on losing proust and finding bathrobes

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my proust has gone missing.  perhaps.  or i stopped looking for it.  that’ll happen with proust.  he did come along to boston, in the carry on that stayed in the overhead compartment. (when baby fell asleep with his feet in my face sprawled across big brother it seemed too much to crawl out from the the human jenga pyramid and retrieve it.  i looked at skymall instead.).  he rode in the back of the jeep with the dog when we drove 365 miles to see a vet about a six month ear infection.  (he was passed over for pirate madlibs and a month of real simple menus).  and now i can’t remember how to even look for him.

i’m weary of the writing that rants about not being able to write.  weary, that is, of my quiet whine that writing is so difficult, so impossible to begin, particularly when one has been hoarding words and one starts to feel quite heavy with them and yet when one sits down to write the words scurry behind thoughts of second grade recess and volunteer art projects.  which, of course, is a red flag that the book, and one’s words must be found at all costs.

perhaps, though, if i write the book will come back.  it will float to me like the robe in tove janson‘s summer book.  

The robe had survived various threats to its existence.  There was the time some well-meaning relatives came out, and, as a surprise, gave the island a good cleaning.  They threw out a lot of things the family wanted, but, worst of all, they carried the bathrobe down to the water and let it float away.  They claimed later that it smelled.  Of course it smelled–that was part of its charm.  Smell is important.  It reminds a person of all the things he’s been through; it is a sheath of memories and security.  The robe smelled of good things, too–of smoke and the sea–but maybe they never noticed that.  In any case, the robe came back.  The wind blew, shifted, and reversed  the waves beat against the island, and one fine day they brought it home.  After that, it smelled of seaweed, and Papa wore virtually nothing else that whole summer.

of course as i write this, proust is with me, has been with me all along.  the memory of smell, the synaesthetic intermingling of sense and memory.  and as i write i am unburdened of these excess words, reminded that part of writing is wading along, walking on alligators. i’d been slowly savoring jansson’s book all summer long, wading about in the distilled island experiencing the dark, intense reverie that is particular to the finnish. (memories now of summolein strawberries, trams in the rain, travelling with a three year old in helsinki, adventures from another time).  (closer still, seashells shaped like velociraptor claws and the pop popping of seaweed bulbs underfoot.) but august slipped by and i was still reading well into fall, holding on to the long tides of the midnight sun.  proust was always in my bag, but jansson was at my bedside table.

i’ve shelved the summer book (and replaced it with jacob’s room) and i think proust will come back, if only as the smell of seaweed and the callous of barnacles on my bedside books.

proust and the salt rose

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my proust reading is slow, stolen reading. it seems fitting that the longest date marcel and i have had was last week when my 18 month old was on his second day of a 102 fever.  it was a saturday and we had out of town guests, so the big boys took them exploring in the city. while they ate moon pies in china town and hung off a cable car on powell street, i nursed a feverish baby in our dimmed bedroom.  we (the baby, proust and i) moved back and forth between the rocking chair and the unmade bed in tempo with the languid sentences of combray.

i first read proust when i was pregnant and my then-five year old was transitioning into a new room, a new bed by himself.  i remember my son creeping down the hall to climb into our bed just as i had turned the page on marcel’s disappointment that at last, mother has come to stay with him.  he yearns for it; his very existence depends on it; and yet her coming is a kind of betrayal, a disappointment.

both of these overlaps reminded me of neruda’s love sonnet xvii.

I don’t love you as if you were the salt-rose, topaz
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as certain dark things are loved,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom and carries
hidden within itself the light of those flowers,
and thanks to your love, darkly in my body
lives the dense fragrance that rises from the earth.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you simply, without problems or pride:
I love you in this way because I don’t know any other way of loving

but this, in which there is no I or you,
so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand,
so intimate that when I fall asleep it is your eyes that close.

when writing my wedding vows over a decade ago i returned to this poem. and i married because of this, because i found a partner who understood the difference between alone and lonely. because i knew i could always sleep beside him and breathe his breath as my own. and that was love. it still is love.

but when i re-read it as a mother it no longer seemed to me the confession of the lover. this is womb love. die a thousand deaths love. hold you to my breast until i bleed love. think your poop is perfect love. count your eyelashes love. exponential love.

and that kind of love knocks you off your feet. leaves you prostrate, disoriented. that kind of love is the obsession of our narrator who knows not yet i or you.  this mother and son love is suffocating, annihilating, terrifying. it’s being attached, so tightly bound, so full of love you can’t breathe. and yet it’s liberating, exhilarating, and just beautiful.

i’ve returned to this poem often. i return to it now because i think neruda gives voice, as proust does,  in a way that honors the poetry and intensity of the underside of the salt rose. it indulges in the dark intimacy between mother and child. and it warns us that this love is no bouquet of common carnations.

freud and lacan tell us plenty about the role of the mother in a child’s psychosexual development.  and i find it difficult to make these connections between my own mothering and proust without lacan whispering in my ear… but i find it equally difficult to (literally as well as metaphorically) turn the pages without my sons’ breath over the page.

but for now, in the novel, in the sonnet, in my darkened room i’ll embrace the “dense fragrance” that rises between the space of the mother and child. and then i’ll turn the page.

Crazy Aunt [Insert Name Here]

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In the beginning of the second section, Proust describes his Aunt Leonie.  I am loath / terrified / amused / worried to admit this, but there is much about the characterization of Aunt Leonie that feels all too familiar (and “familiar” and “family” must come from the same root, no?).  For Aunt Leonie is what I know I could become if I don’t reign in the crazy.

Here, for your edification are a few choice descriptors of Crazy Aunt Leonie:

She was “always lying in an uncertain state of grief, physical debility, illness, obsession and piety.”

“She always talked rather softly because she thought there was something broken and floating in her head that she would have displaced by speaking too loudly, but she never remained for long, even alone, without saying something. . .”

“she attributed to the least of her sensations an extraordinary importance”

“I often heard her saying to herself: ‘I must be sure to remember that I did not sleep’ (for never sleeping was her great claim. . . )”

Proust, as I’ve noted before, certainly understands emotional disturbance and even disorder.  Some might go so far as to call these behaviors “neuroses” on the part of Proust and Aunt Leonie.  Unfortunately, I too understand these things.

I’ll say it:  I fear becoming someone’s Crazy Aunt D.  Or maybe it’s too late.  Certainly, I recognize parts of myself in Proust’s Aunt Leonie.  This makes her both frightening and compelling all at once.  We recognize her; we fear her.  Yet, I think that if we can learn to embrace her, thereby learning to embrace those shadow parts of ourselves, then we may find the only real path to dealing with our own crazy once and for all.

a word, a globe, and the OED

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i love the sound of “ferruginous.” loved that it stopped me on page seventeen.  furrrr-udge-in-us.  love how it sounded to me when i read it out loud.  loved how the urrrrr rolled around in my head a bit.  i boxed it with my pink pen and then went back to re-read the sentence.

to be halted by a word is a glorious thing. like being haunted, i believe barthes describes it as a pin-prick, by a photograph.  i  admit, i looked it up at m-w.com. and i pressed the audio option.  feh-rooo-ginous.  hmm. that’s not how i heard it.  and did i want to post how i stumbled across this word on facebook and be part of an elite circle that also looked up ferruginous? nope.  not yet, anyhow.  i had a much better idea.

i have two beloved “found” objects.  they reside beside one another in a safe, dry and permanent home.  both i found out of some kind of magical, serendipitous, good fairy kind of luck.  one walking back to my son’s elementary school after finding library books left in the back seat on a tuesday, on library tuesday nonetheless, following the blue paw prints back to the front office. there i  saw the blur of a giant, spherical object being tossed into the dumpster.  hey rick, i asked, was that a globe you just threw away?  yup.  apparently it doesn’t work anymore. so he dug it out, i backed up the jeep (after dropping off the library books) and loaded up my broken globe.  a globe void of country, continent, or sea nomenclature.  a globe, i found, that was part of an industrial circa 1976 set for school use when i saw the same (devoid of the LUSD etching in custodial handwriting that MY globe bears) globe in a luxe urban housegoods shop in newport coast selling (with a hand written tag) for $2400.

the second, much earlier find, is a two volume set of the compact edition of the oxford english dictionary at the local bookshop for a new twenty.  i think the bookseller, whose shelves were bulging with waiting-room fiction knew it was a steal, with its leather slip case and pull out drawer containing a magnifying glass for reading the micrographically reproduced text. but he gave it to me anyway in exchange for my earnings of four hours of work at the Y latchkey program. it helped me through an undergraduate thesis on the word “seem” in paradise lost, and resurfaced in graduate school while working on beowulf in the old english . . . and now some eighteen years later with proust.

ipulled out the microscope from the bottom drawer and found it in volume one.  my seven year old marvelled at this technology.  wow, mom, you have to use book glasses for all those words?  using the book glasses i was able to trace the word:  in 1666 ferruginous described the rusty taste water accumulated as it flowed over certain rocks.  a zoologist in 1766 described ferriginous scales on particular kinds of reptiles and an eider duck shows up in 1870 as having such a hue. it also told me what i knew already, that it is “of the nature of iron.” which makes sense.  ferr-, ferrum, ferrious. . . or some deriviation.  but i also learned that due to its reference directly to ferrum it exists also in french, that this word, had the geneaology continued could have continued with 1913, Proust, with the following sentence, here, of course, translated for our reading enjoyment:

The evenings when, sitting in front of the house under the large chestnut tree, around the iron table, we heard at the far end of the garden, not the copious high-pitched bell that drenched, that deafened in passing with its ferruginous, icy, inexhaustible noise any person in the household who set it off by coming in ‘without ringing’, but the shy, oval, golden double tinkling of the little visitors’bell, everyone would immediately wonder: ‘A visitor–now who can that be?’ but we knew very well it could only be M. Swann; my great-aunt speaking loudly, to set an example, in a tone of voice that she strained to make natural, said not to whisper that way; that nothing is more disagreeable for a visitor just coming in who is led to think that people are saying things he should not hear; and they would send as a scout my grandmother, who was always glad to have a pretext for taking one mote walk around the garden and who would profit from it by surreptitiously pulling up a few rose stakes on the way in order to restore a little naturalness to the roses, like a mother who runs her hand through her son’s hair or fluff it up after the barber has flattened it too much

this passage comes as the narrator recalls the evening’s nightly consolation and sorrow:”mama’s kiss.”  (a passage, admittedly, as a mother of two, i keep coming back to rather obsessively–the passage and the theme of obsession d. takes on quite nicely below).  note, first, that the passage itself is a sentence.  one sentence about the “golden double tinkling of the little visitors’ bell” and “not the copious high-pitched bell that drenched, that deafened in passing with its ferruginous, icy, inexhaustible noise.”  it’s about the visitor, THE visitor M. Swann and the memory of that nightly diversion, one paired in memory with his mother’s kiss. so the passage is both about the “golden” tinkling bell and the “ferruginous” gong.  and as i write this, and re-read the passage i’m realizing that i did not escape the earlier moment after all…  that these metallic extremes are intertwixt with his memory of the pleasure and the pain of that moment. that they are at the same time about the grandmother’s pruning the roses which is also a mother’s impulse.

and i love the way that these words are heavy and permanent,  they are “drenched” and “inexhaustible” and leave a mark… they are not unlike the leaden circles big ben leaves in the air throughout london in virginia woolf’s mrs. dalloway (i find, by the way, that all answers are in that novel).  i know, or i’ve been told anyhow,  that these kinds of close readings are an indulgence.   but isn’t it a wonderful kind of indulgence?  one proust both warns us against and yet delightfully invites us to do? he takes us away from his novel (to our bookshelves, to our memories) while still suspending us over the page.

Lie to me

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Portrait of Anais Nin taken in NYC in 70s by E...

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.

English: First galley proof of A la recherche ...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.

Obsession and the “nervous impulse”

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I’m struggling this morning with Proust, although not in the ways I might have expected.  It’s not the language or following the digressive narrative that’s getting to me.  Rather, it’s tracking (and quite honestly identifying with) the nature of his obsessive behavior that is troubling me.

And I’m just going to say this clearly now:  I’m dispensing with distinguishing between Proust and his narrator.  I feel like I’m always chastising my students for assuming that authors and their narrators are the same, and yet, this conflating of the two feels warranted in the specific case of Proust.

I am finding it emotionally challenging to read about Proust’s obsessive and manipulative behavior towards the mother in the early pages of The Way by Swann’s.  His perceived inability to go to sleep without attention from the mother, as signified by her kiss, leads to obsessive thought and compulsive behavior.  And the behavior is both self-destructive and self-fulfilling.  We see the child-narrator-rememberer-Proust reaching out to the mother, asking her to visit his bedroom, knowing she will likely reject him, but he reaches out anyway, only seeking more heartache (and insomnia) for himself.  I absolutely hate admitting this, but how often I’ve seen this pattern in my own past, reaching out for another knowing that it would be in the best interest of my own heart not to.  It seems to me that it is behavior that, on the surface, appears to be manipulative of the other but really is a kind of self-mutilation.   It’s a seeking the other who we know will only reject us.  And once we slip into this pattern, it’s so difficult to stop.

Here, I’m using the pop-psych terms “obsessive” and “compulsive” and even “self-mutilation,” but Proust speaks of “yielding to a nervous impulse.”  It’s all really the same thing, the part of a particular personality type that causes us to feel like we simply must do this thing, although we know it will only serve to bruise our hearts a little worse in the end.

However, when Proust, in spite of absolutely knowing it will end badly, throws himself at his mother in the hall, risking his father’s wrath, he gets not just her attention and night kiss but much more.  The father encourages her to spend the entire night with the child Proust in his bedroom!  Here, his obsession, his “yielding to a nervous impulse” is actually rewarded.  Yet, this triumph is, for Proust, hollow.  The anticipated relief and love he would have expected to feel at getting to spend the night with the mother is replaced by a feeling of having defeated her and having caused suffering for her.

In the end, obsession just doesn’t seem to work, I suppose.  And yet once started, it’s a difficult cycle from which to remove one’s self.  Many of us, I fear, can speak to the truth of this.

Proust and Being in the Present

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Proust’s tome is, quite obviously, a kind of tracking of how the human memory works, certainly a fascinating topic.  I’d venture to say that most of us don’t really understand how we as individuals retrieve memories, the function that memories serve in our lives, how our minds process memory, or how our memories are modified over time.  As the remake of the film Total Recall has recently been released, these kinds of questions seem maybe even more relevant to popular culture.  And yet, I’m led to wonder whether Proust’s (and admittedly, my own) obsession with memory is actually a kind of obstacle to being in the present.

I know that I too often become so caught up in either replaying the past or worrying about the future that I am unable to fully engage in and fully enjoy the present.  Proust remembers to the ways that worry about the future can steal the joy of the present in the moment when the narrator’s child self, although longing for mother’s goodnight kiss, find’s her approach for the kiss a “painful moment” because “it announced the moment that would follow it, in which she had left me.”  He is unable to embrace the experience he longs for, because it heralds the moment he fears, the moment of loss.  Worry about the future removes him from the present.

It seems also that Proust and his narrator and maybe even ourselves as readers experience a similar loss of the present as we delve into the world of memory explored by this novel.  We tread the passages of the narrator’s memory, never quite sure where the present is that he inhabits.  Memory takes over all, obscuring the present.  This is fine for a novel, but it is no way to live our lives.  And yet, when we live with loss and emotional hurt, it is easy to slip into living our lives among memory and the fallout of memory, rather than in the present.

Additionally, in pursuing relationships, I think it’s easy to slip into the position that the child takes above.  We long for the kiss, long for the emotional connection to another, yet it is easy to fear it, even push it away because we know that connection always already creates the possibility of loss and suffering.  How easy, then, to miss out on something lovely and wonderful and fulfilling in the present simply because we fear a potential future, one that may never even come to pass.  It’s almost as though we remember something that hasn’t even happened.

the virtue of writing (and sleeping) without a magic lamp

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i find i’m back at the beginning again, lamenting my lack of momentum.  admitedly, my copy of proust had gone the way of lost things. . .

and so i returned to the first page.  the first line. again. and again.  and it struck me that there was a deliberate play against momentum.  that proust had tricked me.  here i was trying to pedal faster, forge ahead, and yet the narrator is trying desperately to fight against such movement.  all he really wants to do is sleep.  in fact, 46 pages after the opening we return to: “So it was that, for a long time, when, awakened at night, I remembered Combray again [. . .]”.  Not only are we still in the digression of sleep but the very writing itself dictates you yield, slow down.  Look, for example, at that sentence–the one returning to that first line (when you think you’d travelled so very very far–of course “far” has nothing at all to do with momentum:  see d.’s brillig last post about the mind-body travelling) which is punctuated with a comma at a frequency of no less than every four words, forcing you into a lilting, somnumbulent pace.

In fact, you might even say that momentum is the anathema to sleep. Such is the disturbance of the magic lantern:

it replaced the opacity of the walls with impalpable irrideescences, supernatural multicoloured apparations, where laegends were depicted as in a wavering, momentary stained-glass window.  But my sadness was only increased by theis, because the mere change in lighting destroyed the familiarity my bedroom had acquired for me and which the torment of going to bed, had made it tolerable to me. (13)

So this beautiful distraction, placed atop his lamp each night at dinner, rather than creating a magical room of slumber actually aggravated the anxiety of sleep so that each night he felt as if he were in an unfamiliar place “to which I had come for the first time straight from the railway train” (13). What he desires is familiarity and habit.

What is difficult about writing is this word by word, belabored process that despite all of the magic lamps available : voice-command activated software, wordpress apps so i can post at stoplights, touchscreens and autospell they perhaps only obfuscate the simplicity of the act itself.  Whether pen or click you still write word by word, erase or delete, edit and write again, clumsily until you find your way home.

Instead of bemoaning my lack of momentum, perhaps Proust can teach me to return to writing as a kind of habit.  But I know this, and I think we all know this: it’s not momentum but habit that gets writing done.  There is truth to glib titles like “writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day” (another book that had also gone the way of lost things) and my dissertation director’s advice that all a grad student needs is glue–for sitting in the writing chair day after day.   There’s truth to that: seven years and two children later my own was finished not out of creating a magical solitary writer’s retreat but by writing daily, in the midst of the familiar chaos so that it became a habit as mundane as washing dishes. (And like sleep, it’s as important as those pesky dishes.)

Today is Wednesday, and I have commited to posting on Wednesdays and I’ve committed to carrying the book with me again (even if it creeps back under the seat with lost Lego bricks, Joe’s O’s and Peet’s coffee sleeves). I cannot guarantee a brilliant discourse on the virtues of Proust (but then we’ve all seen Little Miss Sunshine and know what happens to “real” Proust scholars winkwink) and I may only offer  a passage, a line, a word that inspires; for he craved not the magical sleep of disorientation:”it was enough if , in my own bed, my sleep was deep and allowed my mind to relax entirely” (9).

Proust and the Mind-Body Connection

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So I realize that, as is so often the case with me, this is very much a personal response.  And even so, my hope is that others may find some value in it, even if I’m speaking from my own heart, from my own experience, rather than from the kind of Apollonian position so often valued by academe.

Would it be too much to say that it’s become a cliche to say that Proust has been identified as a neuroscientist?  Not that I actually know anything about such matters.  But as I’m reading the early pages of the “Combray” section, I’m fascinated by the ways in which Proust explores not just the nature of memory and its connection to the material world but its connection to the physical body.  And in the interest of disclosure I suppose I should admit this–lately I’ve been thinking quite a lot not just about the mind-body connection but even more specifically about the ways in which the physical body is connected to and reflective of one’s emotional life.  And it’s as though on pages 9 and 10, the physical body for Proust’s narrator becomes not just a way of locating the memory but of locating the self within a set of possible memories.  Memory and construction of the self become embodied in a very literal way.

Specifically,  the narrator describes the sense of disorientation he has sometimes felt upon waking, a disorientation that manifests as knowing neither where nor who he is:  “[W]hen I woke in the middle of the night, since I did not know where I was, I did not even understand in the first moment who I was. . . ”  I have no idea whether I’m unique in this experience, but I certainly (and more frequently than I would like) have had the experience of waking, even in my own bed, and thinking I’m in my own bed, but my own bed at another address, my own bed of another era.  It’s quite disconcerting and can even lead to feelings of sadness and loss when I momentarily think that I’m in some earlier version of my life in which some relationship, now lost, was still available to me.

What I find particularly fascinating, however, about this experience of disorientation and dislocation for Proust’s narrator is that the physical body and its position in bed becomes a way to attempt to locate and define the self.  It’s as though the experience of having a body allows access both to memory and to the sense of self, which are arguably intertwined.  The narrator explains that his “body, too benumbed to move, would try to locate, according to the form of its fatigue, the position of its limbs in order to deduce from this the direction of the wall, the location of the furniture, in order to reconstruct and name the dwelling in which it found itself.  Its memory, the memory of its ribs, its knees, its shoulders, offered in succession several of the rooms where it had slept. . .”  Its as though the memory, and the attendant sense of self, is located within the body, rather than the mind in this passage.  Upon waking, the attempt to deduce one’s physical location, earlier tied to the attempt to remember one’s own identity, is permitted by the position and the “memory” of the physical body.

One theory that I’m willing to buy into is that we somehow carry emotional traumas in our physical bodies–  that even if our conscious minds don’t remember the emotional traumas, the tightness in our shoulders or the pain in our stomachs bear witness to our own suffering.  Proust must have understood this–that the body carries its own memories, memories that may be separate from those of the conscious mind.  These embodied memories, however, are particularly powerful precisely because we cannot access them via the conscious mind, and yet we carry them, quite literally, around with us day by day.

The First Paragraph

I’ve read the first paragraph of The Way by Swann’s over and over.  It’s not so much that I can’t get beyond the first paragraph; it’s more that I’m not sure I want to right now.  Because there’s something almost indulgent in pouring over the same words and phrases over and over, weighing each one, listening to the sounds, imagining myself into the words.  In fact, I’m almost tempted, rather than draft my own post, to merely retype the opening paragraph for the pure joy of pouring over the words in another kind of way.  But I will refrain, because that seems like it would be slipping into the self-indulgent.  And yet, maybe Proust is about giving ourselves permission to be self-indulgent or at least to indulge our creative selves.

The passage that is lodging itself into my soul is this: “[I]t seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V.  This belief lived on for a few seconds after my waking; it did not shock my reason but lay heavy like scales on my eyes. . .”  Here the narrator describes the experience of having fallen asleep while reading, although not necessarily realizing he’s asleep.  And certainly, part of what speaks to me here is this notion of the very fine between sleep and wakefulness, akin to the division we like to create between the conscious and the nonconscious.  But maybe Proust is reminding us that these seemingly-neat dichotomies (waking / sleep; conscious / nonconscious) are false idols.  For the experience of being human is a messy one, and to live fully means that these boundaries sometimes become blurred.

More specifically, the boundary between “real” and fiction, between the self and what we read is similarly blurred, at least for some of us.  We like to pretend that fiction, because it’s fiction, doesn’t matter, when the reality is that fiction has the power of myth to convey some essential Truth, possibly more “real” than the material world around us.  And the books that we read, at least for some of us who are book-oriented, become parts of our very souls.  Maybe Proust’s narrator has the experience of feeling as though he becomes “what the book was talking about” because he’s engaging on a deep imaginative level, one more easily entered into when one is near the line that we think divides sleep and wakefulness.  But maybe he becomes “what the book was talking about” because, like any serious reader, what he reads becomes part of who he is.

Either way, I’m ready to read and dream Proust, while I’m ready to dream and write my own story.  And I’m ready to allow the books I read as well as the narratives I construct to become my very self.