20. (Marcel Proust)

Still reading, slowly, the second volume of Recherche. I’ve leapt from the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright to the new James Grieve translation without wincing. Reading today, I came to a passage that seemed at first to go against what I’d written earlier, in post 14. (John Ruskin), about Proust and the hearts of others. There, I’d quoted the narrator blissful in the thought of absorption into his grandmother’s heart, and I’d said that Ruskin would never have written such a thing. Ruskin, by his own account, had no interest in the hearts of others, was capable of friendship in only the faintest terms. I’d suggested that the Proust passage was illustrative of the essential, or an essential, difference between the two authors.

But today, I found myself confronted with Proust’s rather more Ruskinian words. The narrator writes of his burgeoning friendship with beautiful blonde Robert de Saint-Loup:

in spending my time chatting with him, I felt none of the happiness I was capable of deriving from being without company; and in this, I suspect it would have been the same for me with any other person. It was only when I was alone that I would be swept on occasion by one of those impressions that brought with them such deeply satisfying feelings.  But I only had to be in the presence of someone else–talking with a friend, for instance–for my mind to face the wrong way, occupying itself with thoughts directed toward the other person rather than toward myself; and thoughts going in that other direction never afforded me any enjoyment.

The narrator proceeds onward, rather touchingly offering, along the way, one of those casually strewn insights that Proust arrives at without fanfare or commotion, with the sort of generosity that he perceives in aristocrats secure in their own wealth and station, that “the joys we most dread losing are those that have remained outside us, beyond the reach of our heart,” and, from that observation returns to the point that had occasioned by doubts, but elaborating and modifying his self-analysis: Although I felt I was better able than most to practice the virtues of friendship (in that I would always see the interests of my friends as counting for more than the sort of selfish advantage that motivates others, but which I ignored), I was aware of my own inability to find joy in a feeling which, rather than enhancing the differences between my mind and the minds of others–differences that exist among all minds–would abolish them. 

Reading this, I was eased—not eased because I’d written something requiring correction, but eased in my worry that I’d seized hold of something so poorly, the wrong way round. What I’d written does require correction, but not because the fundamental opposition between Ruskin and Proust that I’d seen was wrong; it was just not most clearly on display in the passage I’d quoted. Instead, it is clearer in this passage, where Proust shares with Ruskin a bafflement at friendship, but for reasons that are entirely his own, that Ruskin would not understand.

Ruskin writes, in Praeterita, to quote again the pertinent passage: Without thinking myself particularly wicked, I found nothing in my heart that seemed to me worth anybody’s seeing; nor had I any curiosity for insight into those of others; nor had I any curiosity for insight into those of others.

What Proust writes about friendship is not at all equivalent to this: Proust’s narrator says, as an introverted soul, that he finds less pleasure in being around others, in turning his mind away from himself towards them, than he does in being around himself, in looking inwards. But he does not say, as Ruskin does, that he had no curiosity in others.

My confusion arose because both Ruskin and Proust seem to be turning away from a particular part of the experience of friendship: that of abolishing the differences between one’s mind and another’s, feeling along with them: the experience of sympathy. Because the passage I had quoted about Proust’s narrator’s love for his grandmother had been so much about this entering into her care and concern (however great the misery that there was in me, it would be received by her with a pity still more vast), I had felt, reading the narrator’s words on friendship, that my earlier point had been false. But it was the passage that had been poorly selected; and it was the poor selection of the passage which made me mistake what I saw, and which led me to muddle it in my own mind. Proust does not in general desire to feel coddled by the heart of another, or to coddle the hearts of others; but he is nonetheless curious about those hearts, as Ruskin is not:

He returns to describe Robert de Saint-Loup: He had become an object for my thoughts to toy with in an idle moment. To glimpse through him the earlier, immemorial, aristocratic self that Robert sought to avoid being was to experience a keen joy, but it was a joy generated by the mind, not by friendship. 

Proust pays intense, fastidious attention to the inner lives, the desires, the deceptions, the self-deceptions of others, as Ruskin never could; but his attention does not extend to sympathy, and does not make the pretense of extending to sympathy, any more than Ruskin’s attention to rocks, clouds, or patterns on cloth could extend to sympathy, however much he cares about the pleasure that these bring him. And Proust provides the reasons why sympathy is not desired: it blurs the differences between minds, between people, and so prevents the detached observation and understanding of others that, as a solitary pursuit, in their absence, he craves. Proust learned a lot from Ruskin about how to attend and how to describe—but whereas Ruskin turned these powers on the inanimate, Proust directs that at human life, at the grains of will, habit, desire and delusion that deposit over time to form a person, which he appreciates as Ruskin appreciates geological structures accrued over centuries.

Attention is not, on this account, foundational to sympathy. It might be that sympathizing with another obstructs or prevents the attention, rather than demanding it; it might be that sympathy requires a partially obstructed or limited attention; it might be that attention and sympathy are neither opposed nor embroiled, so that although sympathy requires attention, it does depend on it but depends more on other elements.

Proust is, along with George Eliot and Henry James, one of the novelists who, in the fiction itself, explicitly asks and experiments with and runs against the limits of how best a narrator should attend to imagined lives, what attention requires and even is; they go beyond the tradition of realist novelists who engage with their characters’ acts of attention (Austen and Scott, for instance), inquiring into, asking that we inquire into, authorial acts of attention, too.


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