Friday, 14 September 2018

Marcel Proust and Jean-Paul Sartre

Marcel Proust
Jean-Paul Sartre was an admirer of Marcel Proust’s literature. He saw Proust as not only a great fiction writer but also as a philosopher of subjective mental experience and its corollaries, such as consciousness and identity.

In his Being and Nothingness, Sartre makes several references to Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past. I think the most interesting reference is on pages 168—169 where Sartre offers his perspective on the following passage from Swann’s Way (Remembrances of Things Past; Volume 1; Chapter 3: “Swann in Love”):
For the moment that Swann was able to form a picture of her without revulsion, that he could see once again the friendliness in her smile, and that the desire to tear her away from every rival was no longer imposed by his jealousy upon his love, that love once again became, more than anything, a taste for the sensations which Odette’s person gave him, for the pleasure which he found in admiring, as one might a spectacle, or in questioning, as one might a phenomenon, the birth of one of her glances, the formation of one of her smiles, the utterance of an intonation of her voice. And this pleasure, different from every other, had in the end created in him a need of her, which she alone, by her presence or by her letters, could assuage, almost as disinterested, almost as artistic, as perverse as another need which characterised this new period in Swann’s life, when the sereness, the depression of the preceding years had been followed by a sort of spiritual superabundance, without his knowing to what he owed this unlooked-for enrichment of his life, any more than a person in delicate health who from a certain moment grows stronger, puts on flesh, and seems for a time to be on the road to a complete recovery:— this other need, which, too, developed in him independently of the visible, material world, was the need to listen to music and to learn to know it.
Here’s Sartre’s analysis of the above passage:
This passage is obviously concerned with the psychic. We see feelings which, individualized and separated by nature, are here acting one on the other. But Proust is trying to clarify their actions and to classify them in the hope that he may thereby make understandable the fluctuations which Swann experiences. Proust does not limit himself to describing the conclusions which he himself has been able to make (e.g., the transition through "oscillation" from hate-filled jealousy to tender love); he wants to explain these findings. 
What are the results of this analysis? Is the unintelligibility of the psy­chic removed? It is easy to see that on the contrary this somewhat arbi­trary reduction of the great psychic forms to more simple elements ac­centuates the magic irrationality of the interrelations which psychic objects support. How does jealousy "add" to love the "desire to take her away from everyone else?" And how does this desire once added to love (always the image of the cloud of cream "added" to the coffee) prevent it from becoming again "a taste for the sensations which Odette's person gave him?" And how can the pleasure create a need? And how does love manufacture that jealousy which in return will add to love the desire to take Odette away from everyone else? And how when freed from this desire, is it going to manufacture tenderness anew? Proust here attempts to constitute a symbolic chemistry, but the chemical images which he uses are capable only of disguising the motivations and irrational acts. It is an attempt to draw us toward a mechanistic interpretation of the psychic which, without being any more intelligible, would com­pletely distort its nature. And yet Proust cannot keep from showing us between the estranged states almost interhuman relations (to create, to manufacture, to add), which would almost allow us to suppose that these psychic objects are animated agents. In his descriptions the intellectualis­tic analysis shows its limitations at every instant; it can effect its dis­tinctions and its classifications only superficially and on the basis of total irrationality. It is necessary to give up trying to reduce the irrational ele­ment in psychic causality. This causality is a degradation of the ekstatic for-itself, which is its own being at a distance from itself, its degradation into magic, into an in-itself which is what it is at its own place. Magic action through influence at a distance is the necessary result of this re­ laxation of the bonds of being. The psychologist must describe these ir­rational bonds and take them as an original given of the psychic world.
On page 366, Sartre talks about the relationship between Albertine Simonet (who first makes an appearance in Remembrances of Things Past, Volume 2, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) and the narrator in Proust’s novel, who is Proust himself. Sartre writes:
If Love were in fact a pure desire for physical posses­sion, it could in many cases be easily satisfied. Proust's hero, for example, who installs his mistress in his home, who can see her and possess her at any hour of the day, who has been able to make her completely dependent on him economically, ought to be free from worry. Yet we know that he is, on the contrary, continually gnawed by anxiety. Through her consciousness Albertine escapes Marcel even when he is at her side, and that is why he knows relief only when he gazes on her while she sleeps. It is cer­tain then that the lover wishes to capture a "consciousness." But why does he wish it? And how?

Sartre is full of praise for Proust’s literature. In his Introduction to Being and Nothingness, titled “The Pursuit of Being,” Sartre says: “The genius of Proust is neither the work considered in isolation nor the subjective ability to produce it; it is the work considered as the totality of the manifestations of the person.” There are references to Proust’s work in 13 pages of Being and Nothingness.

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