Warning: contains spoilers
When I think back to the small town in which I grew up, I’m struck by the way in which that great Proustian symbol, the parish church, is a thing that resonates still. In my case, not St Hilaire, but St James’, designed by John Nash in the Norman style around 1831. It was my first church, the template upon which all others were built; I knew nothing then of the great gothic cathedrals I so adore now, but would my appreciation of them be anything without those early hours and days spent in St James’?
My belief or non-belief in Christianity at the time was an irrelevance; the truth is that I don’t think I ever questioned it. But I did understand that this was a designated sacred space, where one was encouraged to foster a different mode of thought. This way of thinking was aimed at something beyond the immediate material world, given the name God by the adults, and articulated by an expansive mythos, which even then seemed incredible.
The narrative fabric woven around this transformative practice seemed most unecessary to me; the feeling of immanence was ample. The stories were a means of imparting moral lessons of course, but I knew even then that the feeling alone was enough to engender a robust morality. The sacred space of the church grew and spread out for me across the entire town, in fact it had always been this way, so that every brick wall, kerbstone and breakwater, every stream, glade and oak tree resonated with the truth of shared origins and infrastructure.
At night I would often sleep in my grandmother’s bed and it was then, alone, in the hinterland between consciousness and oblivion, that this knowledge most frequently made its claim upon me, the inverse corollary of the opening of A la recherche where the narrator describes the manner in which the room gradually reconstitutes itself upon waking, this was a spatial and temporal dissolution, a breaking apart of the material objects about me, a revelatory glimpse of reality beyond the bounds of Time.
Might we think of Proust’s conception of time as a prefiguration of Heidegger’s? Of the narrator as kind of proto-Dasein? Reading the novel one is perhaps encouraged to think of oneself this way; it is at its heart a work of ontology – and the act of immersion required is in its own way a stepping out of time, a questioning of being and Being. The more and more I moved forward, the more I was drawn back into the threaded fabric of my own Lost Time and into questioning my place within it.
Just as there is one church, out of which all others grew, so there is one bedroom, where darkness seemed to act as a kind of corrosive force, tempered only by the oblique waves of light, the reflection of car headlights as they turned the corner from Victoria Grove on to Adelaide Grove, that moved across the ceiling, as intangible as the the feeling I am trying to articulate, but as meaningful to me now as they were thirty years ago.
By the time we reach ‘Time Regained’ Marcel has all but given up on his grand ambition to become a writer. The war has ended; unwell, he has been away from Paris for some time, away from society drawing rooms. We are somewhat surprised then, after the shadows and fog of the preceding section, to seem him attend an afternoon party at the Princess de Guermantes. But it is here that the final revelation unfolds. In quick succession he is struck by three attacks of involuntary memory which invoke the same vertiginous happiness that he experiened when dipping the madeleine in tea and which lead to an articulation of the nature of Lost Time and a profession of faith in the absolute necessity of the creative act.
This is not the past rendered so much within the present, but the past and present as congruent phenomena:
Yes: if, owing to the work of oblivion, the returning memory can throw no bridge, form no connecting link between itself and the present minute, if it remains in the context of its own place and date, if it keeps its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or upon the highest peak of a mountain summit, for this very reason it causes us suddenly to breathe new air, an air which is new precisely because we have breathed it in the past, that purer air which the poets have vainly tried to situate in paradise and which could induce so profound a sensation of renewal only if it had been breathed before, since true paradises are the paradises we have lost. (TR, 228)
And as if to answer the earlier question regarding Dasein, the narrative evokes the spectre of another being, a being that apprehends the moments as “fragments of existence withdrawn from Time”, that exists within and throughout them all and facilitates what Marcel calls “the only genuine and fruitful pleasure that I had known”.
The fidelity of this being is to the essence, the impression and to the work, as it must become for Marcel himself and for any artist worth his/her salt, to discover wether it is possible to attain what has always been unrealisable, a field of practice in which “instinct dictates duty”, not intellectualism or cold rationality.
For the truths which the intellect apprehends directly in the world of full and unimpeded light have something less profound, less necessary than those which life communicates to us against our will in an impression which is material because it enters through the senses but yet has a spiritual meaning which it is possible for us to extract. (TR, 239)
I had arrived then at conclusion that in fashioning a work of art we are by no means free, that we do not choose how we shall make it but that it is pre-existent to us and therefore we are obliged, since it is both necessary and hidden, to do what we should have to do if it were a law of nature, that is to say to discover it. But this discovery which art obliges us to make, is it not, I thought, really the discovery of what, though it ought to be more precious to us than anything in the world, yet remains ordinarily for ever unknown to us, the discovery of our true life, of reality as we have felt it to be, which differs so greatly from what we think it is that when a chance happening brings us an authentic memory of it we are filled with an immense happiness? (TR, 242)
And this work of art, this book of which he speaks… well it is of course the book we are holding in our hands; the work and the life are wrought of the same material, they seek the same truth, the one enabling the other. Never forget that Proust fought on a daily basis with death to bring us this book. At its end we see the pattern of the narrator’s life resolved; we realise that the “two ways” were not opposite paths but in fact led to the same place, that Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way are conjoined (personified in the figure of Mlle Saint-Loup) and meet at day’s end.
I seemed to see that this life that we live in half darkness can be illumined, this life that at every moment we distort can be restored to its true pristine shape, that a life, in short, can be realised within the confines of a book! How happy would he be, I thought, the man who had the power to write such a book! What a task awaited him! (TR, 451)
Here again it is repeated – the word ‘happy’ – the lifting of the veil, the diligence of the work ethic, both engender this state of happiness, which was part of Proust’s endeavour – what Walter Benjamin termed his “explosive will to happinness” – and this we must never forget either, that we participate in this as a reader of his, and in all its paradoxical magnificence, be it the happiness of a shamen or ascetic or of a gambler or lover – those that join the search might be considered thus, as:
… not ‘my’ readers but the readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers – it would be my book, but with its help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves. (TR, 452)
A la recherche is ultimately emblematic of our own quest for the bedrooms, parish churches and country paths lost to us; in Proust’s hands we become not so much the reader but the daydreamer ourselves. If modern life too often prohibits us from taking a journey such as this, then it is in want of reform; Time, that most precious of commodities is forever in short supply, and it is Time that this great novel gives back to us.