prouston, we have a problem
the rigors of time, memory, and canonized french novellists
The French novelist Marcel Proust often wrote that it is the individual’s duty to recover their own story—that in order to understand our true nature, we must understand how we see and have seen the world. Essentially, if you want to live a conscious—that is to say, “woke”—life, you must take some time alone to shuffle through your mental library of memories and experiences; you must study what makes you you. Proust achieves this objective in his masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past by examining his life, from a childhood in Combray to his time in the world as an older man. In revisiting his past, Proust unearths how he sees and how he previously saw the world. In this way, the novel is something of a credo, advocating for its own form and calling its readers to piece together their own pasts and discover the nature of individual experiences through art. Proust wanted to help us realize that we are, especially with regard to memory and experience, unbelievably complicated.
A noble thought, certainly, but Proust’s method of self-discovery preferences the individual’s reality at the expense of all else. “The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something that does not exist,” he wrote. Yikes. If “reality” is to be understood only through the creation and consumption of your own art, what’s to differentiate Proust’s method from solipsism (a personal philosophy in which other people quite literally do not exist)? Surely there must be a happy medium between other people and oneself.
I thought about the importance of others a lot during the Proust, Joyce, and Faulkner class I took last semester with Professor Arnold Weinstein. At the beginning of the semester we discussed ways we could “recover our own story” through texts—the quoted phrase being the Weinstein-approved way to describe the feeling of Holy crap—after reading this, I feel I know myself better! or Whoa, this makes me realize I know so little about myself, and I want to work to find out the Truth! Figuring out this Truth (or acknowledging that it cannot be figured out, which is a Truth in and of itself) is recovering one’s story. This was the pitch to students taking the class: read these incredibly detailed accounts of human consciousness, think about them, and you will learn something profound about yourself. If Proust had been in our class, he probably would have loved it. In the eyes of Proust, profound learning must be a solitary process of reading, writing, and thinking: Self-discovery requires one to journey alone and “plumb the depths” of oneself.
However, I think self-discovery on a Proustian scale can and should happen with the help of others. After all, our relations with other people add meaning to our lives, and the people who we’re friends with are the people who share stories and experiences with us. Sure, “recovering one’s story” does take some individual effort and thinking—Proust is right about that part—but I think it’s important to find ourselves as we truly are: not alone, but surrounded by people who color our lives.
I was talking with my brother a while ago about some of our defining memories growing up together. I was explaining how I remembered life in our old house and what it meant to me, and he said something along the lines of, “You know, I don’t remember it like that. I see it more like this.” Surprised, I thought to myself, “How can there even be another way to remember this? We lived through the same thing!” But after asking him a few questions and hearing the way he saw things, I realized that there are any number of ways to remember the same experience. It was as if my mind had glimpsed another dimension, a greater truth that neither my memory nor my brother’s could perceive alone. Taken together, our perspectives pointed to the truth of memory as a creative act far removed from any individual documentation of the past. I didn’t feel like I’d reached any profound truth at the time. However, after reading Proust I understood that this realization was on the level of old man Marcel’s epiphany in the seventh book of Remembrance of Things Past. Stepping on a stone a certain way and hearing a certain sound, Marcel triggers a childhood memory, inspiring pages and pages worth of text about the limitation and beauty of human experience and memory. As I sat there with my brother, I remember thinking, “Whoa, memory is wild.” And I didn’t need a book—just a good conversation.
We get this “whoa” feeling every time we truly share perspectives with someone else. The Proustians might say, “Well, you can never truly know someone else’s perspective, only infer it from their communication,” but this doesn’t matter—if we can at least think of other people as having different perspectives from ours, mission accomplished. As long as we’re at least trying to understand these perspectives, we can reach something closer to truth by realizing the limitation of our individual perspectives and memories.
Anyway, I don’t mean to bash Proust too much, but I think that when you put his thesis in simple English—essentially, “Hole up for years, search yourself, and overcome your individual blindness to produce a work of art that will let people sort of understand you,”—it sounds a little ridiculous. Art is great; and if it helps you understand yourself, hats off to you, but all I need in order to overcome my individual blindness is good conversation and connection with others, sharing memories and experiences. I feel fulfilled when I’m talking to my best friends about more profound subjects because they see me as someone with a perspective different from theirs and try to understand me. They’ve gotten better at this as we’ve done more things together. I feel like my friends and I occasionally approach true understanding—there are certainly a good number of “whoa” moments. So if I write my novel, I don’t think I’ll be hiding away. Sorry, Proust.