How Marcel Proust Can Save Our Digital Life


Marcel Proust outside the Hôtel Splendide, Evian, 1905

by Paul Vacca

Don’t we all, to varying degrees, feel confused between click addiction and cravings for disconnection? To make matters worse, we are also torn between utopian discourses of technological solutionism and summons of anti-technologists for whom being offline is the panacea.

How to achieve harmony between these two opposite injunctions and pacify the conflict between our lives online and offline? How to balance the virtual and the real life? This would require a coach. A neutral and impartial one. In other words, neither a geek nor a Luddite. And this ideal coach could be Marcel Proust.

Do not imagine that Proust would teach us a lesson in slowness and disconnection. Or that he would be frightened by the speed and innovations of our times. The period he lived in – between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century – actually faced far more disrupting changes than ours: the irruption into daily life of the bicycle, electricity, telephone, cinema, radio, aeroplane, automobile… It’s really something, isn’t it?

As counter-intuitive as it may seem – since Proust is commonly associated with the cult of nostalgia – Marcel was far from being refractory to innovations: there are exquisite passages on the disturbing virtuality of the telephone, for instance. Moreover, at the end of his life, Proust faced a kind of “virtual life” from his bed, scarcely confronting the “real life” – however, this distinction between “real life” and “virtual life” would make no sense for Proust – only to check out the precise points of documentation, as a novelist today would do with Google. Going out in order to capture the precise quality of the light on the façade of a Haussmannian building; waking up a friend at 4 o’clock in the morning to get the genuine pronunciation of an Italian sentence or immersing himself to capture the unique senteur of an undergrowth at the Bois de Boulogne…

In the same way, Proust would not refuse, as a matter of principle, to be on social media. Actually, he had anticipated all their subtleties by his frequent attendance of salons. He would simply advise us to take Twitter, Instagram or Facebook for what they are, namely, like salons: places of artificial sociability where everything is mirage (a “friend” on Facebook, as in a living room, is not necessarily a friend), where everything is “sign” – even a simple like – that one must be able to interpret in its thousand and one meanings.

He had already sensed the action of “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers”– identified in the 21st century by Eli Pariser – which inevitably promote the spirit of clan on social media: like the one that raged in the “petit noyau” of Madame Verdurin, transforming it into a sect of the “entre-soi”. As social networks do on a larger scale. He would also tell us that the memory spread on Instagram or Facebook, via “Moments” or “Stories”, is not genuine memory. They are much less powerful than a “madeleine” dipped in tea to revive the reminiscence of a moment. According to Proust, true memory is involuntary. It is reborn when oblivion has done its work; not by the permanence of photos and videos on social networks.

As a matter of fact, Proust would not be at all amazed by the ability of the click to deliver everything, right away. He would dismiss the click as a desire-killer: by coming closer to the object of our desire, the click takes us away from our desire for the object. As he would advise us to refuse the tyranny of algorithms. Constantly duplicating our desire in a copy of the same ends up suffocating it. He would advise us to do like Charles Swann in the novel: to go on search of “what is not in our style”. Proust would refuse any recommendation made by Netflix, Amazon, Tinder or Grindr…

As for the fake news that swarms on the Internet, Proust would not be at all surprised. He would teach us that they this is not new and is even inevitable. As he noted, our relationship to truth is complicated, and we are prone to adapt facts to our beliefs – not the other way around. In short, we are going to the facts that suit us, whether they are true or not. Proust gives us a striking sociological evidence of this law via the evolution of the positions of his characters who vary over the pages in the wake of the upheavals and twists caused by the Dreyfus Affair. It is even a case study that would benefit from being taught today, that would enlighten us on the actual modus operandi of social networks.

But, one thing is certain, Proust would not make fun of us for the disproportionate amount of time that we spend on our screens or smartphones.

Procrastination is not to be banished per se. It constitutes the very narrative essence of In Search of Lost Time: we owe it the privilege of being able to read it at last. The novel unfolds the story of a literary vocation that takes time – too much time, according to some – to become real. As we are reading, an alchemical operation is performed before our eyes: we can see how “lost time” turns into “time regained” achieving all its meaning through the act of writing. And, magically, this is precisely the book you hold in your hands.

Thus, perhaps the one invaluable piece of advice Proust would give us regarding our digital lives would be that while it is inevitable that time will be lost – living is ultimately a way of losing time, with or without a screen – it is up to each and every one of us to ensure that it is not completely lost of meaning.

About the Author:

Paul Vacca is a novelist, essayist and speaker. He gives courses and lectures at the Institut Français de la Mode (IFM Paris), Technocité (Brussels) and collaborates with the think-tank Volta (Milan). He writes a weekly column for the Belgian magazine Trends-Tendances and for the French magazine Ernest. He is the author of 4 novels and 5 essays. His first novel La Petite Cloche au son grêle (Mum, Marcel Proust and Me) published in paperback at Le Livre de Poche in 2013 have met a great success and was translated in Japan, and won several prizes (Madeleine d’Or Marcel Proust 2009 – Laureate of the First Novel Festival of Chambery, Laval and Mouscron…). Recently published, two literary essays Michel Houellebecq, phénomène littéraire published by Robert Laffont (2019) and Les vertus de la bêtise (“On Stupidity – And How It Can Make Us Smarter”) by the Editions de l’Observatoire (2020). He is currently working on the adaptation of his latest novel Au jour le jour (“The Feuilletonist”) for the screen.

This is an adapted essay from the book Vacca is currently writing in French, “Comment Proust peut sauver votre vie numérique”.

Image via Proust-Ink

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