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. In Hong Kong I finally made my way through Du côté de chez Swann in the original, and began re-reading sections of Le côté de Guermantes at Mathilda International Hospital, where I waited with a broken arm (slipped on linoleum—it’s not even a good story). In Lithuania I finished Sodome et Gomorrhe. And finally, in Paris, I devoured that last section of Le Temps retrouvé en français. I’m still making my way through the books, but taking the time to read these texts in the original is worth the time, I think.
In addition to reading Proust, learning languages, and attending seminars, I’ve also had a chance to write a bit of fiction this summer. So this question of what literature does is doubly relevant. For myself, I wonder how writing fiction could possibly matter in a world where we pray for ceasefires to be honored while simultaneously holding little hope that they will be. It’s been a tough summer, historically speaking, and I wonder what purpose literature can possibly serve in the face of such a reality. My gut tells me that the speculative imagination is a useful place to encounter the paradoxes of this quote-unquote reality, but it’s taken some time to work out some ways in which this can be true.
As far as Proust goes, I’ve discovered a couple of articles that have helped point me in useful theoretical directions. Interestingly enough, I ultimately gravitated toward secondary texts that revolved around history and Proust because they lent À la recherché de temps perdu an immediacy I was craving, especially after attending the IWL. Particularly useful was Michael Sprinker’s “History, Literature, and Proust” in Modern Fiction Studies 42.2 (1996). In this article, Sprinker discusses the rationale behind his monograph on Proust and proposes that “Recherché occupies a position of knowledge with respect to certain ideologies (snobbism, antisemitism, chauvinism, jealousy, to name some of the novel’s major motifs)” while simultaneously remaining limited in its ability to present the inner working of these ideologies (4). Over the course of the novel, class conflicts are presented, deconstructed, and dissected, but their strengths are also perpetuated. Most tellingly, Le Temps retrouvé ends with the bourgeoisie (in the form of Madame Verdurin) winning the game of struggle with the aristocracy. Sprinker, however, resists the impulse to see this as either moralistic or fatalistic. Rather, “the imaginary world of Recherché discloses the real, underlying relations of social existence that are the authentic causes of action and thought by deconstructing a whole range of historical ideologies” (8). In other words, Proust plays with such constructs in even the minute details of his text. A particularly evocative bit of Sprinker’s argument hinges on the theory that Proust’s very syntax—in its constant deferral of meaning—challenges the inevitability of ideology.
As Sprinker notes, social conflicts are played out in Recherché “with unerring historical precision” vis-à-vis the political and social configurations of France’s Third Republic (5). This is not to say that Proust’s novel is an overtly historical novel, but it is worth noting, as Perez Zagorin does in “Proust for Historians” (2006) that Proust had a lifelong fascination with the discipline of history. Zagorin’s article is a detailed exploration of the historical basis of the novel and argues for an understanding of Proust as a kind of historian, given his “focus on time as the medium of life and on memory as the preservative of the past” (397). This is particularly evident in the discussion of the Dreyfus affair, which begins in Le côté de Guermantes, as well as Proust’s discussion of “invert” (i.e. homosexual) characters such as the Marquis Robert de Saint-Loup and Charlus.
Both Sprinker and Zagorin acknowledge that, despite having strong historical, psychological, and culture ties, Recherché is its own creature. Both acknowledge the perspicacious ability of the text to equate personal and political. But while Zagorin strikes a more conservative note—he insists on a clear division between the writer of fiction and the historian who “gives a genuine knowledge of the actuality of past” (415)—Sprinker suggests that the text performs a revolutionary function. Echoing Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on Proust, he argues that Recherché “demonstrates the ineluctable force of historical mutation, not the end of history but its ongoing, partly contingent, yet utterly irresistible development” (7). While reaching into the world of historical ideologies (Sprinker provides snobbism, nationalism and anti-Semitism as examples), Proust succeeds in challenging the inevitability of such ideologies.
I’m not sure that I’ve found and answer to my question about what’s left to say about Proust. It’s a sort of unanswerable question, I guess, and something that each Proust critic will have to work out for his or her self. But I have come to some important conclusions about how my own critical bent allows me take up a topic like Proust and make it matter. Svend Erik Larsen, who taught a course on Politics and World literature at the IWL (and is one of the kindest, most wonderful humans I’ve had the pleasure to know), was fond of saying that literature opens up ambiguous spaces where something can be both black and white, right and wrong, forward and backward. In other words, literature offers us an imaginative place-that-is-no-place where we can allows paradoxes and contradictions—a uniquely important world where ideas cannot be reduced in the same way they can in, for example, legal briefs, political commentary, or historical documents. In fiction we are free to both imagine things differently and describe them as they are, two processes that would be mutually exclusive in other realms of discourse.
Simply put, reading Proust allows us to reach into the past at the same time as we can, potentially re-imagine our future. Like Sprinker, I believe that literature has the power to gesture to our world in ways that are powerful and, yes, even revolutionary. While at the Jewish Museum in Paris this summer, I watched a documentary on contemporary views of the Dreyfus affair. Most of the views expressed were on the spectrum of the expected: what a tragedy, but the past is past. One young interviewee, however, was heated. “It is an example of the Jew’s insistence on being victims,” he said. He must have been in his early twenties, but his face was angry and contorted, as if this were an unpleasant actuality that had encroached upon his life for decades. My first response was hopelessness, but then I remembered Proust’s treatment of the subject. The Dreyfusards (like Swann) and the anti-Dreyfusards (such as Marcel’s father) do not represent stationary opposites and disagreements occur even within families. These ideologies are entrenched, Proust seems to say, but they far from inevitable.