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Proust’s Madeleine: Learning and Indirection   2 comments

MadeleinesThe most famous scene in Marcel Proust’s monumental novelistic cycle In Search of Lost Time involves a cup of tea and a madeleine, a kind of French biscuit (cookie). In that scene, the narrator, Marcel, dips the madeleine into his tea and is suddenly, without warning, transported back into a labyrinth of memories, a whole lifetime of impressions that subsequently become the base material for Proust’s gargantuan work.

Now, I want you to do an experiment. I want you to take a cup of tea and a madeleine – I’ve baked a few just so that you can try this out – and replicate Marcel’s actions. Okay. What happened? Yes, yes, the madeleine was delicious, I’m an excellent baker, but putting that aside, what about the rush of impressions? The flood of memories? Were you transported into a meditative state that inspired you frantically to write down every detail of your life? No? Well, why not? Why should this work for Marcel and not for you?

This experiment came to mind as I was reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life for the book club that I attend each month.  The experiment, of course, is designed to fail (and also provide an excuse for eating a delicious madeleine!). But what it illustrates to me, more seriously, is a realization that cuts to the  heart of why de Botton’s book is a horrendous misreading not only of Proust, but also of what novels do in general.

Even though they fall under the collective umbrella of literature, the genres of the fable and the novel are quite different in their intentions. Read to the end of Aesop’s “The Fox and the Bunch of Grapes,” for instance, and the author explains the moral of the tale you have just read: “Similarly, certain people, [just like the fox,] not being able to run their affairs well because of their inefficiency, blame the circumstances.” But flip to the end of In Search of Lost Time or Great Expectations or Gravity’s Rainbow and you’ll find no such explanation. It’s not that the novelist has forgotten to put it in there, nor because there is any shortage of moral messages in novels, but instead this absence arises from the fact that novels are meant to be read in a way that differs markedly from the purposes of the fable.

The great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin argues that the history of literature shows an evolution from early forms, which are characterized by their imposition of a single perspective and voice, to the gradual emergence of the novel, which incorporates multiple voices that are in dialogue with each other. While I don’t agree with the implication that fables and other early genres lack complexity, I do think Bakhtin’s insight into the character of the novel is correct: we ought to read every voice, every opinion, every action, not as a didactic assertion from the author about how we should see the world, but as one idea that is being played off against a whole series of competing points of view. For Bakhtin, then, the worst kind of novel is one that preaches at us, that tells us how to live rather than provoking us to enter into the dialogue and ask searching questions of ourselves.

There is a sense in which we already do this when reading drama. Take this famous dictum from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” This saying is widely quoted as an example of Shakespeare’s great wisdom, but close readers of the play will know that it carries quite a different meaning when viewed in its proper context. These words, in fact, are spoken by Polonius to his son Laertes, and carry not the conventionally understood message of “be yourself,” but rather “look out for your own interests,” a less morally glamorous meaning that is appropriate coming from such a self-serving toady. It is a mistake, then, to attribute these words so carelessly to Shakespeare the person: they occur in a dialogical situation in the play that changes their meaning and, in so doing, strips them of their general applicability as a moralistic proverb.

The greatest novelists, then, are those who are willing to step outside the comfort zone and give serious consideration in their novels to ideas and philosophies that are not their own. Bakhtin considered Dostoevsky to be one such example, and it is not hard to see why: for a devoutly Christian writer to paint such a convincingly cynical portrait of the church in The Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, is a daring and intellectually dangerous move. It not only shows the depth of Dostoevsky’s faith, but it also forces us, as readers, to question the extent to which we, in turn, are willing to ask difficult questions about our own beliefs. Dostoevsky is a brilliant novelist precisely because he raises these ethical questions without preaching to us, instead drawing readers into a dialogue of ideas that requires us to think for ourselves.

De Botton’s greatest sin in How Proust Can Change Your Life lies in the fact that he ignores this core logic of how novels work and instead uses In Search of Lost Time as a repository of maxims from which he can then draw moral lessons that suit his own middlebrow agenda. As such, Proust’s work is stripped of its status as a dialogue and transformed merely into a superficial “guide” to living. In so doing, de Botton, as he does repeatedly throughout the book, contradicts his own advice, for in the final chapter he warns that we must not treat writers as “oracles” whose wisdom we follow without question, for to do so would be to commit “artistic idolatry” – a perverse conclusion coming from a book  that even announces in its title, without any trace of irony, that it intends to do exactly that to Proust.

What de Botton overlooks is that this kind of indirection lies at the very heart of the kind of knowledge that the humanities seeks to teach. Indeed, it is something of a lost art in today’s society, which has seems only to value only those things in which the educational intention appears clearly on the surface. Thus, everyone understands, for instance, that the concepts and skills that an engineer learns are transferred directly through the classes they take and are then applied to their jobs. Engineering, business, medicine: these are all fields that rely primarily on direct learning.

But how does one become a person who is capable of learning and understands the path to success? These ingredients are just as important for becoming a successful doctor or businessman as prescribing the right pill or balancing an account book, if not more so, for such personal qualities are the foundation from which success springs. These qualities – let us bracket them under the name “wisdom” – can only be learned from experience, never directly from a book or a teacher, as Proust’s character Elstir observes:

“We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.” (p.67)

De Botton quotes this same passage but, in yet another example of self-contradiction, he nonetheless undertakes the journey of reading Proust for us in order to mine the latter’s work for every last sparkling piece of wisdom while ignoring its deeper meaning and context.

De Botton’s writing calls to mind Milan Kundera’s notion of kitsch. Kitsch, Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is the kind of populist art that simultaneously manipulates our emotions and transforms the extraordinary into a generic form, easily consumable by the masses and thus a perfect tool for political manipulation. De Botton does exactly that to Proust, especially because for many of his readers, How Proust Can Change Your Life will be the easy-to-read, populist excuse for not actually reading In Search of Lost Time: look at readers’ reviews of the book on the internet and just count how many times they say “well, I’ve not read Proust and I probably never will, but I loved de Botton’s book about him…” Make no mistake: underneath his veneer of fake intellectualism, de Botton represents a social agenda that is merely bourgeois morality masquerading as self-improvement.

The reality is that wisdom, if it can be taught, can only ever be taught indirectly. Just as you won’t evoke the torrent of memories simply from eating a madeleine, so too there is little chance that Proust or any other novelist can really change your life unless you learn to enact the kind of indirect, dialogic thinking that lies at the very heart of what the novel does – a mode of thinking that de Botton, despite all his knowledge and education, abandons in order to turn out this tawdry piece of kitsch.

© 2013 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.


Posted March 18, 2013 by Peter Mathews in Article

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