by Dennis Abrams
I was walking the dog yesterday evening and thinking about Proust. It occurred to me as I was walking that of the many many things I take away from the experience is a new perspective on…perspective. The idea of the shifting perspective, of how the person that I see somebody is very different from the person that somebody else does, yet both are correct as far our limited perspective goes; of the impossibility of really knowing anybody for that very reason, the near impossibility of love lasting for that very reason, of the way that time plays with and alters all of our perspectives.
This is a way of viewing the world that I think has always been with me, that I’ve always somehow known or at least sensed. I remember when I was a teenager, reading Joan Didion’s The White Album for the first time and reading this report on her psychiatric state at the time: “In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure,” and thinking…that’s right.
And as I was walking I thought about Proust and perspective in terms of Picasso and Einstein and the way the world around him was also shifting in perspective, as entirely new ways of looking at the world were emerging, and the thought hit me — Proust and Einstein…connection?
I found this essay and thought it definitely worth reading:
Marcel Proust and Albert Einstein: The Novel and General Relativity
By Kevin Novenario-Navea
The difficulty of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way stems from the fact that it is not an easy read as, say, Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels. Indeed, as one continues the thread of the narrative, it moves at a rather slow pace. One gets the impression of either a very long sketch or a Symbolist prose-poem after just the first few pages. I would, however, like to tackle the narrative content and style’s implications on theoretical physics as I find that its very difficulty becomes a necessary quality. In particular, I find that the novel’s technique carries suggestions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History Of Time describes general relativity as the “suggestion…that gravity is not a force like other forces, but it is a consequence of the fact that space-time is not flat [nor linear] as had been previously assumed: it is curved or “warped” by the distribution of mass and energy in it” (30). It would then follow naturally that each body, having its own mass and energy, will have space-time curved around it and hence its experience of time will be different from another body which has its own curvature. “A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of years and the worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads in a second the point on the earth he occupies, the time that has elapsed before his waking; but their ranks can be mixed up, broken” (Proust 5). We see now in the novel that Proust seemingly has an idea (albeit more literary than mathematical) of what Einstein was going for in the mid 20th century.
Perhaps one can take the last quotation as Proust’s manner of introducing the reader to a heightened (and slower) experience of time, which is the main reason for the novel’s difficulty. Notice, for example, what the action is when the Marcel character first goes to bed: M. Swann arrives for dinner, then around the end of the meal Marcel is told to go to bed. In his room Marcel writes a note and asks Francoise to give it to his mother who tells Francoise, “There is no answer.” When the dinner is done and the main guest leaves, the mother goes up the stairs where she is blocked by a desperate Marcel. The father reaches the landing and says that the mother should sleep in Marcel’s room tonight. These are quick actions that other author’s could have done in a few short paragraphs. Proust, however, uses a great length of interjections existing in the mind of the narrator, thus making the reading rhythm of the actions much slower, making a different experience of time. This technique happens all throughout the novel, as when Marcel sees Francoise as representative of an older France, when Swann falls for Odette, sees her as a Botticelli painting, tries to bid her farewell; Marcel seems to be able to speak almost omnisciently, slowing down the rhythm of the narrative as each gesture made is discoursed upon, thus also positing that the novel is not only a space for narrative but also of philosophy.
Where Einstein uses Newton’s concept of gravity to prove his point, Proust uses memory (indeed, the entire novel comes out to be written in the sublime act of remembering in tranquillity, to borrow from the Romantics). This becomes very much foregrounded as when the Marcel character narrates: “They were only a thin slice among the contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but a regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years” (444). Proust then leaves Einstein’s mode of gravitational poles and points in space-time and enters instead relativity of experiences in time which is only knowable through memory. It seems that Proust is suggesting not only an inseparability of space-time as Hawking and Einstein believe but that a consciousness (with memory) must be exerted upon said space-time for it to exist—what Proust seems to forward is the inseparability of space-time-self in the experience of existence.
Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.
Proust, Marcel. Trans. Lydia Davis. Swann’s Way. New York, Penguin Books, 2004.
I also wanted to share Anne Garreta’s essay from The Proust Project, “A Feeling of Vertigo Seized Me As I Looked Down” She makes connections that actually made me gasp out loud. MUST READING!
“Time? Is that the last word?
Yes, I remember, it was also the first one (almost). Many say that at this last word of the last sentence of the last volume we are meant to loop back, in memory or in effect, to the first one of the first sentence of the first volume. Then, you see, the book miraculously announced by a stumble on the cobblestones of the Guermantes’s courtyard and the tinkling of a spoon against porcelain, the book finally taking shape in Marcel’s mind and which he now fears he won’t have time to write before his death, is in fact the book we have been reading all along. Some thus believe that the book ahead of him (and us) is the book we have just closed. The end circles back to its beginning. Eternal return.
But is it?
And how would know for sure?
What has Marcel told us about his future book? That its most distinctive feature would be descriptions of men standing as if on the stilts of time, higher than church steeples, their faces lost among clouds, monstrous vacillating beings, giants immersed in time…But besides the tottering old Duc de Guermantes, have you encountered any other of these comical creatures perilously aspiring to the celestial realm, or grotesque leviathans wallowing below?
The portrait fits Marcel, at the very least. It fits the book even better.
Maybe the sole hero of the book is the Book…
Wasn’t it what the Adoration perpetuelle intimated? Life after all has been lived to culminate in a book, and the life of the book with which Marcel finds himself pregnant eclipses all human concerns and duties. Forget love, discount friendship. The book will be the story of a holy literary vocation; the creation shall dwarf the creatures and the creator.
Notice how the body of the work is the only true body; that is, the only body whose monstrous growth could fulfill the promise to incarnate Time. And how the ‘immeasurable prolongation’ which Proust uses to describe men’s place in Time most exactly describes the altitude of a text raised on the stilts of sentences 4.27 meters long. Besides, what could represent ‘those years that fell into place between the extremities’ but the thousands of pages piled between origin and ending…
Picture this: the Great War had delayed publication of the two volumes Proust had intended after Swann’s Way. So from the inside, between the two set extremities or matched bookends of Swann’s Way and Time Regained, grew this cathedral of a book, gaining volume, volumes prolonging, heightening (vertiginously) the body of the text.
But for that contretemps, time would have been regained more speedily and a measured, classical bildungsroman unfolded. Sodom and Gomorrah, The Captive, The Fugitive, are the true expansion secreted in time. Quite literally, the time lost: lost in love and mundane pursuits, lost for publication, lost even for the narrative, since we’re never told where and how (except for a few trips to Paris) Marcel spent the time (or contretemps) of the war.
But the entire revelation and holy promise of the Adoration perpetuelle is to offer the experience of ‘a little bit of Time in in its pure form.’ Marcel finally sees his true calling: to capture in ‘the rings of a beautiful style’ the short circuit of past and present allowed by reminiscence to yield ‘a minute freed from the order of time.’
Doesn’t this amount in effect to knocking down the stilts?
I have often wondered how readers are supposed to savor the petite madeleine. Is our imagination supposed to be strong and vivid enough that when we read of tea and cookies we might not only salivate but see Combray resurrected before our eyes in a cloud of cream? Should we start in search of our own private petites madeleines and then too write a book testifying to the vanity of worldly and the true faith of Art?
Maybe the only experience available, within a book, of the transcending operation of time and memory prefigured in the taste of a madeleine, the tinkling of a spoon upon a plate, or the stumble on uneven pavement, must take the form of a textual analogon. If the reader’s memory is like a giant immersed in pages, in the language of the text, and simultaneously touching widely separated passages, the experience of a pure moment in time, of a freeing from time, will then proceed from a collapse of textual distances. For objects and images never occur just once in the vast expanse of Proust’s book and his reader’s experience of it: they return.
Thus, if we were able to dive back into our memory for those stilts, or rather if suddenly they emerged from the depth of all the time that passed since we embarked long ago upon reading In Search of Lost Time, we would recognize the effigies perched on them, and then truly we would see the book we just finished reading as the cathedral it is intended to be. And maybe we would worship…
For there they were, on the facade of Balbec church, visited hundreds of pages ago in Within a Budding Grove: ‘the tall saints’ statues perched on those stilts, forming a kind of avenue.’
But they were stilts only to the uninitiated, to Marcel, the disappointed narrator. It took the eye of the painter Elstir to dispel Marcel’s error — and ours: ‘If you had looked more carefully at what seemed to you to be stilts you could have named those who were perched on them. For underneath the feet of Moses you would have recognized the Golden Calf, under the feet of Abraham the Ram, under those of Joseph, the devil advising Potiphar’s wife.’
Stilts are not stilts, and time is not time. The artist shows them to be allegories, the allegories of all the detours and dead ends [jealousy, idolatry, vanity…] that obscure and defer the true calling, the recognition of the true law of life and art handed down from prophet to prophet, from Moses and Abraham on to Marcel.
I have sometimes felt a slight suspicion that Proust’s cathedral is, strangely enough, inverted. It is as if he had turned it inside out: while the masterpiece’s facade (and everything we’ve been taught to behold in it) proclaims the transcendence of creation realized in the sign of the petite madeleine and its communion, the monstrous substance of Time and worldly temptations is folded within (in the richly detailed nave of the Sodom and Albertine cycles).
But then again, is it a cathedral?
Among the many similes proffered by the Adoration perpetuelle, the book stands figured as flesh and stone, child and cemetery, boeuf en gelee and cathedral; writing veers from an activity as profane as cuisine or couture to one as sacred as transubstantiation, resurrection, and redemption.
Who knows…Those stilts of time could still very well be stilts or thin threads holding together a tattered harlequin’s coat; we would have mistaken for a cathedral a great circus, and the acrobat juggling the rings of style for a high priest.”
And finally, I hope you’ll all be joining me next year as we begin working our way through the four major works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. We’ll be starting with Crime and Punishment, using the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle edition. Here’s the link to the site, still under construction: