Proust as Philosopher: Looking for Joy


The arc of ISOLT might be described as a long chain of disillusionment followed by a triumphant, joyful epiphany. Miguel de Beistequi, in Proust as Philosopher, The Art of Metaphor, breaks this arc into the stages of looking for, finding and giving joy.

Whenever we think we’re sowing the seeds of happiness, life’s busy planting those of disillusionment. Whenever we think we’re working carefully towards contentment we are, in fact, hurtling towards our doom. A single life can hold more disillusion and disappointment than we can imagine: every second of happiness will fade, every fleeting joy will quickly be replaced by ever increasing sorrow; every desire fulfilled will end up either boring us or making us insatiable,in thrall to the ever more urgent exercise of the will….And? Is this the lesson of Proust’s novel?…Nothing, though, could be further from the truth, nothing more at odds with the spirit of Proust than this sort of of pseudo-Stoic or -Schopenhauerian lesson. Why? Because it’s precisely this sort of suffering that hones our senses and sharpens our intelligence. (1)

This lack or wanting is not psychological but ontological. Literature unmasks this false perception of reality and provides a tool for doing so, metaphor, which promises to reach beyond it traditional role in  rhetoric by transforming “matter into spirit.”

…at the heart of our relation to the world there’s a lack. This lack isn’t nothing, however, but is rather, a lack or wanting of being, a lack or want that functions as the sign of a truth that lies beyond or, more accurately, at the heart of present reality. This lack is original and structural and so isn’t something that could be remedied by a strategy of compensation, by recapturing or reproducing the “thing” that is lacking. (2)

…literature doesn’t believe in the solidity of being, in raw being, in short in what is commonly referred to as reality or life, and which so many forms of literature claim as their subject-matter. Its “faith” isn’t that of simple perception. Instead, it takes being to be that which, from the outset, is carried away and caught in a system of reference devoid of any actual origin or end. And it’s from this fundamental structure that is draws its own poetic law, through it that it elevates style beyond mere technique, elevating it to the status of “vision.” It’s through the thread of metaphor–the only one that isn’t illusory–that it relates to the real. As such, the metaphor that it weaves isn’t the product of fancy, as Coleridge has it, or the creation of “the part of the human being which dominates, this mistress of error and falsehood” that so unsettled Pascal. Rather, it’s the figure of the real in its self transposition or transfiguration. Metaphor believes in transubstantiation, in the conversion of matter into spirit, which it carries out, but only as an implicit dimension of matter itself, inscribed within it from the start. (2-3)

Just how metaphor has this power is the subject of de Beistegui’s book (and in this blog here, here, here and here).

As examples of the lack at the heart of reality, de Beistegui looks at the objects of Swann’s and Marcel’s desires: Odette and Albertine. Proust intentionally gives us portrayals of these two characters that reveal little of their inner selves. We are meant to see them as the rest of the world does, as shallow figures inexplicably worshiped by their lovers. But their lovers have augmented reality with their imaginations.

The disappointment that the narrator can’t help but experience when confronted with the real would be entirely of a piece with the conflict between imagination and perception. Whether imagination is anticipating the real or, in  its presence, carrying it elsewhere and transforming it, thereby giving it a meaning and a purpose, it is always a prosthesis or supplement to the real. It could be, then that the real isn’t self-sufficient and can’t, in fact, proceed on its own. It’s always waiting on something else, always truly elsewhere. Odette de Crécy is neither truly beautiful nor particularly moving, in Swann’s eyes at least. And yet, once she starts to remind him of Botticelli’s Zipporah, his pleasure in seeing her is justified and her beauty established…It is as if, remorseful at having “limited his life to worldly relationships, to conversation” and ashamed of the frivolity of his own existence, Swann’s able to elevate it, to grant it some value by imagining his world as the reflection of a great artist’s. Anyone who fails to see Odette in such a light or fails to see her through that other, magical and distorting lens, a lens ground by imagination, isn’t going to find her all that attractive….From which it follows that pretty women are the province of men with no imagination. (4)

In fact, the narrator himself only starts loving Albertine when he “suddenly” sees in “the real Albertine, the one [he] saw every day, [and] who [he] thought was hidebound in bourgeois prejudices,” the embodiment of the imaginary Albertine,far more attractive than the real one, namely the Albertine “who, at a time when [he] did not even know her, [he] had thought was taking furtive looks at [him] on the esplanade, the one who, when she saw [him] walking off, had seemed to be wending so reluctantly her own way home.” Meeting the gaze of an unknown woman is enough to make him fall in love with her, since those eyes contain everything he could ever know of a thought, a wish, a memory. “The hope of taking possession of all that,” Proust writes, “is what gives her eyes their value, much more than any mere material beauty.” (5)

If Proust’s attitude towards love seems somewhat abrasive, his take on friendship is harsher still. It’s hard to imagine anything more cruel than his exposure of friendship as a mirage and his denunciation of its pointlessness….The friendship between Marcel and Saint-Loup is like the love between Swann and Odette: it consists in a misunderstanding that brings some joy to the narrator only insofar as Saint-Loup appears to him, as in a work of art, under the guise of the “nobleman,” i.e. as a type or essence “for [his] thoughts to toy with in an ideal moment.” And if Marcel manages to experience intense joy in his company, it’s not, as Saint-Loup would have hoped, as a result of his intellectual or moral qualities, but “to glimpse through him the earlier, immemorial, aristocratic self that Robert sought to avoid being.” (10-11)

Reality lives in the present, in the realm of impressions where we must act, and which requires augmentation by imagination. Can reality be expanded so that it can be enjoyed?

Perception lives in the present since we can only ever act in and  on the present alone. Its link with the world (and its knowledge of the world) is wholly material: what I perceive is matter and matter saturates my being in the world as an immediately present being. Perception can act on the present but it can’t dream the present or imagine it. Such a dream, such an imagining of the present even, requires that perception should loosen it grip on the material world and let the mind expand, wander until it connects with a different world. The imagination–like memory, an even more determining phenomenon, as I’ll try to show later on–presupposes, then, a transformation of the world of perception into that of the mind….Right up until the final revelation, though, however foreshadowed it’s been throughout the novel, the narrator can’t reconcile his thirst for truth and his disappointment, the power of  the imagination and the deficiency of perception, possible time and real time. (14-15)

Whatever some people have wanted to say, Proust’s “solution” isn’t Schopenhauer’s: while both are solutions mediated by art, for Proust art doesn’t coincide with any sort of suspension of neutralization of the will, of desire, of sensibility, in short; instead, it coincides with the latter’s actualization and with its truth. At the same time, such a reversal of nihilism is as far from Platonism as it’s possible to be, despite some commentators having seen the novel as decidedly Platonic in places: because Proust talks about Ideas as those realities that are truer and richer than the reality of the immediate present, it was assumed that he posited the existence of the intelligible world above or behind the world of appearances. As I’ll show, though, Proust’s Ideas are embodied and sensible. (15)

True joy will be neither the joy of the senses nor that of the imagination. (16)

de Beistegui finds a “dialectical reversal” out of this impasse in the passages in “Combray” where Marcel engages in the mystery of the hawthorns. The flowers are surely pleasant to the senses, but…

Marcel intuits that something’s being pleasant isn’t enough to make us love it, whether were taking about a woman, a flower or a work of art. For this to happen, they have to be beautiful….By finding the flowers more than just pleasing, more than just pleasant, he endows them with a metaphysical value and draws out a new meaning of our being in the world; by experiencing, in such personal terms and in such a localized way in space and time, something universal, he discovers the possibility of a communion, not just with the object of his judgement but with every rational being as well. In doing so he discovers the possibility of a true communication: not the communion of love or of friendship, which rest on the illusion of transparency, but the kind of communication postulated by the aesthetic experience and the judgement of taste. (17-19)

[B]ut in vain did I make a screen with my hands, the better to concentrate upon the flowers, the feeling they aroused in me remained obscure and vague, struggling and failing to free itself, to float across and become one with them. (Kindle Locations 2894-2896. Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition)

The insistence on not going beyond the impressions or the sensation, on getting as close as possible to the phenomenon in the hope of grasping the feeling that arises from it, necessarily results in missing the latter. At other points in the novel, the narrator makes fun of those who allege that, upon listening to some sonata for the hundredth time, they can still experience the same pleasure and exclaim “how beautiful! What a gem, ” thus giving themselves the feeling of being immersed in this music, of becoming one with it and merging with it completely, without ever wondering about the origin of their pleasure or providing themselves with the means to look into its meaning. There’s no point in shaking all over, like Madame Verdurin, and claiming that, if the music does not stop, she will end up crying or even falling ill because she “feels” the music with such intensity. This doesn’t help our understanding of the feeling of pleasure that we’re experiencing. Until something useful can be extracted from this impression, we’ll grow old “useless and unsatisfied, like celibates at the shrine of art.” Because his pleasure is wholly contained in the flowers under his eyes, Marcel thinks that its origin can be grasped through the closest possible encounter with their materiality, by drinking  in their presence and, intoxicated, embracing it completely….Something in them, though, escapes him. His pleasure’s wholly located in these flowers; it depends on them unconditionally. Something else, though, something that’s seemingly bound up in this pleasure, at once preserved and embodied in it, seems to want to escape it. But where? And for whom? His thought process itself is no help at all. But how could it be since it’s the process of thought and thoughts aren’t sensations?  (20-21)

The pleasure he gets from seeing them in this way is specifically not derived from his ability to imagine them as young girls or from the power of the imagination and, consequently, from the fascination that this power exerts upon us; instead, it stems from this ability to sense some secret agreement linking the imagination and nature, to feel the nature itself is the inspiration behind these images. It seems as if–and let’s consider “as if” as pivotal here–nature itself and nature as such presented itself in this form, as if it wished to surpass itself, to extend itself into the spiritual world (symbolized here by the religious celebration). It’s as if nature, as the set of laws subject to strict determinism, aimed to suggest some compatibility or, rather, some convergence, with the spiritual laws, beyond the clear opposition that Kant establishes between mechanical and free causality, or between the phenomenal and noumenal world. (22-23)

What the pink of the hawthorn reveals, through the unctuous, fresh, sweet appearance of the puddings and biscuits of childhood, is the reason for our attachment to it: i.e. the childhood that’s settled and that can be found there again at will, the promise of a unique world (as opposed to a divided if not torn one) where everything communicates with everything, accessible de jure. What comes back to the surface in the experience of the hawthorns, what emerges before these flowers, is the singularity of childhood, its world of colours, tastes, flavours, its religion, its myths, in short all the differences that constitute “Marcel” the subject. This isn’t something he’s able to realize yet. He only realizes it halfway, so to speak. His wonder, his joy, his emotion are markers of its, however, unquestionable signs. (25)

The literary problem the young Marcel must solve is to find a way to unite sensuous joy with the permanence of art.

…if literature’s going to exist, it must be as a probing device, a depth-exploring tool. Granted, Marcel thinks, it must have some relation with the pleasure that the sight of a roof, a reflection on a stone, the smell of a path or a flower might evoke in us. But it’s not enough to note, in the immediate aftermath of his experience of the steeples at Martinville, “the shape of their spires, the shifting of their lines, the sunlight on their surfaces,” as Marcel does in his first go at writing. On the contrary, as he senses he has to do in the presence of the hawthorns, he needs to exhaust the impression, to understand what is hiding behind this movement, behind this movement, behind this light, to grasp what seems to dwell and steal away simultaneously in its midst–something the young Marcel’s unable to do for practically the whole novel. For him, if art’s to exist at all, it must yield happiness, reverse the course of dissatisfaction and bitterness; in short, it must reconcile us with life. (25)

What would be the mediation via which it could be grasped? Involuntary memory is the emergence of that other reality or, rather of reality as unanticipated and unimagined. It implies the insistent and somewhat miraculous presence of what was thought to be dead, the rebirth of a forgotten past. The value of this experience is wholly included in the return itself and not in the content of what returns. It signals the existence of a time that isn’t the time of anticipation and desire, ultimately doomed to an ever disappointing reality, or the time  of the sole present and of perception, devoid of meaning in themselves, but the time of the contiguity of the present and the past. We know that, through the mediation of involuntary memory, Proust ultimately assents that we can surpass the disappointment entailed by the real. This view implies the perennialization of these fleeting moments through the creation of a work of art. (26)

Next: Finding Joy.

2 Responses to “Proust as Philosopher: Looking for Joy”

  1. Akilesh Ayyar Says:

    Great blog post. de Bestegui has some thought-provoking takes on how to interpret Proust.

    I recently published an article on Philosophy Now about Proust’s philosophy at http://philosophynow.org/issues/100/To_Express_It_Is_To_Explain_It . Given the subject matter of this blog post, I think you and your readers might find it intriguing.

  2. Reviews of Beistegui’s Proust as Philosopher Says:

    […] Proust Reader reports on Miguel de Beistegui’s Proust as Philosopher […]

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