Marcel all the more from reveling in the ideas of the great writer so near him. Here, then, is the clue I demanded when I approached the great writer of La Recherche. Cut down to essence, Proust seems to be saying, and you will be cutting out the essential. Compare him to another, and you will be lost in your own certainty. And that, perhaps, is what is certain.What, then, in the apparent fog of conceptualization, is the proper tone for a writer to take, and how is it proper for a writer to live? The meeting between Bergotte and the narrator is an excellent moment to probe for Proust’s justification of his own work and, indeed, his own life. We are presented, for the first time, with a man who has dedicated himself to the production of literature. We see it through the eyes of a youth who will later take up the same trade. We see that youth through the eyes of the man who is responsible for his creation. And we see it all through our own biased perspective.As we look at the question of how Proust conceives of Writer as Man, we must admit the different levels Proust operates on here, so as to heed Proust’s warnings. First, Proust must make us feel what the boy feels. He does so in any reference to the moment-to-moment actions of the scene. Second, we must understand how the older Marcel later remembers and understands the younger Marcel’s feelings, and how the Marcel who is remembering it all understands the dynamic between the two. Then, we come to Marcel the writer-philosopher, who is, at bottom, indistinguishable from Marcel the “rememberer.” He is the character who made the claim that we only call clear those ideas that are on the same level of confusion as our own. Finally, we have Proust as a slice from each of the two characters – the genius writer and thinker who wrote up Bergotte, his competitor, and the first-person narrator who uses the same pen as Proust does.Of the scene itself, we have very little. We have the initial flash of an impression, but then we are flooded with the older Marcel’s river of ideas. However, we do understand that Marcel is initially confused, despite the certainty of the earlier short sentence. Bergotte’s voice “semblait entièrement différente de sa manière d’écrire. Bergotte’s face is “un masque sous lequel [sa voix] ne suffit pas à nous faire reconnaître d’abord un visage que nous avons vu dans le style.” He even goes on to say, “je n’avait pas cru au premier moment… que ce fut Bergotte, que ce fut l’auteur de tant de livres divins qui se trouvât devant moi.” This apparent dichotomy between the talker and the stylist will prove to be central in the passage.Then there is a small discussion between Marcel and Bergotte which seems to convince Marcel that his understanding of the Berma was very superficial. He thus says that he very much wanted to see it again. Marcel is again focusing on ideas through the lens of another person. He seems to see Bergotte as his director, telling him what to focus his attention on, probably because he has not yet learned where to look. What is immediately striking about the scene though is what it isn’t. Instead of description, Proust provides us mostly with the insights of the older narrator. For every moment we can visualize, we have a corresponding idea, almost as if the past is in dialogue with the present, as if the scene is battling against its explanations. Just after Marcel has his first concrete idea on Bergotte, the older Marcel slips in his first comment:”Il avait en effet un organe bizarre; rien n’altère autant les qualités matérielles de la voix que de contenir de la pennes: la sonorité des diphtongues, l’énergie des labiales, en sont influencées.” Only a semicolon separates the child from the adult. It is not, as one might hope, seamless. We are made to feel to bump in the narration, because we want to see it. Perhaps we cannot because the little Marcel can’t. Then we would be seeing it as clearly as we can.What we are given instead is a bit of the old Marcel’s theories on style, literature, plagiarism, a writer’s natural hypocrisy, and what the makings of a genius are. It makes one feel as if the whole setup was merely a way of conveying these ideas, until one realizes that even Marcel’s memories are rarely of the scene anyway: he remembers his impressions, not Bergotte. His later ideas are his ideas on his ideas.But before the grand ideas can be tackled, I want to return back to the idea of the dichotomy between Bergotte’s written style and Bergotte’s speach patterns, which looms throughout. At first, as stated, Marcel cannot see how the one Bergotte could be the other. Instead of the beauty of the page, Bergotte speaks with “une fatigante monotonie.” But while the little Marcel does not grasp the connection between the words out loud and the words on the page, the older Marcel is very clear, as he says that that monotony was a manifestation of the same power that allowed Bergotte to pour out his beautiful sentences. Furthermore, Bergotte’s seeming evasiveness in talking is not at all evasiveness in prose: instead of taking on a question directly, he grasps at the periphery, where he can find a new angle. In writing, that is called innovation, and it charms the reader, though it may aggravate the listener. In fact, the narrator goes so far as to say that, “un jour que je me répétais des phrases que j’avais entendu dire à Bergotte, j’y retrouva toute l’armature de son style écrit.” The thrust then is that first there is no contradiction between the mouth and the pen, since the man is the same, and that second, it takes a lot of thought, almost to the point of obsession (“je me répétais des phrases”) in order to understand that.This leads back then to the question of writing, and specifically of a writer. And this leads of course to a comparison between Bergotte and Proust.In terms of writing style, Proust (and I mean by that name the older narrator, who, as the theories roll out, is indistinguishable from his creator) demands that sentences be unpredictable. He compares Bergotte to Saint-Simonne, whose sentences cannot be seen under the light of any “déterminisme.” They come, as if by miracle, from the world for which “nous ne sommes pas faits.” He also seems to deliberately claim that his style is akin to such great writing when he identifies it: “Il est ainsi pour tous les grands écrivains, la beauté de leurs phrases est imprévisible, comme est celle d’une femme qu’on ne connaît pas.” Under what law of determinism could we classify that analogy? How could we have predicted a woman in the latter half of the sentence from the former half? Though it’s hidden in so far as it is not explicit, Proust is still tooting his own horn here.Then he goes on to espouse a definition of genius under which he would certainly find himself. First he explains what genius is not. It is not a heightened intellectual awareness. It is not a greater cultural refinement. It is not even the power to understand. For Proust, genius is wrapped up in the ability to reflect, onto the page, the reality that the genius inhabits, “le génie consistant dans le pouvoir réfléchissant et non dans la qualité intrinsèque du spectacle reflété.” The cynic wonders if Proust invented the definition to suit his thought process or if he conformed his thought process to fit the definition.An interesting question to pose to Proust now would be: Where does this sort of generalization fit into to the idea of genius? Certainly it is not a reflection on the moment to define such an abstract, nor does it particularly follow from anything prior: we are told that Bergotte is a genius without any evidence to that effect save the narrator’s word. Does Proust expect us to accept as truth his abstractions, just as we accept his narration on Bergotte’s style?I think he would have us believe so, as he says that Bergotte not only reflects, he abstracts. “Quelque élément précieux et vrai, cache au coeur de chaque chose” is “extrait d’elle par ce grand écrivain grâce à son génie.” In this sentence too there is a sort of self-justification, because Proust is pulling out the essence of pulling out the essence.But now I am back to my original supposition. The idea that looking for the essentials is to ignore them now seems so dim that Proust and I must be so close that I can’t see him anymore. I need to lose myself in his sentences again.Even Proust, perhaps, lost himself in Proust. How can the writer ever maintain his other life, especially when one considers the sheer number of pages in La Recherche. Like Bergotte, maybe he too became a little less himself:Peut-être plus le grand écrivain se développa en Bergotte aux dépens de l’homme à barbiche, plus sa vie individuelle se noya dans le flot de toutes les vies qu’il imaginait et ne lui parut plus l’obliger a devoirs effectifs, lesquels étaient remplaces pour lui par le devoir d’imaginer ces autres vies. (129)Of course there is the looming danger of citing any given passage of La Recherche to illustrate an idea, since the idea seems to be in the connection of ideas, how they converge, and yet, simultaneously, become more intricate. Of course it is impossible to say that Proust is Bergotte with any sort of authority. But the similarities in styles is unmistakable, and each has certainty “survolé” over their silly dissidents “dans leur belles Rolls-Royce.”I have the feeling that Proust is winking at me. All I can do is “suggest” connections, when Proust seems so arrogant. With all his layers, one still has the sense that the conclusions are shot right out of the page without any coding. He is speaking, eminently conscious of the readership. That is the absolute. And Bergotte is a way for him to introduce a little bit of himself the writer, who, oddly, we meet less of than the man.

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