Sunday, February 19, 2012

What is it to you how Ruskin feels: feel for yourself

In his Preface to La Bible d'Amiens, Proust writes:

When we work in order to please others, we may fail to succeed, but the things we have done to satisfy ourselves always have a chance of interesting someone else.

Here Proust is referring to his attraction to Ruskin's writings as a whole; he might also have been writing about the effect of the long discipline of À la recherche du temps perdu (in fact at that time yet to be begun) on the readers of the future, which the narrator Marcel anticipates near the end of the last volume when he declares that the work of a writer is 'a sort of optical instrument which he offers to the reader so that he may discern in the book what he would probably not have seen in himself': the work as a physical conduit of thoughts:

...because what emerged from one man's thought can alone one day capture another thought, which in turn has fascinated ours.

In both this Preface to La Bible d'Amiens and his Preface to Sésame et les Lys, Proust struggles to understand what reading is, and more specifically, what was for him a significant but very nearly overwhelming experience: the writings of Ruskin. To the reader of Proust, who, even as she might discount these observations about a writer now thoroughly out of fashion, worries about the effect on her own writing of the rolling clauses of À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust's analysis and dismissal of this anxiety of influence near the end of the earlier Preface is peculiarly comforting:

Admiration for a thought... gives rise to beauty at each step because at each moment it rouses in us the desire for it. Mediocre people generally believe that to let oneself be guided by books one admires takes away some of one's independence of judgment. "What is it to you how Ruskin feels: feel for yourself." Such an opinion rests on a psychological error that will be treated as it deserves by all those who, having thus adopted an intellectual discipline, feel that their power to understand and feel is infinitely increased and their critical sense never paralyzed. We are then simply in a state of grace in which all our faculties, our critical sense as much as our other senses, are strengthened. Therefore, this voluntary servitude is the beginning of freedom. There is no better way of becoming aware of one's feelings than to try to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought, together with his, that we bring to light. We are free in life, but subject to purpose: the sophism of freedom of indifference was picked apart long ago. The writer who constantly creates a void in his mind, thinking to free it from any external influence in order to be sure of remaining individual, yields unwittingly to a sophism just as naive. Actually the only times when we truly have all our powers of mind are those when we do not believe ourselves to be acting with independence, when we do not arbitrarily choose the goal of our efforts. The subject of the novelist, the vision of the poet, the truth of the philosopher are imposed on them in a manner almost inevitable, exterior, so to speak, to their thought. And it is by subjecting his mind to the expression of this vision and to the approach of this truth that the artist becomes truly himself.

Thus we have the happy paradox of becoming ourselves only as we become obsessed with the work of another (and perhaps even start to imitate this other, as Orhan Pamuk might add: there is much of Proust in Pamuk), and as a result of which 'our critical sense' is not engulfed but 'strengthened' -- an unexpected bonus. Certainly, Proust is serious in his cool analysis of what he calls 'idolatry' in the work of his beloved Ruskin. In the Preface to La Bible d'Amiens, Proust presses him hard: this Ruskin who, he finds, is too guilty of idolising the objects he describes to be entirely perfect; who occasionally writes sentences thinking more about the cadence of the words in their series than any precision of meaning. It is an issue that Proust continues to pursue in his Preface to Sésame et les Lys, where he analyses the temptation of the 'literary man' who, instead of realising that reading 'is at the threshold of spiritual life; it can introduce us to it; it does not constitute it':

...reads for reading's sake, to retain what he has read. For him, the book is not the angel that flies away as soon as he has opened the doors of the celestial garden, but a motionless idol, which he adores for itself, which, instead of receiving a true dignity from the thoughts it awakens, communicates an artificial dignity to everything that surrounds it.

He describes the general temptation to make a fetish of the subject matter of a much loved piece of artwork or book:

"Take us," we would like to be able to say to Maeterlinck, to Madame de Noailles, "to the garden of Zealand where the 'out-of-fashion flowers grow,' on the road perfumed 'with clover and Saint John's Wort'..."

These objects might seem to project an almost holy literary significance in themselves when, 'in reality', as Proust goes on to argue, 'it is mere chance acquaintance or family ties, which, giving them the opportunity to travel or reside near them, have made Madame de Noailles, Maeterlinck, Millet, Claude Monet choose to paint that road, that garden, that field, that river bend, rather than others.' There is, however, a great irony in all this: Proust himself seems only to have ever travelled in his life so as to be able to see the world through the eyes of Ruskin, unless it was in pursuit of another idol: a lover; Proust perhaps the greatest idoliser of all. And yet it is clear from the body of his writings that, should he now happen to catch sight of tourists sampling the crumbs of a madeleine dunked in tea with bewildered concentration in Illiers-Combray -- this town-sized fetish, far bigger and more established than any road or field according to Madame de Noailles, and long outlasting any residue of Ruskinian interest in the Cathedral of Amiens -- this part of him would groan aloud.

Proust's many years of work on Ruskin's writings, both as translator and commentator, is often described in terms of one long procrastination, with his mother's far too forceful encouragement, at the expense of the 'real' work of À la recherche du temps perdu -- a distraction from which only his mother's death could save him -- but it is in fact impossible to envisage his ever being able to write such a work without this impassioned engagement with the other's writings, and the inevitable disillusionment as his 'critical sense' came alive. The struggle with the temptations of idolatry -- which he notices in his own relationship to reading Ruskin as well as in the work itself -- provides the structural frame of La Recherche: the temptations and weaknesses and partial realisations of Swann and the temptations, weaknesses and more clearly realised conclusions of Marcel, which will lead, it is implied, to the production of the actual book we are reading -- a literary Mobius band: a 'sort of optical instrument' with which we, impassioned readers as well, might see not only what he means but what in fact we mean ourselves.