Walter Benjamin reads Proust

Let’s consider the ninth sentence from Marcel Proust’s Within a Budding Grove, which is the second volume of In Search of Lost Time.

… our virtues themselves are not free and floating qualities over which we retain a permanent control and power of disposal; they come to be so closely linked in our minds with the actions in conjunction with which we have made it our duty to exercise them that if we come to engage in an activity of a different kind, it catches us off guard and without the slightest awareness that it might involve the application of those same virtues.

Whereas so many of Proust’s sentences are of great beauty, this one is not. (The sixteen words I have left out would not have made much of a difference in this respect). Still, it is typical of Proust. The most important words in the sentence, I believe, are ‘linked’ and ‘conjunction’. They make it pure Proust. From a philosophical point of view the sentence proclaims there is no such thing as a general ethics of virtues; since in our minds virtues ‘come to be so closely linked’ with certain actions or situations, in other situations we have to re-establish the link between action and virtue. Therefore the sentence is about the permanent act of forgetting and the ensuing need to remember. As Walter Benjamin observed: “Proust’s method is actualisation, not reflection.”

Benjamin published his essay ‘The Image of Proust’ in 1929. At that time it was already generally known that Proust was most interested in involuntary recollection, a spontaneous remembering triggered by a particular smell, sound, object, or by the play of light and shadow or some other image. Walter Benjamin, however, tried to convince his readers that what Proust really recorded in his writing was the constant role of forgetting. To forget and to remember are, essentially, the same thing.

To prove his point Benjamin began, most elegantly, to reconstruct the raison d’être for Proust’s unusually long sentences. He first called them “the Nile of language” which “overflows and fructifies the regions of truth”. Later on he described them as nets, cast into “the sea of the temps perdu” (Proust’s personal past) in order to catch memories. He also said that Proust developed his special way of writing for “the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection.” In a similar way Jean Cocteau, who often met Proust, said his sentences were ‘the honeycombs of memory’, a structure made to gather the swarming thoughts of remembrance.

Marcel Proust Venice 1900

Proust in Venice (1900)

‘Nets’, ‘weaving’, ‘honeycombs’: each image suggests the presence of open spaces. However dense Proust, with the help of his endless sentences, tried to make his structure of verbal threads or combs, he could never reach the point where all the blanks of forgetting were filled in. Walter Benjamin clarified how this inevitable process of forgetting takes place. Because our daily activities focus on certain purposes, and our deliberate acts of remembering too are purposive, there is much we almost immediately forget (because it is not connected to these purposes). Besides, during the following night, while sleeping, “the tapestry of lived life” is further reduced to “but a few fringes”.

Hence Proust preferred to write in the middle of the night, free from purposive action, and denying himself the sleep of forgetting. The no man’s land of the night, he found, was ideal for remembering. He was able then to enrich his sentences with all the wonderful observations of the not-purposeful that had not yet been forgotten. Still, despite these literary night flights Proust could not completely stop the ongoing process of forgetting, and his writings are just as much the product of such forgetting as they are of remembrance. Recollection’s work of weaving sentences inevitably reveals the gaps of forgetting. This should not surprise us: the Latin word textum means ‘web’, Benjamin informs us.

Behind all this nightly work, Benjamin – following Cocteau – believes, was Proust’s quest for happiness. Benjamin distinguishes between two forms of happiness: the ‘hymnic’ form derives happiness from “the height of bliss” in experiencing “the unheard-of, the unprecedented”. The ‘elegiac’ form, on the other hand, derives happiness from “the eternal restoration of the original, the first happiness”. It is this elegiac idea of happiness that Proust pursued. He was passionately interested in studying resemblances and in uncovering similarities (in actions, mannerisms, faces), stepping from the present to the past, to reconnect to an original source of former happiness. Nevertheless he knew that this world of resemblance would always be a distortion (a surrealist image) of the real former world he felt so homesick for.

In evoking involuntary memory, of which the dipping of a madeleine cake in a cup of lime tea is the most famous example, Proust opened up a world of resemblances, of correspondances. The unique taste and smell of the combination of madeleine and lime tea corresponded perfectly to that same combination he had experienced in boyhood. So, most of all, involuntary memory was an act of rejuvenating, Benjamin tells us. While life is an ongoing process of aging, the reliving of the past (during the magic moments of involuntary remembering) recapitulates experiences of a younger age.

“To observe the interaction of aging and remembering means to penetrate to the heart of Proust’s world, to the universe of convolution”, Benjamin states. Most characteristic of Proust is his idea of convoluted time, of time like a winding road, coiled up like a snake: at a certain moment you will reach a turning in the road that virtually brings you back to a place and a time where you were earlier, enabling you to ‘touch’ the past. The convolution of time (rolled-up in our memory, but also in objects from the past which are still present) enables a ‘re-turning’. The day dreamer and the night owl are time-travellers.