Commentary on Proust – No. 1

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Commentary on Proust – No. 1

Because my bookclub is reading Proust this month, I thought I would start posting some portions of my notes. Let’s start with what other artists and critics have had to say:

Paul Valéry in 1913:

For every man, and from the same materials, several ‘personalities’ are possible. Sometimes coexisting, more or less equally.––Sometimes a childish personality re-emerges during one’s forties. You think you’re the same. There is no same.

We believe that we might, from childhood, have become a different person, lived a different life––We picture ourself being quite different. But the possibility of re-grouping the same elements in several different ways still remains––this calls into question how we see time. There’s no lost, past time, as long as these other persons are possible.[1]

J. Murray in 1926:

What Proust aims at is a mental reconstruction of his past. He tries to recapture all the forgotten sensations that constitute his past life. In this ‘novel of memory,’ as his work has been called, the greatest innovation is Proust’s conception of memory itself. He maintains that, in reconstituting the past, it is not conscious memory but involuntary memory that is the most important factor. It is not the things we have always remembered of the past that keep the past alive in us, it is the things which, having been completely forgotten, are recalled in all their original vividness by some trivial sensation, and not by an act of the intelligence at all….[2]

If we can only recapture the past by recapturing the actual sensation belonging to it, Proust concludes that our past joys and griefs are not always in our possession. But if by any chance we are brought into contact with the whole framework of sensations in which our past joys and sorrows are stored away, then these past sensations can again exercise a great power over us, because for the time being they instal [sic.] within us, as it were, the being we were at the time when they first affected us….[3]

Proust reduces love at most to a mere series of ‘intermittences’ of the heart. He regards it as something relative, and denies its existence as an absolute reality. It is only because we are forgetful or ignorant of the extent to which we are creatures of change that the illusion of love is possible. [4]

Henry Miller in 1934:

I find myself in a world so natural, so complete, that I am lost. I have the sensation of being immersed in the very plexus of life, focal from whatever place, position or attitude I take my stance. Lost as when once I sank into the quick of a budding grove and seated in the dining room of that enormous world of Balbec, I caught for the first time the profound meaning of those interior stills which manifest their presence through the exorcism of sight and touch. Standing on the threshold of that world which Matisse has created I re-experienced the power of that revelation which had permitted Proust to so deform the picture of life that only those who, like himself, are sensible to the alchemy of sound and sense, are capable of transforming the negative reality of life into the substantial and significant outlines of art. [5]



[1] Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1913. N 13, V, 92.) [p. 329].

[2] Murray, J. “Marcel Proust.” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 21, No. 1. (January 1926.) 34–43 at 38.

[3] Murray, “Marcel Proust” 40.

[4] Murray, “Marcel Proust” 40–41.

[5] Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. 1934. NY: Grove Press. 1961. VIII, 162–63.