Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A mobile sense of self

I feel the same trepidation that Dorothy experienced when writing up her first post on Proust; what consoles me is that the rest of you will be not only understanding if my post rambles and fails to connect, but perhaps can even help me reach the conclusion I'm striving for!

I've just finished reading Part One, which terminated in the infamous and shockingly violent scene with the madeleine. Throughout those first sixty or so pages, I watched out for the interplay between memory, dreams and active thought, trying to codify their relationship to each other. Not sure I got very far, but here are my thoughts:

Involuntary memory isn't just activated by objects, but by any kind of external stimuli. In the very first paragraph, there's a fascinating line where the narrator actually identifies with the immediate subject of his book, becoming of all things a church or a quartet. Self, and one's sense of self, can be disarmed by the power of dreams, by memory, by any strong sense of dislocation resulting from either being ambushed by sleep, or by a sleep too deep or potent.

Check out this quote from page 4:
But for me it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was so heavy as completely to relax my consciousness; for then I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, I could not even be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as my lurk and flicker in the depths of the cave-dweller; but then the memory - not yet of the place in which I was, but of the various other places where I had lived and might now very possibly be - would draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped by myself; in a flash I would traverse centuries of civilization, and out of a blurred glimpse of oil-lamps, then of shirts with turned-down collars, would gradually piece together the original components of my ego.
Sense of self is clearly a fragile thing; it can be robbed by simply a deep sleep, or an engrossing dream, or as we later see, sent outside of time (in a sense) by an involuntary memory. When I read these first 60 pages the first time, I chalked up their effusive explorations of random stimuli and domestic memories to Proust's own excitement at starting his book, much like a thorough bred horse will stomp and prance as it seeks to leave the racing gate. But now, looking at it closer, I wonder if it is not all a setup of the themes Proust will explore throughout the rest of the novel.

Another line leaps out at me:

Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else; by the immobility of our conception of them.
Could you somehow reverse this? Perhaps the apparent immobility of our sense of self is forced upon us by the conviction that we are ourselves and not anything else; by the immobility of our self-conception? Could Proust perhaps be seeking to explode this immobility through his recounting of his nocturnal experiences, and demonstrate just how mercurial our sense of self is, liable to be affected not just by our dreams, but by people's perception of whom we are, a la Swann? Thus a thigh can create a woman, a room can dictate our sense of time, and a madeleine can take us back, beyond normal memory, so that we seem to wholly exist within a town of our childhood.


Blogger Michelle said...

I must say that the line that most struck me in Part One of the Combray section was: "our social personality is the creation of the minds of others." I thought about this for quite some time in relation to the characters in the book and in relation to myself.

We know from the text that Swann lives a certain life that the narrators family does not see (or doesn't wish to or can't acknowledge). Even when confronted with evidence of this other life of his they seem to disbelieve it or discredit it. How easy is it, then, for those who see us to alter their view of us (our social personality) when necessary?

For instance, despite the fact that I continue to get older many of my relatives still choose to see me as a child. My social personality in relation to some of them seems to be in a state of arrested development.

Is it easier for one to alter his/her conception of self or for others to alter their perception of one?

7:20 AM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

I believe you are on to something here! That line about the immobility of things caught my attention too but I didn't manage to connect it back to everything else.

The narrator's sense of self is very fluid and is never just one thing. It seems Michelle sort of gets at the immobility part of it with the quote about Swann. The immobility of objects and self is imposed from the outside, "forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else; by the immobility of our conception of them." It doesn't seem like the narrator locks down his own identity which remains fluid, but is saying that it is locked down by others who put us in a box and won't let us out even when evidence prooves their view of us is wrong.

I will definitely start paying more attention to the whole identity thing now. I am interested to see what Proust does with it. Good post you've done!

8:16 AM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

Your post makes a lot of sense to me -- Proust explores the fluidity of identity through our relationship to objects, to other people, to dreams, to sleep. Sense of self is fragile, but there's also hope and possibility here -- we can change our identities, our self-perceptions, perhaps the way others perceive us. And similarly we can begin to change the way we see others and other objects. Lots of room for exploration and play.

9:40 AM  

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