Proust doesn’t often do tenderness: he is as ruthless with his readers as he is with the unmasking of his characters. He does sentimentality, but then some of us know that sentimentality masks sadism and Proust is a creative if deadly sadist, which is also what makes him such a corrosive witted satirist. The nearest he comes to tenderness is through his observations of Nature but even then he’s carrying out an autopsy as his eye dissects any object only to expose a time lost iridescence. ‘Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature. Life in this sense dwells within all ordinary people as much as in the artist. But they do not see it because they are not trying to shed light on it.’ Proust.
Finishing Finding Time Again on Friday was traumatic and I’ve only just recovered from vertiginous sensations of inspiration and despair at my own mortality. I think that the first time around I read the masked ball sequence I couldn’t have been ready to embody – and that is what Proust asks his reader to do, to embody and not observe or applaude art – the physical impact on my own descending mortality of Time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour. How can one read Proust’s dissection of mortality without Shakespeare’s monument to time chiming into consciousness?
Proust makes it clear that there can be no escape from the masked ball of time and organic decay and it’s my guess that he would see our present day obsessions with Botox, liposuction and cosmetic lasers as futile cul de sacs of vanity. Although, that’s not to say he might not have recourse to them himself. As he describes, the longer anyone remains looking ‘Good for their age’, the worse is that final descent into their failure of helplessness, sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything. Yes, everything, except perhaps time, wears out.
Oh, Heavens, I could write for hours on my experiences of reading Proust but I wanted to write about other things, like falling in love, even in its non refulgent state, with the young maple sapling my landscape gardening friend, Special Branch bought me last Wednesday. Its full name is Acer Palmatum Westonbirt Red. When Special Branch left Westonbirt Aboretum he told me that the sapling was still in an open-leaved crimson glory. He had a shock when he opened his van for by the time they had made the short journey to London its maple sensibility had been compromised and its leaved tendrils were contracted into what might be described as an arthritic screetch of bruised agony.
Its demise provided me with an example of what Proust is always writing about: ‘because at that moment when I perceived it, my imagination, which was my only organ for the enjoyment of beauty, could not be applied to it, by virtue of the inevitable law, which means that one can only imagine what object is absent’. Now, I could not perceive, but only imagine, what my sapling had looked like before it went into shock and I shall have to wait for another year to pass before it finds its time again.
I don’t think there’s going to be much time today to write about finding the experience of things, but I have almost caught up with my Proust reading partner who has embarked on William James, The Variety of Religious Experience without waiting for me to finish Proust, (and it’s possible that he only finished first because my handbag was stolen and I didn’t have any reading glasses for a week and my brain anyhow felt like punctured seaweed).There are two thoughts that have come to me from James’ first lecture. First of all I should declare that even though I am an experienced psychotherapist I am also still a neurotic, but in Proust and James’ company that’s no bad thing to be. And, there is a caveat: I am a conscious neurotic and it’s in unconsciousness that the cliff falls of much of our un-deciphered neuroticism and depressive sufferings reside.
I adored James’ image of religion as a perversion of the respiratory function. The Bible is full of the language of respiratory oppression: ‘Hide not thine ear at my breathing; my groaning is not hid from thee, my heart panteth, my strength faileth me; my bones are hot with the roaring all night long; as the heart panteth after the water brooks, so my soul panteth after thee, O my God.’ And, as James goes on to say, the foundation in many non-Christian countries of all religious discipline consists in the regulation of inspiration and expiration. It might also be true to say that these two involuntary and mainly unconscious acts are, when brought into mindfulness, also at the foundations of psychological health.
We can never escape our breathing, after all it’s the first and last thing that any of us ever do, our greatest commonality, and yet too many people expend their lives forgetting that they breathe. Not only is its perversion the loadstone of James’ metaphor, its health is also the foundation of any meditation. In the search to understand beyond the mechanics of consciousness more and more neurobiologists and psychologists are being drawn towards the study of meditative practices and the conscious orientation of our bodily dimensions. Children need to be taught how to orientate themselves in space, to use their body compasses of cognition.
Perhaps, we need to return to Leonardo. Of all of Leonardo’s known discoveries, his discovery of the cause of heart disease through a build up of cholesterol could have saved millions of lives. This would have happened if his discoveries were ever taken seriously at the time and published by his peers. Leonardo had worked out that a substance carried though the blood and produced by what we eat imbeds itself in the arteries and blocks natural blood flow.
Like Proust we need to remember to look forward and backwards.