Thursday, January 14, 2016

How Proust Can Change Your Life - [Book Notes]

Not my high school photo
I've heard the name Marcel Proust many times, have heard his work spoken well of, and have often thought I should be reading him. Alas, I have never picked up one of his works. But after listening to an interview with Alain de Botton, I read his book called How Proust Can Change Your Life. Of course the title is probably a bit of an overstatement, yet the book is worth reading, if only for the chapter on learning how Proust dealt with a life of sickness, how he even saw it an advantage to help him focus on writing.

I would not have understood how this could even be possible until recently going through a season of sickness myself. And though there was much about that I did not like, I can now see how it focuses the mind and the body on the essentials and crowds out distractions. Proust  seemed to take greater delight in the very mundane things of life as a result. The whole book is worth the chapter on how to suffer well, but his insights on friendship, and thoughts on reading books make it a valuable read. 

What follows below are my notes from Alain's book. And who knows, I might even read some Proust now.

See all caps for major themes.

36 - The more an account is compressed, the more it seems that it deserves no more space than it has been allocated. How easy to imagine that nothing at all has happened today, to forget the 50,000 war dead, sigh, toss the paper to one side, and experience a mild wave of melancholy at the tedium of daily routine.

44- a similar spirit appears to have guided Proust in his reading matter. His friend Maurice Duplay tells us that what Marcel most liked reading when he couldn't get to sleep was a train timetable. The document was not consulted for practical advice; the departure time of the Saint Lazare train was of no immediate importance to a man who found no reason to leave Paris. Rather, this timetable was read and enjoyed as though it were a gripping novel about country life, because the mere names of provincial train stations provided Proust's imagination with enough material to elaborate entire worlds, to picture domestic dramas in rural villages, shenanigans in local governments, and life out in the fields.

Proust argued that enjoyment of such wayward reading matter was typical of a writer, someone who could be counted on to develop enthusiasms for things that were apparently out of line with great art, a person for whom "a terrible musical production in a provincial theater, or a ball which people of taste find ridiculous, will either evoke memories or else be linked to an order of reveries and preoccupations, far more then some admirable performance at the Opera or an ultra smart soiree in the Faubourg Saint Germain. The names of Northern Railway stations in a timetable, where he would like to imagine himself stepping from the train on an autumn evening, when the trees are already bare and smelling strongly in the Keen Air, an insipid publication for people of taste, full of names he has not heard since childhood, may have far greater value for him then fine volumes of philosophy, and the people of taste to say that for a man of talent, he has very stupid tastes."  Or at least, unconventional tastes. This often became apparent to people who met Proust for the first time and were quizzed on aspects of their life which they had previously considered with all the meager spiritual attention usually paid to ads for household goods and timetables from Paris to Le Have.

64- Robert Proust, two years younger than he, the surgeon like his father ( the author of an acclaimed study of the surgery of the female genitalia), and built like an ox. Whereas Marcel could be killed by a draft, Robert was indestructible. When he was 19, he was riding a tandem bicycle in Henryville, a village on the Seine few miles north of Paris. At a busy junction, he fell from his tandem and slipped under the wheels of an approaching five-ton pull wagon. The wagon rolled over him, he was rushed to the hospital, his mother hurried from Paris in a panic, but her son made a rapid and remarkable recovery, suffering none of the permanent damage the doctors had feared. When the First World War broke out, the Ox, now a grown-up surgeon, was posted to a field hospital... where he lived in a tent and worked in exhausting and unsanitary conditions. One day, a shell landed on the hospital, and shrapnel scattered around the table where Robert was operating on a German soldier. Though hurt himself, Dr. Proust single handedly moved his patient to a nearby dormitory and continued the operation on a stretcher. A few years later, he suffered a grave car accident when his driver fell asleep and the vehicle collided with an ambulance. Robert was thrown against a wooden partition and fractured his skull, but almost before his family had had time to be informed and grow alarmed, he was back on the road to recovery and active life.

So who would one wish to be, Robert or Marcel? The advantages of being the former can be briefly summed up: immense physical energy, aptitude for tennis and canoeing, surgical skills (Robert was celebrated for his prostatectomies, an operation henceforth known in French medical circles as proustatectomies), financial success, father of a beautiful daughter, Suzy (who uncle Marcell adored and spoilt, nearly buying her a flamingo when she expressed a passing desire for one as a child). And Marcel? No physical energy, couldn't play tennis or canoe, made no money, had no children, enjoyed no respect until late in life, then felt too sick to derive any pleasure from it (a lover of analogies drawn from illness, he compared himself to a man afflicted with too high a fever to enjoy a perfect souffle).

However, an area in which Robert appeared to trail his brother was in the ability to notice things. Robert did not show much reaction when there there was a window open on a pollen rich day or 5 tons of coal had run over him; he could have traveled from Everest to Jericho and taken little note of an altitude change, or slept on 5 tins of peas without suspecting that there was anything unusual under the mattress.

Though such sensory bindness is often rather welcome, particularly when one is performing an operation during a shell barrage in the First World War, it is worth pointing out that feeling things (which usually means feeling them painfully) is at some level linked to the acquisition of knowledge. A sprained ankle quickly teaches us about the bodies weight distribution; hiccups force us to notice and adjust to hitherto unknown aspects of the respiratory system; being jilted by a lover is a perfect introduction to the mechanisms of emotional dependency.

In fact, in Prousts's view, we don't really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped.

"Infirmity alone makes us take notice and learn, and enables us to analyze processes which we would otherwise know nothing about. A man who falls straight into bed every night, and ceases to live until the moment when he wakes and rises, will surely never dream of making, not necessarily great discoveries, but even minor observations about sleep. He scarcely knows that he is asleep. A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, and throwing a ray of light upon that darkness. An unfailing memory is not a very powerful incentive to study the phenomena of memory."

68- "happiness is good for the body" Proust tells us, "but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind."

These griefs put us through a form of mental gymnastics which we would have avoided in happier times. Indeed, if a genuine priority is the development of our mental capacities, the implication is that we would be better off being unhappy than content, better off pursuing tormented love affairs than reading Plato or Spinoza.

It is perhaps only normal if we remain ignorant when things are blissful. When a car is working well, what incentive is there to learn of its complex internal functioning? When a beloved pledges loyalty, why should we dwell on the dynamics of human treachery? What could encourage us to investigate the humiliation of social life when all we encounter is respect? Only when plunged into grief do we have the Proustian incentive to confront a difficult truth, as we will under the bedclothes, like branches in the autumn wind.

76- psychoanalytic literature tales of a woman who felt faint whenever she sat in a library. Surrounded by books, she would develop nausea and could gain release only by leaving their vicinity. It was not, as might be supposed, that she was averse to books, but rather that she wanted them and the knowledge they contained far too badly, that she felt her lack of knowledge far too strongly and wanted to have read everything on the shelves at once - and because she could not, needed to flee her unbearable ignorance by surrounding herself with a less knowledge laden environment.

A Precondition of becoming knowledgeable maybe a resignation and accommodation to the extent of one's ignorance, an accommodation which requires a sense that this ignorance need not be permanent, or indeed need not be taken personally, as a reflection of one's inherent capacities.

83- The lesson? To respond to the unexpected and hurtful behavior of others with something more than a wipe of the glasses, to see it as a chance to expand our understanding, even if, as Proust warns us, "when we discover the true lives of other people, the real world beneath the world of appearance, we get as many surprises as on visiting a house of plain exterior which inside is full of hidden treasures, torture chambers or skeletons."

Compared to these unfortunate sufferers, Proust's approach to his own grief now seems rather admirable. Though asthma made it life threatening for him to spend time in the countryside, though he turned purple at the sight of a lilac and bloom, he did not peevishly claim that flowers were boring or trumpet the advantages of spending the year in a shuttered room.

The moral? To recognize that our best chance of contentment lies in taking up the wisdom offered to us in coded form through our coughs, allergies, social gaffes, and emotional betrayals, and to avoid the ingratitude of those who blame the peas, the boards, the time, and the weather.

(JCM: note that Proust knew how to make the most of his sickness and do what he could and to take advantage of his constraints.)

85- There may be significant things to learn about people by looking at what annoys them most.

88- The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of a very good ones

120- Given the effort and strategic intelligence he devoted to friendship, it shouldn't surprise us. For instance it is often assumed, usually by people who don't have many friends, that friendship is a hollow sphere in which what we wish to talk about effortlessly coincides with others' interests. Proust, less optimistic than this, recognized the likelihood of discrepancy, and concluded that he should always be the one to ask questions and address himself to what was on your mind rather than risking boring you with what was on his.

To do anything else would have been bad conversation on manners: "There is a lack of tact in people who in their conversation look not to please others, but to elucidate, egotistically, points that they are interested in."  Conversation required an application of oneself in the name of pleasing companions. "When we chat, it is no longer we who speak... we are fashioning ourselves then in the likeness of other people, and not of a self that differs from them."

129- More interesting than the letters we send our friends may be the ones we finish, then decide not to mail after all. Found among his papers after his death was a note Proust had written to Gregh a little before the one he actually sent. It contained a far nastier, far less acceptable, but far truer message. It thanked Gregh for the house of childhood, [a Book Greg had written and asked Proust for feedback on after criticizing one of Proust's works], but then limited itself to praising the quantity, rather than the quality, of this poetic output, and went on to make wounding reference to Gregh's pride, distrustfulness, and childlike soul.

Why didn't he send it? Thought the dominant view of grievances is that they should invariably be discussed with their progenitors, the typically unsatisfactory results of doing so should perhaps urg us to reconsider. Proust might have invited Gregh to a restaurant, offered him the finest grapes on a vine plant, pressed a 500 Frank tip into the waiters hand for good measure, and begin to tell his friend in the gentlest voice that he seemed a little too proud, had some problems with trust, and that his soul was a touch childlike, only to find Gregh turning red in the face, pushing aside the grapes, and walking angrily out of the restaurant, to the surprise of the richly remunerated waiter. What would this have achieved, aside from unnecessarily alienating proud Gregh? And anyway, had Proust really become friends with this character in order to share his palm readers insights with him?

Instead, these awkward thoughts were better entertained elsewhere, in a private space designed for analysis too wounding to be shared with those who had inspired them. A letter that never gets sent is such a place. A novel is another.

130- One way of considering In Search of Lost Time is as an unusually long unsent letter, the antidote to a lifetime of Proustification, the flip side of the Athenas, lavish gifts, and long stemmed chrysanthemums, the place where the unsayable was finally granted expression..

168- the Duchess fails to appreciate her dresses not because they are less beautiful than other dresses, but because physical possession is so easy, which fools her into thinking that she has acquired everything she wanted, and distracts her from pursuing the only real form of possession that is effective in Proust eyes - namely, imaginative possession (dwelling on the details of the dress, the folds of the material, the delicacy of the thread), an imaginative possession that Albertine already pursues through no conscious choice because it is a natural response to being denied physical contact.

179- it is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books (which allows us to see the role at once essential yet limited that reading may play in our spiritual lives) and for the other they may be called "conclusions" but for the reader "incitements." We feel very strongly that our own wisdom begins where that of the author leaves off, and we would like him to provide us with answers when all he is able to do is provide us with desires.... That is the value of reading, and also its inadequacy. To make it into a discipline is to give too larger role to what is only an excitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.

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