And I Digress. . .

I just realized, just now, that it’s been just over two months since my last post.  Why am I having such trouble with Prousting?  I have my copy of Proust.  I carry him with me everywhere I go.  In the pool blue tote bag that holds my notebooks and multi-colored roller ball pens, possibly my most prized possessions, I have my copy of The Way by Swann’s carefully tucked away.  And just carrying him around with me seems like I’m moving in the right direction.  But the question remains:  why can’t I get any reading actually done?  Why can’t I get a coherent post drafted?  We can talk about Proustian digressions in writing and thought.  But what happens when our lives become a Proustian digression?

I mean, here I am, nearly 37 years old.  And in one way, I suppose I’m quite accomplished.  I have a PhD; I have tenure at a college that I have come to love.  Isn’t this what we wanted when we all signed up for grad school?  Wasn’t this the result we sought?  And yet, it all feels like a digression from what I thought would be my “real” life.  I though I’d get married, have babies, host dinner parties where I’d wear high heels and serve fancy drinks.  Instead, I find myself making a pot of soup for my single friends as we gather to watch bad, bad reality TV.  Today, I’m happy to have these friends, happy to be cooking for them, but there are still moments when all of this feels like a digression from the life I thought I was supposed to have.  And yet THAT life, the one I was “suppposed” to have, the one I see my friends from college living week to week, it really wouldn’t suit me, not any more.  I wouldn’t have the time and space to think and read and write (and yes, watch reality TV) the way that I want to.  And so, the digression has become my real life.  I have learned to be reconciled to this somehow.  The digression has become my life, my real life.  What feels like the digression is the life I’m really meant to have, not the one somebody else always told me I was “supposed” to have.

But the other digression is this:  I intend to write.  Every day, I intend to write, and most days, I get some sort of writing done, often just brain dump in my personal journal.  But that’s OK; it’s still writing.  Still, I wonder why I can’t manage to write myself back round to Proust.  I’ve read the opening paragraphs over and over, thinking about sleep, about my own issues with sleep, about the experience of sleeping even when we think we aren’t.  As someone who struggles night to night with insomnia, I’m certain I’m hyper-sensitive about sleep and how to sleep and how much to sleep and when I’m sleeping and when I’m not.  And right now, it seems to me that Proust’s opening, “For a long time, I went to bed early,” invites us to consider the ways in which the acts of reading and writing and themselves a kind of somnolence or even a kind of somabulation (and I truly hope that’s the right word).  As I’m writing, drafting this very post, am I merely a sleep walker?

Julie Andrew’s “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start” is so much, in my mind, tied to the Red King’s admonition to “start at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, then stop,” and forgive me if I’ve misquoted Lewis Carroll at all.  It’s just that sitting down and starting at the beginning is so hard to do, especially when there’s so much to distract us in our lives and in our brains.  Later in Carroll’s Alice works, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee suggest that Alice may merely exist as part of someone else’s dream.  Alice is simultaneously incredulous, indignant, and frightened by this suggestion, as well she should be.  And yet, I feel as though writing about literature, writing about Proust is somehow only becoming part of his dream, part of his experience of going to bed early at Combray.  How do I feel about this?  I don’t know.

I want to claim my own voice, to live my own life and break out of the digressions.

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My six year old’s first grade class is preparing for their musical medley of The Sound of Music so we listen to Julie Andrews in the car, sing do re mi in the bath, and try to master the tongue twister of the lonely goatherd over dinner.  The refrain, though, that keeps going through my mind is “Let’s start at the very beginning… a very good place to start.” But of course I keep thinking “When you read” [insert Proust] “you begin with”. . . “metempsychosis.”

At least that’s where I’ve been stuck, or struck, rather.  Because if I can finally put down my red pen and get past Pendergrast’s introduction this is my first pause… my first Proustian digression and I haven’t even read halfway down the first page.  I love how spitzspeak confesses: “I can be intimidated by Proust and embrace Proust at the same time.  I can allow Proust to invade me, and I can read my life through the lens of Proust at the same time.”   Because when I got there I remembered my graduate seminar on Ulysses and spending 90 minutes on Bloom’s mis-remembering “metempsychosis.  Which, of course, reminded me of an afternoon in Dublin rather un-romantically marchimg in circles with cryptic instructions from the anti-frommers travel guide on how to get to the spot where Molly Bloom said yes yes and had the seedcake kiss. . . perhaps one of the most romantic moments in twentieth century literature :

the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a woman’s body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldn’t answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didn’t know of  . . . and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Of course in the ellipses are Molly’s digressions–memories of former lovers and her girlhood–because one thing is never one thing.  And of course the walk through the brambles and the bushes with my lover was anything but romantic.  Are you sure we’re supposed to walk up this hill with the red flower that’s been trampled? Or do we go past that tree with the lopped off limb and turn right?. So when we finally dropped our picnic blanket and wearily agreed this must be the spot and I  read from my (now feeling rather heavy) copy of  Ulysses sure that  this rather  dilapitated view of Dublin couldn’t possibly be it I kissed m. anyway for enduring the academic treasure hunt.  (Which of course leads now to a new hunt as I look through old boxes for my Dublin scrapbook–photographic evidence that we were there, proof I could post and in the absence of my dog-eared novel a google search for “molly bloom seedcake” which leads me here to another writer’s post) And of course I realize that that spot doesn’t really exist, not off the page anyhow, as a place on the map, as a verifiable truth,  but is so incredibly powerful because the memory of that moment keeps Molly and Bloom connected and (to borrow Woolf’s language from Mrs. Dalloway) connects them as through a thread to the rest of  Dublin and its history through time and space in the powerful nexus of remembrance.  The way by Swann’s will indeed be the long way around. . .

P(r)o(u)st: A Proust Post

I’ve been meaning to post this for some time now.  And I freely admit that I’m borrowing the “P(r)o(u)st” designation from my much-loved bff.  It seems like, somehow, this is indicative of what this blog is and should be about.

I have spent the last six weeks or so promising myself that I’d start reading my Proust.  But the truth is, I’m intimidated.  And I feel silly even admitting that.  I’m supposed to be someone who can handle Proust, right?  I have a PhD, for goodness’ sake, a PhD in literature.  Why does Proust scare (scar?) me so?  But maybe the other side of the coin is this:  why am I wanting to take on Proust, in spite of my feeling intimidated?  Wouldn’t it be easier to succumb to merely pursuing what Pendergrast calls the “tea-party image of Jane Austen’s world favoured by a certain class of Janeites” and call it a day?  Let’s face it:  I happen to like Jane Austen; I happen to like Harry Potter; I happen to like watching BritCom on DVD.  Why set all this aside to pursue Proust?  I mean, not Prousting is easier than Prousting.

Am I trying to prove myself?  In spite of having a silly PhD, do I feel like I need to earn my chops in the world of literature by being able to say that I’ve tackled Proust?  I think that, actually, the better approach here is to allow Proust to tackle me.  And that’s how I intend to approach this project.  I intend to let the words wash over me, to drown in the language without reaching for a lifesaver, to let Proust inhabit my mind.  Is this the right approach?  I don’t know, but it’s the approach I’m going to take, at least for now.

And yet, I’m also going to think about Prousting my way through the world.  I’m fascinated by the ways in which the material world, the world of objects interacts with the imagination and one’s memory, and this is the point of the madeleine episode, right?  At the moment, I’m very much aware of the ways that carrying Proust with me, both literally and figuratively, is triggering memory.

Several years ago (nearly eight–where has the time gone?) I was teaching part time, as so many of us have done, at a small college.  I recall a creative writing professor talking about once a year spending a long weekend with her writer friends, who were also, it seems, nudists.  She went on and on about the glory of sitting around all weekend, drinking, discussing Proust naked.  To be honest, I cannot think of a less appealing, less productive way to discuss Proust.  But there it is.  Naked Prousting.  I also recall her talking about her brother, the psychologist, telling her that of all the diagnoses one could receive, the one you really didn’t want was Borderline Personality Disorder.  According to her, according to him, a diagnosis of BPD is “intractable.”  I’m not at all sure what this means, but it’s somehow wrapped up with my associations with Proust, with naked Prousting.  But I want my own experience of Proust to hang on more than just this.

I think that this is what I’m really trying to get at:  the experience of Proust, just like the experience of life, isn’t and shouldn’t be just one thing.  And I can be intimidated by Proust and embrace Proust at the same time.  I can allow Proust to invade me, and I can read my life through the lens of Proust at the same time.  I can write about Proust and write about the world and myself at the same time.  And this always, already what I desire from this experience.

Pendergrast says, “Multiple selves, multiple worlds, multiple styles: this, paradoxically, is the quintessence of Proust,” and maybe this is just the thing.  We are all living with multiple selves, multiple roles that we play, multiple ways that we must think.  Humans are never just one thing.  This is why I can both fear and embrace the Proust.