Saturday, September 30, 2006

Art and Life and Proust

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles

I have recently come across a beautiful passage from Proust on the relationship of art and life. It is a passage on Vinteuil's sonata, the famous sonata from which comes the "little phrase" that was so important to Swann as he fell in love with Odette. Now it's the narrator who is thinking about its significance.

This is what he thinks: upon encountering a new work of art -- "new" meaning something recent that departs from established methods and schools -- we can't understand it immediately. We don't have the background to make sense of it; it seems foreign and chaotic, and maybe ugly. We can't analyze it -- break it into parts -- because we can't get a grasp of the entire thing in order to understand its structure. When we do begin to appreciate the new work of art, we don't appreciate the right things:

Not only does one not immediately discern a work of rare quality; but even within such a work, as happened to me with the Vinteuil sonata, it is always the least precious parts that one notices first.

When we finally understand the work more fully, those things we valued at the beginning of the process, we have now forgotten. And here is his conclusion:

Because it was only in successive stages that I could love what the sonata brought to me, I was never able to possess it in its entirely -- it was an image of life.

If we were to possess life entirely, it would have to be from the perspective of death, wouldn't it? Otherwise, we are always changing and so can't possess a thing in flux. But because we are changing constantly, our understanding of art is constantly changing, so we can't possess the work of art either. Art isn't so much a way of getting life to stand still as it is a way of charting its movement.

Proust elaborates:

But the great works of art are also less of a disappointment than life, in that their best parts do not come first. In the Vinteuil sonata, the beauties one discovers soonest are also those which pall soonest, a double effect with a single cause: they are the parts that most resemble other works, with which one is already familiar. But when those parts have receded, we can still be captivated by another phrase, which, because its shape was too novel to let our mind see anything there but confusion, had been made undetectable and kept intact; and the phrase we passed by every day unawares, the phrase which had withheld itself, which by the sheet power of its own beauty had become invisible and remained unknown to us, is the one that comes to us last of all. But it will also be the last one we leave. We shall love it longer than the others, because we took longer to love it.

I like what this says about art; I'm not sure I like what it says about life. About art, this tells me that some of the greatest pleasures to be had are those I have to wait and work for. It tells me, as I think about my post from a couple days ago, that pleasure and effort and patience are not opposed. If I stick with a difficult and bewildering work of art, it will begin to reveal beauties to me.

About life, Proust implies that the best parts come first, that we have the greatest access to beauty when we are young. I'm not sure I like this because I find it depressing, and also because I'm not sure it's true. Perhaps we have more intense experiences of life when we are young -- perhaps -- but surely the nature of one's experiences become deeper and more complex. Surely there is beauty in life that witholds itself until we have been patient long enough to see it revealed.


Blogger Alan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

By coincidence just before I read your post I read this passage in Michael Dirda's Book by Book: "This is why rereading is so important. Once we know the plot and its surprises, we can appreciate a book's artistry without the usual confusion and sap flow of emotion...Rather than surrender to the story or the characters...we can now look at how the book works..and begin to appreciate its mortise work and craftmanship...Only then does a work of art fully live."

I think it goes well with what Proust is saying about art. I think it says something of life too, though not in agreement with Proust. When we are young it is the intensity of emotion and life's plot and surprises that matter most. As we age we are more able to move beyond that to something that is deeper and richer, and as Alan suggests, more complex. I don't think we can ever truly possess a work of art or a life in its entirety. You are right in saying because we always change what we see in the work changes too. We can't even possess it from the standpoint of a memory because even our memories change over time, though I'm not sure if Proust would agree with that.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

That's a great quotation from Dirda, and it does relate to what Proust is saying. I like what you say about life's plot being interesting when we are young, and about memory's uncertainty.

7:01 PM  
Blogger AC said...

I like the Dirda quote, too. I don't think, though, that it necessarily has to do with age. After all, as more time goes by, you're more likely to discover something new about a work you once found familiar. And even if you do experience some of the best parts of life early on, you only grow to recognize them as such and appreciate them later on.

It's a reflexive thought. The more I think about Proust and ISoLT, the more I infatuated I become.

11:04 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

I don't know what happened to my earlier contribution.....and I am afraid Proust has been put aside this last day or two in favour of the unputdownable THE THIRTEENTH TALE by by Diane Setterfield. Buy it it immediately. Back to Marcel this week.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Ludo said...

Dear avid readers

I am an avid reader of Proust myself and now at my third round through the "Recherche". I was intrigued by one of you saying that he was sidetracked by Richard Ford, an author I also admire. So I wonder if some of you had some reading advice for someone like me liking this couple.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

Call me impressed Ludo! Third time through is fantastic. I have not read Richard Ford before. Was it Quillhill or maybe Dorothy that mentioned it? If they don't comment here for you, then our names on the side are linked to our blogs where most of us have our email addresses listed.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

I hope the group will forgive my intrusion, but as fellow Proustians I thought you might be interested in my new book 'Who's Who in Proust' which describes some 50 of the major characters in "In Search of Lost Time." Please visit - you may find it worthwhile. Thank you.

10:12 AM  

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