Monday, August 19, 2013

Proust and solipsism

Here is an attempted defence of Proust against the charge of solipsism:
The defense of art as a form of intellection is the subject of the aesthetic discourse that ends the Recherche. A scene in the final volume describes Marcel hurrying through the street to an afternoon party held by the Princess des Guermantes when he stumbles over some uneven paving stones. Suddenly a feeling of elation and immortality overwhelms him, as it had in the first volume with the taste of the madeleine. Unlike there, however, this time he sets himself to determining the source of his rapture, and at last realizes it to be the effect of an unexamined dimension of memory. We move through life as through a dark wood, too inattentive and inexperienced to see the network of connections among the paths we walk or the people we meet. But with the right turn of chance, some unexpected stimulus, like the taste of a cake dunked in tea or the feel of rough pavement that evokes the streets of a familiar city, can call into consciousness previously neglected sensory impressions, illuminating the landscape traversed in all its alienated majesty. That the memory is involuntary, that it has nothing to do with will or reason, is precisely what assures the truth of the vision. It is the unexpectedness of the solution that proves the deceitful intellect hasn’t forced the material into an inaccurate structure. By these lights, Proust’s inward eye is far from solipsistic, as some of his early critics charged; on the contrary, it presents, as Maria DiBattista puts it, a check against solipsism, and also an assertion that art offers privileged access to the truth of experience.
The key claim here is that the memory at the heart of the exercise is  involuntary. That makes it "real". Dante, following from the Provençal poets, held similar view that only involutary love is real. This kind of thinking carries on through Stendhal's accounts of love (which is where Proust gets it) and on into Sartre's certainty that any devotion willfully maintained was done in bad faith.

But why is the involuntary more real? The feeling of deja vu, a response that is usually inaccurate is involuntary.

Elyse Graham, the writer of the above defence, makes the same move as the person who argues that they know for certain that they are in pain but can only speculate about others. Which is odd. Do you think that if you saw a woman stabbed in the lower abdomen that you might stand there watching her writhe on the pavement and think, "I wonder if she is really in pain?"

What people really mean to say the involuntary is real is that, "I cannot be wrong when I feel pain". Except: when do we ever say such a thing? It doesn't really come up as a question does it? Fans of Wittgenstein will recognize the argument so far.

My next move, which I don't think Wittgenstein made, at least not as I remember him, is a moral one.

When I was a child, my mother would sometimes insist that I was over-reacting by telling me of some pain, "It's not that bad." She wasn't questioning that I had hurt my knee when I fell but rather that my initial reaction was wrong. And by "wrong", I mean morally wrong.

Children react with blind rage when injured or even when just hungry. We teach them to stop. To stop being childish means to some reacting in that way. We teach them that it is selfish to react that way. Why are we so sure that it is selfish? Because other people are capable of doing better. The argument is that other people suck it up and get on with life and you should too. And the only response to this is to try to convince others that this pain really hurts (speaking the words "this" and "really" with heavy emphasis) so the rest of you should feel sorry for me. To stop being a child is to recognize that basing your reactions on the certainty of your experience of something personal cannot be the basis of a good life.

Proust's hero is an interesting case in this regard. On the one hand, he is the sickly spoiled child whose parents eventually stopped trying to toughen up. The novel opens up with the moment when his father and mother stop trying to make him go to bed alone. On the other hand, the hero is not without self awareness. Far from celebrating his victory in getting his mother to come to his bedroom, he sees instead in his parents' reaction their acceptance that this boy will never grow up to normal, that he will never be healthy and strong enough to be taught to suck it up and get on with life.

Deprived of this moral education, the hero spends his entire existence trying to find an aesthetic and then artistic solution to the problem. He keeps trying to analyze his experiences as if he can find something real and solid there that he can translate into something universal, that he can make into a piece of art.

You might think the experience could be love. But Proust can never write about love as being an appreciation of another person. For Proust, love is always a projection of something felt by the lover.

And it more or less has to be that way for him because the only way he can think to get out of the trap is to analyze his own experience and he keeps looking for an experience that is especially real because he thinks that it is only on such a foundation that any worthwhile analysis can be done.

The biggest clue that this was a false trail should have been the nature of the famous experiences themselves: the Madeleine dipped in the tea, the smell of the hawthorns in blossom, losing his balance on the crooked paving stones. These are all very small experiences. You might well argue that they are unquestionably real but the flood of happy memories that comes with them are something constructed. They are not involuntary.

A construction need not be lies of course. There is such a thing as a true story. But Proust has foreclosed the usual ways we go about constructing a true story—checking our facts, comparing witness accounts, examining probabilities and historical context—and wagered everything on there being some sort of experience that is so solidly real that it, at least, need not be questioned. It only needs to be understood.

To invoke Wittgenstein again, if there are basic experiences so solid that no one can question, these would inevitably be things that are so uninteresting in themselves that no one would bother discussing them.

No comments:

Post a Comment