VIII. Modernism in the Fullness of Time

It’s well known that during World War I, when he was working on the Recherche, Proust was listening to a lot of chamber music by César Franck, then relatively unknown, who had died a little over twenty years before. He even hired a quartet (the Quattuor Poulet) to play privately for him, as attested by his maid Céleste Albaret. But he also heard a lot of other chamber music as well. I want to play for you an excerpt from another work he’s known to have heard at the time:


Unless I’m mistaken, you won’t necessarily recognize it right away as Beethoven. In fact, it’s the opening to the 1st movement of his String Quartet no. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131. I suspect the weird key signature throws us off first of all (Beethoven wrote to a friend: I’m not crazy when I put in all those C sharps, trust me!). But it isn’t just the weird key signature. Perhaps the most striking quality of this 1st movement is that initially it hardly seems to have any kind of theme at all. Instead, we get first 1 musical voice, then a 2nd, then a 3rd. But it’s as if each additional voice just gives a new inflection to an ongoing stream of sound (the long sustained notes seem to go on and on) that appears to rise to a small climax every now & then but otherwise just keeps moving. And that apparent absence of any clear theme makes us only more aware of the movement of the work. In fact, it’s actually a fugue. But maybe the adagio tempo, plus the expectation of something like sonata form, are what combine to throw us off. In that respect, it’s actually rather like César Franck’s stuff, where it’s often pretty difficult to discern a theme as well, so that we likewise focus on the movement of the piece rather than what it expresses melodically. And this gives me a chance to explain why I wanted you to hear the Beethoven. Unless I’m mistaken, you not only didn’t recognize it as Beethoven, but very possibly took it (as I would have done) for something distinctly more modern—like César Franck. I suspect we’re not the only ones to have thought this. Specifically, Proust probably had the same thought as well. In him, however, it proved very fertile. I would argue that it led him to a profound insight, one that would have far-reaching consequences for the entire Recherche. To see what that idea was, we can now turn to his description of Swann listening to the Vinteuil sonata. Notice how this passage focuses not on the theme but (as with our experience of Beethoven) on the movement of the work:

With a slow rhythm it directed him first here, then there, then somewhere else, toward a noble, unintelligible and precise happiness. Then all of a sudden, from the point at which it had arrived and to which he was preparing to follow it, after an instant’s pause, it abruptly changed direction, and with a new movement, more rapid, slender, melancholy, incessant and gentle, it drew him along with it toward unknown perspectives. Then it disappeared. He longed passionately to see it a third time. And it reappeared in effect, but without speaking to him more clearly, causing him even a pleasure less profound. But, having returned home, he had need of it: he was like a man into whose life a woman passing by, whom he has seen for a moment, has just introduced the image of a new beauty that gives to his own sensibility a greater value, without his even knowing if he can ever see again the one whom he already loves and of whom he does not know even the name. (I, 207)

One reason why Proust focused on the movement of the Vinteuil sonata (rather than its theme)—apart from the frequent difficulty of discerning a theme in works of this kind—was that in music it’s the movement rather than the theme that best conveys the passing of time. And the passing of time is, of course, the big concern of the entire Recherche. Specifically, the movement of a musical work makes us more aware of it because when we attend to it we become more aware of sequence (the sequence of notes, for instance) as a sequence of events we experience, or even, simply, as a sequence of experiences. And that’s exactly how we might describe time. Beethoven I think was very much aware of this meta-level dimension of music, its ability to get us to experience pure sequence or movement, and in his late works especially I would argue he often makes us aware of it by reducing his thematic material in some stretches to a minimal level. So when Swann listens to the Vinteuil sonata he’s experiencing or feeling time passing, especially once he notices a phrase he wants to hold onto which nonetheless disappears, leaving him still yearning for it. In particular, we might say, he feels the elusiveness of the phrase, the way that it—like some moments or experiences—leaves us wanting to stop time so we can hold onto these permanently. What Swann discovers, then, in listening to the Vinteuil sonata, is the problem of time, the way it’s always passing, the inexorable necessity of that passing, and how it keeps us from holding on to any of our experiences, no matter how significant or desirable they might be.

Nonetheless, there’s another point that needs to be made about this description. I suspect Proust deliberately wanted it to remind his readers of a celebrated 19th century text:

The deafening street around me was screaming.
Tall, thin, in deep mourning, majestic grief
A woman passed by, with a fastidious hand
Raising, swaying her skirt-border and hem;

Agile and noble, with her statuesque leg,
Myself, I drank, contorted like an eccentric,
In her eye, livid sky where the hurricane springs up,
A sweetness that fascinates and pleasure that kills.

A lightning-flash… then night! –Fugitive beauty
Whose glance suddenly caused me to be reborn,
Shall I not see you again except in eternity?

Elsewhere, far from here! Too late! maybe never!
For I don’t know where you flee, you don’t know where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, o you who knew it too!

The poem is “À une passante” (“To a female passerby”), the poet Charles Baudelaire. Later in the Recherche, the narrator will offer explicit appreciations of some of Proust’s great 19th century predecessors. So we get a commentary on the tower where Fabrice is imprisoned in the Chartreuse de Parme, as symbolically expressive of his spiritual aspiration. Or an even more extensive and wonderful gloss on the House of Death in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and in Crime and Punishment. In the present instance, Proust doesn’t name his predecessor. But the treatment is the same. What Proust does here is to renew the earlier text by his recapitulation of it within his own work. When Baudelaire spoke of “une passante,” he presumably had in mind some nameless woman on a Paris street. For Proust, the “passante” is an elusive musical phrase Swann hears while listening to a performance of the Vinteuil sonata. Nonetheless, Proust is able to apply the psychology of the observer in “À une passante” to Swann’s experience in the Recherche: the same quest for something beautiful and elusive, the same longing or yearning for it precisely because it’s elusive and hence impossible to possess. In that sense, we might say what Proust does is to recover the experience of the speaker of “À une passante.” What that speaker experienced was a feeling of longing for a woman he knew he could never possess. And the reason he can’t is the unlikelihood he’ll ever see her again. So the only way he could possibly have any hope would be by being able to repeat his encounter with her. But that’s impossible precisely because of the nature of time itself, the inexorable passing of any given moment, its unrepeatability. What Baudelaire’s speaker really experiences, then, is, in effect, the slipping away of time, the evanescence of the moment. And that’s exactly what Proust tries to emphasize in his account. Significantly, he even has the elusive phrase reappear so Swann can hear it a second time. Hearing it a second time doesn’t, however, solve Swann’s problem: because his whole aim is to hold onto the phrase, its repetition only points to what’s really at issue: the fact that it, like time, inevitably passes away. But if Swann can’t quite manage to hold onto the theme or phrase, there is, nonetheless, something Proust (and we) can manage to take away from this whole affair. By his comparison of Swann to the speaker of “À une passante,” what Proust does is to recover the experience of a past moment. Recovery of the experience of a past moment is, however, tantamount to recovery of that moment itself. Since a moment, as part of time, is defined by its passing into the next moment, the only way we arrive at any sense of it is by our experiences, since without these we would have no perception of time passing at all. In that respect, then, the content of any given moment = what was experienced in that moment. So by his recovery of the experience of the speaker in “À une passante,” what Proust recovers is the essence of a past moment. More generally, we might say what he recovers is lost time.

Beethoven, String Quartet no. 14, Op. 131. Budapest String Quartet

To appreciate the significance of this move, we need to see it in its larger context. Once again, consider the general framework I presented in my 1st talk:

Simply put, as long as people could believe being = thinking, everything was fine. Being = thinking was what made 19th century development possible. Development was graspable conceptually—which is to say, by thought—and if that process of development carried being with it, you could then understand your own self-development, or the development of your own subjectivity. But somewhere around the mid-century, as we’ve seen, things began to go awry. Kierkegaard & others (representative, I suggest, of a larger trend) could no longer believe being = thinking, which meant thought & being (existence) now had to go their separate ways. This subjective/objective split would lead in turn to the primacy of subjectivity over objectivity, and eventually to subjectivity consuming objectivity. So now we don’t have a world out there anymore, only what can be internalized (i.e., phenomena, impressions) within the individual consciousness. And once we’ve reached that point, we inevitably set up the problem facing late 19th century consciousness: the problem of extreme subjectivism, brought about because all our sensations or impressions eventually disappear. In other words, the problem of time. That in turn led to High Modernism and its attempt to spatialize time, as a way of preserving it. This spatial treatment of time meant a conversion of temporal moments into a spatial structure where they could all exist simultaneously, by virtue of their relation to each other. The problem with this was, you had to believe in the structure. Eliot, Joyce and their successors did everything they could to shore it up: a mythic framework, combined with an imposing array of cultural references and cross-references. Yet for many it just didn’t work. After all, if individual experiences fail to yield any strong feeling of inherent significance, it’s hard to see why they should do so collectively, or why their relationship to each other should produce what they seemed to lack intrinsically.

In contrast to the sort of spatial perspective on time adopted by Eliot and Joyce, Proust took a different route altogether. One way to describe the spatial perspective of High Modernism would be to say that it tried to deny the problem of temporality, which is transience. People like Eliot and Joyce thought that if you could show how individual experiences fit into a larger framework created by their relation to each other, you could somehow get around the transience or passing away of those individual experiences. To do that, however, you’d have to deny the ultimate importance of the experience itself. For Eliot and Joyce, experiences matter only insofar as they can be related to other experiences. Proust felt differently. If for Eliot and Joyce experiences become meaningful only to the extent that you can subsume their individual subjective aspect by fitting them into a larger objective framework, Proust on the other hand intuitively felt that the kind of objectivity Modernism was after could only be found precisely by plumbing individual consciousness until you reached the extreme limit of subjectivity. And the reason he believed that had to do with something he’d noticed about the relation of present to past experiences. Specifically, in the case of Swann listening to the Vinteuil sonata, what he experiences reproduces what Baudelaire had talked about in “À une passante.” And that in turn meant we could in principle recover the content of past experiences qua experiences (i.e., in terms of how they felt). But if that were possible, there would then be no need to deny subjectivity, or our sense of the transience of our experiences. We try to deny transience only because we’re afraid of the consequences—afraid we have no way around it, that it would mean our inability to preserve what we value most, and hence that we’d be completely vulnerable to the ravages of time. But if it could somehow be shown that subjectivity doesn’t have to reduce to the complete and utter transience of all sensation + impression and hence to an inherent lack of meaning in our experiences, then our outlook might be quite different. To show that, however, Proust knew he’d have to demonstrate that the resemblance between what the speaker of “À une passante” experiences and what Swann experiences in hearing the Vinteuil sonata wasn’t just accidental, that you could, if you probed more deeply, potentially find the same sort of resemblance between any number of our own experiences. And if you could show this, what you would then have shown was the potential recoverability of what we typically consider as irrevocably lost time. The story of how Proust manages to do this through a chance discovery by his narrator is the story of the final volume of the Recherche.

To show how Proust gets there, I thought it would be useful to try to trace the sequence of inferences by which the narrator eventually arrives at his final insight, which in turn gives structure to the entire novel. I summarize these here as briefly as possible, & will then comment on each point individually:

1. unequal paving-stones → Venice, sense of immortality: why?

It all starts for the narrator with an unusual experience in the courtyard of the Guermantes hôtel. Warned by a coachman’s cry of the oncoming Guermantes carriage, he instinctively steps backward. As he does so, he stumbles against one of the uneven paving-stones in the courtyard, and instantly has what Proust calls an involuntary memory (composed of blissful sensory impressions of azure sky, sunlight, the Baptistry) which takes him back to a moment, decades earlier, when he had the same sensation: in Venice. And, all of a sudden, without knowing why, he feels a sense of immortality. But rather than just let it go, he’s determined this time to probe his experience until he can explain to himself why a mere sensation of uneven paving-stones should yield an irrepressible feeling of immortality.

2. past = present (essence des choses, apprehension of)
(un peu de temps à l’état pur)
(no fear of death)

Basically, the reason the narrator suddenly has an irrepressible feeling of immortality is that he’s discovered past = present. In other words, he’s discovered that a given moment from his past and the present one are experientially identical. At first glance it might seem odd that such a discovery would make him feel immortal—you’d think he’d want to feel his life extending forward indefinitely, rather than backward. But the whole point of his discovery is that he now knows it’s possible to recover lost time. So the fundamental problem of time from a human perspective—that things pass away and can’t be recovered— now disappears. Significantly, the narrator says that this kind of experience gives him an apprehension of the “essence des choses” (essence of things). Normally, we think of essence as a stable category associated with being rather than with anything associated with time. But this is where Proust’s subjectivism comes out. As he sees it, the closest we come to things is through our experience of these. So the essence of things is nothing other than the core of our experiences. That’s why the narrator can talk about “a little bit of time in the pure state” (un peu de temps à l’état pur). This pure state of time = the essence of time = time without the experience of transience, time in which past & present can be identified as purely experiential. Living with time at that kind of ground-level, the narrator no longer has any fear of death, because for him this ground-level time doesn’t have any gap or break anywhere but goes on continuously.

3. necessary to interpret sensations, convert to spiritual equivalent (work of art)

Even though the narrator now sees that all past time can potentially be recovered, he doesn’t want to let it rest at that. Instead, he’s quite aware of the evanescent quality of all sensation: yes, we can experience again a sensation (i.e., a moment) we had years ago, but this present sensation, too, will disappear. So when the narrator says it’s necessary to interpret sensations, I take him to mean that we have to understand what the implications of his experience in the courtyard of the Guermantes hôtel are. Specifically, we have to understand that these sensations can be recovered or recaptured, but to do that in a permanent way we have to convert them to what the narrator calls a spiritual equivalent. For him the spiritual equivalent = a work of art. It’s spiritual because its element is thought rather than sensation. What makes thought more spiritual than sensation is precisely that it’s more permanent. But once we know a sensation can be recovered, it’s just a matter of finding the proper way to describe it so that we can experience it again. And that’s the role of the work of art.

4. necessity by which impression comes to us = reality

When he talks about sensations as the essences of different moments of past time and hence as the essences of things (essence des choses), Proust is well aware that his viewpoint is open to charges of extreme subjectivism and hence of mistaking what’s purely subjective for the world out there. To guard against that, he insists that the necessity by which impressions come to us = reality. What he means by this is that we don’t have a choice: we feel a particular sensation or impression not because we want to feel it but because it’s forced on us by something outside ourselves. And that, for Proust, is what makes it objective. Notice here how he specifically talks about necessity. It would be distinctly possible—and Proust, as a former student of philosophy with Darlu at the Lycée Condorcet, would’ve been well aware of that—for us to be deceived by some external agency or circumstances (like Descartes’s malin génie or evil demon) about what we’re seeing or experiencing. But when we necessarily experience something, that means it’s in some sense really there.

5. reality = rapport between sensations and memories (souvenirs) we have of objects

In one respect, Proust could say that reality = sensations or experiences. But this would be to simplify slightly. Because in trying to put together our picture of what’s out there, we don’t just go on our most recent sensation or experiences. My feeling about the reality of the desk or table where I’m sitting, for instance, is based not just on the feel of its present hardness as I type on a keyboard placed on it, but on all the countless times I’ve felt it before, times when I’ve had to maneuver around it, put books on it, and so on. Just as we ourselves aren’t simply what we are at this moment but rather a composite of what we’ve been during all the moments that go to make up our lives, so likewise with all the things that go to make up what we call the world out there—they, too, must be composed not just of our current impressions but of all the impressions we’ve had in the past. Note here the word “rapport” which Proust employs to describe the link between present sensation and past memory. In a neutral sense, a rapport  is simply a relationship. But for Proust there’s more to it. Because after all it’s we ourselves who form that relationship. Without us, without the work of the mind, that relationship simply wouldn’t exist. At the same time, since Proust claims this relationship between present sensation and past memory = reality, he obviously believes there’s an inherent or intrinsic link between past and present. So when we form that connection between sensation and memory, we’re not simply indulging in a subjective whim. Instead, Proust clearly sees this as a necessary activity.

6. “and I understood that all these materials of the work of art, they were my past life” [“et je compris que tous ces matériaux de l’oeuvre littéraire, c’était ma vie passée….]

Just as linking past memory and present sensation is for Proust a necessary activity, so the gathering together of all the past moments of his life to form a work of art was for him a similar and equally necessary activity. Earlier we’ve seen that the narrator talked about the need to interpret sensations, to convert them to a spiritual equivalent which is for him the work of art. But what he doesn’t say there is how this is to be achieved. I believe, though, that the linking of past memory to present sensation offers a clue. Proust, as I’ve just said, saw that as a necessary activity. For him it was necessary to make sense of the world out there, which, in his subjectivist perspective, is tantamount to creating the world out there. In a similar way, however, we might say that the linking of past to present within a work of art is equally necessary. Its necessity comes from the fact that this is how he can make sense of his life, which for him is just as vital or important as making sense of the world out there. And if he can do that, he can then preserve it from the transience of time. In the final analysis, then, it isn’t just our capacity to recover past moments by re-experiencing them that saves the past from being lost. Instead, for Proust, it’s the discovery of a connection between all the past moments of his life, the discovery that these can be so arranged as to yield something like a pattern or theme (like that of a musical work) that gives them permanence, by making them graspable as a formal arrangement by the mind. In this way, then, High Modernism could at last claim to have found an objectivity within the very heart of subjectivity itself.