by Dennis Abrams
For your holiday weekend reading, further advice on how to put down your Proust and move on, from Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life:
The previous symptoms of the overreverent, overreliant reader were “That we mistake writers for oracles,” and “That we will be unable to write after reading a good book,”
“Symptom no. 3: That we become artistic idolaters
Aside from the danger of overvaluing writers and undervaluing oneself, there is a risk that we will revere artists for the wrong reasons, indulging in what Proust called artistic idolatry. In the religious context, idolatry suggests a fixation on an aspect of religion — on an image of a worshipped deity, on a particular law or holy book — which distracts us from, and even contravenes, the overall spirit of the religion.
Proust suggested that a structurally similar problem existed in art, where artistic idolaters combined a literal reverence for objects depicted in art with a neglect of the spirit of art. They would, for instance, become particularly attached to a part of the countryside depicted by a great painter, and mistake this for an appreciation of the painter, they would focus on the objects in a picture, as opposed to the spirit of the picture — whereas the essence of Proust’s aesthetic position was contained in the deceptively simple yet momentous assertion that ‘a picture’s beauty does not depend on the things portrayed in it.’
Proust accused his friend, the aristocrat and poet Robert de Montesquiou, of artistic idolatry, because of the pleasure he took whenever he encountered in life an object which had been depicted by an artist. Montesquiou would gush if he happened to see one of his female friends wearing a dress like that which Balzac had imagined for the character of the Princesse de Cadignan in his novel Les Secrets de la Princesse de Cadignan. Why was this type of delight idolatrous? Because Montesquiou’s enthusiasm had nothing to do with an appreciation of the dress and everything to do with a respect for Balzac’s name. Montesquiou had no reasons of his own for liking the dress, he hadn’t assimilated the principles of Balzac’s aesthetic vision, nor grasped the general lesson latent in Balzac’s appreciation of this particular object. Problems would therefore arise as soon as Montesquiou was faced with a dress which Balzac had never had a chance to describe, and which Montesquiou would perhaps ignore — even though Balzac, and a good Balzacian, would no doubt have been able to evaluate the merits of each dress appropriately had they been in his shoes.
Symptom no. 4: That we will be tempted to invest in a copy of La Cuisine Retrouvee
Food has a privileged role in Proust’s writings; it is often lovingly described and appreciatively eaten. To name but a few of the many dishes which Proust parades past his readers, we can site a cheese souffle, a string bean salad, a trout with almonds, a grilled red mullet, a bouillabaisse, a skate in black butter, a beef casserole, some lamb with a Bearnaise sauce, a beef Stroganoff, a bowl of stewed peaches, a raspberry mousse, a madeleine, an apricot tart, a raisin cake, a chocolate sauce and a chocolate souffle.
The contrast between what we usually eat and the mouthwatering nature of the food Proust’s characters enjoy might inspire us to try and savour these Proustian dishes more directly. In which case, it could be temping to acquire a copy of a glossily illustrated cookbook entitled La Cuisine Retrouvee, which contains recipes for every dish mentioned in Proust’s work, is compiled by a top Parisian chef and was first published in 1991 [by a company otherwise responsible for a comparably useful title, Les Carnets de Cuisine de Monet]. It would enable a moderately competent cook to pay extraordinary homage to the great novelist, and perhaps gain a closer understanding of Proust’s art. It would, for instance, enable a dedicated Proustian to produce exactly the kind of chocolate mousse which Francoise served to the narrator and his family in Combray.
Francoise’s Chocolate Mousse
Ingredients: 100g of plain cooking chocolate, 100g of caster sugar, half a liter of milk, six eggs.
Method: Bring the milk to the boil, add the chocolate broken in pieces, and let it melt gently, stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon. Whip the sugar with the y0lks of the six eggs. Preheat the oven to 130C.
When the chocolate has completely melted, pour it over the eggs and the sugar, mix rapidly and energetically, then pass through a strainer.
Pour out the liquid into little ramekins 8cm in diameter, and put into the oven, in a bain-marie, for an hour. Leave to cool before serving.
But once the recipe had resulted in a delicious dessert, in between mouthfuls of Francoise’s chocolate mousse, we might pause to ask whether this dish, and by extension the entire volume of La Cuisine Retrouvee, really constituted a homage to Proust, or whether it was not in danger of encouraging the very sin which he had warned his readers about, artistic idolatry. Though Proust might have welcomed the principle of a cookbook based on his work, the question is what form he would have wished it to take. To accept his arguments about artistic idolatry would mean recognizing that the particular foods which features in his novel were irrelevant when compared to the spirit in which the food was considered, a transferable spirit which owed nothing to the exact chocolate mousse which Francoise had prepared, or the particular bouillabaisse which Mme Verdurin had served at her table — and might be as relevant when approaching a bowl of muesli, a curry or a paella.
The danger is that La Cuisine Retrouvee will unwittingly throw us into depression the day we fail to find the right ingredients for the chocolate mousse or green bean salad, and are forced to eat a hamburger — which Proust never had a chance to write about.
It wouldn’t, of course, have been Marcel’s intention: a picture’s beauty does not depend on the things portrayed in it.”
Enjoy your weekend everybody. And a very merry Christmas to all.