Thursday, 7 July 2011

Proust II

Marcel Proust

For those interested in Proust’s character and who haven’t seen it before, the Proust questionnaire is worth a look. However, this second post on Proust is a brief look at the philosophy behind his novel À la recherche du temps perdu, because he certainly saw himself as a kind of literary philosopher.

Proust had no great faith in reason, no inclination to search for the truth by analysis other than a kind of analysis by introspection. He believed in psychological laws, but preferred to rely on intuition to uncover them. He also believed that the people who are most able to reveal deep truths to us are artists, with whom he classed himself. Another main plank of his philosophy was the high value he placed on involuntary memory, those little flashbacks we all experience from time to time, seemingly triggered by almost any mundane experience from the odour of polish to a window flashing in the sunlight.

As already noted in the first post, Proust also paid great attention to habits, to the way they establish themselves, the way they must establish themselves if we are to live without having to pay attention to details such as the usual position of the dining table or the bedroom furniture. Of course we all know about the power of habits when we drive to work only to discover when we arrive that we can’t remember the journey. In the UK, we show our failure to learn this particular lesson every time someone has to take the written part of the driving test. Driving a car is more about establishing good, largely unconscious habits rather than knowing things.

Proust did not seem to be greatly interested in social or political matters, although the Dreyfus affair forms a significant backdrop to a large part of his novel. He was an avid social-climber, deeply interested in the French aristocracy, but as an observer initially seduced by historical romanticism, then later fascinated by a dying social phenomenon.

I’m not sure that one can take Proust’s philosophy of life very far, but I certainly find it interesting and useful. I find myself noticing my own habits, physical habits, habits of thought, that kind of thing. Beliefs too – since reading Proust I’ve taken more interest in where my own beliefs come from, even though I’ve always tended to do that anyway. Because all our beliefs come from somewhere, don’t they?


James Higham said...

Life in a piece of madeleine cake.

A K Haart said...

I think it strikes a chord with most of us.