When commentators weigh in on the work of Marcel Proust, they usually reveal more about their own biases and preoccupations than they do about the French novelist and essayist.
Samuel Beckett started the trend in 1930 with an essay, “Proust” that, while ostensibly about the not-long-deceased Frenchman (Proust died in 1922), is actually more of a manifesto about the perils of habit and the way it can retard one’s artistic development. These were definitely the concerns of Beckett himself, who was still alive, after all, and looking toward the future, wondering if a change of environment (perhaps some better friends or a new writing desk) could refresh his outlook. There is a memorable passage where Beckett says that “[h]abit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit”.
Alain de Botton has written a book called How Proust Can Change Your Life, which focuses on Proust’s insights into love and friendship and encourages readers to bear burdens with grace and accept life’s limitations. It is written in de Botton’s usual philosophical-therapeutic style, and is aimed at the dissatisfied professional classes of the 2000s and 2010s: victims of a media that promised too much (money, glamor, life satisfaction, love) and a society that delivered too little (a shattered economy, declining quality of life, toxic corporate and family cultures, the hookup lifestyle and confusing gender relations that arose after the feminist movement).
In 2009 Germaine Greer took a shot at the sickly Auteuilean in a Guardian piece called “Why do people gush over Proust? I’d rather visit a demented relative”, complaining about Proust’s snobbishness and the length of his sentences. Greer has capitalized on a talent for making pithy, often funny and inflammatory statements, and has admitted that she wrote The Female Eunuch in an easily-digestible style because women are very busy and they need “loo-length chapters” they can read on the toilet.
In each of these cases, Proust is viewed through a predictable lens. We might have guessed that de Botton would use Proust as a jumping-board to teach us about emotional intelligence, or that the radical Greer would attack him for his elitism.
So I hesitated for a moment before revealing my position. But here goes: what I’ve always liked about Proust is his unabashed shallowness – or, more precisely, his celebration of the power and primacy of fleeting impressions in decision-making. If you’ve read the aesthete’s answers to a questionnaire he filled out at age twenty, you’ll have an idea about this side of Proust’s personality. Young Marcel’s answers reveal a good deal of self-awareness and admirable (though shocking, to some) honesty about his own capacity for superficiality. For example, when asked “What do you most value in your friends?” the young Proust answers: “Tenderness—provided they possess a physical charm, which makes their tenderness worth having.”
In Search of Lost Time is Proust’s most famous work, and it is thoroughly marbled with shallowness. Written at the end of the 1800s and the start of the 1900s, ISOLT is very much a French modernist or “belle époque” series. The works foreshadow many “shallow” modern phenomena like celebrity worship, social one-upmanship, manipulation of family and love interests through petty tyranny, and analysis of one’s life (and the lives of others) with reference to pop psychology and pseudo-science.
Take celebrity worship. The word “celebrity” didn’t exist in Proust’s time, and certainly not in France, although some salon society figures were fawned over in a comparable fashion due to their high rank. The idea that one could be a “fan” of something was unheard of, but that does not stop Proust from nailing the phenomenon, ninety years before the Backstreet Boys got their first teen girl’s heart racing. The most striking foreshadowings of modern celebrity worship are the passages where the character Swann begins to fall in love with a woman named Odette. Swann is initially unmoved by Odette’s appearance. Her “pallid complexion, her too thin cheeks, her drawn features [and] her tired eyes” fail to inspire him. But he begins to re-evaluate her after gazing at an image of Sandro Botticelli’s Zipporah.
Zipporah is mentioned in the bible as the wife of Moses, and the daughter of a prince named Jethro. She was even closer to being a celebrity than the society figures Proust’s narrator was courting, because of the beautiful and delicate rendering by Botticelli. Botticelli had painted five hundred years earlier, and was celebrated in belle epoque France for reasons that are not difficult to understand. Proust lived in a cynical and decadent time, and there was a longing to return to the elegant aesthetic and forceful idealism of the Enlightenment. Perhaps you could draw a parallel with the eighties fashionista who longs for the simple haircuts and sleek suit silhouettes of the fifties.
Swann has Botticelli’s fresco hanging above his desk, and he stares at it daily. He starts to compare Odette – the plain girl from the parlor discussion group – to the woman in the fresco. Something amazing happens.
His feelings begin to shift. Much like the shy boy at the school disco who is enticed by his date’s nose, noting its resemblance to Paris Hilton’s (and ignoring the girl’s chubby arms and faded t-shirt), Swann feels his attraction to Odette increase as he concentrates on how she resembles the woman in the Botticelli. The sensation intensifies when he makes love to Odette, then later stares at the fresco some more. He feels it all anew:”[t]he vague feeling of sympathy which attracts one to a work of art, now that he know the original in flesh and blood of Jethro’s daughter, became a desire which more than compensated, thenceforward, for the desire which Odette’s physical charms had at first failed to inspire in him.” (The Way by Swann’s, 228). It gets more intriguing still: Swann tries to see Odette the way Sandro Botticelli would have seen her, and feels his love justified, somehow more “correct” because it has a stamp of approval from an admired man. Swann imagines what Botticelli would have thought of Odette. He sees her breasts, her gaunt cheeks and her pallid complexion through Botticelli’s eyes, and recasts her features as beautiful orbs, elegant cheekbones, and a fashionably porcelain complexion.
Swann happily concludes that Sandro would approve. He decides that his own initial indifference to this parlor girl was a mistake. Obviously the master knows better: “Swann reproached himself for having misunderstood the value of a creature who would have appeared captivating to the great Sandro, and he felt happy that his pleasure in seeing Odette could be justified by his own aesthetic culture.” (TWBS, 227)
I remember disliking the work of Goya when I first saw it. I thought it looked cheap and tacky, like a seventies horror film. Much later, when I read that Christopher Hitchens had listed Goya as one of his favorite artists in a Vanity Fair interview, I looked at the work with fresh eyes. I decided I could see some value in it. I was succumbing to the impulse that Proust describes.
On a more prosaic level: the boys at my high school in Western Australia used to have heated debates about which girls were “hot” and which girls were “rot.” I remember hearing these terms in class as I tried to focus on calculus or oxidation/reduction reactions. Normally the guys stuck to their guns in these debates: if you liked her, you liked her; if you didn’t, you didn’t. But I remember one occasion when a young man did a Proustian about-face. A girl was attracted to a boy (let’s call them Kate and Chris). Chris wasn’t attracted to Kim, and had called her “rot” outside the school canteen several times. It looked like the crush was going nowhere, until one day a very popular boy (call him Steve) tried to hit on Kim. Chris’s attention was stimulated, and he asked Kim on a date soon after, trusting the judgment of the more popular Steve (and perhaps also attempting to show Steve up). This is the phenomenon that Proust describes. Swann defers utterly to the judgment of Botticelli, and finds love as a result.
It doesn’t end there: Swann tells himself that the Botticelli fresco is a “Florentine work of art” and becomes deeply excited by the idea that Odette could be described in the same way. An appealing phrase – just four words long – enters his consciousness and reinforces his decision. He enjoys thinking of Odette as his “Florentine work of art” and, as a result, his life is changed for the better. Proust says as much: “the words ‘Florentine work of art’ did Swann a great service. They allowed him, like a title, to bring Odette’s image into a world of dreams to which she had not had access until then and where she was steeped in nobility.” (TWBS, 227)
The novel is packed with situations where the narrator wants something just because he can’t have it. The Simpsons explored this psychological phenomenon in the eighties, decades after Proust delivered his take: Lisa notes that Maggie is not playing with a ball, then shows that her baby sister’s interest in the object is piqued every time it is snatched away. But the moment Maggie gets her hands on the ball she loses interest, quickly turning her attention to something else. Even Bart – the intended audience of the demonstration, for whom the point is being made – gets caught up in the drama, pleading for the ball as soon as he sees Lisa holding it. She rolls her eyes and leaves the room.
Proust was as aware of the lure of the unattainable as Matt Groening. Swann figures out that by making himself scarce he can increase Odette’s attraction to him. Obviously this is different than deferring to someone else’s judgment because it is perceived as more sophisticated – I would call both examples of “shallow” decision-making, because they are cynical and have a status-mongering component. A person engaging in these behaviors does not rely on internal moral and aesthetic judgments.
Swann decides to play hard-to-get. He notices that his attraction to Odette becomes stronger whenever she loses interest. Swann begins to plan how he can use this feature of human nature to snare Odette. He reasons that “if he showed Odette (by agreeing only to meet her after dinner) that there were other pleasures he preferred to the pleasure of being with her, a long time would pass before her appetite for him was surfeited.” (TWBS, 221).
I read that passage with amusement, noting a parallel with modern “game” practitioners. ”Pickup artists” advise men in nightclubs to do something very similar to what Proust is describing: show less interest in your conquest than she shows in you, e.g. for every three text messages she sends, send one; for every three calls you get, call once; for every three gifts she gives, give her just one. On the other side of the gender divide, the blog Hooking Up Smart advises women to delay sleeping with a new partner, reasoning that men will make a long-term investment in a woman they perceive is more aloof and careful. In both cases playing hard-to-get is the way to get what you want.
Soon after Swann reflects on his own seduction strategy, he begins to worry that he’s slipping, spending too much time with Odette. He worries that her attraction to him will wane.
What happens next is very funny. Swann calms himself by remembering that Odette does, after all, resemble Botticelli’s Zipporah. Who could resist her? He goes back to the previous line of thought, as a way of assuaging his own sense of regret. I laughed when I read this. Swann begins to make excuses abut his lapse (the excessive attention he has paid to Odette), telling himself that it is perfectly understandable that a man would go ga-ga over anything that resembles Botticelli’s exquisite rendering of Jethro’s daughter. You have to read it to believe it:
And when he was tempted to regret the fact that for months now he had done nothing but see Odette, he said to himself that it was reasonable to give a good deal of his time to an inestimable masterpiece, cast for once in a different and particularly savoury material, in a most rare exemplar that he contemplated sometimes with the humility, spirituality and disinterestedness of an artist, and sometimes with the pride, egotism and sensuality of a collector. (TWBS, 227).
His belief in the importance of distance in assuring the longevity of a love affair is confirmed in a later passage:
[Swann] strained his ingenuity not only to prevent Odette from becoming tired of him, but also, sometimes, to prevent himself from becoming tired of her; feeling that, ever since Odette had had every opportunity for seeing him, she did not have much to say to him, he was afraid that the rather banal, monotonous, and more or less predominantly predetermined manner she now had when they were together would end by killing the romantic hope he had that one day she would declare her passion, a hope that made him fall in love and stay in love. (TWBS, 228).
Swann has a strategy for dealing with this problem too. The most seasoned pickup artists (well-versed in the concepts of SMV, negs, closing and the ladder) have nothing on Proust’s Botticelli-loving protagonist:
[i]n order to work a little reformation in Odette’s too fixed mental attitude, which he was afraid would make him grow tired of her, he would suddenly write her a letter full of feigned disappointment and simulated anger that he would send round to her before dinner. He knew that she would be dismayed, and would answer him, and he hoped that in the contraction of her soul caused by the fear of losing him, words would spring forth that she had never yet said to him;- and in fact it was by doing this that he had obtained the most tender letters she had yet written him… (TWBS, 228).
And so the strategy worked.
The shallowness marbled throughout Proust’s novel doesn’t end there. In one section Swann becomes enamored with a particular passage of music that is played in the parlor discussion group where he meets Odette. This influences his decision to continue frequenting the unappealing place (TWBS, 248). At one point he says he would prefer to take a housemaid to the theatre because “a cultivated woman of the world would not have understood any more about it, but would not have been able to keep quiet so nicely.” (TWBS, 249). He suffers through a performance of Orphee “where unfortunately his only view was of two mature ladies seated next to each other.” (TWBS, 330). And in the final volume the narrator looks at some paving stones and is so moved by the sensations they evoke he decides to become a writer (Finding Time Again, 440). As snap decisions go, it’s hard to top that.
I am not sure why commentators have not made more of Proust’s shallowness. It is hard-hitting and gutsy. It stamps In Search of Lost Time as a contemporary work (it was Shakespeare who “invented the human” and the idea of an interior life; Proust pushes it to lovely extremes), and places it firmly in the belle epoque period. The First World War was about to start, and it would banish the feeling of directionlessness that had settled on France. Proust focused on aesthetic perceptions, subtle impressions and social climbing tactics. He provides a great and intimate peep at the period. So much unfolds in those long sentences that Greer hated. Europe was reaching peak shallowness, and the horrors of the twentieth century were about to unfold, though perhaps Proust and the society figures he describes would be spared the worst of it.
[Page numbers are from the 2002 Lydia Davis translation published by Penguin.]