by Dennis Abrams
For your weekend reading pleasure, more from Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, and, specifically, to help us all through our Proust withdrawal, more from the chapter “How to Put Books Down.”
i. The benefits of reading
“In 1899 things were going badly for Proust. he was twenty-eight, he had ndone nothing with his life, he was still living at home, he had never earned any money, he was always ill and worst of all, he had been trying to write a novel for the last four years and it was showing few signs of working out. In the autumn of that year, he went on holiday to the French Alps, to the spa town of Evian, and it was here that he read and fell in love with the works of John Ruskin, the English art critic renowned for his writings on Venice, Turner, the Italian Renaissance, Gothic architecture and Alpine landscapes.
Proust’s encounter with Ruskin exemplified the benefits of reading. ‘The universe suddenly regained infinite value in my eyes,’ explained Proust subsequently; because the universe had had such value in Ruskin’s eyes, and because he had been a genius at transmuting his impressions into words. Ruskin had expressed things which Proust might have felt himself, but could not have articulated on his own; in Ruskin, he found experiences which he had never been more than semi-conscious of, raised and beautifully assembled in language.
Ruskin sensitized Proust to the visible world, to architecture, art and nature. Here is Ruskin awakening his readers’ senses to a few of the many things going on in an ordinary mountain stream:
‘If it meets a rock three or four feet above the level of its bed, it will often neither part nor form, nor express any concern about the matter, but clear it in a smooth dome of water, without apparent exertion, the whole surface of the surge being drawn into parallel lines by its extreme velocity, so that the whole river has the appearance of a deep and raging sea, with only this difference, that torrent-waves always break backwards, and sea-waves forwards. Thus, then, in the water which has gained an impetus, we have the most exquisite arrangements of curved lines, perpetually changing from convex to concave and vice versa, following every swell and hollow of the bed with their modulating grace, and all in unison of motion, presenting perhaps the most beautiful series of inorganic forms which nature can possibly produce.’
Aside from landscape, Ruskin helped Proust to discover the beauty of the great cathedrals of northern France. When he returned to Paris after his holiday, Proust travelled to Bourges and to Chargres, to Amiens and Rouen. Later explaining what Ruskin had taught him, Proust pointed to a passage on Rouen cathedral in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which Ruskin minutely described a particular stone figure which had been carved, together with hundreds of others, in one of the cathedral’s portals. The figure was of a little man, no more than ten centimetres high, with a vexed, puzzled expression, and one hand pressed hard against his cheek, wrinkling the flesh under his eye.
For Proust, Ruskin’s concern for the little man had effected a kind of resurrection, one characteristic of great art. He had known how to look at this figure, and had hence brought it back to life for succeeding generations. Ever polite, Proust offered a playful apology to the little figure for what would have been his own inability to notice him without Ruskin as a guide [‘I would not have been clever enough to find you, amongst the thousands of stones in our towns, to pick out your figure, to rediscover your personality, to summon you, to make you live again’}. It was a symbol of what Ruskin had done for Proust, and what all books might do for their readers, namely bring back to life, from the deadness caused by habit and inattention, valuable yet neglected aspects of experience.
Because he had been so impressed by Ruskin, Proust sought to extend his contact with him by engaging in the traditional occupation open to those who love reading: literary scholarship. He set aside his novelistic projects and became a Ruskin scholar. When the English critic died in 1900, he wrote his obituary, followed it u p with several essays, and then undertook the immense task of translating Ruskin into French, a task all the more ambitious because he hardly spoke any English and, according to George de Lauris, would have had trouble correctly ordering a lamb chop in English in a restaurant. However, he succeeded in producing highly accurate translations of both Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens and his Sesame and Lilies, adding an array of scholarly footnotes testifying to the breadth of his Ruskinian knowledge. It was work he carried out with the fanaticism and rigour of a maniacal professor; in the words of his friend Marie Nordlinger:
‘The apparent discomfort in which he worked was quite incredible; the bed was littered with books and papers, his pillows were all over the place, a bamboo table on his left was piled high, and more often than not, there was no support for whatever he was writing (no wonder he wrote illegibly), with a cheap wooden penholder or two lying where it had fallen on the floor.’
Because Proust was such a good scholar and such an unsuccessful novelist, an academic career must have beckoned. It was his mother’s hope. After watching him waste years on a novel that had gone nowhere, she took pleasure in discovering that her son had the makings of a fine scholar. Proust could not have ignored his own aptitude, and indeed, many years later, expressed sympathy with his mother’s judgement:
‘I always agree with Maman that I could have done only one thing in life, but a thing which we both valued so much that it is saying a lot: namely, an excellent professor.’
ii. The limitations of reading
However, needless to say, Proust did not become Professor Proust, Ruskin scholar and translator, a significant fact, given how well suited he was to academic discipline, how ill suited he was to almost everything else and how much he respected his beloved mother’s judgement.
His reservations could hardly have been more subtle. He was in no doubt as to the immense value of reading and study, and could defend his Ruskinian labours against any vulgar arguments in favour of mental self-sufficiency.
‘The mediocre usually imagine that to let ourselves be guided by the books we admire robs our faculty of judgement of part of its independence. ‘What can it matter to you what Ruskin feels: feel for yourself.’ Such a view rests on a psychological error which will be discounted by all those who have accepted a spiritual discipline and feel thereby that their power of understanding and of feeling is infinitely enhanced, and their critical sense never paralysed…There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In t his profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his.’
Yet something in this forceful defence of reading and scholarship intimated Proust’s reservations. Without drawing attention to how contentious or critical the point was, he argued that we should be reading for a particular reason; not to pass the time, not out of detached curiosity, not out of a dispassionate wish to find out what Ruskin felt, but because, to back with italics, ‘there is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt’. We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel, it is our own thoughts we should be developing even if it is another writer’s thoughts which help us to do so. A fulfilled academic life would therefore require us to judge that the writers we were studying articulated in their books a sufficient range of our own concerns, and that in the act of understanding them through translation or commentary, we would simultaneously be understanding and developing the spiritually significant parts of themselves.
And herein lay Proust’s problem, because in his view, books could not make us aware of enough of the things we felt. They might open our eyes, sensitize us, enhance our powers of perception, but at a certain point they would stop, not by coincidence, not occasionally, not out of bad luck, but inevitably, by definition, for the stark and simple reason that the author wasn’t us. There would come a moment with every book when we would feel that something was incongruous, misunderstood or constraining, and it would give us a responsibility to leave our guide behind and continue our thoughts alone. Proust’s respect for Ruskin was enormous, but having worked intensely on his texts for six years, having lived with bits of paper scattered across his bed and his bamboo table piled high with books, in a particular burst of irritation at continually being tethered to another man’s words, Proust exclaimed that Ruskin’s qualities had not prevented him from frequently being ‘silly, maniacal, constraining, false and ridiculous.’
The fact that Proust did not at this point turn to translating George Eliot or annotating Dostoevsky signals a recognition that the frustration he felt with Ruskin was not incidental to this author, but reflected a universally constraining dimension to reading and scholarship, and was sufficient reason never to strive for the title of Professor Proust.
‘It is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books (which allows us to see the role, at once essential yet limited, that reading may play in our spiritual lives) that for the author they may be called ‘Conclusions’ but for the reader ‘Incitements’. We feel very strongly that our wisdom begins where that of the author leaves off, and we would like him to provide us with answers when all he is able to is provide us with desires…That is the value of reading, and also its inadequacy. To make it into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading in on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.’”
More to come…enjoy your weekend.