Photograph by John Haynes 2007
Everything great in the world comes from neurotics. They alone have founded our religions and composed our masterpieces. Proust.
Too many people have written knowledgeably on Proust for me to want to do any more than make idiosyncratic notes.
1) How I came to read Proust: My husband, John began to read In Search of Lost Time over forty years ago and it took him another ten years to finish the novel while I was still absorbed with nappies. I felt he had joined an exclusive group of bores, like ‘Mr. Norpois’, from whom I was self-excluded. I thought Proust was an elitist, drone. John continued to swoon at – and even bake – Madeleine’s and compared ‘Maman’s’ over analyzed kiss with his regressive longings for his own mother when they were both evacuated from Mitcham to the posh Devon cousins at the Church House Inn, during the war. His mother was bullied by her sister in law to ignore her son’s night terrors, and however often John rang the derelict servant’s bell nobody ever understood his desperation for his mother to come upstairs to say goodnight to him.
Today, on our walk in Regent’s Park with Lucy and her pack, we started arguing about which was the best translation of Proust, and then John recalled the first time he came across his name. He had de-mobbed from his national service, (Heavens, he still looks almost a boy) and was living in a tatty room at the top in Hampstead. The Everyman, in Hampstead, was John’s favourite cinema and the manager, by chance, occupied the bedsit next door so he had free tickets. It was in the Everyman’s loos that John came upon a graffiti listing of famous gay men and a scribbled phrase of Proust. As with many of the most important things in life, it was years later that he brought his first copy of Moncrieff’s translation.
My resistances to Proust remained in place until I met Christopher www.christopherpotter.co.uk (recounted in my first blog: ‘Birth-pangs of writing a book’) but when I discovered he moved between NY and London like a dervish, not to mention his sea-long summers in Provincetown, we decided that one of our ways to maintain inter-continent contact and defects of loneliness to control was by reading the same books. To begin with it was The White Leopard. It must have been in December 2007 when Christopher suggested Proust – he had the literary lead – and I bleated, ‘Of course’.
As much preparation and research went into which edition to read as if we had been boarding the Queen Elizabeth. I was relegated to lower deck, intimidated and without his knowledge of all the editions, which included an esoteric and doomed translation by Sylvia Townsend Warner for Gallimard. We, rather he, finally settled on the new Penguin translation edited by Christopher Prendegast who has employed a different translator for each volume, even though C. wobbled at volume one being translated as The Way By Swann, but then he was soothed by its cover illustration of a detail from Vertige. The quality of the paper and the font mattered to him in almost the same fastidious ways as when he was at the publishing helm. We set sail at last: life was now occupied, enriched, consoled and transformed to such an extent by Proust’s genies that we have almost completed our second annual crossing of this mind-blowing work. Proust is not just for Christmas but also for life.
2. My responses: I have screamed with laughter, turned emotional somersaults, become insanely bored at the salons, green with envy at Proust’s genius versatility and the way even a paving stone, let alone a mind, emotion, wave, or perspective, animates under his observation. I have also learnt more about human psychology from this novel than from all the psychology books that I have read. If I was mayor for the day I would recommend that everybody working in mental health have a sabbatical to try and read Proust. The only person who I think can rival his modernist knowledge of the psyche is Nietzsche.
It’s alarming – when the cards are down – and you discover that both Freud and Jung plagiarized at a rate of knots. Forget the plagiary perils of students and the Internet; they don’t compare and their cribbing is obvious. Perhaps, Freud and Jung were arrogant enough to think that nobody else, at least in psychiatry, never as exulted a study as philosophy, read enough to discover their rarified sources, which included Coleridge and Hazlitt amongst many, many others. I couldn’t believe it when I discovered that Jung’s pivotal theory of Individuation was lifted out of Nietzsche, who at least had the decency to attribute the origins of his ideas to ‘the Greats’.
Excuse my diversion, but please sample Hazlitt in one of his essays in The Common Reader on dreams and his theory about repression, written in 1800, one hundred years before Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was published.
It may be said (in our dreams) that the voluntary power is suspended, and things come upon us as unexpected revelations, which we keep out of our thoughts at other times. We may be aware of a danger that we do not choose, while we have the full command of our faculties, to acknowledge to ourselves; the impending event will then appear to us as a dream, and we shall most likely find it verified afterwards. Another thing of no small consequence is, that we may sometimes discover our tacit and almost unconscious sentiments, with respect to persons or things in the same way. We are not hypocrites in our sleep. The curb is taken from our passions and our imagination wanders at will. When awake we check these rising thoughts, and fancy we have them not. In dreams we are off our guard, they return securely and unbidden. We make this use of the infirmity of our sleeping metamorphoses, that we may repress any feeling of this sort that we disapprove in their incipient state, and detect, ere it be too late. Infants cannot disguise their thoughts from others; and in sleep we reveal the secret to ourselves.
Roll over Freud.
3) A cornucopia of Proust : Proust is more sophisticated on dreams, theories of sleep and emotions, than he is on sexuality, particularly his own, but maybe more on that soon.
When the mind has a tendency to dream, it is a mistake to keep dreams away from it, to ration its dreams. So long as you distract your mind from its dreams, it will not know them for what they are; you will always be being taken in by the appearance of things, because you will not have grasped their true nature. If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time. One must have a thorough understanding of ones dreams if one is not to be troubled by them; there is a way of separating ones dreams from ones life which so often produces good results that I ask myself whether one ought not, at all costs, to try it, simply as a preventive, just as certain surgeons make out that we ought, to avoid the risk of appendicitis later on. (Within A Budding Grove.)
Proust was a connoisseur not only of love, lift-boys, bell-boys, nature, jealousy, family, salon gossip, waiters, the self, the face, the voice, music and art, contemporary medicine, the Dreyfus Affair, more waiters, scatology, (when push comes to shove I think he preferred the whiffs of the latrine in the Bois, to the linden fragrances of a tilleul, or Francoise’s hollandaise sauce).
His sleep erotica slaps you in the face way before Maman’s first kiss on page two of the novel!
Sometimes as Eve was born from one of Adam’s ribs, a woman was born during my sleep from a cramped position of my thigh. Formed of the pleasure I was on the point of enjoying, she, I imagined, was on the point of offering it to me. My body, which felt in hers my own warmth, tried to return to itself inside her. I woke up.
Miriam Rothschild, I have been told, referred to Proust as the first urban naturalist; he was also an autopsist of sado-masochism, emotional life, pain, and an explorer of perspectives, changing political horizons, technologies and the ocean. He adored swifts. He was a satirist who never stopped ridiculing psueds, and he knew that it takes one psued to recognize another. Whatever his eye alighted on provokes awe and devotion in me.
He was suspicious of the medical profession, and particularly psychiatrists, (both his father and brother were doctors). Below is a picture of Dr Achilles-Adrien and his son Dr Robert Proust.
Proust probably lived each day in terror of dying, in particular like his mother and father from a stroke, and he immortalized this condition, perhaps through a compound of his observations of his parents experiences, in his tragic, hilarious and unsentimental account of ‘Grandmother’s’ illness and then his graphic anatomy of the frenzy of her death.
Despite the received view that within the confines of his novel ‘Maman’ was the principle influence on Marcel, she was not and it was ‘Grandmother’ who absorbed, nourished and influenced him most of all. Proust’s biological father Achilles Adrien Proust, who in the novel mainly inhabits the shadows, was not only a founder of the discipline of public health medicine but that he also published a seminal study of neurasthenia; within it, it seems, that he rebuked his wife for molly-coddling Marcel and arresting his emotional development. It sounds rather as though there was a rebarbative duel of wills going on here between father and son. There is no mention in the novel of a brother.
Where does Proust disappoint me? In his observations and caricatures of homosexuality where, perhaps without Proust knowing it, he comes close to the absurd, and to Freud’s singular theory of homosexuality as a perversion. Perversion in its etymology means to turn away from a true version: ‘Pervert: 3, to turn a person, the mind away from the right opinion, or action, to lead astray.’ SOED, and thus the inflation of psychoanalytic theory intimates if not declares that through its treatment a person may be restored to the non perverse sexuality of their ‘true’ self. Proust, through his myopic and effete constructs of homosexuality, and the implicit terrors of his own sexual appetites, falls into hard line with institutes of psychoanalysis. Historically, In the UK, before the advent of the Equal Opportunities legislation on sexual orientation as late as 2003, it was still impossible to be a declared homosexual and apply to train to the Institute of Psychoanalysis to become a psychoanalyst.
In a Squirrel Nutkin tale, homosexuality was seen by Freud and his school to be the consequence of an immature and perverse arrestment of sexual development. In private, it was joked that although homosexuals were not admitted for training to the London Institute of Psychoanalysis, it was full of them. An even more dismal state of shipwreck was declared when an eminent member of the London Institute, an international medical authority on sexuality and a training analyst, both publicly defended and endorsed Clause 28.
Not the happiest place to end, but I have discovered that there can be no assigned ending to Proust; he will just go on inspiring, amusing and perhaps most importantly consoling me for as long as I go on breathing.
John’s Paris selection for Proust, copyright John Haynes 2007