by Dennis Abrams
Clearly, we’re all going through Proust withdrawal. In his book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton’s last chapter is titled “How to Put Books Down.” Herewith, a sampling, including an introduction and one of the signs of addiction and writer worship:
“How seriously should we take books? ‘Dear friend,’ Proust told Andre Gide, ‘I believe, contrary to the fashion among our contemporaries, that one can have a very lofty idea of literature, and at the same time have a good-natured laugh at it.’ The remark may have been throwaway, but its underlying message was not. For a man who devoted his life to literature, Proust manifested a singular awareness of the dangers of taking books too seriously, or rather of adopting a fetishistically reverent attitude towards them, which while appearing to pay due homage would in fact travesty the spirit of literary production; a healthy relationship to other people’s books would depends as much on an appreciation of their limitations as of their benefits.
Symptom no. 1: That we mistake writers for oracles
As a boy, Proust has loved reading Theophile Gautier. Certain sentences in Gautier’s Le Captitaine Fracasse had seemed so profound that he had started to think of the author as an extraordinary figure of limitless insight, who he would have wanted to consult on all his significant problems:
‘I would have wished for him, the one wise custodian of the truth, to tell me what I ought rightly to think of Shakespaeare, of Saintine, of Sophocles, of Euripides, of Silvio Pellico…Above all, I would have wished him to tell me whether I would have had a better chance of arriving at the truth by repeating my first-form year at school, or by becoming a diplomat or a barrister at the Court of Appeal.’
Sadly, Gautier’s inspiring, fascinating sentences had a habit of coming in the midst of some very tedious passages, in which the author would, for instance, spend an age describing a chateau, and show no interest in telling Marcel what to think of Sophocles, or whether he should go into the Foreign Office of the law.
It was probably a good thing, as far as Marcel’s career was concerned. Gautier’s capacity for insights in one area did not necessarily mean that he was capable of worthwhile insights in another. Yet how natural to feel that someone who has been extremely lucid on certain topics might turn out to be a perfect authority on other topics too, might indeed turn out to have the answers to everything.
Many of the exaggerated hopes which Proust harboured of Gautier as a boy cam in time to be harboured of him. There were people who believed that he too might solve the riddle of existence, a wild hope presumably derived from the evidence of nothing more than his novel. The staff of L’Intransigeant, those inspired journalists who had felt it appropriate to consult Proust on t he consequences of global apocalypse, were supreme believers in the oracular wisdom of writers, and repeatedly bothered Proust with their questions. For example, they felt he might be the perfect person to answer this enquiry:
‘If for some reason you were forced to take up a manual profession, which one would you choose, according to your tastes, your aptitudes and your capacities?’
‘I think I would become a baker. It is an honourable thing to give people their daily bread,’ replied Proust, who was incapable of making a piece of toast, after asserting that writing in any case constituted manual labour: ‘You make a distinction between manual and spiritual professions which I couldn’t subscribe to. The spirit guides the hand’ — which Celeste, whose job it was to clean the loo, might politely have contested.
It was a nonsensical reply, but then again, it was a nonsensical question, at least when addressed to Proust. Why would an ability to write In Search of Lost Time in any way indicate an aptitude for advising recently dismissed white-collar workers on their career? Why would the readers of L’Intransigeant need to be exposed to misleading notions of the baking life, put forward by a man who had never had a proper job and didn’t much like bread? Why not let Proust answer the questions in his area of competence, and otherwise admit the need for a well-qualified career adviser?”
More to come…