213. (Marcel Proust)

Aristotle, whose “hexis” is not passive habit, but whose thought of human happiness and nature turns on habituation, tells us that tragedy differs from history in that the latter is concerned with the actual and the former with the probable. By probable, he is taken to mean and likely did mean, something that could have taken place, given what we know through probabilistic reasoning.

But from the vantage point of the twenty first century, with the tradition of the novel and realist literature at our backs and feet, we might think that Aristotle, in distinguishing history from drama, was in fact providing a clue as to the nature of realism itself: not representation per se, but representation of what is probable to occur in life, which is to say what is a matter of habit.

Historians, whatever fictions they might weave, do not narrate from the bed of habit; realism does just that. The story of realism is the story of the representation of habit, where habit takes in a range from brute thoughtless repetitions to self-conscious disciplining of dispositions, and to self-discipline according to what we would like to be thought of as being disposed to do.

The novel has become synonymous with realism as I use the term, and it is not evenly spread over the history of literature, and it would foolish to want for all literature to aspire to realism; it was, though, there when Aristotle wrote, since The Odyssey is an account of a man’s return to the field of habits he once knew, a paean not only to the habits of civilization, but to the notion that civilization depends upon a collective investment and consciousness of habitual routines that are valued for what they preserve and generate. (War has a different relationship to habit and habituation, and not only a destructive one).

The process of habituation is the formation of character; it is the stuff of the Bildungsroman, but the reign of habit is middle age, and the realist novel pulls towards it. The number attached to middle age is of less significance than the establishment of habit itself, and so middle age may happen with any number of years, provided the self-conscious reflection on habit is present. Hence Odysseus births Bloom, who is in the Bloom of life, a daily routine on the page. What Joyce, say, achieves that a historian could not unless they were to cease writing history and start writing realist fiction, is a representation of habit not as something absolutely fixed, regular, predictable, or averaged out. Social histories will tell us about what “tends” to happen, what is the norm; but habit is experienced not only in the grooves of repetition, but

in the disruption of habit, in the vagaries of consciousness as it seizes upon, and then loses awareness of the habitual self in the alteration or recovery of pattern. Representing that is the work of realist fiction. Roughly at the same time as Joyce was writing his epic of the habitual, Proust was writing his, with the imparfait routines of Emma Bovary and the reflective routines of Montaigne, perhaps, serving as exemplars. Proust’s mode is reverie. The opening of the first volume in the novel:


For a long time I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes closed so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself: “I’m falling asleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to look for sleep would awaken me; I would make as if to put away the book which I imagined was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book; a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I awoke; it did not offend my reason, but lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a previous existence must be after reincarnation; the subject of my book would separates itself from me, leaving me free to apply myself to it or not; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible without a cause, something dark indeed.


The relation of the passage to habit is not immediately evident, though the notions of consciousness, of willing, of association, and of self-awareness might all be related to habit easily enough. Later though, in the fourth volume of the series, Proust casts sudden light on the opening, without explicitly directing us back:


The horses of sleep, like those of the sun, move at so steady a pace, in an atmosphere in which there is no longer any resistance, that it requires some little meteorite extraneous to ourselves (hurled from the azure by what Unknown?) to strike our regular sleep (which otherwise would have no reason to stop, and would continue with a similar motion world without end) and to make it swing sharply round, return toward reality, travel without pause, traverse the regions bordering on life—whose sounds the sleeper will presently hear, still vague but already perceptible even if distorted—and come to earth suddenly at the point of awakening. Then from those profound slumbers we awake in a dawn, not knowing who we are, being nobody, newly born, ready for anything, the brain emptied of that past which was life until then. And perhaps it is more wonderful still when our landing at the waking-point is abrupt and the thoughts of our sleep, hidden by a cloak of oblivion, have no time to return to us gradually, before sleep ceases. Then, from the black storm through which we seem to have passed (but we do not even say ‘we’), we emerge prostrate, without a thought, a ‘we’ that is void of content. What hammer-blow has the person or thing that is lying there received to make it unconscious of everything, stupefied until the moment when memory, flooding back, restores to it consciousness or personality? However, for both these kinds of awakening, we must avoid falling asleep, even into a deep sleep, under the law of habit. For everything that habit ensnares in her nest, she watches closely; we must escape her, take our sleep at a moment when we thought we were doing something quite other than sleeping, take, in a word, a sleep that does not dwell under the tutelage of foresight, in the company, albeit latent, of reflexion.


The investigation of habit in Proust, which is an investigation of perception, intelligence, character, convention, an entire life-world and civilization, depends, and here Proust is squarely of the modernist moment, in discovering or presenting a mode of representation that announces itself as resisting habituation; not only of consciously writing and creating in accord with the best habitual modes of thought and representation, but in gaining a perspective on the habits of self and others that the authors own habits would obstruct. Reverie, for Proust, the reverie that is a surprised, spontaneous dislocation of self from self-narration, serves the end, as Joyce’s techniques do in his novel.


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