Proust, Art and Photography
Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself
and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists.
1 – Introduction
I recently spent time reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, his most famous work, which was written in France at the beginning of the 20th century.
To say that Proust is difficult to read is an understatement. A more accurate statement is that Proust is difficult to read. So much so that one of his readers, frustrated by the beginning of his book in which the first 17 pages are used to explain why he cannot sleep, wrote to him in despair asking to ‘please tell me what your book is about.’ Monthy Python made a sketch in which contest participants were asked to summarize Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in 30 seconds. No one succeeded in doing it so the prize was given to the participant with the largest breasts. This sketch points to the absurdidy that many assotiate with Proust’s work.
Reading Proust can certainly be challenging. Yet, it can be rewarding as well. More to the point in regards to photography, reading Proust can help us create better photographs. I know this probably sounds like an overstatement however it is not. Let me explain.
The central concept in Proust’s work is the belief that while life goes on we are unable to bring back the true nature of past experiences intentionally. To better explain this inadequacy Proust separates memory in two categories: first, intentional memory which refers to that aspect of our memories that we access intentionally. Second, unintentional memory which refers to that aspect of our memories that we cannot access intentionally. Unintentional memories are emotional memories and we can only access indirectly. For Proust there are only two ways to access unintentional memories: through ‘chance’ events that are out of our control and occur accidentally and through art because art provides us with visions of the world that we could not otherwise access because they are those of artists and not ours.
For Proust intentional memories are simply ineffective at bringing back the true nature of an experience. This is because the memories we are able to recall intentionally are essentially factual. The aspects of life that we remember intentionally consist of places, events, names and other facts. While those may be useful to describe a past event, they are ineffective at bringing back the true nature of that event. This is because only emotional memories can allow us to recall a past event in such a way that we can feel as if were living this event again. The problem is that emotional memories are stored in our unconscious and can only be recalled by accidental events or by works of art.
Why art? Because Proust believed that art lives on forever and that its purpose is to bring an emotional response to the viewer. Because of this emotional quality, art can bring back past experiences through unintentional memories and thereby allow us to relive past experiences to an extent equal, if not superior, to the original experience.
2 – Art as mnemonic device
It can therefore be said that art, for Proust, is a mnemonic device, a place where memories are stored and preserved. Proust believed that trying to recall memories intentionally is futile and pointless and that memories can only be recalled two ways: first, accidentally through what he called ‘unintentional’ memories brought back by accidental events out of our control. Second through art, because art is showing us the world as seen by another person, and as such is an unexpected, and unintentional, window onto the world as seen by that other person. Art therefore is a reliable key to unlocking memories because unlike accidents, art is available all the time. As evidence of the important art played in Proust’s life, over 100 works of art are listed in his oeuvre In Search of Lost time.
3 – Escape through art
It is only through art that we can escape from ourselves and know how another person sees a universe
which is not the same as our own and whose landscapes would otherwise
have remained as unknown as any there may be on the moon.
As Proust says in the above quote, It is only through art that we can escape. I believe that ‘escape’ for Proust did not mean avoidance of ourselves. Instead, it meant going beyond the limitations of our intentional memory. Proust was concerned, if not obsessed, with lost time, hence the title of his book: In Search of Lost time. Proust believed that we cannot intentionally recollect memories because memories are not factual but, instead, emotional. Therefore, the only way for Proust to recollect memories is through an emotional experience. This experience cannot be created; it has to be accidental. Art provides such an accidental event because art is a window onto another person’s view of the world, another person’s experience and memories. As such art allows us to ‘escape’ the limitations of our own memories by providing an emotional ‘trigger’ that enables us to bring back what we forgot.
4- Why read Proust in the context of art?
Reading Proust while involved in artistic activities is helpful because Proust lived at the same time as the Impressionists. The world that Proust describes in his novel is therefore the world that the Impressionists painted. There is, in Proust’s writing, the essence of Impressionism and of other art movements. There is the account of the life they lived and of the world they painted. Therefore, reading Proust can, indirectly, help us understand Impressionism better.
Proust also lived at the time when Impressionism made room for Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Fauvism and other art movements. Proust socialized with the artists that were at the origin of these movements, artists such as Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Dali and many other. Here too reading Proust can help us better understand these movements as well as the motivation of the artists who created them.
While the paintings created by the artists working in these different movements show us their visual representation of their world, Proust’s text gives us an intellectual representation of this world through the characters that fill the pages and through the descriptions and remarks that Proust makes about them.
5 – Proust and Photography
Pleasures are like photographs: those taken in the beloved’s presence no more than negatives,
to be developed later, once you are at home, having regained the use of that interior darkroom,
access to which is ‘condemned’ as long as you are seeing other people.
A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur (Within a Budding Grove)
Proust is a latent image. His unconscious memories are waiting to be developed. This was done by writing his book. Because his book, when we reach the last page, calls for a second reading, it can be said, to paraphrase Ansel Adams, that the book is the score and our reading of the book is the performance. While the text of the book stays the same, each new reading produces a slightly different understanding, or performance if you will.
Similarly, we are latent images ourselves when it comes to memory because we all have unconscious memories waiting to be developed. These memories can be ‘developed’ or made ‘visible’ accidentally through ‘happy events or accidents’ that occur unwillingly. Or, they can be made ‘visible’ as well with a certain level of control by developing a passion for the arts. While through our own experience we can only have one vision of the world -ours- through art we can have as many visions as there are artists, each work of art presenting either the vision of a different artist or a slightly different version of the vision of a specific artist.
Art therefore provides a path to our unconscious memory by presenting us with emotions, expressed in a variety of medium, be it visual, auditory, olfactory or other. While we may have experienced some of the emotions that art presents us with, we would have been unable to recall these experiences consciously. This is because our conscious memory is logical and therefore only able to recall places, names, events and other factual information. However, the emotions attached to these facts and events are stored in our unconscious memory. Unfortunately, we do not have access to it through intentional recollection and trying to bring back these memories intentionally is both futile and frustrating. Only through accidental events and through the admiration of art can these memories be brought back. At such times our logical mind gives way to an emotional response and it is through this emotional response that unintentional memories are recalled. It is in that sense that we are latent images ourselves, or latent memories if you prefer, and it is through this process that these latent memories are ‘developed’ and made accessible, or visible, to us again.
6 – The challenges Proust offers to the reader
A – The book is composed of seven books
In Search of Lost Time is not the title of the book but the title of the oeuvre. This oeuvre is divided in 7 volumes, each with a unique title, as follows:
1 – Du cote de chez Swann (Swann’s Way)
2 – A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur (Within a Budding Grove)
3 – Du Cote de Guermantes (Guermante’s Way)
4 – Sodome et Gomorrhe (Sodom and Gomorrah)
5 – La Prisoniere (The Prisoner)
6 – La Fugitive (The Fugitive)
7 – Le Temps Retrouve (Time Regained)
B – The last book ends where the first book begins.
At the end of book seven (Time Regained) the writer understands his life’s purpose and decides to write the seven books we just read. This means we have to start all over again, at page one of book one and read all seven volumes a second time, this time with the awareness of the writer’s goal.
C – The number of characters is very large.
The number of characters featured in the book is so large that it is difficult to remember them all and to make sense of all the relationships among them.
D – Locations and characters are organized spatially
The characters are organized in a spatial fashion, essentially around how Proust visits them. When he goes out of his Aunt’s house in Combray, if he goes through the gate on the right side of the property he goes to Swann’s house because the right side gate leads to the side of Swann’s house. To go through the other gate would mean making a huge detour and therefore being impractical and senseless. This fact gives us the title of book 1: Swann’s Way, a literal translation of the original French title.
The same approach is used for the second book, Guermante’s Way. Here Proust leaves the house at Combray through the left side which provides the most direct path to Guermantes’ house.
Another example of spatial organization is during Proust’s recovery when he goes to the ‘Champs Elysees’ which in the book means the gardens located at the bottom of the Champs Elysees, just before the Champs de Mars, and not the avenue itself contrary to what the term means today. Here the location is where Proust meets with his nurse and therefore the place comes to represent the person. However, the name of this person also represents the place because the name of the person brings back memories of the events that took place there. People and places are thus another form of latent image, because through their names one can recall memories of things past.
E – Proust writing style is extensive
Another challenge is Proust’s writing style, which is extensive, sometimes having a single sentence run for an entire page or longer. Part of the reason for this style is Proust’s dislike for common or ‘dead’ metaphors, metaphors that have been overused and have lost their ability to surprise us and to create an emotional response when we hear them. It is said that Proust would go into a rage, one of the few instances in which he would lose his composure, when presented with dead metaphors, and that he would complain about the speaker’s or writer’s lack of imagination and about the worthlessness of their prose, or speech, as the case might be. Proust’s solution was to create his own original metaphors. The problem is that he does so by constructing extremely long and complex sentences, which, as I mentioned, occasionally run for a page or more.
But there is another purpose, and outcome, for Proust’s writing style and that is to cause us to become immersed in the text, to forget what the exact context is, and to generate the type of dream-like state that is most propitious to recalling unconscious memories. I therefore believe that his style helps achieve the very goal that his book sets to achieve, and that the difficulty of reading the text is, metaphorically representative of the difficulty of recalling emotional memories.
Just like we cannot recall such memories intentionally, neither can we benefit and enjoy Proust’s prose intentionally, by applying ourselves and being ‘studious’ readers. Doing so is futile, no amount of ‘studiousness’ can allow us to read Proust without losing track of what we are reading at some point. Instead, a better way to read Proust is by to let our mind wander as we read. A better way is to let go of our concerns for lengthiness, to put aside our resentment for his overly complex prose, and to let the text flow in us, as if individual words were events leading collectively to the recollection of forgotten memories. It is then, in my opinion, that we can truly appreciate his work and benefit from his message.
Proust’s prose works well for me when read that way. I often read Proust as if it was disconnected from the story, enjoying each word and each sentence for the memories and the emotions it brings back to me. I do not try to understand the story, or to follow the ‘plot’, if plot there is, because for me those are secondary in importance. Instead, I approach the text as poetry, reading single lines as if they were precious in and out of themselves. Rather than try to understand the story told by Proust, if story there is, Proust’s writing creates my own story, the story of memories lost and found again through his prose.
7 – Conclusion
Proust understood that all human experiences are exposed to the destructive effects of time. As a result, over time the memories associated with past experiences fade away until they are totally forgotten. Furthermore, attempts to bring back these memories are futile and bound to be unsuccessful.
However, and this is the discovery that Proust brings us in his novel, these memories are stored in our subconscious. While they are not available to us through intentional efforts, they can be recalled through the enjoyment of a work of art. For Proust art is therefore a “translation” of our worldly experiences. Through art these experiences are transformed into ‘something’ — be it a painting, a musical piece, or other – that can be accessed by anyone if we take the time to appreciate works of art.
As artists Proust’s discovery is highly valuable to us because it brings a new importance to the creation of a work of art. Knowing what Proust discovered gives a new purpose to art. Art is not just about aesthetics, or about sharing intellectual ideas, or about expressing artistic visions. Art is also about providing a vehicle to help bring back forgotten memories, memories released through the emotional experience of appreciating a work of art.
Proust therefore brings us good news and bad news. The bad news is that time is our enemy because it causes us to forget our experiences. The good news is that time can be defeated because these memories are stored in our subconscious and we can recall them, either accidentally or through the contemplation of art. Dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea can bring back memories associated with a past event. Similarly, admiring a work of art can give us a glimpse into how another person perception of the world and, in turn, surprise us by bringing back memories we thought were long gone.
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