Thursday, August 03, 2006

The reading experience

Proust has an extraordinary passage in the Combray section of Swann’s Way (p. 86-88 in the Davis translation) on the pleasures of reading, where he traces the levels of experience and sensation he undergoes as he reads. First, though, he considers the relationship of the mind to the world outside the mind:

And wasn’t my mind also like another crib in the depths of which I felt I remained ensconced, even in order to watch what was happening outside? When I saw an external object, my awareness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, lining it with a thin spiritual border that prevented me from ever directly touching its substance; it would volatize in some way before I could make contact with it, just as an incandescent body brought near a wet object never touches its moisture because it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation.
We have no real contact with the world; our consciousness of it is everything. This calls into question what the “real” is. If our perceptions of the world outside the mind take place in the mind, then what is the difference between having an image in our minds taken from a book and having one taken from the scene in front of our eyes? It’s all image:

All the feelings we are made to experience by the joy or the misfortune of a real person are produced in us only through the intermediary of an image of that joy or that misfortune; the ingeniousness of the first novelist consisted in understanding that in the apparatus of our emotions, the image being the only
essential element, the simplification that would consist in purely and simply abolishing real people would be a decisive improvement.
I’m not sure what to think of this, exactly; it recalls an earlier question of mine about the value of the world outside the mind: is he belittling it, or failing to see it? Is there really no difference between the real world and the imagined world? His focus on the means of perception seems to imply, sometimes, that everything is mind and we have access to nothing beyond the mind. Yet Proust is wonderful at evoking the feeling of what it’s like to be in the world, so I don’t think he’s belittling it. Paradoxically, a heightened awareness of the mind accompanies, in Proust, a heightened awareness of the world outside the mind. Awareness of the mind doesn’t become solipsistic; it seems to lead to a greater interest in what lies beyond it.

Proust then charts the workings of his mind as he reads, working from the inside, where all the action really takes place, outward. He begins with the innermost level, which is:

my belief in the philosophical richness and the beauty of the book I was reading, and my desire to appropriate them for myself, whatever the book might be.
His reading begins with desire – desire for truth and beauty. After this come “the emotions aroused in me by the action in which I was taking part” – the emotions evoked by the story itself. This is a particularly intense form of experience; the author:

provokes in us within one hour all possible happinesses and all possible unhappinesses just a few of which we would spend years of our lives coming to know and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slowness with which they occur prevents us from perceiving them.

Reading offers the chance to pursue truth and beauty and also experience in a more intense form than we might find elsewhere. Proust’s narrator finds himself caught up in the experiences of characters who seem as real to him as real people. Next:

Already less interior to my body than these lives of the characters, next came, half projected in front of me, the landscape in which the action unfolded and which exerted on my thoughts a much greater influence than the other, the one I
had before my eyes when I lifted them from the book.
When fully absorbed in reading, we find that the landscape of the book becomes more real than wherever we may be sitting with our book in hand. The narrator is in Combray, but he might find himself homesick for mountains from a distant land. Finally,

Continuing to trace from the inside to the outside these states simultaneously juxtaposed in my consciousness, and before reaching the real horizon that enveloped them, I find pleasures of another kind, the pleasure of being comfortably seated, of smelling the good scent of the air, of not being disturbed by a visit ….
He finally comes to world he actually exists in, and is aware of the sensations of his own body. And that is the narrator’s description of reading – a jumble of feeling, image, and sensation. When reading, the narrator holds together in his mind many different levels of experience, different places, different emotions, different people, different realities.


Blogger Stefanie said...

I love that section about reading and have been mulling over a way to write about it since I read it. I haven't found a way in, but I am glad you did.

I read the part about the intermediary image to mean that there is a separation between an emotion that comes from our own experience and one we experience via some other form, like a novel. The image is not the original emotion, but a recreation of it. He play with outer and inner so much in this section and has some interesting things to say, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around all of it.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

Yeah, I'm trying to wrap my mind around it too -- I find it fascinating, especially as its connecting a bit with the Elaine Scarry book I'm reading. He seems to me to be saying that the emotion we experience from reading a novel isn't so different from the emotion we experience when observing a real person -- that we convert it all into an image and understand the two cases in similar ways.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

And yeah, what you say makes sense -- the our own emotions differ in kind from the emotions we imagine in others -- we recreate what we think others are feeling -- whether they are real people or novel characters.

7:29 PM  

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