Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

VI. Reading Proust: The Little Shock Effects of Art

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

VI. Reading Proust: The Little Shock Effects of Art

Article excerpt

My contribution to the theme of this book is based on my reading of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, more specifically on the aesthetic experience it is possible to extract from this reading. My main argument will be that in our attempts to grasp this experience, which has the character of "small shocks" (Benjamin 1999a), we might profit by drawing on an experiential distinction in German between 'Erlebnis' and 'Erfahrung.' This distinction is lost in English, where we have only one word: experience. As the distinction between 'Erlebnis' and 'Erfahrung' is crucial to my argument, I follow John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson's (2000) translation of Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit, using Experience - with an uppercase E - for 'Erlebnis,' and experience - with a lowercase e - for 'Erfahrung.' The distinction between 'Erlebnis' and 'Erfahrung' points, I think, to a significant tension in Proust, which he deliberately used to render visible the life thread weaving not only the life of the narrator, but also our own lives, made recognizable in the plot as it unfolds when we read it.

Proust criticism has concerned itself mainly with the themes of time and memory (Beckett 1999; Bowie 1998; Lagercrantz 1992; Kristeva 1993, 1996), with the notable exception of Gilles Deleuze (1964), who proposed a reading that did not focus on the Madeleine cake and other involuntary memories but on signification as the key to an alternative reading of Proust. Rather than reading the novel as a search backwards in time, Deleuze suggested reading it in a direction pointing toward the future and seeing how the narrator interprets the world around him as embedded in signifiers determines his fate. Notwithstanding the importance of Deleuze' s interpretation I focus on the way memory and time are organized in Proust's writing, linking this to experiences we have from our own lives, which endow the work with its unique aesthetic quality.

Out of the complexity of Proustian temporality emerges memory, securing the entirety of intertwined time in a complex pattern which the narrator variously compares to a vast musical composition and to a cathedral. We are not, however, dealing with the narrator's memories of certain significant childhood events: they are not pivotal for the author - no matter how significant the reader experiences them to be. The objective is to convey these events just as they sink into the narrator's life, in order to transmit them to the reader as experience.

Proust is convinced that in life coincidences determine whether or not we are able to use the events that befall us to create links to other, similar events, and to draw from these an experience of their essence. However, when it is coincidental whether or not we find our way back to ourselves, and when the poetic task is to render this project present, Proust inevitably faces a difficult challenge. Indeed, he has allowed his main character to struggle at length with this vocation. The narrator has evaded the task whose solution he senses early on in the novel, but which he hesitates to pursue. Proust called this solution "involuntary memories." While voluntary memory is the brain's ordinary memory, which can inform us about the past in the same way as photographs in an album, we have no power over involuntary memory. It just happens to us, choosing its own time and place for the emergence of its miracles. Proust's novel is a monument to involuntary memory, an epic of its effects (Beckett 1999).

The involuntary memories in the novel are staged as small shocks: sudden and entirely harmless events that awaken the narrator and, with him, the reader. We are caught off-guard during our reading, despite the everyday character of these utterly familiar experiences. We must not misunderstand, however, the reappearance of memory in Proust as the result of a happily arisen experience of a sensual nature - which, precisely due to this sensuality, is suited to evoke a similar event in the past. …

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