Archive for the ‘proust’ Category
From Walter Benjamin’s “The Image of Proust” in Illuminations:
What was it that Proust sought so frenetically? What was at the bottom of these infinite efforts? Can we say that all lives, works, and deeds that matter were never anything but the undisturbed unfolding of the most banal, most fleeting, most sentimental, weakest hour in the life of the one to whom they pertain? When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might even call it an everyday hour.
There are lots of different ways to describe Benjamin’s distinctive form of writing, his idiosyncratic form of thought. Some prefer the term “thetic,” which obviously works best with the pieces actually broken into theses, like the “Theses on the Philosophy” of history or the “Work of Art” essay. Others go with “dialectical,” which works as well, but perhaps distracts a bit from the actual contours of the texts.
This passage from the essay on Proust is a perfect example of what I would call Benjamin’s late and distinctive form. And it bears an amazing message, if you listen closely.
The third sentence takes up the blurring of the event, the significant occurrence, into the banal, the long durée, the everyday. For a gloss we can turn back just a bit for this:
Only the actus purus of recollection itself, not the author or the plot, constitutes the unity of the text. One may even say that the intermittence of the author and plot is only the reverse of the continuum of memory, the pattern on the backside of the tapestry.
In Proust’s work, then, we find a reversal of – or the surfacing of the reversal of – the conventional way that he conceive of novels. Rather than organizing the inchoate, the author and plot only interrupt, disrupt, punctuate the underlying continuum of infinite recollection. This reversal levels the finite event down into the infinite “unfolding” of time.
Well enough. But then back to the next sentence of the initial quote, which sends us in a very different direction:
When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might even call it an everyday hour.
Do you see it? The leap? From the dissolution of significance into the everyday, without a breath, into this – into the generalization of the particular, into communicability. We start with nihilism, neglect the anxious consideration of the abyss that we might expect, and turn in the next sentence to communication.
Reminds me, just this tiny passage, quite a bit of the move that’s being traced out here – the work that gives this blog its name.
The commodification of the human body, while subjecting it to the iron laws of massification and exchange value, seemed at the same time to redeem the body from the stigma of ineffability that had marked it for millennia. Breaking away from the double chains of biological destiny and individual biography, it took its leave of both the inarticulate cry of the tragic body and the dumb silence of the comic body, and thus appeared for the first time perfectly communicable, entirely illuminated. The epochal process of the emancipation of the human body from its theological foundations was thus accomplished in the dances of the ‘girls,’ in the advertising images, and in the gait of fashion models. This process had already been imposed at an industrial level when, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the invention of lithography and photography encouraged the inexpensive distribution of pornographic images: Neither generic nor individual, neither an image of the divinity nor an animal form, the body now become something truly whatever.
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.