All we have is the present. Our future, if it might exist, is a mere proposition of whose eventual reality none of us can be sure, may only be imagined, until it arrives, when it becomes the present. Then, like every present, it instantly passes us by into our past, a fragile, self-interested fiction we are condemned to recreate, to reimagine via a memory capable of invention. All experience thus becomes malleable, capable of being reshaped to fit whatever mould into which we might desire to contain it. Though we might often want to deny the tangibility of the present, its reality still pains the toe that kicks the stone, whereas memory anaesthetises time remembered and allows any surgical intervention to create whatever painless past we want to create.
After six volumes of re-creating the past in “A la recherche de temps perdu”, Marcel Proust entitled the last work in the series, at least in English, “Time Regained”. It is worth remembering, however, that a literal translation of Proust’s series title refers to ‘lost time’, experience possibly mislaid, or even wasted in a continuing past. But that time can indeed be regained, reimagined, recreated, and it takes a person with a mission to carry out the threat, a mission that itself becomes a new present, which can be transformative. I was no longer indifferent as when I returned from Rivebelle; I felt myself enlarged by this work I bore within me (like something precious and fragile, not belonging to me, which had been confided to my care and which I wanted to hand over intact to those for whom it was destined). And to think that when, presently, I returned home, an accident would suffice to destroy my body and that my lifeless mind would have for ever lost the ideas it now contained and anxiously preserved within its shaky frame before it had time to place them in safety within the covers of a book. Now, knowing myself the bearer of such a work, an accident which might cost my life was more to be dreaded, was indeed (by the measure in which this work seemed to me indispensable and permanent) absurd, when contrasted with my wish, with my vital urge, but not less probable on that account since accidents due to material causes can take place at the very moment when an opposing will, which they unknowingly annihilate, renders them monstrous, like the ordinary accident of knocking over a water-jug placed too near the edge of a table and thus disturbing a sleeping friend one acutely desires not to waken. And, while accidents can happen, the creation of several thousand pages of recreated past cannot be achieved by accident, but only in the doing, the regular application of re-creation in whatever present remains.
And, after seven volumes of this life recreated, a reader is left to marvel at how small it was, how insignificant these important people eventually became and how small a universe they themselves imagined, let alone inhabited. To describe the procession of attitudes as petty might be ascribing greater consequence than it deserves. And, for all their airs and graces, for all their wealth, property and influence, these upper-class subjects were most at home when indulging their personal predilections in their eternal present, tastes that were sometimes as mundane as eating a snack and at other times distinctly more individual, though no more significant.
Take for example, the war memories of Mme. Verdurin. On the morning the papers headlined the sinking of the Lusitania, she clearly had her own enduring priorities… they thought about those hecatombs of annihilated regiments, of engulfed seafarers, but an inverse operation multiplies to such a degree what concerns our welfare and divides by such a formidable figure what does not concern it, that the death of millions of unknown people hardly affects us more unpleasantly than a draught. Mme Verdurin, who suffered from headaches on account of being unable to get croissants to dip into her coffee, had obtained an order from Cottard which enabled her to have them made in the restaurant mentioned earlier. It had been almost as difficult to procure this order from the authorities as the nomination of a general. She started her first croissant again on the morning the papers announced the wreck of the Lusitania. Dipping it into her coffee, she arranged her newspaper so that it would stay open without her having to deprive her other hand of its function of dipping, and exclaimed with horror, “How awful! It’s more frightful than the most terrible tragedies.” But those drowning people must have seemed to her reduced a thousand-fold, for, while she indulged in these saddening reflections, she was filling her mouth and the expression on her face, induced, one supposes, by the savour of the croissant, precious remedy for her headache, was rather that of placid satisfaction.
And what about the moral rectitude (no pun intended) of these pillars of society? Always ready to cite themselves as examples of behaviour in order to enlighten the labouring, and thus less than worthy classes, sometimes these elite, privileged classes plumbed the depths of their own depravity whilst no doubt simultaneously passing moral judgment on the tastes of those below them. Aberrations are like passions which a morbid strain has overlaid, yet, in the craziest of them love can still be recognised. M. de Charlus’ insistence that the chains which bound his feet and hands should be of attested strength, his demand to be tried at the bar of justice and, from what Jupien told me, for ferocious accessories there was great difficulty in obtaining even from sailors (the punishment they used to inflict having been abolished even where the discipline is strictest, on ship-board), at the base of all this there was M. de Charlus’ constant dream of virility proved, if need be, by brutal acts and all the illumination the reflections of which within himself though to us invisible, he projected on judicial and feudal tortures which embellished an imagination coloured by the Middle Ages. This sentiment was in his mind each time he said to Jupien: “There won’t be any alarm this evening anyhow, for I can already see myself reduced to ashes by the fire of Heaven like an inhabitant of Sodom,” and he affected to be frightened of the Gothas not because he really had the smallest fear of them but to have a pretext the moment the sirens sounded of dashing into the shelter of the Metropolitain, where he hoped to get a thrill from midnight frictions associated in his mind with vague dreams of prostrations and subterranean dungeons in the Middle Ages. Finally his desire to be chained and beaten revealed, with all its ugliness, a dream as poetic as the desire of others to go to Venice or to keep dancing girls. And M. de Charlus held so much to the illusion of reality which this dream gave him that Jupien was compelled to sell the wooden bed which was in room No. 43, and replace it by one of iron which went better with the chains.
But perhaps we should not judge, merely exist in an eternal present, free from recollection, reinterpretation and, of course, from comparison. A work in which there are theories is like an object upon which the price is marked. Further, this last only expresses a value which, in literature, is diminished by logical reasoning. We reason, that is, our mind wanders, each time our courage fails to force us to pursue an intuition through all the successive stages which end in its fixation, in the expression of its own reality. The reality that must be expressed resides, I now realised, not in the appearance of the subject but in the degree of penetration of that intuition to a depth where that appearance matters little, as symbolised by the sound of the spoon upon the plate, the stiffness of the table-napkin, which were more precious for my spiritual renewal than many humanitarian, patriotic, international conversations. More style, I had heard said in those days, more literature of life. One can imagine how many of M. de Norpois’ simple theories “against flute-players” had flowered again since the war. For all those who, lacking artistic sensibility, that is, submission to the reality within, may be equipped with the faculty of reasoning for ever about art, and even were they diplomatists or financiers associated with the “realities” of the present into the bargain, they will readily believe that literature is a sort of intellectual game which is destined to be eliminated more and more in the future. Some of them wanted the novel to be a sort of cinematographic procession. This conception was absurd. Nothing removes us further from the reality we perceive within ourselves than such a cinematographic vision.
But perhaps, in our age of the demonstrable, the provable, the reproducible, the cinematographic vision provided by a photographic memory might just be an advantage, especially when our memory or perhaps our understanding plays tricks. The library which I should thus collect would have a greater value still, for the books I read formerly at Combray, at Venice, enriched now by memory with spacious illuminations representing the church of Saint-Hilaire, the gondola moored at the foot of San Giorgio Maggiore on the Grand Canal incrusted with flashing sapphires, would have become worthy of those medallioned scrolls and historic bibles which the collector never opens in order to read the text but only to be again enchanted by the colours with which some competitor of Fouquet has embellished them and which constitute all the value of the work. Does anyone care if San Giorgio Maggiore is not actually where the author remembers it? Perhaps, we may presume, that he is merely confusing it with Santa Maria della Salute, whose whiteness and elegance ought to carry the attachment “maggiore” in proportion to the impression it makes upon a visitor’s memory. And, in an age of mass consumption and marketing, do any of us scoff at the use of “the greatest”, “the best” or “five star” when it is habitually associated with the mundane mass-produced products of Capitalism? And precisely when was the last time you heard a new pop singer described as “original”, and was such a label accurate? Clearly, there is room for fiction in the present, and, because we are all eventually flawed, what can be wrong with inaccuracy in memory? The impression was received as expressed and it is the indefinable emotion that was real, not the name of the thing that provoked it. But from the moment that works of art are judged by reasoning, nothing is stable or certain, one can prove anything one likes. Whereas the reality of genius is a benefaction, an acquisition for the world at large, the presence of which must first be identified beneath the more obvious modes of thought and style, criticism stops at this point and assesses writers by the form instead of the matter. It consecrates as a prophet a writer who, while expressing in arrogant terms his contempt for the school which preceded him, brings no new message. This constant aberration of criticism has reached a point where a writer would almost prefer to be judged by the general public (were it not that it is incapable of understanding the researches an artist has been attempting in a sphere unknown to it). And here Proust yearns for the kind of judgment that can only be gleaned from sales figures, the kind of evaluation that makes burger and beans washed down with carbon dioxide pressurised burnt sugar solution apparently the ideal food. The publicist involuntarily associates the rascals he has castigated with his own celebrity… but there is a difference between a memory tricked and a deliberate attempt to falsify, to offer cliché to apparently eager market.
But not to judge would excise the reality of memory and with it the raison d’etre of the writer. He (for this author is a “he”) who pontificates from distance, both physical and temporal, imposes possibly invented opinion on those he cannot wait to judge. And, from the safety of temporal distance, that judgment is often driven by jealousy. Jealousy is a good recruiting sergeant who, when there is an empty space in our picture, goes and finds the girl we want in the street. She may not be pretty at first, but she soon fills the blank and becomes so when we get jealous of her. But whatever the motive for changing how we view our recollections, the act of trying to communicate them can lead to a process of clarification, albeit via avenues where we deliberately embellish them. It is uncertain whether in the creation of a literary work the imagination and the sensibility are not interchangeable and whether the second, without disadvantage, cannot be substituted for the first just as people whose stomach is incapable of digesting entrust this function to their intestines. An innately sensitive man who has no imagination could, nevertheless write admirable novels. The suffering caused him by others and the conflict provoked by his efforts to protect himself against them, such experiences interpreted by the intelligence might provide material for a book as beautiful as if it were imagined and invented and as objective, as startling and unexpected as the author’s imaginative fancy would have been, had he been happy and free from persecution. The stupidest people unconsciously express their feelings by their gestures and their remarks and thus demonstrate laws they are unaware of which the artist brings to light.
But it might even be the present that is defective. We encounter people we once knew, whom we have fixed in our memory with particular and recognisable attributes. Then years pass and we meet again. We recognise them, but at the same time they are transformed by age into something that contradicts the reality our memory has fixed. It’s a two-way process. As I went near to him, he said with a voice I well remembered: “What a joy for me after so many years!” but what a surprise for me! His voice seemed to be proceeding from a perfected phonograph for though it was that of my friend, it issued from a great greyish man whom I did not know and the voice of my old comrade seemed to have been housed in this fat old fellow by means of a mechanical trick. Yet I knew that it was he, the person who introduced us after all that time not being the kind to play pranks. He declared that I had not changed by which I grasped that he did not think he had. Then I looked at him again and except that he had got so fat, he had kept a good deal of his former personality.
Time passes, people pass away, become part of the past, a past that continues. The living can then say what they really thought all along, without ever previously having the courage to come clean, a state they probably never did, nor ever will attain. Hearing that Mme d’Arpajon was really dead, the old maid cast an alarmed glance at her mother fearing that the news of the death of one of her contemporaries might be a shock to her; she imagined in anticipation people alluding to her own mother’s death by explaining that “she died as the result of a shock through the death of Mme d’Arpajon.” But on the contrary, her mother’s expression was that of having won a competition against formidable rivals whenever anyone of her own age passed away. Their death was her only means of being agreeably conscious of her own existence. The old maid, aware that her mother had not seemed sorry to say that Mme d’Arpajon was a recluse in those dwellings from which the aged and tired seldom emerge, noticed that she was still less upset to hear that the Marquise had entered that ultimate abode from which no one returns. This affirmation of her mother’s indifference aroused the caustic wit of the old maid. And, later on, to amuse her friends, she gave a humorous imitation of the lively fashion with which her mother rubbed her hands as she said: “Goodness me, so that poor Mme d’Arpajon is dead.” She thus pleased even those who did not need death to make them glad they were alive. For every death is a simplification of life for the survivors; it relieves them of being grateful and of being obliged to make visits.
And such caustic observation is not surprising, since the author of these judgments suffered permanent disability, illness, relative disadvantage in the competition of life that was conjured by these recreations from those with whom he mixed. And his revenge was to remember, to describe, perhaps to invent. Eventually he would hold the pen and write, an activity of which no-one thought him capable. Thus he created his own past in an evolving present which may become our own as we share his gift.
Time Regained by Marcel Proust
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