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.