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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

“Seek? More than that: create.”

Daily, I attach less value to the intellect. Daily, I realize more clearly that only away from it can the writer repossess something of our past impressions, that is attain to something of himself and to the one subject-matter of art. … Compared with the past, the intimate essence of ourselves, the truths of the intellect seem quite unreal. … But it is to the intellect we must look all the same to establish the inferiority of the intellect. The intellect may not deserve the supreme accolade, but it alone is capable of bestowing it. It may hold only second place in the hierarchy of virtues but only it is capable of proclaiming that instinct has to occupy the first.
-Preface to Contre Sainte-Beuve (pp. 1, 7, 8), Marcel Proust

But in art there are no initiators or precursors (at least in the scientific sense). Everything is in the individual, each individual starts the artistic or literary endeavour over again, on his own account; the works of his predecessors do not constitute, unlike in science, an acquired truth from which he who follows after may profit. A writer of genius today has everything to do. He is not much further advanced than Homer.
-‘The Method of Saint-Beuve’ (p. 11)

If we want to try and understand this self, it is deep inside us, by trying to recreate it within us, that we may succeed. … It is a truth every bit of which we have to create
– (p. 12)

… what one gives to the public is what one has written when alone, for oneself, it is very much the work of one’s self… And not having seen the gulf which separates the writer from the society man, not having understood that the writer’s self shows itself only in his books, that he only shows society men… a society man like themselves, [Sainte-Beuve] was to launch that famous method which… consists, in order to understand a poet or writer, in questioning avidly those who knew him,… who may be able to tell us how he behaved in the matter of women, etc., that is, on all those very points where the poet’s true self is not involved.
– (pp. 15, 16)

If we follow the guidelines given in this preliminary work, a puzzling combination of fiction and criticism, the first fitful attempts at a style which would eventually come to be the style of Proust’s epic, we are directed in how to approach the narrator(s), both the embryonic form it takes in Contre Sainte-Beuve and its full-fledged form in A la recherche... Even here, in a piece which is almost automatically assumed autobiographical, we cannot call our narrator Marcel Proust.

Three-fourths of the way (if memory serves— I do not have the first three volumes at hand) through the almost self-contained novella which relates Swann and Odette’s relationship in the first volume, a conspicuous ‘I’ interrupts the omniscient narration, the I of the Overture. The interruption immediately forces the reader to reconsider how exactly it is that so private a story can be narrated. The unfettered access which the narrator has to the minds of these characters becomes suddenly incongruent with the very fact of their being narrated, with the slow revealing of all the minute facts in the story of these two lovers, and what appeared to be so self-contained now breaks out, latching onto the self-conscious narrator of the rest of the book. How do we reconcile this self-conscious narrator who tells us, at one time, that he has made all this up— that he has given us, in all the hundreds of names in this book, only one name that is the real name of the family who inspired it, because their acts during the war were so noble as to deserve being recorded— with the narrator who tells us, at another time, outside the novella, that he has cobbled together the inner lives and secrets of these people from private conversations and gossip which he necessarily cannot recount without stretching into infinity this already perilously long book?

Similarly, at the same distance through the novel as a whole, a different voice breaks in, what I’ve previously called the fictive dare, where we read, “if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book…” Yet again, there is a puncture in the apparently self-contained narrative which makes up the whole novel. This parenthetical aside is not only neither the voice of the narrator nor the voice of the author, what it offers us is only conditional, an ‘if.’ You don’t have to, really, but for convenience’s sake, ‘we’ will call him Marcel. It seems undeniable that the discovery which Proust— the private Proust, the writer Proust— made when he punctured the novella has its parallel here, in the second discovery which could only come after the narrator had made the first one for himself. It is not that the narrator is unreliable (there is nothing to be reliable to— this is just a story!), but that we cannot even name this narrator, whose voice does not modulate even when it is apparently not itself. There is no outside narrator onto whom this pronouncement can latch. It is a ‘third,’ unnamed narrator which gives us a possible name, taken from the author, to give if we like to the narrator who has been recounting the whole novel, even that almost self-contained novella way back in the first volume.

Is this the true writerly self, the self that is so different from the social self, which the critic and narrator of Contre Sainte-Beuve describes? A few days ago, I stumbled across the notes I made after finishing the Overture. In them, I find a quote which I had forgotten, from the famous scene:

I put down the cup and examine my own mind. It alone can discover the truth. What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not yet exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.

An abyss of uncertainty. That, it seems, is what speaks in that brief aside, when the narration is overtaken by itself, and there is no other speaker to point to. It is both the seeker and the dark region through which ‘we’ must go seeking. But the narrator cannot merely point to it, he cannot merely describe it. It seems that his whole labor is towards this one moment which it is impossible to account for. It is not the true self, the writerly self, that appears here. It is, however, the ‘work of one’s self,’ that self which cannot be located through intellect. “It is a truth every bit of which we have to create.” In the manner of that peculiar inversion inscribed in the very heart of the novel, which appears to grant us a firm stance while instantly taking it from us, it is a truth, access to which the intellect must admit it lacks, which only the intellect can admit.

A footnote by the editors near the end of the novel attributes the constant time-shifting of the final volume, the discussion of soon-to-occur events before they occur, the accounts of asides given by characters which the narrator will not encounter in conversation for several dozen more pages, to an author who died too young, before having time to edit the final drafts of the last few volumes. It is almost certainly true— affirmed by the fact that some variant of the word “perspicacious” is used no less than a dozen times in about one hundred pages, a conspicuous over-usage which has been astonishingly avoided in the preceding several thousand pages. But what if? What if it is not accidental? What if ‘Marcel’ attributes the same description to both Legrandin and Saint-Loup without concern for the ‘impropriety’ of such a narrative failure? Is it any more or less egregious an error than feigning access to the innermost (carefully revealed) secrets of Odette and Swann? Or does this, like that abyss of uncertainty, merely reveal that this ‘truth’ is created?

In The Flesh of Words, Jacques Ranciére considers why exactly Proust would go to such great lengths to include in the final volume of his novel the war which interrupted its publication and granted him the chance to reconceive the work as a whole. He postulates that the war is placed there to highlight the various ‘truths’ which ‘Marcel’ has labored so long to discover. These are the truth of love, the truth of war, and the truth of fiction.

What the experience of love proved to the hero is that the beloved always lies to us, with a permanent lie that is not a characteristic trait but just the pocket change of the illusion objectified in the individuality of the beloved individual… [His] love for Albertine made the hero incapable of untangling truth from the lie” (p. 118)

Conversely,

Love for the fatherland makes [Marcel] incapable of mixing the idea of the fatherland with that of the lie, the idea of the enemy with that of truth… the ‘passionate’ war is a strange passion, a passion that is wholly truth… The truth of the war is the truth— the counter-truth— of the anti-literary lure of fusional communion (pp. 118, 120, 122)

The latter is an epic truth which Saint-Loup says is “so beautiful that you would think, as I do, that words could do no more.”

Maybe they can, though. Maybe they can grant the ability to carry one’s particular burden of reality, but only when that reality is looked at indirectly, when one looks at the indirection of a fiction and acknowledges it as such. Just as we must create the narrator who can narrate the narrator, Proust— the man, the author, the writer— had to create his own indirection. We should not believe that the fiction grants us access to him, though, or that knowledge of his behavior towards women will grant us access to the fiction. That would be to succumb to one of those counter-truths, to ignore that voice which is not the author’s or the narrator’s but can grant us the possibility— if we ignore that very voice— of ascribing the author’s name to the narrator. We must not ignore ‘the pocket change of the illusion’ left over when we assume to know that Proust in fact dipped toast into his tea, as the famous event is recounted in Contre Sainte-Beuve, and not a madeleine, nor attempt to recuperate this novel into a whole-truth, with ‘Marcel’ telling us a complete and orchestrated story; we must let the intellect discover that it is not the means by which we can approach this book.

Is this the truth which Beckett took from Proust? Only, instead of that surety which Proust seemed to discover (we will never know whether he did, or whether it eluded him until death robbed him of the possibility of finishing his work), Beckett presents to us the tragicomedy of Perseus striking his own shield, the tragicomedy of an unidentifiable narrator who hopes that, one day, he will have a hold on that true self when he finishes the unfinishable novel. That truth, for which one seeks in the abyss that opens up when one seeks, is still to be created, and we (that same ‘we’ which may or may not call the narrator Marcel, that ‘our’ whose past impressions only the solitary writer can repossess) are not much further advanced than Homer. Or Proust.

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Filed under: Beckett, Proust, Ranciére, Writing

One Response

  1. Richard says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for it.

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