What is left to say about Proust? In an email conversation I had recently with the professor who inspired me on this Proustian reading project, I expressed my panic at combing through Proust criticism and finding everything, well, done. Proust and film? Covered. Proust and lesbianism? Covered. À la recherché de temps perdu and American culture? Yep, covered. What follows is my attempt to make sense of a world in which over a hundred years of Proust criticism has seemingly covered all the bases. What more can we learn from these texts that has not been discussed ad infinitum already?
This summer I attended Harvard’s Institute for World Literature in Hong Kong. Although I am in a Comparative Literature Department now, my training has been in national literature departments, so this experience was invaluable insofar as it introduced me to the larger questions that world literature asks. Critics in this field see currents moving across the globe and through historical periods; as such, they search for ways in which to discuss disparate texts of all sorts. One problem I found with this approach was that these large questions—which are sometimes so large as to be practically unmanageable—sometimes beg for even larger answers. After all, how can we learn to read texts from different historical and geographic periods without sacrificing specificity? Like good academics, we theorize it away. The result is often a kind of “theory of everything” that totalizes the reading process in an artificial and problematic way.
This is not to say there are not useful things about world literature theory; there are. I, for one, find that the experience of reading “worldwide” constantly reminds me that no art is created in a vacuum. It also insists that we consider the greater implications of reading across time and space. This is what I call the “so what?” question. It’s one of my favorite topics to teach, and it’s something that students instinctively get. We cannot simply put pretty words on page, I’ll say, Walter Pater and the aestheticists be damned. We must to gesture towards some larger picture of what these words mean and why they matter. Theories of reading literature of the world allow us ways in which to ask these questions, even the answers are not always satisfactory.
Since I was reading À la recherché de temps perdu at the time, all of these questions were filtered through Proust. I traveled across the globe this summer (quite literally—I made my way to Asia over the Pacific and came home from Europe by way of the Atlantic) and for each leg of the journey Proust came with me. I found that in each place I considered these texts, my understanding of them changed. Continue reading