Why All Habits Are Bad: Oscar Wilde & Marcel Proust

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna

Why All Habits Are Bad: Oscar Wilde & Marcel Proust

Perez Zagorin notes: “[Proust] had actually been introduced to Wilde in Paris and invited him to dinner.”[1] One could imagine they talked of nothing but women. (Or not.) Or perhaps they discussed the meaning of the word “habit.” For Wilde, habit is the enemy of all creativity, because art destroys monotony. In Wilde’s words:

Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing … He either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would be fatal to the imagination of anybody, and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so lifelike that no one can possibly believe in their probability[2]

….

You are quite delightful, but your views are terribly unsound. I am afraid that you have been listening to the conversation of some one older than yourself. That is always a dangerous thing to do, and if you allow it to degenerate into a habit you will find it absolutely fatal to any intellectual development.[3]

….

Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine. In Art, the public accept what has been, because they cannot alter it, not because they appreciate it. [4]

….

“Death is the only thing that ever terrifies me. I hate it.”

“Why?” said the younger man wearily.

“Because … one can survive everything nowadays except that. Death and vulgarity are the only two facts in the nineteenth century that one cannot explain away. Let us have our coffee in the music-room, Dorian. You must play Chopin to me. The man with whom my wife ran away played Chopin exquisitely. Poor Victoria! I was very fond of her. The house is rather lonely without her. Of course, married life is merely a habit, a bad habit. But then one regrets the loss even of one’s worst habits. Perhaps one regrets them the most. They are such an essential part of one’s personality.”[5]

This last passage appears to agree with Proust somewhat: no matter how horrible are all our habits, we wouldn’t be able to psychologically function. We wouldn’t be able to “get by” without them. Memory for Proust is submissive to habit. The most vivid memories are of things most forgotten, and this is because we don’t remember what we already knew.[6] It is like, says Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), an old book we pick up and thumb through before realizing, “I read this already.”[7] As Proust puts it:

Now our love memories present no exception to the general rules of memory, which in turn are governed by the still more general rules of Habit. And as Habit weakens every impression, what a person recalls to us most vividly is precisely what we had forgotten, because it was of no importance, and had therefore left in full possession of its strength. That is why the better part of our memory exists outside ourselves, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source can make us weep again. Outside ourselves, did I say; rather within ourselves, but hidden from our eyes in an oblivion more or less prolonged. It is thanks to this oblivion alone that we can from time to time recover the creature that we were, range ourselves face to face with past events as that creature had to face them, suffer afresh because we are no longer ourselves but he, and because he loved what leaves us now indifferent. In the broad daylight of our ordinary memory the images of the past turn gradually pale and fade out of sight, nothing remains of them, we shall never find them again. Or rather we should never find them again had not a few words (such as this ‘Secretary to the Ministry of Posts’) been carefully locked away in oblivion, just as an author deposits in the National Library a copy of a book which might otherwise become unobtainable. [8]

Moreover, for Proust: “in strange places where our sensations have not been numbed by habit, we refresh, we revive an old pain.” [9]

For American philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), the habits of humans reflect the patterns of their beliefs. Habits don’t just have meaning: habits are meaning. Habits are the rules of behavior that produce our character:

The feeling of believing is a more or less sure indication of there being established in our nature some habit which will determine our actions. Doubt never has such an effect….

Most frequently doubts arise from some indecision, however momentary, in our action…. The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit…. [The] whole function of thought is to produce habits of action.

….

To develop [a thing’s] meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves.

….

And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life. We have seen that it has just three properties: First, it is something that we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and, third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit. As it appeases the irritation of doubt, which is the motive for thinking, thought relaxes, and comes to rest for a moment [stasis] when belief is reached. [10]

….

That which determines us, from given premisses, to draw one inference rather than another, is some habit of mind, whether it be constitutional or acquired.

….

Thus, both doubt and belief have positive effects upon us, though very different ones. Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises. Doubt has not the least such active effect, but stimulates us to inquiry until it is destroyed. This reminds us of the irritation of a nerve and the reflex action produced thereby; while for the analogue of belief, in the nervous system, we must look to what are called nervous associations—for example, to that habit of the nerves in consequence of which the smell of a peach will make the mouth water.[11]

….

Attention is the power by which thought at one time is connected with and made to relate to thought at another time; or, to apply the conception of thought as a sign, that it is the pure demonstrative application of a thought-sign…. Attention produces effects upon the nervous system. These effects are habits, or nervous associations.[12]

Finally, compare some remarks from philosopher of religion James Bissett Pratt (1975–1944), who seems to imply that creativity abides in non-belief:

The truth is, non-belief, like belief, draws its strength not only from reason but from authority; in fact, for many enthusiastic students of science the will not to believe has a good deal to do with the result. In certain scientific circles it is not good form to believe in a future life; and the ascetic ideal which would sacrifice selfish interests for the personal values of science also comes into play. Moreover non-belief, like belief, is not merely a product of logical argument, authority, habit, and volition, but is largely influenced also by the imagination; and the peculiarly objective point of view which natural science inculcates and the habit it produces of considering causation and the laws of matter universal and invariable, give a certain cast to the imagination which makes the idea of the survival of bodily death increasingly difficult.[13]

….

Among all peoples—and the Indians are no exceptions—authority and habit have always been two most important foundations of faith. Moreover, if they regarded nature and the experiences of life, they saw multiplicity and a world of apparently many powers. It was only among the philosophers that reason’s demand for unity was strong enough to overcome all these things.[14]

The subconscious is eminently conservative. And in whatever way you interpret the “subconscious” this remains true. The conservative nature of the physiological is painfully evident to every one who has tried to break a habit.[15]

For Pratt (as well as Wilde) habits are conservative; art is radical. Our habits make us regress, but our imaginations help us progress.

NOTES

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[1] Zagorin, Perez. “Proust for Historians.” New Literary History. Vol. 37, No. 2. (Spring 2006.) 389–423 at 404–05.

[2] Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde. Vol. VII. NY: The Nottingham Society. 1909. pp. 9–10.

[3] Wilde, Oscar.  “The Critic as Artist: Parts I & II.” Intentions. London: Osgood, McIlvaine, London; New York, NY: Dodd, Mead. 1891. p. 91.

[4] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. 1891.

[5] Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1890. “Chapter 19.”

[6] Plato, Meno 79C–86E.

[7] Montaigne, Michel de. Essaies. (Essays.) “On Books.” 1580.

[8] Proust, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. (Within a Budding Grove / In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.) 1919. “Place Names: The Name.”

[9] Proust, Du côté de chez Swann. (Swann’s Way.) 1913. “Swann in Love.”

[10] Peirce, Charles Sanders. “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly. Vol. 12. (January 1878.) pp. 286–302.

[11] Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly. Vol. 12. (November 1877.) pp. 1–15.

[12] Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Vol. 2. (1868.) pp. 140–57.

[13] Pratt, James Bissett. “Some Psychological Aspects of the Belief in Immortality.” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 12. No. 3. (July 1919.) 294–314 at 300–01.

[14] Pratt, The Psychology of Religious Belief. NY: Macmillan. 1908. p. 93.

[15] Pratt, “The Subconscious and Religion.” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 6. No. 2. (April 1913.) 209–28 at 224.

 


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