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The Phenomenological Proust

December 24th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 5 Comments

What is the world’s most boring novel? Easy! It’s Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust. The main reason why is, nothing happens. The narrator (Proust) waits for his mother to kiss him goodnight. Everybody sits around waiting for dinner at the Verdurins. It’s raining, so the narrator (Proust, again) can’t go outside to play with Gilberte. Swann, by far the most irritating character in the book (and probably one of the most irritating characters ever devised), conducts an endless interior monologue with himself, utterly fascinated by his own thoughts. Only once does he make the movement from thought to action – when he sets off into the Paris night to find Odette, who wasn’t at the Verdurin’s, but may be at Prévost’s. Writes Proust:

“And then, in a moment of illumination, like a man in a fever who awakes from sleep and is conscious of the absurdity of the dream-shapes among which his mind has been wandering without any clear distinction between himself and them, Swann suddenly perceived how foreign to his nature were the thoughts which he had been revolving in his mind ever since he had heard at the Verdurins’ that Odette had left, how novel the heartache from which he was suffering, but of which he was only now conscious, as though he had just woken up.”

Emphasis added. In other words, Swann experiences a condition of sudden dissonance; the conceptual schematic of his world becomes reorganized. His outlook comprises only his expectations and his reactions to events, to begin with; those reactions either do, or don’t, correspond to his expectations, in varying degrees. Odette didn’t “cause” Swann to become disconcerted, by not being at the Verdurins. It would be entirely mistaken to characterize this as her “intention.” Rather, because she is a natural, essentially naïve creature, she just did whatever she was going to do. Only through an act of interpretation does Swann attach meaning, and significance, to Odette’s behavior.

In much the same way, Odette certainly doesn’t make Swann fall in love with her, through the deployment of her feminine guiles, or some such. Rather, he falls in love with her, or, we should say, an idealized version of her. This is all the more ironic, because only her absence, albeit temporary, caused him to recognize these feelings, to begin with. She wholly is a creation of Swann’s imagination, in much the same way James Joyce invented the personage of Nora Barnacle. “To any other writer of the time, Nora Barnacle would have seemed ordinary; Joyce, with his need to seek the remarkable in the common-place, decided she was nothing of the sort,” Ellman, R., James Joyce 163 (1959) (emphasis added). Swann not only thus elevated Odette; the chamber-maids and common women, to whom he usually was attracted, also ascended to a similarly rarefied aesthetic plane.

“To seek the remarkable in the common-place.” That’s a good description of Proust’s project, too. For, at heart, Proust is a phenomenologist. Swann’s Way entirely comprises its veneer – a high-gloss, lustrous, but entirely superficial, patina. [How appropriate, then, its topic is the artificiality of manners and bourgeoisie Parisian society.] A philosopher like Edmund Husserl would call this “flowing conscious life,” Husserl, E. (tr. Cairns, D.), Cartesian Mediations 31 (1970). It is “the orientation of any perceptual experience referring to the reality of the world. There is no way to grasp the world prior to reflection when we discuss the natural attitude, but that attitude is precisely pre-reflective and enmeshed in a naïve living of its own experience – a life immanently grasped as real,” Natanson, M., Edmund Husserl – Philosopher of Infinite Tasks 20 (1973).

But Proust is not content merely to rest upon pre-cognitive flights of efflorescence. Rather, as with Husserl, he “can at any time direct his reflective regard; he can contemplate it and, in respect of its contents, explicate and describe it,” Cartesian Meditations 31. In this way, “the straightforward acts become accessible to us,” 33. Husserl calls this a process of “natural reflection.” For example, “I remember having heard this melody,” 34 – an apt example, in light of Proust’s interminable digressions on Vinteuil’s “Sonata for Piano and Violin.” Over the course of many pages, Proust transforms the simple sensation of vibrations in the auditory canal, comprising the hearing of the Sonata itself, into a complex metaphor for his relationship with Odette.

For the phenomenologist, there still is another step, which “is not to repeat the original process, but to consider it and explicate what can be found in it,” Cartesian Meditations 34 – a kind of reflecting on the “process of reflecting,” itself. One must “inhibit or suspend (put out of action, ‘turn off’) all belief in existence that accompanies our everyday life and even our scientific thinking. Instead, concentrate on the concrete phenomenon in all its aspects and varieties, intuit its essence, analyze and describe it without any consideration of its reality,” Spiegelberg, H., The Phenomenological Movement – An Historical Introduction 134 (1971). “Reflection frees the world as intended from a certain opaque power of absolute existence which impregnates experience at the same time that it devours me, its witness. But in ceasing to sink into and to lose itself in lived and living experience, the ego splits itself correlatively: an ‘uninterested’ impartial spectator wrenches itself away from ‘interest in life,’” Ricoeur, P. (tr. Ballard, E. & Embree, L.), Husserl – An Analysis of His Phenomenology 94 (1967).

And there can be no question, Proust does exactly this. He is, in the first instance, like a bird seeking bright shiny objects for its nest, or a bee flitting from flower to flower. All surface textures intrigue him immensely; the ways light reflects, colors combine, and perceptions blur. Proust’s descriptions of visual objects remind one (not surprisingly) of an impressionist painting – his colors are limpid, pastel. In much the same way, his descriptions of music remind one (again, not surprisingly) of impressionistic French music, for example, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Faure, or Saint-Saens – his notes are languid, held in a kind of gossamer suspension.

But, after making these observations, Proust invariably analyzes his characters’ reactions to same, and their reactions to their reactions, and so forth, in a seemingly endless spiral. Every little thing, no matter how trivial, prompts a pause, followed by a digression to comment on it, its meaning and significance. “The phenomenologist can, at will, through an act of reflection, change the intentional correlate of his act into an object of a second-order act. He can think of the thought rather than the object he is thinking about, and he then becomes aware that the thought was present all along. He can also reflect on the second-order thought by which is attention was directed to the first-order thought, etc. On reflection we can thus discover something thought in each act of thinking, something wished in each wishing, something judged in each judging, etc., whether the object of these thoughts, wishes, and judgments exist or not” (emphasis added), Dreyfus, H., “The Perceptual Noema,” Dreyfus, H. & Hall, H. (eds.) Husserl – Intentionality & Cognitive Science 101 (1982). “We are to ‘bracket,’ or abstain from positing the existence of, the natural world around us. That is, we put out of action the general thesis of the everyday ‘natural’ standpoint, our background presupposition that there exists a world independent of our experience. We will then, Husserl holds, be in a position to describe ‘pure’ consciousness, abstracting from its embeddedness in the world of nature. … The use of the method of bracketing implies that such attention involves no concern for whether these objects really exist” (emphasis added), Smith, B. & Smith, D., “Introduction,” Smith, B. & Smith, D. (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Husserl 11 (1995).

As both Prof. Dreyfus and the Profs. Smith observe, as part of this process, the real-world existence of the object of thought essentially becomes irrelevant, just as it is for Proust. Swann could care less whether Odette “actually” exists; it is enough for the thought of her to be his muse, to pique his aesthetic imagination, to provide him with an endless stream of data, upon which to ponder. While there are many examples of this, the most noteworthy is when Swann contemplates whether or not to travel to Pierrefonds to see Odette, where she has been spirited away for the day by the Verdurins. “For, after all, the time-table, and the trains themselves, were not meant for dogs. If the public were carefully informed, by means of printed advertisements, that at eight o’clock in the morning a train started for Pierrefonds which arrived there at ten, that could only be because going to Pierrefonds was a lawful act, for which permission from Odette would be superfluous; an act, moreover, which might be performed from a motive altogether different from the desire to see Odette, since persons who had never even heard of her performed it daily, and in such numbers as justified the labour and expense of stoking the engines.”

Swann goes on to imagine the various ways in which he might encounter Odette, were he to venture forth to Pierrefonds. They might meet at a restaurant, or on a walk, or an excursion through the district. But actually seeing her isn’t the point; rather, the thought of seeing her brings Swann the most satisfaction. “Even before he saw Odette, even if he did not succeed in seeing her there, what a joy it would be to set foot on that soil where, not knowing the exact spot in which, at any moment, she was to be found, he would feel all around him the thrilling possibility of her suddenly appearing.” In fact, if he was to find her, “he would have hastened away at once with studied indifference, satisfied that he had seen Odette and she him, especially that she had seen him when he was not, apparently, thinking about her.” Swann, in short, is “in love with being in love,” an almost narcissistic state of self-reflection, verging on self-mortification. As if to contrast the relative mind-sets of the two, Proust goes on to observe Odette, on the other hand, “had never given him a thought.”

The eminent critic Wallace Fowlie characterized Proust’s description of Swann’s reveries as “no ordinary introspection or day-dreaming, but the kind capable of leading the artist into a form of ecstasy where he has access to intuitions of reality. Proust explained on several occasions, notably in the final chapter of his novel, that his work came from a revelation, a profound intuition,” Fowlie, W., A Reading of Proust 60 (2d. ed. 1975). In this way, Swann learns “the first great principle Proust the novelist wants to demonstrate: that the soul is not an impenetrable and forbidding void, but the container of a great richness,” 71. “Time is the force that slowly and inexorably destroys everything. But memory is time’s only deterrent, the one staying factor, the one force for permanence,” 72. One might as well add, a great richness, each and every aspect of which Proust feels obligated to explicate in detail. In addition to remembering experience, Fowlie might have added: and also writing it down, as did Proust, so it can be preserved for later analysis and reflection.

So what’s the problem? We have Proust the phenomenologist, excelling not only at describing surface textures, but also the process of reflection, the wheels of thought slowly grinding in his characters’ heads. Correlatively, however, the reader becomes ever more bored – for the simple reason there comes a time, when you no longer care what these people are thinking, it’s gone on for so long and to such little point. Furthermore, in a subtle but pervasive way, Proust implies Swann’s perceptions somehow are “better,” or at least more vivid, than Odette’s; in fact, Swann thinks Odette is stupid. I for one would have enjoyed hearing her side of the story, which Proust ignores completely.

I don’t contend this is the inevitable result of a phenomenological-novelistic technique; only, Proust fails to iterate it satisfyingly. Ulysses by James Joyce certainly deploys the same procedural methodology, with all of the action (more accurately, in-action) crammed into a single day, albeit from the perspective of multiple characters. In fact, in some respects Proust adopts what I would characterize as a pre-Joycean style or technique. Odette is a kind of proto-Molly Bloom, though evidently without Ms. Bloom’s evocative mental life; it is difficult indeed to imagine Proust writing the “Penelope” chapter, closing Ulysses. In the final analysis, though, Joyce utterly fascinates, whereas Proust does not.

More recently, writers in the style of the nouveau roman, such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, have taken up the cudgel for phenomenological description/reduction. Novels like The Voyeur and Jealousy juxtapose objects and the characters’ perceptions of them; “objects are described with an application apparently out of all proportion to their insignificant – or at least purely functional – character. … His writing has no alibis, no resonance, no depth, keeping to the surface of things, examining without emphasis, favoring no one quality at the expense of another. … [H]e establishes the existence of an object so that once its appearance is described it will be quite drained, consumed, used up,” Barthes, R. (tr. Howard, R.), “Objective Literature: Alain Robbe-Grillet,” 5 Evergreen Review (Summer 1958); reprinted as an introductory essay to Robbe-Grillet, A., Jealousy (1977 ed.). While Husserl most certainly would approve, I’m not so sure about Proust.