Marcel Proust’s 4,000 page magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) was written shortly before his death in 1922. Proust’s sprawling work is a meditation on the human condition in all its complexities and foibles. To mark the 100-year anniversary of Proust’s death, philosopher Justin E. H. Smith joins Chris Hedges to discuss this towering achievement of 20th century literature.
Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of history and the philosophy of science at University of Paris 7 – Denis Diderot. The main-belt asteroid 13585 Justinsmith is named after him. You can find him on Substack at Justin E. H. Smith’s Hinternet.
Studio: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Chris Hedges: A century ago on Nov. 18, 1922, Marcel Proust died. He worked feverishly in his final hours on his masterpiece, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, In Search of Lost Time. His 4,000 page novel is one of the most remarkable works of literature of the 20th century. During the war in Bosnia, I plowed my way through its seven volumes populated with 400 characters not as an escape from the war, for the specter of death and the twilight of an expiring society haunts Proust’s work, but as a way to reflect on the disintegration around me. Proust, like all great writers, gave me the words to describe aspects of the human condition I knew instinctively but had trouble articulating.
Proust understood the conflicting ways we perceive reality and come to our own peculiar self-serving truths. He illuminated human folly with its illusions, ambiguities, and contradictions. He reminded his readers that empathy is the most important virtue in life, especially for the vulnerable. He explored the fragility of human goodness, the seduction and hollowness of power and social status, the inconsistency of the human heart, racism, especially antisemitism, and our looming mortality, which hovers over every page, as it did for the sickly Proust as he struggled to finish his masterpiece, dictating changes on the last night he was alive in his hermetically sealed, cork-lined bedroom in Paris.
Those who see in his work a retreat from the world are poor readers of Proust, for his power is his Freudian understanding of the unconscious and subterranean forces that define and shape human existence. There are very few writers who are his equal.
Joining me to discuss Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is Justin E.H. Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris. The main-belt asteroid 13585 Justinsmith is named after him. You can find him on Substack at Justin E.H. Smith’s Hinternet.
So Justin, the passage of time haunts the novel, especially at the end. It exposes as we age, as the character’s age, the vanity of our youthful pretensions. I think this is true for most of the characters, including Berma, who’s a thinly disguised Sarah Bernhardt, abandoned by her admirers in her old age; the main courtesan, Odette, the passion of Swann and the Comte de Forcheville, who was once a beauty and a seductress who enchanted, certainly, male Paris, is, in the end, relegated to the corner of her daughter’s salon where she’s ignored, even ridiculed. Proust writes about Odette. “And this woman, adulated and worshiped her whole life, now a human wreck in formal dress and grande toilette looks out alarmed and bewildered at the ferocious social world and seems, to me, for the first time likable.” So I wondered if you could address time, the passage of time and its effects, which is certainly one of the themes that is central to Proust’s novel.
Justin E. H. Smith: Absolutely. Thanks, Chris. I know you want to talk about Proust and philosophy later, but I think it’s hard, at least for me, to talk about time without engaging at least a bit with the question of Proust’s relationship to philosophy, in particular to the reflections on the nature of time as something experienced that are unfolding in the early 20th century, of which Proust is, I would say, vaguely aware, interested. I wouldn’t call him a dabbler. I would call him a thorough reader who is also intelligent enough to absorb reflections from phenomenology, from figures like [inaudible], from Henri Bergson’s philosophy of time and to translate this into something that, on the face of it, is a sort of auto fiction. It’s an auto fiction, but it’s also a philosophy of time.
For me, that really only becomes clear, or the payoff really only emerges, in the seventh and final volume, Le Temps retrouvé, Time Regained, as we usually translate it. And it’s funny that you mentioned your coverage of the war in Bosnia in the 1990s and your encounter with Proust in the context of war because for me, it’s the ravages of World War I that are recounted in the seventh volume that really make us understand what it means for the things we value to slip into the past and for our world to collapse. So obviously throughout the previous six volumes, there are the, let’s say, gentler ravages of time with La Berma getting old and wrinkly, and of course also the several little deaths of falling out of love with the people he has at least thought he was in love with. That’s debatable, and we can get back to that. And also, of course, the more signature moments of the madeleine and the tea and the unsolicited memories that come back to us that make us realize what’s been lost.
But nothing makes this clearer than his ghost-like stalking throughout Paris when there are curfews because of the air raids and his sense that everything is really in the past. And of course the real Proust, not the narrator, but the real Proust during World War I already surely has a sharp sense of his own declining health and his own near-ghost status already.
So that’s where it really comes through, to my mind, and that’s where we start getting le Temps capitalized with a big capital T, and his, so to speak, discovery of time as something approaching transcendent or divine worship-able and awesome and terrible entity. That’s the culmination of the previous six volumes. That’s one thing that’s so striking about À la Recherche, is the way that there’s often, for the most important themes, a very slow buildup where you only realize the full depth or the full awesomeness of the theme he’s exploring little by little. And that is, above all, the case with time. But we can talk more about this when we get back to philosophy.
Chris Hedges: So let’s just stay on that because there’s two… When I read the last volume, they were like death charges. You really needed everything that came before to get there. He talks a lot about masks. That pervades the entire novel, but can you just address that issue of masks, which he suddenly becomes cognizant of at the end?
Justin E. H. Smith: Well, it’s especially haunting when we think of Man Ray’s famous photograph of Proust on his deathbed when he’s grown a long beard and he’s very close to death and he has a face that looks very much, as Proust himself puts it, like Marcel Proust the Assyrian. Very dark, a very stark nose that looks like something sculpted in deep antiquity. And I don’t know if Man Ray is trying to show in a visual form this notion of mask that had become so important to Proust, but it’s certainly an important datum in our reflection on Proust and masks.
But also, of course, the example that you bring up of La Berma, the famous actress modeled broadly on Sarah Bernhardt, who is such a focus of Proust’s or of the narrator’s fascination and adoration in his youth. And of course, he already loses the fascination long before she has been relegated to a corner of her daughter’s salon. But he loses it when he goes – And this is one of my favorite scenes in the whole novel, when he watches her perfect gestures on stage and he contemplates the fact that there are parts of the actress’s body, like for example between the wrist and the elbow, over which the actress has no control. So this part of my arm cannot be transfigured by art no matter how great a genius artist I am. And Proust sees this on the stage and loses it. Basically he thinks, why was I so impressed by La Berma? She’s got a forearm just like I do. And it’s such a weird thing to discover, or at least to articulate, but Proust does it.
And of course, this has something to do with the whole novel’s long reflection on the relationship between art and life. Ordinarily, you couldn’t put a mask on a forearm, that’s not the sort of thing that is masked, but it is still the sort of thing that shows the limits of transfiguration by art. And then when she is elderly and relegated to a corner of her daughter’s salon and evidently overly made up as some old women who are not going gently into the good night often are, this is literally a mask. It’s cosmetics or mascara that are showing the futility of the fight against time and, ultimately, I suppose, showing the futility of trying, struggling to live in a world that is perpetually transfiguration in the name of art against death. Something like that.
Chris Hedges: Well, he’s constantly uncovering masks. He holds up from the beginning [inaudible] and he idolizes the elite, and these turn out to be very banal, disappointing figures. I think there’s an undercurrent of disillusionment that runs constantly throughout the book. We are going to have to talk about the tea madeleine. I loathe mentioning it. [crosstalk]
Justin E. H. Smith: You gotta do it. You gotta do it. Yeah.
Chris Hedges: But this unconscious, involuntary memory, and it’s not just with the madeleine and the tea. But are there any examples of this that evoke the past? And I wondered if you could… These dim fragments, these brief flashes of recognition in an unexamined life, which keeps that life fragmented and unknown and void of context. And I just wondered how, for Proust, do we locate the past? How do we give it context? And then if you can talk about the importance of involuntary memory and illuminating the reality of experience.
I’m just going to read a little quote from Proust. “I find the Celtic belief very reasonable that the souls of those we have lost are held captive in some inferior creature, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate thing, effectively lost to us until the day, which for many never comes, when we happen to pass close to the tree, come into possession of the object that is their prison. Then they quiver. They call out to us, and as soon as we have recognized them, the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and they return to live with us.” So that’s a lot, but maybe you can address those issues.
Justin E. H. Smith: Oh, yeah. Can I say something first about unmasking, the last thing we were talking about?
Chris Hedges: Sure.
Justin E. H. Smith: One of the most striking parts of the whole novel, for me, is the scene when we know Swann is dying, and he comes to the home of the [foreign language] and the Duke and his wife, Basin and Oriane, are leaving for some social engagement and she’s worried about which shoes to wear, and basically he’s trying to tell them he’s dying and they’re not going to see him anymore, and they’re just chattering back and forth about whether the shoes match the robe.
Somehow I always picture that couple – This is my dumb American pop culture orientation – As Thurston Howell and his wife on Gilligan’s Island. And it’s fascinating indeed the way they are unmasked, taken down so many notches from their early exalted status. And this is why I really hate the commentary by people like Maxim Gorky on Proust who say that he is a slavish, adoring lackey of the aristocrats. Obviously that’s not all that’s going on. This is more like an exposé of how base and petty these people are, just like all of us. It’s definitely not any sort of class consciousness of the sort Gorky would like to see, but it’s also not sycophancy towards the nobility. All right. So that’s just one thing. We can go back to –
Chris Hedges: I’m going to just stop you on that scene, because first of all, Gorky ends up becoming a tool of Stalin. But he eviscerates the ruling… I don’t know how you can read Proust and not see that.
Justin E. H. Smith: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Chris Hedges: But just that scene that you pointed out, because they dismiss him, and the way they dismiss Swann is by saying, oh, you’re not really that sick. You’ll be fine. And then they’re saying, well, we have to go. We’re in a hurry. And then the Duke sees that his wife’s shoes don’t match her outfit and sends her back inside for a half hour to get another pair of shoes. So they’re in the face of death. I think it says it all. Like you, I found that scene haunting. But let’s address the other issues.
Justin E. H. Smith: Yeah. Sure, sure. So I have to say, it’s not like my interest in the novel trailed, but I think there’s no more powerful part than the opening maybe third of the first volume of the whole novel when he is a child and when he is very much an animist describing the natural milieu of Combray and the flowers and the grass and the weather. And he is very, very good at evoking natural landscapes.
And it’s in this connection rather early on that the allusion to the Celts and their beliefs… I think this comes from Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, where there’s some reflection on druidic religion, and then it becomes commonplace in French history of ancient peoples of France that the druids did indeed believe that we are reincarnated in trees. I see this a lot in 17th century texts. But it’s a way for Proust to indulge this proximity to nature and also to pursue the themes of memory.
And I love the scenes in the early parts of the novel, particularly surrounding asparagus and the idea that a stalk of asparagus is some kind of nature sprite or fairy. That is presumably rooted in Northern French folk beliefs, and that it’s this supernatural entity in turn that causes the peculiar bouquet, as he would put it, in your urine some hours after you eat asparagus. And it’s such an intense engagement with the smells and colors and sensations of nature that he practically goes metempsychotic himself and inhabits a tree for a while.
I just love all that stuff. And I think it’s at its strongest in the first volume where he is, of course, a boy, and you’re supposed to get over that when you get older and enter society. So he retreats from the intense engagement with nature as he becomes an adult and leaves behind childish things. But in the particular sequence of images associated with the Celtic or druidic beliefs, I think, indeed, the idea seems to be that, in this reduced state, you have a dimmer sense of who you are and it has to be coaxed back out in order for the ancestor to rejoin us. And that, in a sense, to evoke this image of the soul lodged in a tree is to give an account of the condition we are all actually in, where we can scarcely hold onto our pasts and they only come back to us in dim fragments.
Chris Hedges: What’s interesting is that they do come back to everyone in a smell, a sound, a something, but Proust… Here maybe we can talk about art. While they can evoke the past, they’re largely meaningless unless we are able to interpret them through artistic expression. I don’t know if you would agree.
Justin E. H. Smith: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s absolutely right. And of course, he covers, really, all of the great arts, not just literature, but also certainly music and painting. These are leitmotifs of the whole novel. And indeed, they do seem to be the answer to the question, what are these dim fragments of memory for, anyway? Well, that can be catalyzed or sublimated into a great musical idea like, for example, the phrase in Vinteuil’s sonata that seems to hold the secret to our existence. And we really get this towards the very end of the novel, the seventh volume, again, functioning as the payoff for so much of the long-windedness of the whole thing. The realization that the narrator has of himself that he needs to conjure out of himself something as valuable, as redeeming as Vinteuil’s sonata in order to make this whole lifetime of dim fragmentary memories do anything for him at all.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about the mutation of the self, especially around grief. Albertine, who he has a relationship with, modeled after his driver who was killed. But there’s that lamentation… And of course of the death of his grandmother, which is probably modeled on the death of his mother. He had pretty much a nervous breakdown after his mother died. But he doesn’t fear grieving. I thought this was brilliant. He fears the day he no longer grieves, because the self that was once in love with those we lost no longer exists. I wonder if you could talk about that.
Justin E. H. Smith: Sure. Well, we already alluded to the several small deaths, not in the sense of orgasms, but in the sense of falling out of love, with Gilberte in particular, that so much surprise him, that make him really, I think, question the nature of love, that you can fall out of love with someone and sit in a room with them and be like, oh yeah, I used to be in love with this person, makes it seem very fragile and far from transcendental, and that seems to worry him a great deal. At the same time, it seems like the love that he has for his grandmother is, in some respects, of a different character than these various romantic loves that he has, that the narrator has.
And I should say, incidentally, that I’m not a Proust scholar. I’m a scholar of other things. And weirdly, since I started writing about Proust on Substack, I’ve had journals send me requests to referee Proust scholarship. And I have to say, sorry, I’m not your guy. That’s not my field. And in fact, for that reason, this helps to explain why I do not read secondary literature on Proust. I don’t want to read it. I think it would make me fall out of love, so to speak. It would take away the magic if I learned much more than I know about Proust’s life.
I know, at least, that the female love objects that the narrator has are transformed versions of his own same sex love objects. That much I know, but I don’t know exactly how the transformation is affected. What I can say is that Marcel Proust, whatever his sexual orientation, is remarkably good at describing heterosexual desire and obsession. He’s certainly capable of imagining his way into other people’s desires. So that’s just a little parenthesis.
So this falling out of love is something that, again, seems to be what… I just read Mary Shelley. A lovely line. It’s a weaning from the things of this earth, and in that sense a rehearsal for death. And I think the narrator sees it this way. The question of whether the narrator ever experiences true love or whether it’s just obsession… And certainly I find the narrator rather morally abhorrent and someone who really never figures some basic things out about how to be good to other people. I think the whole fifth volume, The Prisoner, is just shocking.
Chris Hedges: [inaudible], which essentially Albertine… His lover becomes his prisoner.
Justin E. H. Smith: Yeah. Yeah. And he’s extremely sadistic for no good reason and doesn’t seem to have any compunction about this. He doesn’t seem to have any interest in his own moral growth. And you might say that his attachment to his grandmother, and having to knock on the wall is an example you mentioned earlier, having to knock on the wall of the hotel so that she’ll hear him in his room and feeling reassured when he hears her knock back. That’s already a bit like the relationship to Albertine, right? And yet, his love for his grandmother is, in many respects, the best thing he’s got going, and it is, indeed, very sad when she dies.
Let me also add that there’s another person towards whom the narrator is morally abhorrent, who I think is a really key figure for understanding the whole novel. She’s the backbone of the novel, and that’s Françoise, the maid, the nanny who is, of course, alive until the very end, witnesses it all, has a wisdom that aristocrats can never have and that he can never have, and really, really holds things together. He’s nasty to her, too, but I think it’s pretty clear he loves her.
Chris Hedges: Great. That was Justin E.H. Smith, professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.