The world is literally on fire; authoritarianism threatens multiple countries; racism and xenophobia are rampant; women’s and LGBTQ rights are under threat—why on earth would anyone spend time reading a 3,000-page novel by a man who’s been dead (exactly) a hundred years?
Well, there’s at least some politics in Proust’s novel, In Search of Lost Time. The longest sentence—stretching over three full pages—is a lament for the plight of gay men, including Oscar Wilde, who had recently been sentenced to hard labor, more or less for the “crime” of being gay. (Painfully topical at a moment when a Supreme Court justice recommends reconsidering the Obergefell decision.) There’s a fair amount of talk about the Dreyfus Affair, a moment in French history when antisemitism came to the surface, much as it’s doing again today. There’s quite a bit about the folly that led us into World War I, not entirely unlike the folly of certain politicians who, for equally bad reasons, seem hell-bent on leading us into climate catastrophe.
And there’s plenty in Proust about the triumph of the mediocre, the worthless, the conniving. In one devastating episode, we see Mr and Mrs Verdurin—vapid and tyrannical salon hosts, desperate to be revered—successfully engineer a break between the Baron de Charlus and his boyfriend, violinist Charlie Morel, out of vindictive envy. Charlus has just brought his high society friends to watch a performance by Morel, something that could be transformative for his career. But behind the scenes the Verdurins have whispered lies to Morel, and just as Charlus congratulates him on his performance, he tells Charlus, as loudly as possible, to leave him alone, adding: “I’m not the first person you’ve tried to corrupt!” Charlus is stunned, humiliated, devastated; the Verdurins are triumphant.
In a beautiful coda to the scene, the Princess of Naples walks back in, having forgotten her fan, and finds Charlus shattered and bewildered. Lending him her arm, she walks him out. Not everyone in Proust is a monster. But just as in life, the heroes are far and few between.
“The core is a set of big, wonderful, difficult questions about life.”
So, Proust’s novel is in part about virtue, vice, prejudice, and folly. But most of Proust’s novel is not about that; the core of it is not about that. Instead, the core is a set of big, wonderful, difficult questions about life. Here are a few of them: how we can feel at home in the world; how we can find genuine connection with other human beings; how we can find enchantment in a world without God; how art can transform our lives; whether an artist’s life can shed light on her work; what we can know about reality, other people, and ourselves; when not knowing is better than knowing; how sexual orientation affects questions of connection and identity; who we are really, deep down; what memory tells us about our inner world; why it might be good to think of our life as a story; and how we can feel like a single, unified person when we are torn apart by competing desires and change over time.
Thinking about these questions won’t help us stop rising sea levels or rising authoritarianism, that’s true—but it will help us lead a richer inner life while we do so. And the experience of reading this amazing novel—the months or years we put into reading 3,000 pages, as difficult as delightful—does important things for us too. It shows us one shape a story of a life can take. It helps us understand ourselves, nudging us to ask ourselves questions we’d never even thought about before. It stretches our memory, rewarding us for holding an absurd amount of information in mind at once. And it gets us in the habit of neither fully trusting nor fully doubting what we read and hear, but instead assigning a probability. (Is it possible the heterosexual narrator fully understands the world of same-sex desire? I guess. Is it likely? Not so much.)
“The experience of reading this amazing novel—the months or years we put into reading 3,000 pages, as difficult as delightful—does important things for us.”
One of the characters in the novel, Albertine Simonet, has a mole on her chin. Or at least, that’s what the narrator tells us initially. Forty pages later, the narrator says he was wrong, and it’s really on her cheek. And six pages after that, he says it was on her upper lip the whole time. It’s hard to read brilliant prose like this without eventually developing a sixth sense for the possibility of error. And what, in 2022, could possibly be more useful than a sixth sense for the possibility of error?
And yet… isn’t all that still a bit decadent? A bit beside the point when the ice caps are melting? Maybe. But maybe we all need a little mental health break in between bouts with the forces of chaos and destruction. And Proust is really not a bad mental health break. (I know more than one person who devoted herself, during the pandemic, to finishing In Search of Lost Time.) Plus, in a way, it reminds us of what we’re fighting for: a world in which we get to think, again, about connection, enchantment, identity, and art. That, and not the imaginary golden age sold by the authoritarians, is the world we all need back.
In the desert of Chile, flowers produce seeds that can somehow live in the barren soil, surviving up to seven years of drought. When the rare rain finally begins to fall, the desert bursts into bloom, creating a “desierto florido.” One day, let us hope, we will emerge from this period of literal and figurative drought. And when we do, let’s hope there are people around to remind us of Marcel Proust, of Chinua Achebe, of George Eliot, of Toni Morrison… Proust loved plant imagery, and maybe he would have liked this one: we are the soil. We keep Proust alive. Maybe our flowers will bloom again one day, like the hawthorns and apple trees his character loves so much.
A version of this blog post was first published on Philosophy Talk.