Tag Archives: A la recherche du temps perdu

That obscure object of the author’s desire

21 Aug
Proust MS (a)

From draft of A la recherche du temps perdu.

Three and half years ago on this blog I wrote about Adam Phillips’ book ‘Missing Out’, which explains how not getting what you think you want might actually be what you want. In the current issue of the LRB, Phillips reviews a new biography of Proust (Proust: The Search, by Benjamin Taylor), and we discover that for the author of A la recherche, the act of desire is what matters, not the attainment of the object of desire. Maybe we shouldn’t bother with trying to fulfil our desires, or achieve our dreams: maybe the beauty of harbouring a desire is simply that – it fills our hearts and minds while it is a potentiality, but the moment we achieve it, win it, possess it (in Proust’s diction), its lustre falls away and we are, more often than not, left bereft, and in mourning for something we we never truly possessed. In other words, the slow burn of unfulfilment is preferable to fulfilment itself.

In the review, Phillips writes:

‘Marcel often intimates with his preachy irony, that we should actually work as hard as we can not to get what we think we want. We do this automatically, it seems, but we need to put our minds to it, because the one belief we appear to be unable to give up on is the belief in the importance of satisfaction. We can’t think what else to do with our wishes other than try to satisfy them.’

And furthermore:

‘The desire to make your dreams come true is a fatal misunderstanding. You have to find something you really want to do and find ways of not doing it. You have to find someone you really want in order to get over wanting them.’

But here’s the interesting part: what is being ‘reached for’ in Proust – the obscure object of the author’s desire, if you will –  is, according to Phillips the invisible book within the book – the one that is being described in the writing, and which is and is not the book that we are reading.

Phillips expresses the idea as follows:

‘. . .Proust’s readers never get to read the book Marcel is going to write; we only get to read the book about the book he may write. Marcel’s book, as opposed to Proust’s, is an emblematic object of desire; we are curious about it, but we can never have access to it.’

Let me elaborate: in Proust’s book, the character of ‘Marcel’ describes himself as writing a book, or as wanting to write a book, which describes the social world with which he is obsessed. ‘Marcel’, needless to say, is a fiction – composed as an adjunct or alternative to the ‘real’ Proust. The book the fictional Marcel is writing will never be written or read. It is the invisible book at the heart of Proust’s fiction. Not the book we hold before us, but its shadow. In another sense, it is the book that Proust ‘desired’ to write, rather than the book he in fact wrote. What resonance this has in marking the distinction between the books we set out to write, the books we might have written, and the books we actually complete; the books we experience as unfulfilled desire, and the books which are, however unsatisfactorily, ‘fulfilled’.

No ideas but in things

21 Sep
The young Marcel Proust

The young Marcel Proust

Since I began teaching creative writing, some fifteen years ago, I have become accustomed to the sad refrain from younger writers that although they fervently wish to write – or perhaps ‘become a writer’, which may or may not be the same thing – they don’t have anything to say.

It was with some pleasure, therefore, that I noted, during my leisurely (i.e. very slow) re-reading of Proust, the following passage:

‘. . . since I wanted to be a writer some day, it was time to find out what I meant to write. But as soon as I asked myself this, trying to find a subject in which I could anchor some infinite philosophical meaning, my mind would stop functioning, I could no longer see anything but empty space before my attentive eyes, I felt that I had no talent or perhaps a disease of the brain kept it from being born.’ (The Way by Swann’s, Lydia Davis translation).

But interestingly – at least for my purposes – the suggestion is made that the answer to his lack of inspiration might be found in the things around him, the very things, in other words, that are distracting to him:

‘ . . . suddenly a roof, a glimmer of sun on stone, the smell of the road would stop me because of a particular pleasure they gave me, and also because they seemed to be concealing, beyond what I could see, something which they were inviting me to come and take, and which despite my efforts I could not manage to discover . . . I would concentrate on recalling precisely the line of the roof, the shade of the stone which, without my being able to understand why, had seemed to me so full, so ready to open, to yield the thing for which they themselves were merely a cover. Of course it was not impressions of this kind that could give me back the hope I had lost, of succeeding in becoming a writer and a poet some day, because they were always tied to a particular object with no intellectual value and no reference to any abstract truth. But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusion of a sort of fecundity, and so distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt each time I looked for a philosophical subject for a great literary work.’

It is noteworthy here how Proust (through his young protagonist, Marcel) disavows any connection between these ‘objects with no intellectual value’, and his frustrated desire to write. For it is that very particularity, that sense of thingness (which always, as Proust suggests, is a cover for something else, something ineffable) that so often provides the starting point for a writer, if only he or she would look.

‘No ideas but in things’: the line by William Carlos Williams has been taken up as a mantra by teachers of poetry to students obsessed, like the young Marcel, with trying to convey deep philosophical concepts, and instead sinking in a morass of tired imagery, expressed through endless clichés of emotion and language.

I think this is the notion I was trying to convey in my post of 29th August. You can simply be drawn in by some aspect of the inanimate world without knowing why. Not that everything is a metaphor, precisely, nor even that every object is a cover for something else (Borges reminds us that a stone might want just to be stone, a tiger a tiger), but that, using Ricardo Piglia’s thesis of the short story as an analogy, every account, every story conceals within it another telling, a secret story, and it is the quest for this other story that leads young Marcel, in his walks with his grandfather near the beginning of A la recherche du temps perdu to understand that this great, almost suffocating desire to be a writer – a desire that one observes (though perhaps in a less astutely articulated form) in many young students of creative writing who likewise find difficulty in finding subject matter to accommodate their ambitions – might find the beginnings of a solution by looking at ‘things’ in the world, rather than heading straight for the ‘idea’.

Finally, an insight from Jane Smiley, in her 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which drily sets to rest the maddening condition familiar to all writers of wanting to start a piece of writing, but managing to find any number of things to prevent them from doing so:

‘My definition of “inspiration” is “a condition of being stimulated by contemplation of the material to a degree sufficient to overcome your natural disinclination to create.”’

Sleepwalking near the Río Orlina

29 Aug

small cliff on path near Dia's pool

So I am looking at this rock, on my way back from walking the dog to a favourite pool in the river for his evening swim, looking at this rock without any particular intent, and I realise that I am drawn to it, drawn to this small cliff or outcrop, framed by dusty green vegetation, and my reaction to it is a strange one: why am I attracted by this, why does it move me? It feels almost as though it were inhabited. It might be the colours of evening that my phone camera signally fails to capture, the richness of texture and shade; the browns and greens and the hint of blue. It might be that peculiarly faculty that certain peoples – notably indigenous Australians – attribute to specific places because they are haunted by or have become the presiding force of some human or animal spirit. In fact Proust mentions it near the beginning of À la recherché du temps perdu:

‘Je trouve très raisonnable la croyance celtique que les âmes de ceux que nous avons perdus sont captives dans quelque être inférieur, dans une bête, un végétal, une chose inanimée, perdu en effet pour nous jusqu’au jour, qui pour beaucoup ne vient jamais, où nous nous trouvons passer près de l’arbre, entrer en possession de l’objet qui est leur prison.’

I find the Celtic belief very reasonable, that the souls of those we have lost are held captive in some inferior creature, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate thing, effectively lost to us until the day, which for many never comes, when we happen to pass close to the tree, some into possession of the object that is their prison.

And then I remember that only yesterday morning I was thinking of rock, or rather was struck by the image of blue rock, or slate-blue rock, that seemed to be drawing me in, it was in a kind of waking dream, and then – as if to corroborate the thought – later in the morning I read, in an article by Michael Wood, this quotation from Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques:

‘Every landscape offers, at first glance, an immense disorder which may be sorted out howsoever we please. We may sketch out the history of its cultivation, plot the accidents of geography which have befallen it, and ponder the ups and downs of history and prehistory: but the most august of investigations is surely that which reveals what came before, dictated, and in large measure explains all the others.’

In other words, as should be clear: geology is the base model of all things. The most ‘august of investigations’ are therefore those made by the geologist. And for Lévi-Strauss, this becomes a pervasive metaphor, or a mode of representing ‘structures’ as though they were essential, fundamental to the whole of his theory.

In my confused and semi-conscious, sleepwalker’s way, maybe I was doing something similar: bumping into physical aspects of the universe that seemed somehow to correspond with images originating in the inner world of the mind. Though I take no credit for it, and it proves absolutely nothing; does not even tell a story. So I add to the stone outcrop or small cliff with two pictures that help narrativise my walk back to the village: the winding path connecting with the St Quirze road – and the almost full moon. The way home.

long and winding road rabos

moon rabos 28 August 2015

Self-knowledge is blue

12 Jul

Marcel Proust


I like it when very distinct sources come up with the same material. One of the pleasure of writing a blog lies in sharing this kind of weird shit with my readers.

What to make of this?

Marcel Proust, in the last volume of A la recherché du temps perdu, having lost his footing on an uneven paving-stone, is reminded of an instance in Venice when, similarly, he had lost his footing, and through a process of accumulated memories of this kind attempts to measure the definitive instance of recall, the moment in which the whole process of revelatory recollection comes together. And his moment of revelation arrives in the colour blue, or azure:

The happiness that I had just experienced was indeed just like that I had felt when eating the madeleine, and the cause of which I had at that time put off seeking. The difference, purely material, was in the images each evoked; a deep azure intoxicated my eyes, impressions of coolness and dazzling light swirled around me and, in my desire to grasp them, without daring to move any more than when I had tasted the madeleine and I was trying to bring back to my memory what it reminded me of, I continued . . . to stagger, as I had done a moment before, one foot on the raised paving-stone, the other foot on the lower one.

It would seem that this swimming about in the blue, as an image of self-awareness, or imminent revelation, was something familiar to the ancient alchemists. Lindy Abraham, in A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery writes:

[T]he mercurial water and alchemical quintessence are frequently described as being sky blue or azure. Paraclesus introduced the symbol of the sapphire from the Cabbala into alchemy, where it came to signify the arcane substance. Thomas Vaughan described the tincture as having the colour of a certain inexpressible Azure like the Body of Heaven in a clear Day.’ He called the Stone ‘an azure Heaven.’ Elsewhere Vaughan wrote that the water of the sages was a ‘deep Blew Tincture’. To clothe in an azure shirt or garment means to make projection of the tincture on molten metal in order to convert it into silver or gold.

And finally Thomas Vaughan himself,  alchemist and brother of the great poet Henry Vaughan writes in his Aula Lucis:

Hence you may gather some infallible signs, whereby you may direct yourselves in the knowledge of the Matter and in the operation itself, when the Matter is known. For if you have the true sperm and know withal how to prepare it – which cannot be without our secret fire – you shall find that the matter no sooner feels the philosophical heat but the white light will lift himself above the water, and there will he swim in his glorious blue vestment like the heavens.

If you have the true sperm and know withal how to prepare it . . . prepare, dear reader, to swim into the livelong blue.







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