Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Extratemporal meditations: Proust as Philosopher: the art of metaphor by Miguel de Beistegui

We keep coming back and coming back
To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns
That fall upon it out of the wind. *

Since its publication three years ago, David Shields' manifesto Reality Hunger has helped focus my thoughts on writing: why it still matters, why anyone should still read or write beyond daily utility. That is, the premise of the title and the author's brief commentary has helped rather than the pinched miscellany of the book's content. In fact, to renew that help I need go no further than the very first line, written by the compiler before he expresses his celebrated disillusionment with the routine gestures of contemporary fiction:  
Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.
Let us pause before prose so rich in cliché and poor in soul.

At first I questioned the assumptions embedded in this line and then presented miscellaneous examples indicating that the hunger is not for reality as such and that Shields' disillusion is the dismal light shining through the twin cataracts of modernity – journalism and scientific positivism – both impermeable to deep history, philosophy, theology and art. Reality Hunger is thereby the literary correlate of New Atheism, a displacement of monotheism mitigated only by its failure to attract the heresiographers infecting the latter phenomenon (though this might be coming to an end).

It has to be said my efforts to resist outweigh anything a refutation might bring forth, no matter how fine the examples. They are untimely. Despite Reality Hunger comprising quotations and brief reflections that might have easily fallen into a Tumblr void, it commands influence precisely because it is a book. The form of a book, any book, transcends the sum of its contents by appealing to a coherent unity and the promised land of truth. The title is that unity. Corporate journalists found the premise congenial of course and the common reader was thereby tuned in to the buzz. A student correspondent of mine reported "energised" discussions on the library steps as his fellows passed the book around; after all, the food metaphor of writing's relation to the world is a tasty, bite-sized morsel.

This power to influence so many with what is effectively a literary gesture is intriguing because Reality Hunger relies on an apparent contradiction more or less identical to that of New Atheism. Implicit in both is a suppressed relation to its zone and manner of expression. In both, radical materialism is demanded from the immaterial space of mind and word, with expression demanding an a priori sufferance of the contradiction. For example, Shields pursues without irony the non-book in the one form that provides an aura of weight and promise to the demand (i.e. the Book). You may say this is a mere point of order perhaps, one casually set aside as one reads and thinks in pursuit of worldly answers to worldly concerns, and easily dismissed as a product of art-for-art's sake aestheticism or ignorant of recent theories of consciousness. Except the point remains because of how these responses are expressed; the light of consciousness does not illuminate itself.

What all this reveals is that the ancient objection to writing remains embedded in western literary culture. In the Phaedrus, Plato reports how Socrates compared written language to figurative painting, impersonal and with no guarantee of a living speaker.
The productions of painting look like living beings, but if you ask them a question they maintain a solemn silence. The same holds true of written words; you might suppose that they understand what they are saying, but if you ask them what they mean by anything they simply return the same answer over and over again.
Writing is thereby aligned to the uncanny authority of sacred places and objects. Both refer to an existence more original than themselves yet all the while pronouncing on the most pressing issues of everyday life, thereby posing problems for those promoting faith in reason and realism. The original has no presence. The premise of Reality Hunger merely echoes Socrates' anxiety about the silence of writing and, moreover, what provides Shields' solution is the same too – a physical guarantee. The cultural phenomenon we are witnessing is the laboured repetition of an attempt to reconcile our expectations with profound uncertainty.

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves. **
This is why I keep returning to Reality Hunger. Like any obsessive oppositional stance, it is too close for comfort. I share Shields' disillusionment with contemporary literary fiction, especially its ossification into a Booker-winning genre. The difference is that while Shields recommends that novels seek "deliberate unartiness" and include "raw material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered", I believe the only way to go is through literature, by becoming apparently more literary, to provoke perhaps even more anxiety, which is why the books I've written about in the last few years confront the remove of writing within the work itself, a risk invariably condemned by conservative critics as self-indulgent theorising.

So what we appear to have is competition between demands differing on mere matters of taste. However, I know my shudder over for the first line of Reality Hunger quoted above is more than a connoisseur's disdain for commonplace phrases and metaphors; sentences affect my experience of the world. Beginning of time, figure out, what the artist thinks – these are cold, shallow words evoking a cold, shallow world. And while this may seem unduly subjective and impressionistic, Socrates' objection to writing suggests a deeper reason, something fundamental to the impulse to read and write and the paradoxical gifts of the novel. What recommends itself then is an alternative model for the relation of writing to the world.

Miguel de Beistegui's book Proust as Philosopher offers just that. Set aside the dry title for now. It is an unfortunate consequence of the title of the French original, Jouissance de Proust. A literal translation – The Joy of Proust – conjures an image of a bearded man grappling sweatily with a curvaceous fountain pen, and those involved were right to reconsider the title. However, jouissance is key because for Proust's narrator the proper search is for a relation to reality that might enable essential knowledge and genuine happiness, even.

The book begins by outlining the fundamental problem of Marcel's life, which may seem familiar: a present of disappointment, frustration and suffering with a future of profundity and joy promised in the form of romantic love, great art and the natural world. When fulfilment appears imminent, disappointment, frustration and suffering remain, only in different forms: the object of his love provokes intense jealousy, what he understood as great art fails to lead him into the world of truth he had awaited so keenly, and the beautiful, fragrant hawthorn bushes he adores give him asthma attacks. Worse, when he wants to requite this condition by producing a work of "infinite philosophical meaning", everything he writes, whether richly imaginative or solidly realistic, dies on the page.

In Search of Lost Time takes its form in the revelation that a key reason for such a condition is that Marcel neglected to include the failure of infinite philosophical meaning as part of infinite philosophical meaning. Fantastic and realistic modes of creativity are both provisional, merely epiphenomenal, and always trumped by solitude and the external world. Once Marcel begins to explore and animate the space opened by experience and the expectations it refuses to fulfil then a different world begins to unfurl and, what's more, enables him to write something of infinite philosophical meaning. The exploration is embodied in the opening scene of the novel as Marcel wakes up and negotiates the boundary between dream and reality, much like Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis. Waking to change then becomes a constant.

De Beistegui presents Marcel's discovery in philosophical terms: there is a lack at the heart of being – "an ontological deficiency" – that is original and fundamental to the structure of experience. The actual world escapes us because such distance is constitutive of human experience, with the real being "its very own self-absence". What Marcel experiences as hunger are the signals of what lies beyond this condition. The epiphanic moments we all know from the petite madeleine episode enable Marcel to realise his unhappiness is a form of inattention to these signals and impatience to grasp what they indicate. The signals correspond to a unity much like rhymes in a poem and the deficiency can be redeemed only by attention to rhymes across time and space. What made Marcel unhappy were the attempts to fill the lack by "a strategy of compensation"  – physical possession, genre craft or Dionysian indulgence – or by "recapturing or reproducing the 'thing' that's lacking" – reality, realism. Joy is possible only in searching for the enchanted experience of time's absence, as presented in the book we are reading, which takes time.

De Beistegui follows Maurice Blanchot in the uncontroversial claim that the main subject of In Search of Lost Time is the possibility of writing, but offers a less hazardous reason. While for Blanchot writing is situated in the lack and the novel's content is a translucent density penetrated very occasionally by rapturous singularities that make such density possible, for de Beistegui writing is a means of seeing reality differently. It "transfigures life, reversing it, not into its opposite but into its other or flip side":
Literature is the flip side of the side that coincides with reality, the wrong side or the inside of the real and the sign of another meaning of experience. Far from fleeing the real ... literature actually tracks it and weaves it, spinning and following its thread. The threads that make up its text or its fabric ... are the threads of the real itself, and its mission is to trace and disentangle them. In the process, literature lets itself be carried off to where the real flees its own self-presence. (Translated by Dorothée Katz and Simon Sparks)
From this we can see that to respond to the signals of the real requires a certain kind of writing, not one of lyric reverie or bureaucratic notation but precarious combinations of both. If the real is its own self-absence, it is not self-sufficient and thereby reliant on the literary project. This is why de Beistegui highlights the art of metaphor in Proust, with a wonderfully provocative rider: "Metaphor is not fancy or mistress of error and falsehood but the figure of the real in its self-transposition or transfiguration. The conversion of matter into spirit but only as an implicit dimension of matter itself".

It is a paradoxical situation, one that worries at habitual commonsense: life is elsewhere, or, in Marcel's terms: the only true paradise is a paradise lost. Marcel's life is pierced by signals that, enabled by metaphor, set off a chain of correspondences opening to a unified experience. However, if metaphor is "rooted in the very structure of experience and not simply a rhetorical trope" then the quality of that life resides in the quality of those metaphors, the quality of attention and the quality of writing. It makes literature all the more demanding. In Search of Lost Time is a kind of bildungsroman leading to the challenge of this discovery. Marcel shows that the true paradise relies less on formal memory than on chance recognition, those rapturous singularities. It is not a direct product of masterful agency and is therefore always on the brink of falling back into petrifying genres. It's why the novel does not follow the overt facts of Proust's life, and explains why he did not publish the 800-page Jean Santeuil and why one reader quoted in Reality Hunger insists Proust is "at base an essayist" and In Search of Lost Time is "not fiction". She is in the hotel but blocks her ears to the hymns.

If we recognise metaphor as the key to unlocking the temporal prison cell, we can then also appreciate why the central stories of In Search of Lost Time concern romantic love: Swann's pathetic obsession with Odette, Saint-Loup's for Rachel, and Marcel's own for Gilberte and Albertine. "The real significance of love" de Beistegui writes "is epistemological: it drives us to imagine what we're unable to know". But, as a character in John McGahern's Amongst Women says: "Nothing is so bad as having to imagine". Marcel first meets Albertine as part of a "little gang" of young women he watches from afar in the seaside town Balbec. In fact, it is the gang that attracts him; he wants to be amongst young women in flower. They exist for him like the summer landscape of beach, sea and sky: a larger existence he cannot attain. Eventually Albertine becomes his lover but her other life – "the vague and non-existent universe" of her excursions with Andrée, another member of the little gang – provokes jealousy so much that she becomes the title of the fifth volume: The Captive

Some of the most rhapsodic passages in In Search of Lost Time are dedicated to Marcel's fascination with the distance at which Albertine holds herself, even when he has her within his four walls. It is here that Proust's unique blend of lyricism and intellectual reflection is especially powerful. They are also problematic for contemporary readers. De Beistegui highlights one in particular in which Marcel watches Albertine asleep:
Stretched out at full length upon my bed, in an attitude so natural that no art could have devised it, she reminded me of a long blossoming stem that had been laid there, and so in a sense she was: the faculty of dreaming, which I possessed only in her absence, I recovered at such moments in her presence, as though by falling asleep she had become a plant. In this way her sleep realised to a certain extent the possibility of love. Alone, I could think of her, but I missed her; I did not possess her. When she was present, I spoke to her, but I was too far absent from myself to be able to think. When she was asleep, I no longer needed to talk. I knew that I was no longer observed by her. I no longer needed to live on the surface of myself. 

By shutting her eyes, by losing consciousness, Albertine had stripped off, one after another, the different personalities with which she had deceived me ever since the day when I had first made her acquaintance. She had called back into herself everything that lay outside, had withdrawn, enclosed, reabsorbed herself into her body. In keeping it in front of my eyes, in my hands, I had an impression of possessing her entirely, which I never had when she was awake. Her life was subjected to me, exhaled towards me its gentle breath. I listened to this murmuring, mysterious emanation, soft as a sea breeze, magical as a gleam of moonlight. ... What I felt then was a love as pure, as immaterial, as mysterious as if I had been in the presence of those inanimate creatures that are the beauties of nature. And indeed, as soon as her sleep became at all deep, she ceased to be merely the plant that she had been. Her sleep ... was to me a whole landscape. [Trans. Scott Moncrieff]
Recently Anne Carson had fun at Marcel's expense, with the audience appreciative of the comedy of Marcel's apparently sexist solipsism, treating Albertine as an object of play in his fantasy. But we can see in this passage how Albertine changes from plant to breeze, from moonlight to landscape, and how then she is like everyone, separate, herself, and yet part of a larger universe. Encountering her escape is as important for Marcel as anything else. For him, the possibility of love appears in the revelation of the correspondences her deep self exhibits:
Albertine's complete throughout all her metamorphoses; she's a bird, a plant, a landscape, she's Odette, Andrée, Marcel, all of them at once and even simultaneously, while we can never say what she truly is, essentially. Like the world in general she's always in a state of becoming, a composition of matter that connects with others and, doing so, becomes something else entirely.
This is what de Beistegui means by "the conversion of matter into spirit but only as an implicit dimension of matter itself". The real is always revealed in something else with no need to privilege one over the other and no need to rage for one order or the other. In this sense, the transcendent is immanent to our own lives, so much as we can write, and write well.

I'm aware that De Beistegui's ontology and theory of metaphor have their own genealogy in European thought, for example Gilles Deleuze – another philosopher who wrote on Proust – and Hans Blumenberg. But this is a review not a patent office and I shall leave tracking those threads to others. Reading Proust as Philosopher reminded me of the personal value of critical analysis of single works, how it can crack open the carapace of a classic work of art without bleeding it dry: adding rather than cancelling. It stands alongside last year's translation of Quentin Meillassoux's The Number and the Siren as a work that corresponds to what is apparently most untimely.

* Wallace Stevens, from part IX of An Ordinary Evening in New Haven
from part IV of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction

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