Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Between These Covers, There Is No False Amiability*

Fig. 1. M. C. Escher - Bonds of Union, 1956

'In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.'

Marcel Proust

* 'In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend the evening with these friends it is because we genuinely want to.' Marcel Proust

Your Ears Will Orgasm #25: J. S. Bach - Sonata for Violin Solo No.3 in C, BWV 1005, v. Arthur Grumiaux (MixPod Player)

Addendum: I'll Have The Sole, Please ... And Don't Dawdle - I'm About To Die!

'There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness. Had we been placed on earth by a malign creator for the exclusive purpose of suffering, we would have good reason to congratulate ourselves on our enthusiastic response to the task. Reasons to be inconsolable abound: the frailty of our bodies, the fickleness of love, the insincerities of social life, the compromises of friendship, the deadening effects of habit. In the face of such persistent ills, we might naturally expect that no event would be awaited with greater anticipation than the moment of our own extinction.

Anyone looking for a paper to read in Paris in the 1920s might have picked up a title called L'Intransigeant. It had a reputation for investigative news, metropolitan gossip, comprehensive classifieds and incisive editorials. It also had a habit of dreaming up big questions and asking French celebrities to send in their replies. "What do you think would be the ideal education to give your daughter?" was one. "Do you have any recommendations for improving traffic congestion in Paris?" was another. In the summer of 1922, the paper formulated a particularly elaborate question for its contributors.

An American scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed, and in such a sudden way, that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people. If this prediction were confirmed, what do you think would be its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm? Finally, as far as you're concerned, what would you do in this last hour?

The last celebrity to be consulted on his pre-apocalypse plans was a reclusive, mustachioed novelist not known for his interest in golf, tennis or bridge [though he had once tried draughts, and twice aided in the launching of a kite], a man who had spent the last fourteen years lying in a narrow bed under a pile of thinly woven woollen blankets writing an unusually long novel without an adequate bedside lamp. Since the publication of its first volume in 1913, In Search of Lost Time had been hailed as a masterpiece, a French reviewer had compared the author to Shakespeare, an Italian critic had likened him to Stendhal and an Austrian princess had offered her hand in marriage. Though he had never esteemed himself highly ["If only I could value myself more! Alas! It is impossible!"] and had once referred to himself as a flea and to his writing as a piece of indigestible nougat, Marcel Proust had grounds for satisfaction. Even the British ambassador to France, a man of wide acquaintance and cautious judgement, had deemed it appropriate to bestow on him a great, if not directly literary honour, describing him as, "The most remarkable man I have ever met - because he keeps his overcoat on at dinner."

Enthusiastic about contributing to newspapers, and in any case a good sport, Proust sent the following reply to L'Intransigeant and its catastrophic American scientist:

I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies it - our life - hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.

But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! if only the cataclysm doesn't happen this time, we won't miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X., making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn't happen, we don't do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn't have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.

Feeling suddenly attached to life when we realize the imminence of death suggests that it was perhaps not life itself which we had lost the taste for so long as there was no end in sight, but our quotidian version of it, that our dissatisfactions were more the result of a certain way of living than of anything irrevocably morose about human experience. Having surrendered the customary belief in our own immortality, we would then be reminded of a host of untried possibilities lurking beneath the surface of an apparently undesirable, apparently eternal existence.

However, if due acknowledgement of our mortality encourages us to re-evaluate our priorities, we may well ask what these priorities should be. We might only have been living half a life before we faced up to the implications of death, but what exactly does a whole life consist of? Simple recognition of our inevitable demise does not guarantee that we will latch on to any sensible answers when it comes to filling in what remains of the diary. Panicked by the ticking of the clock, we may even resort to some spectacular follies. The suggestions sent by the Parisian celebrities to L'Intransigeant were contradictory enough: admiration of Alpine scenery, contemplation of the extraterrestrial future, tennis, golf. But were any of these fruitful ways to pass the time before the continent disintegrated?

Proust's own suggestions (Louvre, love, India) were no more helpful. For a start, they were at odds with what one knows of his character. He had never been an avid museum visitor, he hadn't been to the Louvre for over a decade, and preferred to look at reproductions than face the chatter of a museum crowd ["People think the love of literature, painting and music has become extremely widespread, whereas there isn't a single person who knows anything about them".]. Nor was he known for his interest in the Indian subcontinent, which was a trial to reach, requiring a train down to Marseilles, a mailboat to Port Said and ten days on a P&O liner across the Arabian Sea, hardly an ideal itinerary for a man with difficulty stepping out of bed. As for Miss X, to his mother's distress, Marcel had never proved receptive to her charms, nor to those of the Misses A to Z; and it was a long time since he had bothered to ask if there was a younger brother at hand, having concluded that a glass of well-chilled beer offered a more reliable source of pleasure than lovemaking.

But even if he had wanted to act according to his proposals, Proust turned out to have had little chance. Only four months after sending his answer to L'Intransigeant, having predicted that something like this would happen for years, he caught a cold and died. He was fifty-one. He had been invited to a party and, despite the symptoms of a mild flu, he wrapped himself in three coats and two blankets and went out all the same. On his way home, he had to wait in a glacial courtyard for a taxi, and there caught a chill. It developed into a high fever which might have been contained, if Proust hadn't refused to take the advice of doctors summoned to his bedside. Fearing that they would disrupt his work, he turned down their offer of camphorated oil injections, and continued to write, failing to eat or drink anything besides hot milk, coffee and stewed fruit. The cold turned into a bronchitis, which snowballed into a pneumonia. Hopes of recovery were briefly raised when he sit up in bed and requested a grilled sole, but by the time the fish was bought and cooked he was seized by nausea and was unable to touch it. He died a few hours later from a burst abscess in his lung.'

Alain de Botton (from How Proust Can Change Your Life)

Addendum #2: Monty Python's All-England Summarise Proust Competition