Friday, November 02, 2007

Gray vistas

A friend has been reading John Gray lately, and has told me the book he was reading, while generally unremarkable, is also full of statements that are either fatuous or just plain wrong. An academic, I was told, should be ashamed of writing such things. Until today I hadn't read anything by Gray but wood s lot links to his review of a biography of John Cowper Powys, who has, he says, "an intensity reminiscent of Proust".
As in Proust, Powys's central protagonists are introverted, almost solipsistic figures, who find relief from the sense of being 'contingent, mediocre, mortal' in sudden epiphanies, which they try to preserve in memory. However, whereas Proust's epiphanies occur always indoors in a self-enclosed human world, Powys's were found in the open fields and coastal vistas of his native Dorset - a more-than-human landscape that frames his greatest novels.
So, we can only assume the car that nearly knocks Marcel down in the Guermantes' courtyard, causing him to step back sharply on the uneven paving-stones and to experience another epiphany, was driving indoors.


  1. ... or the approach of Albertine on the beach, and on and on.

    The reviewers temptation--the need to dash off quick and sloppy generalizations.

    I am both appalled... and sympathetic.

    We should be wary of too quickly dismissing this almost conversational approach to reviews. I like best those reviews that are, in Montaigne's sense--essais, a response of the moment, that on reflection a moment later will surely stand in need of qualification... correction.

    But how often do these correction take us anywhere but backward? Into the what we already knew, the tried and true?

    There is something to that "indoor" quality to Proust's "epiphanies" ... and if I were going to get my back up, it would be more to that word than to the indoor/outdoor thing.

    There is something of finality to an 'ephiphany.' A last word. A final revealing vision. And there's nothing of that in Proust--where every memory may stand corrected, and every correction in its turn.

    Epiphany is closure, and what Proust gives us is open, always, to reconsideration, revision--everything contingent.

    If we're going to take exception to a review, let's not pick nits! Let's get to the bigger idea, to what's really at stake.

  2. I don't think there's anything in that "indoor" quality. And epiphany seems like the right word for Marcel's experiences. But if you're right, then Proust re-invents the word; removes finality and closure from its meaning.

  3. "I don't think there's anything in that "indoor" quality. And epiphany seems like the right word for Marcel's experiences. But if you're right, then Proust re-invents the word; removes finality and closure from its meaning."

    I suppose what I had in mind was interiority, rather than "indoors." Proust's epiphanies never escape the labyrinth of memory and narrative refabrication. Just when we think they have, they are taken up in another revision, another recollection.

    Think of Joyce for comparison. His negative epiphanies deny closure to the characters, leaving them with revelations of absence: the collapse of the child's self-image in Araby, the implosion of Eveline's future into a vacuum of sign or affect, the triumph of the dead Michael Furey--but they very much represent aesthetic closure. End of story. The narrative cannot pass beyond the absence. But I find no such thing in Proust.

    His characters are endlessly protean in their transformations. No revelation, no insight of any given moment is final. Not accident--pure contingency. The absolute reversal of Dickens' accidental chains of causation--there is no way, even reading back stage by stage, that you could reconstruct a causal line through the serial metamorphosis of Mme. Verdurin to the Princes de Guermantes.

    The final volume is Marcel's revisiting, not moments experienced in time, but the experiencing of those moments in memory--revisiting the "epiphanies." Marcel recalls for us: Saint Loup, Charlus, Albertine--in their inexhaustible transformations in a recaptured past where nothing is ever "captured;" it's not so much that nothing is what it seems, as that everything is what it seems--and nothing else! There is no there there!

    If these are epiphanies, Proust most certainly has reinvented the word.

  4. "There is no there there!"

    Yes, the indoors is also outside! Not Dorset though... perhaps.

  5. Stein wasn't big on closure either, was she?



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