Portrait of Anais Nin taken in NYC in 70s by Elsa Dorfman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I’ve always loved liars.
Writers who speak in hyperbole and whose pages are bursting with extraordinary exaggeration are totally my cup of tea. Like love stories. And war stories. Stories about childhood and politics and everything in-between. Especially, when guised as the truth. Especially when cloaked for the sake of story.
And speaking such, I want to share a story with you. It’s not mine that much is true. I came across it in the stacks of the periodical room, back when journals were bound twice yearly with thick leather backs and kept in rooms called libraries. I used to work in one such magical place. I was the assistant librarian in the Periodical, Newspaper, and Microfiche room at the Doe Library of UC Berkeley. I loved my job. And in ways most bibliophiles can understand, I miss that job more than I miss my youth. Because for me that job was my youth. It was paper and newsprint and dusty stacks of words that I would turn when I was supposed to be shelving or referencing or otherwise amending. But like every other assistant librarian, every volume I shelved was a volume I read. So there I was in the belly of the basement of PNM–while the microfiche machines hummed and clinking nickels made Xerox copies– reading serialized love stories of Henry and June. I will not lie. I do not remember who wrote it. I do not remember what journal or even what year. I am a bad librarian. But I remember the words:
There is a hotel in Paris, above a café, of course, where Anais Nin and Henry Miller met for the first time and then made their way up to room 41. They brought along a picture of June, I swear to God they did, and they set it on the nightstand, (or perhaps it was already there). What they did next biographers are uncertain, but it involved most definitely Anais, Henry and Henry’s jacket. In Henry’s version he took the jacket off, laid it on the bed and Anais, naked lay upon it. In Anais’ version Henry took off all his clothes and wore the coat on top of both the bed and the woman. In June’s version the jacket was on the floor, out of June’s sight. Henry and Anais made love on top of it. Anais wore black lace underwear and when they were finished, Henry did a somersault on the bed and said to Anais, What? You expected more brutality?
Before they met they had agreed to be platonic. Six days earlier, March 2, in a letter, Anais had sworn to Henry with silver ink on purple paper: The woman will sit eternally in the tall black armchair. I will be the one woman you will never have. Excessive living weighs down the imagination. We will not live, we will only write and talk and sail the swells. Writers make love to what they need.
Writers make love to the truth they need.
And in truth, the jacket is why I write.
I’m looking for a way, as Aristotle states, to tell not what really happened, but what could possibly happen. As with Aristotle’s description of Homer, I find it enormously reassuring that the poet (or in this case the novelist) can construct a plot around the elements of periphery, recognition and pathos and yet can begin not with the start of history or story, but somewhere in the middle causing events to naturally follow. As historian, David Thelen puts it, “people shape their recollections of the past to fit their present needs.” In no place is this more true, or more startlingly confounding, than in the pages of Proust.
I came to Proust fully and exclusively. By this I mean in the early winter of 1999, I read everything. I did not read an excerpt, nor did I stop with Swann’s Way. Rather I read all seven volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It was indulgent, selfish, and, according to my financial aid advisor, it was also a “terrible waste of money.” But it was also totally worth it. The only class I took that semester, “Proust” was taught by a short and brilliant Berkeley professor named Michael Bernstein, who got violently ill during the course of the semester, and reminded me, with his scant height and complaints of pneumonia of Marcel himself.
Marcel, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, lives in a world of constructed reality, just as much, if not more than he lives in the actual world itself. He spends chapters revealing his fantastic expectations of the most ordinary events (a theater performance, an outing to the sea, a rendezvous with a woman) only to be devastatingly disappointed when the reality comes to fruition.
However, when he is not allowed to speculate on the outcome of a particular event, when things happen or come to him by accident, he is able to enjoy himself fully in the moment. I maintain this is because when he is allowed to speculate on an upcoming event, he is able to project the bulk of his emotional state onto the object of which he desires.
This behavior inevitably sets Marcel up for disappointment as nothing can ever live up to his grand expectations, simply because he has invested so much mental time (so much story imagining) in exploring their every aspect.
Conversely, when the experience is presented to him without his being forewarned, he is unable to endow the encounter with preconceived notions and the moment happens to him spontaneously. He is then able to experience life without meditation, or what Proust refers to as happiness.
Perhaps the most famous incident of spontaneous accident in Proust is when Marcel dunks a madeleine into a spoonful of tea and is abruptly flooded with unconstrained emotion. Not only does the memory of the cookie itself return, but so too does Marcel’s entire childhood home of Combray. Through the accidental trigger of sense memory Marcel is allowed access into a state of being that has been previously inaccessible to his present self. Due to the “madeleine accident,” he is allowed access to a brief “paradise of adolescence” that can only be revisited by chance, (in this case the delicate combination of the madeleine cookie and tisane).
This instance brings Marcel intense “happiness” and “exquisite pleasure,” but as the narrator attempts to repeat the “accident” with a second mouthful, hoping again to experience an emotional flood, he “find[s] nothing more than in the first.” When he makes a third attempt it gives him even less than the second and he declares, “It is time to stop; the potion is losing its virtue,” (Overture 61).
Although at first the combination brought Marcel great joy, when he intentionally tries to repeat the process he finds it brings him nothing. This is because the pleasure of the emotion occurred precisely because it was unplanned, hence accidental.
Being both the “quester” and the creator of the quest, Marcel wants, not only to rediscover a lost past, but he also wants to recreate it as well; he wants to both create the lie and be lied to. Or, more simply it is only after we revisits the past that we are able to derive meaning from who we were and establish the narrative hyperbole of who we currently are.
As noted previously, the only drawback to this kind of logic is that according to Proust, the past can only be revisited in spontaneous “moments” of accidental chance, thus leaving Marcel in a perpetual cycle of desire and possession. Leaving poor Proust and his willing reader with a fat stack of glorious half-truths; a steaming pile of glittery lies.
I don’t care much for madeleines. I drink my tea with my best friend’s biscotti, but tell me a story worth holding on to and I’ll keep your cookies in my jacket pocket until they are nothing but crumbles. And when even the crumbs are washed out with rain or dry cleaning machines, I’ll keep the memory dunked in tisane exactly as you told it. Which is to say, exactly as I need it to sound.