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returning the gift of modernity

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From well into the “Swann in Love” section of Swann’s Way, translated by Lydia Davis:

Then he could not think without a feeling of great weariness that the next day he would again have to begin trying to find out what Odette had been doing, use all his influence to attempt to see her. This compulsion to an activity without respite, without variety, without results was so cruel to him that one day, seeing a lump on his abdomen, he felt real joy at the thought that he might have a fatal tumor, that he was no longer going to have to take charge of anything, that it was the disease that would manage him, make him its plaything, until the impending end. And indeed if, during this period, he often desired death though without admitting it to himself, it was to escape not so much the acuteness of his sufferings as the monotony of his struggle.

The novel, that avatar of class triumph and the corresponding triumph of consciousness, is incessantly marking out its own nostalgia for unconsciousness, for the end of the script. Proust is no exception. We follow Swann along the line of his addictive, neurotic relationship with Odette, and as we do, we grow frustrated. There’s always another “but,” another thought on the matter. Swann is trapped, and we are trapped along with him. It really is too much, he really should stop, grow up a bit, get back to reality. But he cannot, and neither can we as long as we hold the book in our hands.

We begin to think, along with Swann himself, that there must be a better way to spend one’s time that the obsessive pursuit of Odette, whether through Swann’s France or Proust’s novel. Swann thinks, at one point, how much better it would be to be simple;

In these almost working-class neighborhoods, what a modest life, abject, but sweet, nourished with calm and happiness, he would have agreed to live indefinitely.

It increasingly seems to me that literary modernism – characterized by such forms as so-called “stream of consciousness” – almost always contains a plea, entre les lignes, to be allowed to return this gift of modernity, this symptom that makes us what we are, consciousness itself.

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 21, 2006 at 1:52 am

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