Daily Archives: June 10, 2019

Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: Read from March 1 to June 10, 2019

Of all the novels I have read, this one comes the closest to reading poetry. And I’m not just saying that because the language is beautiful, but rather because each line – sometimes extending for nearly an entire paragraph or even the whole page – is far denser than the line in a typical novel. Here the mere mention of a sip of tea at the end of the novel recalls entire passages of memory from earlier i the novel, each image and expression carries far more weight and does far more work than normal prose. And I also get the impression that I missed a lot as I read and that were I to go back and reread the novel I would discover whole oceans of thought that I failed to explore the first time around. In short this is a remarkable novel, but it’s also a remarkable experiment in modernism in that the author is trying to convey a way of thinking and feeling by playing with how language can communicate to us. I was not expecting a novel that deals so often with nostalgia for a lost time to be so radically modern.

Proust also explores something even more radical in this experiment, though perhaps without even realizing it. Years later the ideas of Saussure would create the foundation for structuralism, specifically the ideas of the signified and signifier. Proust seems to have intuited this concept and his image of the cup of tea causing a flood of memories to come flowing back into his mind is a perfect example of what Saussure was trying to explain. Yet Proust takes it even further (in the sort of direction the philosopher Bergson would be familiar with) by vitalizing the connection between signified and signifier as the essence of human experience which gives the real meaning to things. True, signifiers (mere words) are arbitrary and basically meaningless on their own, but it is we who give them their meaning, even if each of us has a different definition for what, say, a cup of tea might mean. We are, after all, creatures of language and the whole of our existence is a construct of language, so wouldn’t it be true that such a reality is only real because of how each of us experiences the universe, even if we’re all doing it differently?

There are multiple instances in the novel when Proust describes a person’s glance and then describes an observer interpreting what that glance means. Proust devotes pages and pages to just Odette moving her eyes a few millimeters, and Odette may have meant absolutely nothing by the way she moved her eyes, but for Swann (and us), there is more meaning in such a glance than could be contained by the Library of Alexandria. Meaning – meaningful meaning – is created by each of us in our own way, and often, as with Swann, can go too far, but it is the essence and vitality of our lives which we are creating every moment. Every glance, every word contains multitudes (Whitman) and our reality consists of parsing these meanings into something we can understand – or when it goes wrong we wind up like King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale who have lost our common social connection with other people and thus go mad. 

And like Bergson debating with Einstein about the nature of time, time for Proust is like an erosion that alters the past, and seems to work deeper the more time that passes. Events that were as clear to us as our playmates when we were children are almost unrecognizable when we are older. How did time do this? Why does time alter our memory? Why are we never fixed in any place or time, like Proust not wanting to ever leave Paris? Are we always trapped in that separation between Saussure’s signified and the signifier? Is the human experience a necessary part of the universe (as Bergson believed) or do our experiences remain forever relative and without “True” meaning (as Eisenstein believed)? 

Proust seems very much in the camp of favoring the human experience, and so do I.

Looking back on some of my favorite books it seems I really enjoy stories about people who long for a time that will never return, such as Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and now this. Maybe it’s because the older I get the more I can relate to characters whose interior life consists more and more of memory than it does of ambition for the future or because as time goes on each of us becomes more and more painfully aware of how much the world doesn’t actually make any sense at all unlike when we were young and everything seemed so simple.

page 58 of 768 of Demons

It’s been awhile since I’ve read Dostoevsky, which is a problem because it always takes awhile to get into gear with his novels. The only other author I feel this way about is Shakespeare because whenever I start one of his plays I always feel lost until about Act 3 or 4. This novel is starting off the same way with a huge list of (unusual) characters but with no plot to attach them to. But I’m sure I’ll love this.

“Lethe” in my flower

A Pair of Shoes, 1886, Vincent Van Gogh
Background Image: A Pair of Shoes, 1886, Vincent Van Gogh

“Lethe” is one of the river’s of the underworld in classic mythology and according to The Aeneid, when a soul drinks from the river they forget everything and thus can move on. Lethe has often been alluded to in poetry to talk about memory and forgetting as well as explorations as to ideas and notions of the self and self-identity.

What is interesting is she begins the poem immediately with “Lethe”, with forgetting – the very first word is forgetfulness, yet she describes this as being part of, “in” the “flower”, as if the act of negation, the act of forgetting is a substance that exists within this “flower” that she holds. She doesn’t describe the “flower” other than to say it consists of “Merely flake of petal” because she is trying to get at the essence of the “flower” – it’s visual and physical characteristics are not what are important to her, what the flower means, what the flower does is what is important here.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger explores in his essay, The Origin of the Work Of Art, how a work of art unconceals (his terminology) a world that is greater than just the object presented in the work of art. For example, in Van Gogh’s painting, A Pair of Shoes, the subject is simply a pair of boots, but when we understand about those boots is far more encompassing than what is actually painted on the canvas. Through this simple painting we understand something about who wore those boots, perhaps they were a laborer and based on the condition of the boots, they worked very hard and were probably poor. We know something more than just that there is a picture of a pair of boots and that is what art does because art is somehow able to unconceal the world and all the things that connect to the world through the subject of the work of art.

Emily is doing the same thing here but rather than a pair of boots, for her it is the “flower” – and to go one steep closer, for us it is the poem itself. Emily is also a participant in this work of art because she is holding the “flower” in the poem what we hold in our hands; she is doing the work of discovering what is unconcealed when she looks at the “flower” at the same time we do as we read this poem.

And what has been unconcealed?

Well, on the surface level we see “Merely flake or petal” just as out “Eye beholds”. Her physical senses sees the object “flower” just as ours sees the physical object of a poem. Yet what is unconcealed is “the Bobolink”, the sound of a bird in nature and its hectic and joyous chirping. In fact, Emily probably had synesthesia in which a person would associate multiple senses to an object, such as seeing the color red when they read the number 1, or hearing a “bobolink” when they see a “flower”. A new sense is revealed when she holds the “flower”, a new world opens up to her and thus she not only sees the “flower” with her “Eye” but she “[perceives] the rose!”, the whole “rose” and everything that is associated with it, such as the garden, the bees that pollinate the flowers, and the chirping birds who eat the insects. All things are uncovered – unconcealed – when she holds a simple “flower” – the object is transformed into something beyond just its obvious characteristics.

Yet she started the poem with “Lethe” which is the opposite of remembering, or in this case, the opposite of having something revealed. Or is it? It could be that the poem begins with us in a state of forgetting and that holding the “flower” (or reading the poem) helps us remember the rest of the world – that the the space before the poem begins is a representation of our own state of living in a state of forgetfulness. Emily could be saying that we walk around only interacting with objects at a surface level – what the “Eye behold”. Yet she could also be saying that the act of forgetting the world of mere objects allows us to see the world behind these objects, that forgetting is actually a process of unconcealing a larger truth in which a “flower” becomes a “rose”. A flower is, after all, just a pollen delivery system so that the species can procreate, but a “rose” is a symbol of love, of friendship, even of troubles when we prick our fingers on the thorns. A “rose” is not just a rose, but what a rose means to us.

What Emily is asking of us is to “perceive”, not just merely see.