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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Marcel Proust as Life Coach?

Gifts of chance
Quite haphazardly I came upon a unique little non-fiction book  entitled How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (London: Picador, 1997). It came with a house we were renting in Provençe, along with a great  assortment of art books, travel guides, some good novels and interesting books on history, philosophy, self-exploration, and more. What a delight to find all this, as if waiting for me. I emailed the owners telling them how grateful I was for this gift of chance.

I so enjoyed the little book on Proust that I wanted to share it with you. Like the novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by French author and philosophy professor Muriel Barbery ( another unexpected find that I enjoyed some years ago in Europe) this book reminds me of how witty and socially relevant erudition can be. Also, how important it is to step away from one's usually crowded state of mind to see things as they are, including, along with humour and a dose of practical pessimism, the details around us.

This charming, amusing, and sensible little book presents a commentary that was reviewed as "dazzling" by John Updike. It's about the eccentric and very generous Marcel Proust, who wrote what has been hailed as 'the' or at least one of the greatest books of the 20th century. In Search of Lost Time (Recherches Des Temps Perdu, sometimes translated as Remembrance of Things Past)), is very long. I've never read it fully from cover to cover; though I might go back to it now. Even without having read Proust, one can enjoy de Botton's commentary. It seems Proust thought and wrote enough to enrich, not just literature, but also a philosophy of everyday life.
Portrait of Proust by Richard Lindner, from this site (click)
Probably none of us would choose to exchange our life for Proust's. He was often disdained as a dilettante, hypochondriac, and neurotic who spend most of his adult days in bed as an apparent invalid.  Even so, he was one of the most alive people of his time, generous to a fault, socializing with friends, possessing an extraordinary concentration and attentiveness to details  -- an elusive quality then, and especially now, in our time of multiple distractions, impatience with even the relevant details, and wholesale avoidance of complex perspectives.

Take Your Time
One chapter, for example, is entitled, "How to Take Your Time."  One of the gifts of great novels, like Recherches, is the time one can spend in them: being and reacting to their characters, settings, happenings, living in the inner and outer worlds created by the author and in which we partake. If we don't take the time, we miss the trip. As de Boton notes, why bother reading Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, or Madame Bovary if these novels can be summarized in turn a : "Tragic end for Verona lovebirds: after mistakenly thinking his sweetheart dead, a young man took his life. Having discovered the fate of her lover, the woman killed herself"; 'A young mother threw herself under a train and died in Russia after domestic problems": 'A young mother took aresenic and died in a French provincial town after domestic problems." (pp. 42-43).

N'allez pas trop vite is a request often attributed to Proust in conversation with his contemporaries. His request that we go about things slowly increases the chances of coming to know and enjoy those otherwise unnoticed things that become interesting in the process of taking our time with them. In contrast to anger, annoyance, impatience, and easy judgments, which we know are so quick and easily come by, it takes time to become engaged, to explore how we really feel, to experience empathy, and to understand.

How many of us are addicted to the quick and fast, the highly-revved spectacle? We tend to get bored and impatient with the slow-moving and habituate to being distracted, quickly losing interest rather than actively becoming engaged. Give me that video-game!

Suffer Successfully
De Botton selectively uses Proust to address common tribulations of being human, as in his chapter on "How to Suffer Successfully". Suffering seems inevitable, but Proust presents a differentiation in his characters between good sufferers (who gain more understanding and appreciation of reality from it) and bad sufferers. The latter blame others for their suffering, distract themselves from it with quick-fix addictions, delusions about self and others, or defenses that entail arrogance callousness, anger, and spite. What incentive do the bad sufferers have to face difficult truths if they so arm themselves? That's probably why we know so many of them.  Proust, himself, at the very least, was a generously good sufferer and kind to others.

Finding one's own way, one's own voice, vision, and loves is, for me, the vast theme of Recherches. Proust hated clichés and orthodoxies: "Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own tone" (p.103, and)..."only that which bears the imprint of our choice, our taste, our uncertainty, our desire and our weakness can be beautiful" (p.104). Except for caricature and melodrama, why borrow tired forms of expression? Indeed, why follow formulaic precedent at all in art or in life? 

Looking to Proust's time, and indeed our own, one reasonable rebuttal would be: because otherwise you'll risk not fitting in, be considered decadent or just plain 'bad' at whatever form of expression it is. Though there have always been those who flout convention, Proust's point isn't to make a name for yourself by pissing on monuments (as my dearest friend said).  The point is to take the time and do whatever work it takes to find your own particular right way. Courage over time.

Visual Art
Visual art is significant in Proust's novel, with one of his characters, Elstir, an impressionist painter. His paintings, like those of actual Impressionists at the time, challenged the orthodox understanding of what things looked like and what was considered beautiful. It might be quite a stretch, if you know some artists, to apply Proust's magnanimous point of view. But it may ring true if one can separate the public posturing from authentic engagement in the art-making process. For Proust, painting, like other art, serves to undo "our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits" and makes us "travel back...to the depths" to see what has been neglected or distorted (p. 112).

So what if it is in the eye of the beholder? Where's that eye looking? Not just in the obvious places and pre-determined images received from culture and celebrity branding. But it's being attentive and actively looking for beauty, as Proust would say, in the details of things: a particular blueness, or a reflection of light that strikes one as  'just so'.  Such active engagement, attentive looking, listening, and touching --in reality or imagination -- takes time and some degree of dedicated inclination or effort. That's why being an art appreciator is such a gift in itself.

Beauty can be quite modest and subtle in its effects. It may not satisfy the overly-expectant seeker. Given our drama and sensation-charged media, we might often miss out on it.  I recall the fuss a long time ago over the Met's then outlandishly expensive purchase of a Rembrandt. When I went to see it as a child, expecting a great blaze of beauty to strike me, I was disappointed: just some highlights on an old person standing in the dark. So I looked to more ostentatious paintings for the WOW I expected. It took a bit more time for me to learn that beautiful qualities in art (or people) didn't fit conspicuous categories. WOW hardly cuts it any more.  

Often there's very little to distinguish a good painting from an indifferent one. Bad paintings might show clouds well, or have some impressive technique, or so loudly declare something that they get noticed. Yet, in Proust's sense, they lack an elusive specialness, noticed perhaps in the play of small details, or in qualities of light, or of temperament in paint application, a touch that engages and perhaps transport us.

detail of still life painted in Provence by Janet Strayer
Habit  tends to erode beauty. You stop looking attentively at what's routine -- even that beautiful painting you were fortunate enough to get. As Virginia Woolf said, beauty must be broken daily to remain beautiful. We can't ever presume to know it too well.

All the light we cannot see
"How to open your eyes" is another chapter.  Proust encourages us to use paintings as examples: to look at evocative scenes of ordinary fruit and kitchen ware, of ordinary people doing ordinary things in contrast with his generation's legacy of the heroic (on the one hand) or the picturesque (on the other). In our day, the sensationally vulgar or kitsch might replace his heroic or picturesque. Still, the message holds: simple and ordinary things can be wonderfully, aesthetically, beautiful.

Proust may have over-valued painters. He wrote "I have tried to show how the great painters initiate us into a knowledge and love of the external world, how they are the ones 'by whom our eyes are opened'... I use the work of Chardin as an example, and try to show its influence on our life... by initiating us into the life of still life" (p.150, quoted by de Botton).

Even if Proust may have over-valued the artist, many would agree that we need the arts. They help us bridge the gaps, even fill in the holes, between our surroundings or immediate circumstances and something we need that is better, richer, deeper, wider, stronger, yes, beautiful. In so doing, our life also changes, in moments and bits, as we look for and appreciate special moments.

All the light we cannot see is a lovely metaphor and the title of a fine novel by Anthony Doerr. Well worth reading for its own sake, it's also meaningful in this context. The arts can enhance our perceptions and meaningfully link to our lives even if we are 'blind' and however gruesome our situation. But we also need a certain kind of courage and humility: a dedicated willingness to attend, remain open, look, listen, seek, acknowledge and appreciate,  again... and again.

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