It’s that time again: seminar paper time. Time to gear oneself up to write about something no one could possibly gain enough expertise to write about in a mere semester; time to flounder. As a way to move myself out of thinking about papers and into doing something, I recently proposed a seminar paper discussing the relationship between Marcel Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way) and 20th Century visual culture for a course I’m taking on fin de siècle literature. My professor was less than impressed. “Everyone writes about Proust and the visual,” he said, “It’s done.” I’ll admit that I hadn’t done a ton of research, and I haven’t ever written on Proust before, so it made sense that I wasn’t aware of this. (And, in fact, everyone does really want to talk about Proust and visual culture.) Instead, he suggested that I “read, read, read” not just Du côté de chez Swann but also sections from the other six volumes and a solid heaping of criticism. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be posting my thoughts about Proust’s work and the criticism it has inspired here.
This ambitious project was the first book I ordered from the library when I thought I’d be writing on the topic. Seems pretty self-explanatory, no? Well, not exactly. In her introduction, Nathalie Aubert claims that the collected articles all share an interest in phenomenological understanding of the visual that privileges perception over representation. In other words, after many years of critical exploration of Proust’s discussion of painting, theater, etc., this collection aims to unpack “the modalities of the ‘visual'” in ways that shall prove more illuminating that would a mere “focus on the diversity of systems of visual representations which were exploited by Marcel Proust in the writing of his novel” (2). It’s a tall order and the collection succeeds in some places more than others.
The text is divided into three sections: “The philosophical implications for the quest for truth,” “Proust’s response to the visual world: the verbal semiotics of translation from the seen to the unseen,” and “Other Artists’ Interpretations of À la recherche du temps perdu [In search of lost time, the title of Proust’s magnum opus as a whole.]”
The first section contains several texts which seek to locate Proust in his philosophical milieu, as well as attempts to understand his work through comparison. Nathalie Aubert offers a useful reading of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological work as it relates to Proust; Adam Watt discusses perception and grafting; Patrick ffrench uses Giorgio Agamben’s Notes on Gesture to read a passage in Le Côté de Guermantes; and Hugues Azérad discusses Proust’s aesthetic commonalities with poet Pierre Reverdy. The second section, which seeks to understand Proust as a visual writer was, to me, the most successful. In particular, Karen Haddad’s “Images Come Alive (or how to make images with words)” and “Avid Eyes and Ears: Photographic Practice, Perception and Memory in À la recherche du temps perdu” by Áine Larkin make elegant attempts to understand Proust’s syntax in visual terms. The third section, concerned with adaptations of Proust, was of least interest to me.
In her 2014 review of the text in French Studies, Erika Fülöp faults the editor for trying too hard to assemble such disparate texts under the phenomenological rubric. This may be true. But these texts also give us unique ways to think through Proust and his relation to the visual outside of traditional models.
Based on her dissertation, this monograph by Erika Fülöp proposes to argue for the ‘unity and multiplicity‘ of the narrator’s ‘twofold perception’ (9,2). Since I have an interest in the function of liminality in À la recherche du temps perdu, this was particularly useful in helping me think through Proust’s text. Her introduction and first chapter are wonderful summaries of recent criticism on “l’entre deux [the in between]” as it functions in Proust’s text. Fülöp’s addition to this scholarship focuses on the collapsing of the universal and particular, particularly as it relates to the relationship between the mundane “privliged moments” such as the madeline passage, and the ineffable moments which render the world “hopelessly multiple and ungraspable on all levels” (2). Though seemingly opposed, tese two kinds of perception, in Fülöp’s view, “point in reality in the same direction and constitute complementary pillars of an ultimately coherent thought” (3). In seeking to understand how this whole is constituted, Fülöp borrows the poststructuralist understanding of Difference and the Schellingian use of “Identity.” Both insights are worthwhile contributions to Proust scholarship.
While Fülöp’s text is illuminating, it does suffer from the dryness one expects of a post-dissertation monograph. This is especially disappointing given the subject matter, which is so aesthetically rich by comparison. The author’s strength lies in her analytical explications of Proust’s metaphysics, as reflected by 20th century philosophy. Since Fülöp does such an excellent job of naming her chapters and sections, I’ll let the contents speak for themselves:
1. Privileged Moments: Epiphany and Mystical Experience, Intellectual Intuition
2. Liminal States of Consciousness: The Moment of Awakening, ‘La regarder dormir’, Inebriation: The Dissolution of the Self
3. The Other: Separateness and the Need for the Other, The Other as Supplement and Différance, Alternative Approaches to the Other
4. The Use of Simulacra: From Illusions to Writing: ‘Cette immense implication’: Imagination and Reality, Illusions, Affirmation