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.