Presented here is an excerpt from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (Time Regained) related to literary criticism. I’ve posted it without much in the way of comment (or criticism); between Proust and XKCD both have been pretty much covered.
A note about translations: I read the first two volumes (Swann’s Way & Within a Budding Grove) of Remembrance of Things Past (In Search of Lost Time) on my e-Reader in the form of the original, out of copyright, translations (freely available for download here) done by Proust’s contemporary C.K. Scott Moncrieff (the final volume by Stephen Hudson, a pseudonym of Sydney Schiff) while, for the subsequent five volumes I’ve been reading from later, copyrighted, paperback translations. These later translations benefit not only from being more accurate and fluid in their own right, as you might expect a later translation to be, but also from the inclusion of material, in both draught and manuscript form, discovered after Proust’s death and the publication of Moncrieff’s and Hudson’s translations. While in the process of reading these more recent translations and, in combing the original texts in search of Moncrieff’s corresponding passages to assemble excerpts, I’ve concluded that it is worthwhile purchasing the modern translations in order to enjoy Proust’s masterpiece to the fullest extent – due to its length it is not a novel that will be re-read often. That is as true for the excerpt presented here as it is for the others. If, however, your budget dictates otherwise then, by all means, download the University of Adelaide’s free version; it is still the second most fun you can have for nothing.
Even when we seek artistic delights for the sake of the impression they make on us, we manage quickly to dispense with the impression itself and to fix our attention on that element in it which enables us to experience pleasure without penetrating to its depth, and thinking we can communicate it to others in conversation because we shall be talking to them about something common to them and to us, the personal root impression is eliminated. In the very moments when we are the most disinterested spectators of nature, of society, of love, of art itself — as all impression is two-fold, half-sheathed in the object, prolonged in ourselves by another half which we alone can know — we hasten to neglect the latter, that is to say, the only one on which we should concentrate and fasten merely on the other half which, being unfathomable because it is exterior to ourselves, causes us no fatigue; we consider the effort to perceive the little groove which a musical phrase or the view of a church has hollowed in ourselves too arduous. But we play the symphony over and over again, we go back to look at the church until — in that flight far away from our own life which we have not the courage to face called erudition — we get to know them as well, and in the same way as the most accomplished musical or archaeological amateur. And how many stop at that point, get nothing from their impression, and ageing useless and unsatisfied, remain sterile celibates of art! To them come the same discontents as to virgins and idlers whom the fecundity of labour would cure. They are more exalted when they talk about works of art than real artists, for their enthusiasm, not being an incentive to the hard task of penetrating to the depths, expands outwards, heats their conversation and empurples their faces; they think they are doing something by shrieking at the tops of their voices: “Bravo! Bravo!” after the performance of a composition they like. But these manifestations do not force them to clarify the character of their admiration, so they learn nothing. Nevertheless, this futile admiration overflows in their most ordinary conversation and causes them to make gestures, grimaces and movements of the head when they talk of art: “I was at a concert where they were playing music which I can assure you did not thrill me. Then they began the quartet. Ah! My word! That changed it! (The face of the amateur at that moment expresses anxious apprehension as if he were thinking: ‘I see sparks flying, there’s a smell of burning, there’s a fire!’) Bless my soul! This is maddening! It’s badly composed but it’s flabbergasting! This is no ordinary work.” But laughable as those amateurs may be, they are not altogether to be despised. They are the first attempts of nature to create an artist, as formless and unviable as the antediluvian animals which preceded those of to-day and which were not created to endure. These whimsical and sterile amateurs affect us much as did those first mechanical contrivances which could not leave the earth, in which, though the secret means remained to be discovered, was contained the aspiration of flight. “And, old fellow,” adds the amateur, taking you by the arm, “it’s the eighth time I’ve heard it and I swear to you it won’t be the last.” And in truth since they do not assimilate from art what is really nourishing, they perpetually need artistic stimulus, because they are a prey to a craving which can never be assuaged. So they will go on applauding the same work for a long time to come, believing that their presence is a duty, such as others fulfil at a board-meeting or a funeral. Then come other works whether of literature, of painting or of music which create opposition. For the faculty of starting ideas or systems and above all of assimilating them has always been much more frequent even amongst those who create, than real taste, but has been extended since the reviews, the literary papers, have multiplied (and with them the artificial profession of writers and artists). Thus the best of the young, the most intelligent, the most intense, preferred works of an elevated moral, sociological or religious tendency. They imagined that such considerations constitute the value of a work, thus renewing the error of the Davids, the Chenavards, the Brunetières; they prefer to Bergotte whose lightest phrases really exacted a much deeper return to oneself, writers who seemed more profound only because they wrote less well. The complexity of Bergotte’s writing was only meant for society people, was the comment of these democrats, who thus did society people an honour they did not deserve. But from the moment that works of art are judged by reasoning, nothing is stable or certain, one can prove anything one likes. Whereas the reality of genius is a benefaction, an acquisition for the world at large, the presence of which must first be identified beneath the more obvious modes of thought and style, criticism stops at this point and assesses writers by the form instead of the matter. It consecrates as a prophet a writer who, while expressing in arrogant terms his contempt for the school which preceded him, brings no new message. This constant aberration of criticism has reached a point where a writer would almost prefer to be judged by the general public (were it not that it is incapable of understanding the researches an artist has been attempting in a sphere unknown to it). For there is more analogy between the instinctive life of the public and the genius of a great writer which is itself but instinct, realised and perfected, to be listened to in a religious silence imposed upon all others, than there is in the superficial verbiage and changing criteria of self-constituted judges. Their wrangling renews itself every ten years for the kaleidoscope is not composed only of groups in society but of social, political and religious ideas which obtain a momentary expansion, thanks to their refraction in the masses but survive only so long as their novelty influences minds which exact little in the way of proof. Again, parties and schools succeed each other, always catering to the same mentalities, men of relative intelligence prone to extravagances from which minds more scrupulous and more difficult to convince, abstain. Unhappily, just because the former are only half-minds they require action to complete themselves and as through this they exercise more influence than superior minds, they impose themselves on the mass and create a constituency not merely of unmerited reputations and unjustifiable rancours but also of civil and exterior warfare from which a little self-criticism might have saved them. Now the enjoyment a well-balanced mind, a heart which is really alive, gets from the beautiful thought of a master, is undoubtedly wholesome, but valuable as are those who properly appreciate that thought (how many are there in twenty years?) they are reduced by their very enjoyment to being no more than the enlarged consciousness of another. A man may have done everything in his power to be loved by a woman who would only make him unhappy but has not succeeded, in spite of all his attempts during years, in obtaining an assignation with her. Instead of seeking to express his sufferings and the danger from which he has escaped, he ceaselessly re-reads this thought of Labruyère making it represent a thousand implications and the most moving memories of his own life: “Men often want to love and I do not know how to, they seek defeat without being able to encounter it and, if I may say so, are forced to remain free.” Whether this thought had this meaning or not for him who wrote it (for it to have that meaning he ought to have said “to be loved” instead of “to love” and it would have been more beautiful), it is certain that this sensitive man of letters endows the thought with life, swells it with significance until it bursts within him and he cannot repeat it without a feeling of immense satisfaction, so completely true and beautiful does it seem to him, although, after all, he has added nothing to it and it remains simply a thought of Labruyère.
How can a literature of notations have any value since it is beneath the little things it notes that the reality exists (the grandeur in the distant sound of an aeroplane, in the outline of the belfry of Saint-Hilaire, the past in the savour of a madeleine) these being without significance in themselves if one does not disengage it from them. Accumulated little by little in the memory, the chain of all the obscure impressions where nothing! of what we actually experienced remains, constitutes our thought, our life, reality and it is that lie which a so-called “lived art” would only reproduce, an art as crude as life, without beauty, a reproduction so wearisome and futile of what our eyes have seen and our intelligence has observed, that one asks oneself how he who makes that his aim can find in it the exultant stimulus which gives zest to work. The grandeur of veritable art, to the contrary of what M. de Norpois called “a dilettante’s amusement”, is to recapture, to lay hold of, to make one with ourselves that reality far removed from the one we live in, from which we separate ourselves more and more as the knowledge which we substitute for it acquires a greater solidity and impermeability, a reality we run the risk of never knowing before we die but which is our real, our true life at last revealed and illumined, the only life which is really lived and which in one sense lives at every moment in all men as well as in the artist. But they do not see it because they do not seek to illuminate it. And thus their past is encumbered with innumerable “negatives” which remain useless because the intelligence has not “developed” them. To lay hold of our life, and also the life of others, for a writer’s style and also a painter’s are matters not of technique but of vision. It is the revelation, impossible by direct and conscious means, of the qualitative difference there is in the way in which we look at the world, a difference which, without art, would remain for ever each man’s personal secret. By art alone we are able to get outside ourselves, to know what another sees of this universe which for him is not ours, the landscapes of which would remain as unknown to us as those of the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds are at our disposal, differing more widely from each other than those which roll round the infinite and which, whether their name be Rembrandt or Ver Meer, send us their unique rays many centuries after the hearth from which they emanate is extinguished. This labour of the artist to discover a means of apprehending beneath matter and experience, beneath words, something different from their appearance, is of an exactly contrary nature to the operation in which pride, passion, intelligence and habit are constantly engaged within us when we spend our lives without self-communion, accumulating as though to hide our true impressions, the terminology for practical ends which we falsely call life. In short, this complex art is precisely the only living art. It alone expresses for others and makes us see, our own life, that life which cannot observe itself, the outer forms of which, when observed, need to be interpreted and often read upside down, in order to be laboriously deciphered. The work of our pride, our passion, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits must be undone by art which takes the opposite course and, returning to the depths where the real has its unknown being, makes us pursue it. It is, of course, a great temptation to recreate true life, to renew impressions. But courage of all kinds is required, even sentimental courage. For it means above all, abrogating our most cherished illusions, ceasing to believe in the objectivity of our own elaborations and, instead of soothing ourselves for the hundredth time with the words “she was very sweet”, reading into them “I liked kissing her”. Of course what I had experienced in hours of love every other man experiences. But what one has experienced is like certain negatives which show black until they are placed under a lamp and they too must be looked at from the back; we do not know what a thing is until we have approached it with our intelligence. Only when the intelligence illuminates it, when it has intellectualised it, we distinguish, and with how much difficulty, the shape of that which we have felt.