Proust's Panmnemonicon


Photograph by Otto Wegener, c. 1894

by Justin E. H. Smith

0. Au lit

Marcel Proust represents many things. Chief among these perhaps, especially for non-French readers, is quantity, and therefore the marathon-like endurance of anyone who actually reads all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, and can prove it. A 2016 cartoon in the New Yorker features a middle-aged couple sitting up in bed when one of them realises he and his partner are exactly the age at which they must start the opus if they hope to finish it before death. In a classic Looney Tunes episode Bugs Bunny has sent Elmer Fudd into a dustcloud of St. Vitus-like commotion from which he cannot escape; the sheer temporal extension of Fudd’s state is marked by Bugs sitting down next to him and patiently opening the cover of Remembrance of Things Past (as it used to be called in English).

Corollary to the length and weight of Proust’s work is the idea that to take it on amounts to a form of world-renunciation, and potentially an abnegation of our “real” moral connections and political duties. I recall shortly after September 11, 2001, Christopher Hitchens wrote that he had recently been on the cusp of giving up on politics altogether and devoting himself to a sustained critical work on the French novelist, only to be awoken and drawn back into the world by “Islamofascism”, and to the calling of militant atheism that would occupy him for the rest of his life. I don’t believe Hitchens was telling the truth about this —I don’t believe he had an extended analysis of Proust inside him and ready to go, if only real-world events hadn’t gotten in the way—, but in any case it casts Proust again into a peculiar role, one that is not so different from the self-help use-value that authors like Alain de Botton in his consistently banal How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) promise he will deliver: Proust as a private indulgence and a retreat from engagement.

Very much unlike Hitchens, the multiple crises of the contemporary world have led me to find nothing so worthy of my attention as Proust. There are many reasons for this, some entirely personal, others defensible within a shared space of reason. In part it is that it’s in my nature to take on formidable things; I’ve always liked big books because they’re big. In part I feel a growing sense of rhyme between my own life and Proust’s; not that I’ve accomplished anything like what he was able to do in his fifty-one years, but only that I, too, have entered what I experience as my mostly supine, mostly bedridden phase of incurable graphomania, in which my “life” —the social events and the drinking and the traveling and the pursuit of day-to-day matters, as Czesɫaw Miɫosz put it, “under orders from the erotic imagination”— appears to me to be definitively over, even if I’ve set my noblesse-oblige on autopilot and still occasionally go through the motions learned in the old times. Proust’s writing bed, now lovingly relocated to the Carnavalet Museum for the history of Paris, touches me even more than the wisp of Marie Antoinette’s golden hair in a locket on display down the hall, as an emblem of my own condition.

It’s not so bad, really. Arriving in such a condition is likely a prerequisite for accessing and probing memory in the way that Proust discovered how to do. I find that quite unconsciously much of what I’ve written here at The Hinternet has been both an exploration of my own memories from the old days, and an extended reflection on what memories are, and what the faculty of memory is, in relation to the present. In both straightforward essay form and in attempts at science-fiction, I have pursued the idea of the “panmnemonicon”. This is a variation on Jeremy Bentham’s fantasy of the panopticon: a technology that enables us, or forces us, not only to see everything present, but to recall, or to have available for recall, everything past as well. I have suggested that search-engine technology is bringing this fantasy ever closer to such a reality. It seems to me also that we may look at such monumental results as Prousts’s of the tekhnē of prose-writing as it had developed by the early twentieth century to be themselves contributions to the development of panmnemonic technology, of a new human reality in which time cannot be lost.

It was with such thoughts in mind that I went back this summer to À la recherche du temps perdu. Years ago I read volumes one, two and seven, but this was at a time when my French reading comprehension really was not up to the task, and my experience of Proust’s language was dim like a child’s daydream. (I recommend reading novels in languages you don’t fully know yet, incidentally; it’s a different kind of aesthetic experience, but one worth having, and in the case of some novels, including Proust’s, it’s an experience that honors and reflects the phenomenology of the work itself.) I decided this summer to read all seven volumes in order, from start to finish, and to reflect on them, occasionally, here at The Hinternet. I’ve just now finished volume one, Du côté de chez Swann, and so am offering this first installment in what may turn out to be a series of seven essays on Proust… unless some world-historical event I cannot at present anticipate comes and knocks me out of my reverie.

1. Le petit traintrain

I have said that entering the post-experiential phase of life is “not so bad”. It is not, after all, as if we the supine have no life left in us at all, but only that we have exchanged the life of “the world” for what Aunt Léonie lovingly describes as “mon petit traintrain”: the daily regimen of accomplishing small private things at their appointed hour and minute, the “little train” of our days, which makes no noise and only asks not to be derailed.

Train is a peculiar word, in English and in the French from which it comes, whose polysemy long predates the era of locomotion, appearing in such variations as entraînement (‘training’), s’entraîner (‘to train’), en train de (‘in the course of’), traîner (‘to pull’, but also ‘to hang around’ or ‘to weigh upon’). What all of these have in common with each other, and indeed with locomotives (for which also consider the German Zug, from the verb ziehen, ‘to pull’), is an ordered succession. As applied to the succession of one’s own days, the “train” of life is both a form of ritual and a technology. It seems small, but what it contrasts with is not life itself, but rather disordered pursuit — of what exactly one is not sure, but the pursuit itself is fueled by the idea that one is not quite living yet, or not in the right way, one has not yet fallen in love with the right person, or convinced the person we love to love us back. Life then becomes an ordered succession of days that are reliably the same when the realisation fully sets in that there is no other life to be had.

At this point the repetition can take on a quality of grace and nobility. Aunt Léonie interprets her own daily routines as a sort of downward hypostasis of the court rituals of her own royal ancestors, and in the rigid despotism of her insistence on breakfast at its proper time, eau de Vichy at its time and a dose of pepsine at another, Proust sees a faint image of what the memoirist Saint-Simon (1675-1755) called the “mechanics” of life at Versailles under Louis XIV. We settle into our little traintrains perhaps not because we’ve ceased to value what is in fact the true end-goal of all the non-stop status-jockeying that comes with life in “the world”, but because we have learned that it is only in the reduced kingdom of our own private space that we will ever have any true claim to sovereignty. And in that reduced space, masters of our own mechanism, we are free to ignore all the other kingdoms just as they ignore us (“Combien de royaumes nous ignorent!” Blaise Pascal exclaimed, thinking perhaps of faraway sultanates, perhaps of extraterrestrials, or perhaps simply of his neighbors).

Proust does not appeal to such mechanical metaphors very often, yet the adverb machinalement finds its way, surprisingly, into the earliest description, in the opening “Combray” section of volume one, of the all-too familiar effect on the narrator of eating a Petite Madeleine. Having just described “ces gateaux courts et dodus” in vividly organic terms — they “seem to have been moulded within the grooved shell of a St. Jacques scallop”—, he continues:

Soon enough, mechanically, overwhelmed by the dull day and the prospect of a sad tomorrow, I brought to my lips a spoonful of tea where I had left a piece of the madeleine to soften. But at the very instant where the sip of liquid mixed with the crumbs of cake touched my palate, I trembled, conscious of the extraordinary thing that was happening within me.1

These then are the two senses of mechanism: the unconscious habit with which we fill up the ordinary directionless flow of subjective time, waiting ever for reprieve from its tedium by intense inner experiences we try to summon but that only ever seem to come on their own; and the conscious habit with which we fill objective time, as at the court of Louis XIV or the bedside of Aunt Léonie, in order to keep it flowing in the right direction, on its rails. You could say in French that the boy’s dull day traînait —it lagged, it hung around, it trailed, it took too long—, because being a boy, being young and living in expectation of the experiences that would later congeal into memories, the days were not yet on rails, not yet determined in the motion of the petit traintrain from beginning to end. But the end of the one form of life is the beginning of another.

2. Les asperges

There is no denying that the narrator of In Search of Lost Time is one weird little mama’s boy, ever inventing ruses to summon his mother up to his room for another kiss goodnight, over the disappointed protestations of a father who would wish to see him “man up”. There is something delightful (if cherry-picked) in the thought that while the greatest monument of Russian literature broods over whether or not to murder someone just because you can, and the greatest of German novels explores the metaphors of illness in an Alpine sanatorium, France gives us instead, as its contender for the champion’s title, the neverending autofiction of a boy so entranced by the ‘bouquet’ of his own asparagus pee that he longs to call Maman upstairs to whiff it alongside him. Depending on your own sensibilities, this can all be either endearing or off-putting. I quite like it myself, and indeed this kind of behaviour is more familiar to me than I would ordinarily wish to admit.

The preoccupation with asparagus and its virtues and qualities, moreover, is not just an oddity, but runs like a leitmotif throughout all of “Combray” (which in my view is the most powerful and the most “Proustian” of the three sections of Du côté de chez Swann, while “Un amour de Swann”, the central and longest section, has the character somewhat more of a Balzacian social novel, about which more soon). The leitmotif tells us, I think, quite a bit about Proust’s standing as a “nature writer”. It may seem unfamiliar to characterise him in this way. There is a common prejudice, partially based in reality, that while English authors such as Shaftesbury with his mossy gardens, and German Romantics up to and including Heidegger with his Black Forest Holzwege, have long been sensitive to the independent and indomitable existence of the natural sublime, French authors have been strongly influenced by the old ambition, inscribed in the eighteenth-century into the rules for cutting the hedges at the Jardin des Plantes, of achieving “le contrôle total du monde végétal.” It does often seem in some French authors, and indeed at moments in “Un amour de Swann” for Proust too, that society is so captivating as to obscure nature from view, that “the world” is so seductive as to make one forget about the Earth that supports it and may crush it at any instant.

In fact Proust is well attuned to the utter dependency of society on a nature that does not care about it. The final section of volume one, the peculiarly titled “Noms de pays : le nom”, features some of the most remarkable descriptions of storms, of fog, of coastlines that I can recall, as for example this one on the fictional resort town of Balbec (which we once went hunting for in Normandy, not knowing that the name was made up):

One still feels there …, much more than in Finistère itself… the true end of the French soil, the European soil, the ancient Earth. And it’s this last encampment of fishermen, similar to all the fishermen who have lived since the beginning of the world, before the eternal kingdom of the fog of the sea and of the shadows.2

And he goes on to dwell on those coastal sites that

seemed to me to be only of nature immemorial, still contemporaries of great geological phenomena — and no less outside of human history than the ocean or Ursa Major, with those wild fishermen for whom there was no Middle Ages, no more than there had been for the whales.3

No Middle Ages for the whales — a suitable motto of the natural sublime, which Cormac McCarthy also captures with a whale near the end of Blood Meridian (1985). When the Kid has finally made it to the California coast, he struggles to imagine what is happening “out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.” The unknowing is bidirectional, and there’s no Manifest Destiny or Indian Wars for the whales, any more than there is a Middle Ages (though there will of course be a whaling industry for them).

McCarthy is known for his preoccupation with forces of natural and human evil operating indifferently to the niceties of polite society. I don’t know what McCarthy’s opinion of Proust is, but it seems likely that the American author would place him in that category of writers whose work “doesn’t concern life and death,” and therefore “[is] not interesting.” In a certain sense it’s hard to imagine a novel that doesn’t concern at least “life” (Edwin Abbott’s Flatland of 1884, perhaps, whose protagonists are geometrical forms? But even these are somehow animate.) All of Proust’s characters are definitely alive, and if their death does not loom in the form of a lightning-strike or a scalping, nonetheless all the chatter of le monde, all the intricate dissection of all the nobles and their “presentation of self in everyday life”, of who is and is no longer fréquentable, of Swann’s “bad marriage” — all of this plainly bears some important relationship to death too: namely, the neverending effort of human beings to shut it out, a by-product of which is culture.

Proust’s tone in relating the gossip of the princesses and their lesser hangers-on has confounded many readers. It is neither elegiac nor satirical, and you can never quite figure out whether he loves the world he is describing or holds it in contempt. Readers trained up on the “withering” satire of a Balzac or the critical gaze of the nineteenth-century social novelists wait in vain for an expression of outright disapproval. But they also wait in vain for anything boldly reactionary, any affirmation of the natural justice on which the unequal aristocratic order is based. Ideologues have, as we’ll see, taken this ambiguity as itself reactionary; I take it as Proust’s heeding the highest call of literature, as distinct from pamphleteering.

But I wanted first to close out the treatment of asparagus. While the treatment of nature in “Noms de pays : le nom” takes its cue from the Kantian mathematical sublime —nature as absolute greatness not inhibited with ideas of limitations—, in “Combray” nature is rather described through the somewhat more comforting lens of the Shaftesburian sublime. Here it is not meteorology, but botany that offers the best point of access to the natural world. In an early passage the narrator affirms the ancient doctrine of metempsychosis witnessed by Julius Caesar in Gaul and described in The Gallic Wars, thus at once opening out to the non-human world that hosts us and to the archaic history of France that predates the congealing of the “Franco-Gallic” national identity:

I find very reasonable the Celtic belief that the souls of those we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, a plant, an inanimate thing, lost in fact until that day, which for many never comes, when we find ourselves passing near a tree, and entering into posession of the object that is their prison. Then they tremble, calling out to us, and as soon as we recognise them the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have triumphed over death and return to live with us. It’s the same with our past.4

He mostly drops his Druidism after this, but the metempsychotic vision of the vegetal kingdom, and the traffic of souls between the human and the natural worlds, comes back again at a surprising moment:

I stopped to see upon the table, where the kitchen girl had just placed them, the petits pois lined up and numbered like green marbles in a game; but my ravishment fixated on the asparagus, bathed in ultramarine and pink, whose cob, delicately nipped by mauve and azur, diminished imperceptibly down to its base —though still dirty with the soil of its row— by a sheen that does not come from the earth. It seemed to me that these celestial nuances revealed the delicious creatures that had amused themselves by metamorphosing into vegetables, and that, through the disguise of their firm and edible flesh, allowed them to be perceived in these nascent colours of the aurora, in these hints of the rainbow, in this extinction of blue evenings, that precious essence that I still discerned when, for the whole night that followed a dinner where I had eaten them, they played, in their poetic and rude farces as in a fairy-tale of Shakespeare, at transforming my chamber-pot into a perfumed vase.5

This is Proust’s real world: not a rigid and “naturalised” caste society of chattering aristocrats as against the masses, and not even a human world as against non-human nature, but a world where nothing is fixed, identities and outer forms are temporary and tried on simply for the sake of mischief, even if the life-against-death regle du jeu of society is to make these identities appear permanent. The narrator’s own identity is constituted much more by the smell of his pee, which is in turn constituted by mischievous forest creatures, than by his particular locus in the social world so vigilantly monitored by his grandmother. What it is to be a person is to move constantly through this flux of colours and smells and light, while others keep trying to pin you down.

Photographer unknown

3. Les rêves

In the Soviet Union Proust was consistently invoked as the nec-plus-ultra example of extreme bourgeois decadence and idealism in Western literature. In one typical example from Maxim Gorky’s essay, “Indifference Should Have No Place” (1932), Proust’s work is compared unfavourably to the dynamic social satire of Balzac. What the twentieth century needs, Gorky says, is a new Balzac fitted to the realities of our times, but instead:

Here comes Marcel Proust who, in a half-whispered voice relates the most long-winded and boring dream of a fruitless and bloodless man — a man who lives outside of reality.6

We can of course ask in reply, first of all, whether art should rightly be expected to stay within the bounds of reality, or whether it is rather by definition an artifice that mirrors, refracts, distorts, and somehow, as if by magic, complements reality; second of all, even if we agree that living “outside of reality” counts against an artist, we may still wish to know what reality is, and as far as I can tell there is a much stronger case that reality is in fact constituted by such things as the strange glint of light on the briar roses at sunset, by the dancing geometrical forms I see when I close my eyes, and other such things, than that it is entirely accounted for by the iron laws of historical materialism.

On a recent episode of my podcast, “What Is X?”, the literary theorist and scholar of Tlingit Matthew Spellberg has observed that the few centuries in which we took dreams to be the “unreal” part of our daily cycle, and wakefulness to be the “real” part, may in the end turn out to be a historical aberration. Certainly, if we survey the different cultures of the world, it is a deviant thing to suppose that dreams are mere hallucinations, while, say, laboring in a factory is “the real stuff”. One of the most important services of modern literature, on this view, has been to preserve a role for the dream-life in a culture that in its philosophy and its etiquette (which may amount to the same thing) does everything it can to sweep dreaming under the rug.

Proust is surely the greatest hero of this countertradition of modernity; for him, dreams are not just ‘symptoms’ or raw material ready for interpretation, but rather the fullest florescence of subjectivity. Matthew has highlighted to me in this connection the importance of the early passage of volume one in which the narrator, having fallen asleep while reading, comes to sense “that I was myself the thing of which the work spoke: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V.”7

How on earth can a person be a rivalry? Long ago I experienced a memorable hypnagogic moment in which I was Manhattan, while the person with whom I shared a bed was Brooklyn. That’s strange enough, but at least there we were two good-sized physical masses, just as we ordinarily take ourselves to be in waking life. But a rivalry is a relation that obtains between two such masses, a consequence of their subjectivities in collision, and not a being itself. Yet think now of seeing a young couple in love, walking hand-in-hand. They awaken a bittersweet desire in you, but for what exactly? To be one of them? Which one? Both? Or perhaps the desire is not to be either one of them at all, but to be the relation between them, to be the union of their surfaces or the contact of their souls. In fact subjective experience, perhaps especially experience fueled by desire, seems very often to insinuate itself between people in this way, and make its home there. Proust then lays bare here something we ordinarily don’t notice about subjective consciousness as such, and does so by taking dreaming as the most exemplary state of it, rather than an embarassing aberration, a nightly lapse into florid psychosis.

In this condition the boundaries of our own identity are rigorously unpindownable, and where we leave off and those we desire begin is entirely unclear. Proust’s narrator relates that “sometimes, as Eve was born from a rib of Adam, a woman was born during my sleep from the strange placement of my thigh.”8 In recent years I often have the experience shortly before falling asleep of an engourdissement of my hands, where I think to myself: “Good. My hands are dreaming now, my brain will be dreaming soon too.” My hands do not themselves have brains, of course, or rather, their brains just are my brain. And yet, in that twilight phase they somehow become proper others, with subjectivities of their own, yet to which I also have complete and immediate access.

Subjectivities are born from the strange placement of our thighs, from the “sleep” of our hands, the colours and smells of asparagus. At least, that’s how things seem, in a certain state of consciousness, and it’s a worthy aim of literature to take this state of consciousness as reality, and to account for it.

4. Le temps

It’s not just the congeries of qualities that fill out our subjectivity, but rather the flow of these qualities in time, that Proust is intent on capturing. The thematisation of subjective time, of time as memory, is of course what makes Proust particularly interesting as a literary echo of the preoccupations of his contemporaries in philosophy, or at least the currents of philosophy that were emergent on the European continent in his lifetime. In the Anglo-American tradition, by contrast, Proust will continue to be invoked mostly as a Looney Tunes-style punchline, if he is known at all. I still remember a day in 1996 when a fellow Columbia graduate student, citing an example I believe from J. L. Austin in which Proust is mentioned, pronounced the name in question in a way that rhymes with joust. Shortly after that I went out and bought Deleuze’s Proust and Signs, which I never understood, but which in the English edition had beautiful multicoloured eggs pictured on the cover.

Anyhow, the concluding paragraph of “Noms de pays : le nom” might be read as a sort of “temporalisation of being” anticipatory of Heidegger’s critique of Descartes’s vision of “the world” as mere extension:

The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space in which we situate them for the sake of ease. They were only a thin slice of the contiguous impressions that formed our life then; the memory of a certain image is only the regret of a certain instance; and the houses, the streets, the avenues, are fugitive, alas, like the years.9

Thus ends volume one of À la recherche du temps perdu. What is likely less commented upon are the sentences immediately preceding this one, in which the narrator returns after several hundred pages to his preoccupation with the Druidic vision of nature, and couples the regret as memories recede into the past with an awareness that nature continually takes back all things:

The sun was hidden. Nature begain to reign again over the Bois, from which the idea had emerged that it was the Elysian Garden of the Feminine; above the fake mill the true sky was grey; the wind rippled the Grand Lac with little wavelets, like a lake; big birds crossed rapidly over the Bois, like a grove [bois], emitting sharp cries and landing one after the other on the big oaks that seemed, under their Druidic crowns and with a Dodonic majesty, to proclaim the inhuman void of the disaffected forest, and helped me better to understand the contradiction of searching in reality for the tableaux of memory.10

The reclamation of our social world by nature is itself the measure of time, and the source of memory. And it is also, alas, what makes memory something less than reality.

5. The Panmnemonicon

Another thing happened in 1996 that I still remember: my father convinced his mother, Bertie, in the aim of helping her to stave off mental decline, to write an autobiography (or, more likely, to dictate an autobiography; the polish of the spelling and grammar are clearly my father’s). It’s not very long, sixty pages or so, but it’s filled with passages that move me to my core, and that I wish I could cite at length. I’ll content myself with just one.

In the summer of 1936, in rural Arkansas not far from the town of Monticello, the Cruce family had guests:

They had this little boy that had been spoiled by his mother. He was such a cry-baby and tattled on the other kids all the time. While the grown-ups were eating, we took him out in the garden and talked him into eating a red hot pepper. He went blubbering back into the house and his mother gave him a chicken leg. He came back outside grinning, and the rest of us kids were mad at him because we were all so hungry.

Seen from the perspective of the long history of literature, this document amounts to a sort of demotic Proust. My grandma had no real knack for it, she was only doing it to pass the time. Yet the very idea that you could retrieve such a singular event as this one from sixty years prior, and in some sense you could eternalise that blubbering boy’s small triumph in textual form, and that it is good and worthy to do this, is something my dad only thought to encourage because the template for such undertakings already existed.

Most of the history of literature is not like this. In traditional oral literature, a sort of past is indeed called up, but it differs from what we think of as the past in that it is, first of all, a collective past, and second of all, a past that plays out in a “mythical” realm where the laws of reality are not the same, and people, generally conceived as ancestors, are heroes or gods.

Curiously, Proust’s narrator describes his poor, beleaguered servant Françoise as hosting a repository of ancestral knowledge that is more akin to the communal and mythical treasury of the past communicated in “archaic” literature, than to the singular tabulation of events that Grandma Bertie thought to provide when prompted to speak of the past. Thus:

How French that church was! Above the door, the saints, the king-knights with a fleur-de-lys in their hands, the scenes of weddings and funerals, were represented as they might have been in the soul of Françoise. The sculptor had also related certain anecdotes pertaining to Aristotle and to Virgil, in the same way that Françoise might have freely spoken in the kitchen of Saint Louis as someone she had personally known… One sensed that the notions that the medieval artist and the medieval peasant-woman (surviving into the nineteenth century) had of ancient and Christian history, which were marked as much by imprecision as by familiarity, were drawn not from books, but from a tradition that was ancient and direct at once, uninterrupted, oral, deformed, unrecognisable and alive.11

How French that church was, just like the soul of Françoise. The idea that a person can be a living embodiment, a traduction of archaic national history, and that this history is not betrayed but on the contrary kept alive by its quality of imprecision, is at the same time a bulwark against the sense that the past is something that recedes inescapably and regrettably from us as it transforms into bittersweet memory. This is an idea that Proust’s own work is in the course of shattering, even as he was memorialising it through the character of Françoise.

As for Bertie, I don’t know whether her memories were, for her, bittersweet or rather a source of joy. Like Proust, she’s poker-faced as to her general affective disposition to the parade of characters she brings back from memory. But like Proust, too, she takes for granted that this is what the past is: a parade of characters we may seek to retrieve, if only ever partially.

What Proust put in place of the old “mythical” past embodied by Françoise was a draft of what I have called “the panmnemonicon”, where, ideally, all of it, everything it was ever like to have lived a singular human life, is available for recall. To some extent such an ideal has always been available through the figure of divine omniscience. A medieval nun bathing with a wooden plank over the surface of the tub so that God would not see her? That’s an idea ancestral to the panopticon, or the fear of it. The list of all your sins that St. Peter has waiting for you on your arrival at the Gates of Heaven? That is an anticipation of the panmnemonicon.

Proust’s narrator, of course, takes the sin out of the project, sees none of it for example in the birthing of a woman from his thigh (Aunt Léonie, by contrast, is too weighted with the legacy of sin to even acknowledge in language that she ever sleeps, as sleep implies dreaming and dreaming implies sensual fantasy). Yet the project of literary total recall may be seen as something like an attempt to beat God to the chase, and come up with the list on one’s own before dying. Of course unlike God’s list our list will always remain incomplete; we are finite beings after all. But this is perhaps where the distance of literary autofiction, as opposed to the straight autobiographical enumeration of singular events, also helps through style, through beauty, to convey the appearance of completeness.

I recall a fantastic story some years ago in the New Yorker, I don’t remember who wrote it, in which a man gets shot in the head during a bank robbery. The bulk of the narrative takes place within the few milliseconds of the bullet’s voyage through his brain tissue. Or rather, the bulk of it is a sort of parenthetical listing of all the moments from the man’s life that did not flash before his eyes during these milliseconds: nothing about his parents, nothing about his career, nothing about the lover who used to refer to sex as “playing hide-the-mole”. Instead he remembered a boy from Georgia who had been on his baseball team as a kid, and who used to say “they is” instead of “they are”. So in the very final nanosecond of the man’s life, this is what he thinks: They is, they is.

“Are the grown-ups eatin’ chicken in there?” my grandma and the other kids might have asked. “They is,” the blubbering boy might have responded. This might have been Grandma Bertie’s last thought too.

It’s a morbid but enjoyable game to imagine what one’s own last thought will be. Perhaps mine will be of the guy who pronounced Proust like joust, and who has otherwise entirely disappeared from my memory. Before I die, our panmnemonic technologies may improve to the point where I can bring him back from the void of the past by entering nothing more than this faint trace of him into the universal search-engine. This sounds outlandish now, but just you wait. Human beings have already accomplished miraculous feats in the technology of retrieval of the singular past. À la recherche du temps perdu is notable among them.


“Et bientôt, machinalement, accablé par la morne journée et la perspective d’un triste lendemain, je portai à mes lèvres une cuillerée du thé où j’avais laissé s’amollir un morceau de madeleine. Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes de gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi.”


“On y sent encore… bien plus qu’au Finistère lui-même …, la véritable fin de la terre française, européenne, de la Terre antique. Et c’est le dernier campement de pêcheurs, pareils à tous les pêcheurs qui ont vécu depuis le commencement du monde, en face du royaume éternel des brouillards de la mer et des ombres.”


“Et ces lieux qui jusque-là ne m’avaient semblé être que de la nature immémoriale, restée contemporaine des grands phénomènes géologiques — et tout aussi en dehors de l’histoire humaine que l’Océan ou la Grande Ourse, avec ces sauvages pêcheurs pour qui, pas plus que pour les baleines, il n’y eut de Moyen Âge.”


“Je trouve très raisonnable la croyance celtique que les âmes de ceux que nous avons perdus sont captives dans quelque être inférieur, dans une bête, un végétal, une chose inanimée, perdues en effet jusqu’au jour, qui pour beaucoup ne vient jamais, où nous nous trouvons passer près de l’arbre, entrer en possession de l’objet qui est leur prison. Alors elles tressaillent, nous appellent, et sitôt que nous les avons reconnues, l’enchantement est brisé. Délivrées par nous, elles ont vaincu la mort et reviennent vivre avec nous. Il en est ainsi de notre passé.”


“Je m’arrêtais à voir sur la table, où la fille de cuisine venait de les écosser, les petits pois alignés et nombrés comme des billes vertes dans un jeu ; mais mon ravissement était devant les asperges, trempées d’outremer et de rose et dont l’épi, finement pignoché de mauve et d’azur, se dégrade insensiblement jusqu’au pied, — encore souillé pourtant du sol de leur plant, — par des irisations qui ne sont pas de la terre. Il me semblait que ces nuances célestes trahissaient les délicieuses créatures qui s’étaient amusées à se métamorphoser en légumes et qui, à travers le déguisement de leur chair comestible et ferme, laissaient apercevoir en ces couleurs naissantes d’aurore, en ces ébauches d’arc-en-ciel, en cette extinction de soirs bleus, cette essence précieuse que je reconnaissais encore quand, toute la nuit qui suivait un dîner où j’en avais mangé, elles jouaient, dans leurs farces poétiques et grossières comme une féerie de Shakespeare, à changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum.”


“… приходит Марсель Пруст и вполголоса рассказывает длиннейший, скучный сон человека без плоти и крови, – человека, который живёт вне действительности.”


“… il me semblait que j’étais moi-même ce dont parlais l’ouvrage : une église, un quatuor, la rivalité de François Ier et Charles Quint.”


“Quelquefois, comme Ève naquit d’une côte d’Adam, une femme naissait pendant mon sommeil d’une fausse position de ma cuisse.”


“Les lieux que nous avons connus n’appartiennent pas qu’au monde de l’espace où nous les situons pour plus de facilité. Il’s n’étaient qu’une mince tranche au milieu d’impressions contiguës qui formaient notre vie d’alors ; le souvenir d’une certaine image n’est que le regret d’un certain instant ; et les maisons, les routes, les avenues, sont fugitives, hélas, comme les années.”


“Le soleil s’était caché. La nature recommençait à régner sur le Bois d’où s’était envolée l’idée qu’il était le Jardin élyséen de la Femme ; au-dessus du moulin factice le vrai ciel était gris ; le vent ridait le Grand Lac de petites vaguelettes, comme un lac ; de gros oiseaux parcouraient rapidement le Bois, comme un bois, et poussant des cris aigus se posaient l’un après l’autre sur les grands chênes qui sous leur couronne druidique et avec une majesté dodonéenne semblaient proclamer le vide inhumain de la forêt désaffectée, et m’aidaient à mieux comprendre la contradiction que c’est de chercher dans la réalité les tableaux de la mémoire.”


“Que cette église était française ! Au-dessus de la porte, les Saints, les rois-chevaliers une fleurs de lys à la main, des scènes de noces et de funérailles, étaient représentés comme ils pouvaient l’être dans l’âme de Françoise. Le sculpteur avait aussi narré certaines anecdotes rélatives à Aristote et à Virgile de la même façon que Françoise à la cuisine parlait volontiers de saint Louis comme si elle l’avait personnellement connu… On sentait que les notions que l’artiste médiéval et la paysanne médiévale (survivant au XIXe siècle) avaient de l’histoire ancienne ou chrétienne, et qui se distinguaient par autant d’inexactitude que de bonhomie, ils les tenaient non des livres, mais d’une tradition à la fois antique et directe, ininterrompue, orale, déformée, méconnaissable et vivante.”

About the Author

Justin E. H. Smith is an author and professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Paris. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will appear in 2021 from Princeton University Press.

Publication Rights

This essay was first published in Justin E. H. Smith’s Hinternet. Subscribe here. Republished with permission.

Image Details

The top image is a detail from Otto Wegener: Robert de Flers, Marcel Proust and Lucien Daudet, c. 1894 (public domain).

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