The Consolations of Art
No matter how strange Proust’s life might have been, it has been subsumed, as he hoped, into the radiant vision of it that he presented in his writing. Nevertheless, the intensely intimate, if not always personal, quality of Proust’s novel makes him more and more popular in this age of memoirs. Whereas other modernists—Stein, Joyce, Pound—rejected confession in favor of formal experiment, Proust was a literary Cyclops, if that means he was a creature with a single, great I at the center of his consciousness, no matter that the first-person narrator is only occasionally the literal Marcel Proust. Every page of Proust is the transcript of a mind thinking. Not the pell-mell stream of consciousness of a Molly Bloom, or a Stephen Dedalus, each a dramatic character with a unique vocabulary and an individuating range of preoccupations, but rather the fully orchestrated, ceaseless, and disciplined ruminations of one mind, one voice, the sovereign intellect.
Proust may be more available to readers today than in the past because, as his life recedes in time, and the history of his period goes out of focus, he is read more as a fabulist than a chronicler, as a maker of myths rather than the valedictorian of the Belle Epoch. Under this new dispensation, Proust emerges as the supreme symphonist of the spirit. We no longer measure his accounts against a reality we know. Instead we read his fables of caste and lust, of family virtue and social vice, of the depredations of jealousy and the consolations of art not as reports, but as fairy tales. He is our Scheherazade. Of course Proust is also popular because he wrote about glamour, rich people, nobles, artists. And he wrote about love. It doesn’t seem to matter that he came to despise love, that he exploded it, reduced it to its shabbiest, most mechanical, even hydraulic terms. By which I mean he not only demystified love, he also dehumanized it, turning it into something merely Pavlovian. The love Swann feels for Odette is in no way a tribute to her charms or her soul. In fact, Swann knows perfectly well that her charms are fading and that her soul is banal.
Modern readers are responsive to Proust’s tireless and brilliant analyses of love because we too no longer take love for granted. Readers today are always making the personal public, the intimate political, the instinctual philosophical. Proust may have attacked love, but he did know a lot about it. Like us, he took nothing for granted. He was not on smug, cozy terms with his own experience. We read Proust because he knows so much about the links between childhood anguish and adult passion. We read Proust because, despite his intelligence, he holds reasoned evaluations in contempt, and understands that only the gnarled knowledge that suffering brings us is of any real use. We read Proust because he knows that in the terminal stage of passion we no longer love the beloved. The object of our love has been overshadowed by love itself. Proust writes: “. . . and this malady, which Swann’s love had become, had so proliferated, was so closely interwoven with all his habits, with all his actions, with his thoughts, his health, his sleep, his life, even with what he hoped for after his death, was so utterly inseparable from him, that it would have been impossible to eradicate it without almost entirely destroying him.” As surgeons say: his love was no longer operable.
Proust may be telling us that love is a chimera, a projection of rich fantasies onto an indifferent, certainly mysterious surface. But nevertheless, those fantasies are undeniably beautiful, intimations of paradise, the artificial paradise of art. I doubt whether many readers could ever be content with Proust’s rejection of rustling, wounded life, in favor of frozen, immobile art. But his powerful vision of impermanence certainly does speak to us. The rise and fall of individual loves on the small scale, and of entire social classes on the grand, the constant revolution of sentiments and status, is a subject Proust rehearsed and we’ve realized. Proust is the first contemporary writer of the twentieth century, for he was the first to describe the permanent instability of our times.