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Tag: proust

Proust: In Search of the Present

I noted long ago a common misconception about Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Put simply, people seem to think that the “lost time” of the title denotes the past, but in fact it denotes the present. More specifically, it implies a present that is present to itself in all its plenitude. So why, you might ask, was there all this talk of involuntary memory? Why care so much about memory if what you really want is a full present? It is my thesis that it was not involuntary memory as such that interested Proust, but rather the problem of narrating the atemporal plenitude which that memory implied. In short, Proust raised to the level of a literary phenomenology the split between Erzählzeit (time of narrating)and erzählte Zeit (narrated time).

Let us take the example of the famous “madeleine” scene. This is the scene that everybody knows – even those who have never read the book. According to common wisdom, it is the prime example of Proust’s concern with recovering a lost past. I claim, on the contrary, that this passage is a literary exemplification of the temporal dislocation of the phenomenological “now”.

The scene begins when Marcel’s mother (i.e., the narrator’s mother, not the real Marcel Proust) sends out for the little “madeleine” cakes. He “mechanically” raises the tea-spoon to his lips on which crumbs of the madeleine are soaked in tea. The moment the concoction touches his palate, he is invaded by an “extraordinary” pleasure. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to discover the source of this pleasure. Important for our purposes are the tenses Proust uses throughout the passage. It begins in the traditional French storytelling tense, the passé simple. But as soon as the unattended pleasure sets in, the tenses alternate between passé simple and the pluperfect. The first tense implies a conventional relation between the “now” of the act of narration and the “now” of the story’s present. But the use of the pluperfect adds a temporal depth: it produces a time-lag internal to the storyworld itself between the “now” of the character’s reflection and the “now” of a previous act or experience. Thus, when we read

Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause.

we are confronted with three tenses. The passé simple (toucha, tressaillis) produces a clear relation between the time of narration (the time in which toucha is uttered) and narrated time (the actual event that happened in the past). The imperfect (se passait)  implies an ongoing state of affairs (a happening through time). The pluperfect (m’avait envahi), however, indicates the character’s reflection – within the narrated time – on what has just happened to him – also within the narrated time. So here we have a narrator telling us about his past self and what this past self was itself thinking about its own immediately past self. Throughout the rest of this paragraph, the shift is always between: a) present of narration/ present of the narrated and b) the present of the narrated/ present of a past narrated.

But the real temporal confusion (as if it wasn’t confusing enough already) arises when the tense switches to the present: Je bois une seconde gorgée où je ne trouve rien de plus que dans la première, une troisième qui m’apporte un peu moins que la seconde. What is the ontological status of this present (bois, trouve)? We know from the context that this present must be the present of narrated time, but the interweaving presence of the time of narration can still be felt. The past present is haunted by the present present, such that the present seems neither truly past nor completely present. The ambiguous status of this time is only compounded when (the past) Marcel tries to force himself to “retrograde his thought” to its initial configuration prior to having eaten the madeleine.

The ambiguity comes to a head in the following sentence:

Arrivera-t-il jusqu’à la surface de ma claire conscience, ce souvenir, l’instant ancien que l’attraction d’un instant identique est venue de si loin solliciter, émouvoir, soulever tout au fond de moi ? Je ne sais. Maintenant je ne sens plus rien…

It is precisely this maintenant, this “now”, which is at the heart of Proust’s entire project. The “now” in which he does not know and no longer feels anything (Je ne sais…je ne sens plus rien) brings to consciousness for the reader, almost in spite of itself, the not-yet-forgotten “now” of the time of narration: i.e., that time in which it is quite clear that Marcel does know because he’s about to tell us! What we have here can only be described as something like the zero degree of that hairline fracture which prevents the “I” from ever coinciding with itself: the split that forever separates the I-utterer from the I-uttered. It is a split internal to the “now” as such, one which means that the present can never present itself without simultaneously absenting itself.

It should thus come as no surprise that when the Marcel of narrated time finally remembers whence he knows this taste, the narration immediately switches to the passé composé tense: Et tout d’un coup le souvenir m’est apparu. Why the past perfect and not the passé simple? Both tenses seal off the presentness of a past, but the past perfect implies more of an ongoing relation to the present than the passé simple could ever muster. In other words, the past perfect voids the presentness of apparition (an index of the impossibility of the self-present “now”) whilst trying to mask the rift between Erzählzeit and erzählte Zeit (given that it could be used in either). In short, the act of remembrance never actually presents itself.

À la Recherche is full of such failed nows; it is for this reason that the “lost time” of the title denotes the present and not the past.

(I am grateful to Andrew Kahn for pointing out two errors in a previous version of this blog post).

The Biblical Alex Ferguson

For someone not raised as a practising Christian, a first encounter with the Bible is almost inevitably an anti-climax. If you’re used to reading realist or modernist novels, whose complex hypotactical sentence-structures go unnoticed because they are the very life-blood of what you think of as ‘normal writing’; and if you have even the slightest inkling of the world-historical importance attributed to the disparate texts which make up the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the countless millions who have dedicated their entire lives to them, who have loved, lost and died for them, then the sheer sparseness of Biblical prose is one big disappointment:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

It’s not exactly Tolstoy is it? “Jesus came from Nazareth” – yes, but how? Did he walk, ride a donkey, catch a lift? What was the weather like? What exactly was he wearing? What was his mood? What did he eat for breakfast before he came? What about that annoying splinter in his finger – surely an occupational hazard for any self-respecting carpenter – and what about its symbolic value? And what about God’s “with you I am well pleased” – he could at least sound a little bit enthusiastic! Yet these questions don’t seem to bother pre-modern writers very much, and hence to a modern – or even postmodern – ear they sound simple, naïve, almost childish. (Schiller would have much to say on a topic not a million miles from this…).

For the non-Christian modern reader of the Bible then, just as for the modern reader of almost any medieval or ancient text, the problem is to acclimatize oneself to the resonances of a pared down, paratactic prose. Proust’s language resounds, of course, but not quite in the same way as the two-word “Jesus wept.” The sheer emotional intensity which these premodern words are forced to bear is sometimes mind-blowing. But it can only become so once the reader develops a sense for the depth of significance behind phrases which appear superficially bare, once she has become accustomed to a type of language whose importance resides, not in the profundity of individual sentences, but in the overall moral project of which they are a part.

I was surprised to note, then, that this type of pre-modern or Biblical prose has survived in the unlikeliest of places: football-speak. Take these lines from an interview with Alex Ferguson at the weekend:

I don’t think we have a major problem with Rio […] He has been with us eight years now and has been fantastically consistent, top class. He is still one of the best footballers in the country in terms of using the ball, he can still tackle, he can still head and he still has a great presence.

The first half of this extract belies its modernity: the adverb ‘fantastically’ is a give away, as is the apposition ‘top class’. But the second sentence is interesting: ‘he can still tackle, he can still head and he still has a great presence’. For someone who is not a football fan, these might seem strange words of praise; surely, they would say to themselves, 99% of people who play football even in the school playground can tackle and head the ball. They might not be good at it, but they can do it. ‘Great presence’ is presumably rarer, but just vague enough that we could imagine quite a few non-professional players who possess it. The point, of course, is that Ferguson is not just neutrally stating that Rio Ferdinand can tackle and head the ball: he’s mustering all of his managerial authority, drawing on the vast unconscious reservoirs of football history and of football fans’ unspoken presuppositions to make his words mean something like ‘Rio Ferdinand is a superlative defender, an embodiment of the virtuous football player who fulfils the objectives of his position’. This is the meaning which ‘resonates’ in and through the words he actually utters.

It is in this precise sense that football-speak and Biblical language are not worlds apart. They are both merely elements of a whole set of cultural and emotional practices. They are part of a whole way of life and only make sense in that context.

Proust and Derrida: Part III – Proust’s Aesthetic Theory

See Part I and Part II.

Proust’s Aesthetic Theory

Except, of course, that it cannot. To think the event and the machine together is unthinkable, despite it being possible to suggest the preconditions for what that thought would entail. To think them together would require a world in which there were no signs, in which the simple structure of re-presentation (‘a stands for b’) did not exist. It would be pure, undifferentiated presence: absolute life and absolute death.[1] Nonetheless, to adapt a concept of Lacan’s, the ‘subject supposed to think the event and machine together’ does make an appearance in Proust – quit literally in Marcel. He speaks of the experience of involuntary memory thus:

…au vrai, l’être qui alors goûtait en moi cette impression la goûtait en ce qu’elle avait de commun dans un jour ancien et maintenant, dans ce qu’elle avait d’extra-temporel, un être qui n’apparaissait que quand par une de ces identités entre le présent et le passé, il pouvait se trouver dans le seul milieu où il put vivre, jouir de l’essence, des choses, c’est-à-dire en dehors du temps. Cela expliquait que mes inquiétudes au sujet de ma mort eussent cessé au moment où j’avais reconnu, inconsciemment, le goût de la petite madeleine puisqu’à ce moment-là l’être que j’avais été était un être extra-temporel, par conséquent insoucieux des vicissitudes de l’avenir. Cet être-là n’était jamais venu à moi, ne s’était jamais manifesté, qu’en dehors de l’action, de la jouissance immédiate, chaque fois que le miracle d’une analogie m’avait fait échapper au présent. Seul il avait le pouvoir de me faire retrouver les jours anciens, le Temps Perdu, devant quoi les efforts de ma mémoire et de mon intelligence échouaient toujours. (RTP, p. 2266 ; italics mine)

We must be rigorous in our reading of this passage. The narrator never experiences Lost Time. It is a being that arises in him which is said to ‘taste’ the impression of eternity; he is not the agent, the being is. But this is immediately contradicted in the crucial phrase concerning the madeleine: ‘l’être que j’avais été était un être extra-temporel’. So many permutations of ‘être’! The being that he had been was an extra-temporal being: so the ‘being who tasted in me’ was him after all. Or was it ‘had been’? ‘Was’ it him or ‘had it been’ him? The discrepancy between the pluperfect and the imperfect – a ‘perfectly common’ discrepancy, as Albertine might say – highlights the fracture inherent to the inviolable solitude of the self. The being that is said to have tasted the joy of Lost Time never did so, because at the time – the time supposedly without time – he did not know what it was he was tasting: it had no meaning. (Study the tenses of the famous madeleine scene and you will see that the initial pleasure is described in the pluperfect, then the initial attempt to discover its source in the imperfect, followed by further attempts to discern its origin in the present tense; the moment the memory manifests itself – ‘Et tout d’un coup…’ – the tense changes instantaneously to the passé composé).[2] Now, however, the narrator can retroactively project a meaning onto it, and this retroactivity is signalled by the ‘était’. As Marcel later admits, involuntary memory is a ‘subterfuge’ (RTP, p. 2266).

The relation of these observations to Husserl and cliché become more apparent in the following passage:

Une minute affranchie de l’ordre du temps a recréé en nous pour la sentir l’homme affranchi de l’ordre du temps. Et celui-là on comprend qu’il soit confiant dans sa joie, même si le simple goût d’une madeleine ne semble pas contenir logiquement les raisons de cette joie, on comprend que le mot de « mort » n’ait pas de sens pour lui; situé hors du temps, que pourrait-il craindre de l’avenir? (RTP, p. 2267)

Proust on his deathbed, by Paul César Helleu

It is the minute itself which is freed from the order of time, rather as the recurring dark rooms are freed from the order of sociality. The former produces ‘in us’ the ‘man freed from the order of time’; the latter produces the ‘real me’. For this man, the word ‘death’ has no sense: ‘situated outside time, what could he fear of the future?’ There are two ways of reading this. Firstly, it is a recognition that temporal beings – those ‘inside’ time – are beings-toward-death, that being temporal is to be mortal. Secondly, and more interestingly, it is not simply that death is inside time, but also that meaning is inside time. This man freed from time can know nothing of the meaning of ‘death’ because meaning requires a future, a ‘to come’ [avenir], the arrival of an other, the self-differing, self-deferring presence of the present. In other words, as Derrida demonstrated only too clearly, the conditions of possibility of meaning are coextensive with the conditions of possibility of death. To be able to mean is to be-towards-death. It is no surprise, then, that the simple taste of the madeleine ‘does not seem logically to contain the reasons for this joy’: because logic, too, is temporal – indeed, as we have seen, it has many times and many speeds.  This man freed from time arises in the gap between the ‘was’ and the ‘had been’, between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the enunciated.  Proust seems to prophecy Lacan’s famous reformulation of the Cartesian cogito: ‘I think where I am not, therefore I am where I think not’. Lost Time can only be accessed via the man freed from time who is our proxy; original, pure time, like the sun, like the total reading, like Albertine, cannot be experienced in immediate presence. The reason being that immediate presence does not exist: the various chains of proxies and substitutions, these diverse machines, generate the holograph of pure present events, just as clichés produce the fantasy of an original.

In order to establish which of these fleeting sensations are authentic, since these are the ones Marcel hopes to ‘stabilise’ in a work of art, he devises criteria by which to judge their authenticity:

Leur [les sensations] premier caractère était que je n’étais pas libre de les choisir qu’elles m’étaient données telles quelles. Et je sentais que ce devait être la griffe de leur authenticité … Mais justement la façon fortuite, inévitable, dont la sensation avait été rencontrée, contrôlait la vérité du passé qu’elle ressuscitait, des images qu’elle déclenchait, puisque nous sentons son effort pour remonter vers la lumière, que nous sentons la joie du réel retrouvé. (RTP, p. 2272)

Having supposedly escaped the order of time, we enter the order of authenticity. The difference between voluntary and involuntary memory is one of chance and volition: the latter is constituted by undergoing unforeseen fortuity, the former by performing willed and conscious retrieval. How is authenticity established? Fortuity is its mark or stamp [griffe], and it controls, surveys or monitors [contrôlait] the truth of the past which the sensation resuscitates. Consequently, two governing logics of experience are instituted: the logic governing activity and passivity, and, within the latter, the logic governing authenticity and non-authenticity. Together they combine to produce a trace, a stamp which has about it the air of a factory quality assurance test.[3] It is the absolute antithesis of Husserlian truth, for whom these traces would have been condemned to the outer reaches of ‘mere indication’ thanks to their lack of intentional Bedeutung. Marcel continues:

De quelque idée laissée en nous par la vie qu’il s’agisse, sa figure matérielle, trace de l’impression qu’elle nous a faite, est encore le gage de sa vérité nécessaire. Les idées formées par l’intelligence pure n’ont qu’une vérité logique, une vérité possible, leur élection est arbitraire. Le livre aux caractères figurés, non tracés par nous est notre seul livre. (RTP, ibid.)

Above, it was the givenness-mark which signified authenticity. Here, it is the material figure which life leaves in us. What must be emphasised is that as soon as it becomes a matter of distinguishing the active from the passive, the arbitrary from the necessary, figures appear. There where you expect to have reached truth, authenticity, presence, the sun, or Albertine, you are confronted by a further signifier. Every origin is always already supplemented.

At the outset, we observed that one method of masking this fact was to let the play of figures seduce the reading mind. A second method, this time overtly stated and central to Proust’s literary aesthetic, is style:

On peut faire se succéder indéfiniment dans une description les objets qui figuraient dans le lieu décrit, la vérité ne commencera qu’au moment où l’écrivain prendra deux objets différents, posera leur rapport, analogue dans le monde de l’art à celui qu’est le rapport unique de la loi causale dans le monde de la science, et les enfermera dans les anneaux nécessaires d’un beau style. Même, ainsi que la vie, quand en rapprochant une qualité commune à deux sensations, il dégagera leur essence en les réunissant l’une et l’autre pour les soustraire aux contingences du temps, dans une métaphore. (RTP, p. 2280)

A style which imitates voluntary memory simply by taking ‘snapshots’ [instantanées] of disconnected objects or sensations is devoid of eternity and necessity. It is a simple mechanical registration of data. (It is precisely this aspect which the narrator’s grandmother dislikes about photography – RTP, p. 41). But one which takes two objects and founds their relation is a style which achieves the timelessness of metaphor.[4] The problem with this, as we briefly noted above, is that voluntary memory achieves precisely such timelessness without making any connection – indeed, all connections are suppressed (RTP, p. 686). Which would suggest that voluntary memory and involuntary memory are not quite so alien to one another as first imagined. These issues become a little clearer in what follows:

La vraie vie, la vie enfin découverte et éclaircie, la seule vie par conséquent pleinement vécue, c’est la littérature. Cette vie qui, en un sens, habite à chaque instant chez tous les hommes aussi bien que chez l’artiste. Mais ils ne la voient pas, parce qu’ils ne cherchent pas à l’éclaircir. Et ainsi leur passé est encombré d’innombrables clichés qui restent inutiles parce que l’intelligence ne les a pas “développés”. (RTP, pp. 2284-2285)

Literature is uncovered, true and clarified life. And this true life is ‘in a sense’ in all men, but only artists see it because only they seek to illuminate it. Yet if true, uncovered and clarified life-literature is in all of us, then why does it require illumination? How can one illuminate an already clarified life? (Behind this logic one can sense looming those two surreal phantoms: the dark room, which is always infiltrated by a ray of light, and the ‘éclair au café’, a lightning flash pregnant with a ray of shadow.) And how can literature be true life when a few pages later he writes: ‘un livre est un grand cimetière où sur la plupart des tombes on ne peut plus lire les noms effacés’ (RTP, p. 2287)? The answer suggests itself here:

En somme, cet art si compliqué est justement le seul art vivant. Seul il exprime pour les autres et nous fait voir à nous-même notre propre vie, cette vie qui ne peut pas s’”observer”, dont les apparences qu’on observe ont besoin d’être traduites et souvent lues à rebours et péniblement déchiffrées. Ce travail qu’avaient fait notre amour-propre, notre passion, notre esprit d’imitation, notre intelligence abstraite, nos habitudes, c’est ce travail que l’art défera, c’est la marche en sens contraire, le retour aux profondeurs où ce qui a existé réellement gît inconnu de nous, qu’il nous fera suivre. (RTP, p. 2285)

Those abstract habits and imitations which are so mechanical, so deathly, overlay what has ‘really existed’ – presumably the true life which is Literature. But note the telling use of the verb ‘gît’ (‘lies’); it is usually used in the sentence ‘Here lies x’ to designate a grave. Only here what ‘lies’ beneath is Life itself. I see no other way of interpreting this than to say that real Life, the Life resurrected (how suddenly we recall this word appearing at crucial moments in the text!) by involuntary memory, is dead. The Book of Life is simultaneously a graveyard, a place where life is engraved: I am mortal.

[1] Cf. Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, p. 102: ‘A voice without differance, a voice without writing, is at once absolutely alive and absolutely dead.’

[2] RTP, pp. 44-47.

[3] Cf. the flies’ summery music which ‘certified’ the return of summer. See above.

[4] Deleuze interprets this timelessness of metaphor as essence per se in his Proust and Signs, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 47. He will later define pure essence as ‘complication’, which is not a million miles away from Derridean différance.

Proust and Derrida: Part II

Proust MS

(For Part I, see here)


What on earth does all this have to do with clichés? To answer this question we must trace the evolution of the word ‘cliché’ itself, which had three main stages. The word first arose with the advent of stereotype printing. Unlike previous forms of printing, stereotype used type-casts (often made from plaster of Paris) taken from a plate rather than the plate itself. The net effect of this technique was massively to increase productivity and total output rates. ‘Cliché’ was the word French print-workers coined to imitate the sound of the matrix dropping into the molten metal, and it soon became synonymous with the copies themselves. In other words, cliché was originally onomatopoeic. And what is onomatopoeia if not the supposed perfect harmony between sound and sense? Is not Husserl’s concept of expression secretly a glorified extension of this onomatopoeic logic? Onomatopoeia constitutes sealed, impervious phono-monads in which the tessellation of sound and sense is so exact as to deny all alterity; it is an apparent pure presence. Yet, this is the presence which we have just deemed to be impossible: onomatopoeia is no exception to the linguistic economy of sense, in which a signifier has to be repeatable and signifies only via a system of differentiation – which it internalises – from other signifiers. Perhaps more significant in terms of Proust is that cliché or stereotype printing ‘uses not an original plate to make copies, but a copy of the plate; what it produces are thus copies of a copy.’[1] The cliché is originally a simulacrum. There is no original original; like presence, like the summer sun on that glorious Combray afternoon, cliché institutes a trace which has no origin. The structure of the cliché, in other words, is analogous to that of différance, provided that we bear in mind that our differantial logic puts in question the very possibility of analogy. Meanwhile, following its currency in printing circles, ‘cliché’ soon became central to the burgeoning world of photography. Here, it came to be defined thus: ‘Épreuve négative sur support transparent ou translucide obtenue en faisant agir la lumière sur des matières sensibles à l’exposition et à partir de laquelle on peut tirer un grand nombre d’épreuves positives.’[2] Two further aspects of cliché become apparent: firstly, it is a form of material inscription, in the broadest sense a form of writing; secondly, it is synonymous with reproducibility. Given what we have discovered about the importance of écriture and repeatability in Derrida’s interpretation of Husserl, this is not insignificant. Finally, having become associated with mass reproduction, by the late nineteenth century the word assumed its current meaning of a banal common-place, lacking all originality.

Before analyzing some examples of cliché at work in Proust, we must make a brief aside. Following the publication of Spectres de Marx in 1993, Fredric Jameson remarked that something like a logic of Benjaminian constellation was at work in Derrida’s oeuvre, ‘which now makes it possible for him (and for us) to mobilize cross-referencing as a kind of philosophical procedure in its own right, which demonstrates something fundamental about a given concept or motif by exhibiting the various contexts in which it has been able to appear.’[3] I would like to suggest that ‘cliché’ could be added to such a Derridean constellation (alongside those notions of iterability, différance, écriture, the spectral, and so on) though with one proviso: that, in the manner of T. S. Eliot’s Tradition, the new arrival in the constellation retain the capacity to alter the rest. For it is striking that a philosopher as prolific as Derrida, whose writings are saturated with references to the French canon, wrote almost nothing on Proust.[4] Not least since, as I have argued, and as I will demonstrate in more detail below, Proust seems obsessed by the very problematic with which Derrida’s entire career was concerned. I want to suggest that the reason for this absence, which Pierre Macherey following Althusser might have called an ‘eloquent silence’, is that Proust’s denigration of speech to a certain extent (though not completely) resists Derrida’s understanding of Western metaphysics, and that to comprehend this resistance would require a certain historicization for which Derridean deconstruction is not necessarily apt. It will entail thinking about the material conditions which informed the history of style and its relation to the French novel.

But first we must turn to some concrete examples of cliché in À la recherche. The first major occurrence comes in À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs at the moment when the narrator, having longed for what feels like tens of pages to meet Albertine, is finally introduced to her by Elstir:

Au moment où Elstir me demanda de venir pour qu’il me présentât à Albertine, assise un peu plus loin, je finis d’abord de manger un éclair au café et demandai avec intérêt à un vieux monsieur dont je venais de faire connaissance et auquel je crus pouvoir offrir la rose qu’il admirait à ma boutonnière, de me donner des détails sur certaines foires normandes. Ce n’est pas à dire que la présentation qui suivit ne me causa aucun plaisir et n’offrit pas à mes yeux, une certaine gravité. Pour le plaisir, je ne le connus naturellement qu’un peu plus tard, quand, rentré à l’hôtel, resté seul, je fus redevenu moi-même. Il en est des plaisirs comme des photographies. Ce qu’on prend en présence de l’être aimé, n’est qu’un cliché négatif, on le développe plus tard, une fois chez soi, quand on a retrouvé à sa disposition cette chambre noire intérieure dont l’entrée est «condamnée» tant qu’on voit du monde. (RTP, pp. 683-684)

Borges and Derrida, 1985

What is striking about this passage is its structural homology to the scene of reading in the first volume. There, the sun was synonymous with presence, yet we were told – paradoxically – that it was a presence which could only fully present itself via a whole host of protective, supplementary substitutions, since if the narrator had really been outside in the sun, his experience of it would have been merely ‘piecemeal’ [par morceaux]. Here, Albertine is the sun. The narrator has longed for her presence but now that she has arrived he cannot fully enjoy it. Pleasure takes its place in the Proustian hall of fame of inviolable solitude, alongside those other activities which occur in the room at the top of the house which is neither wholly inside nor wholly outside: reading, reverie, crying and masturbation. Only during these activities is the narrator ‘fully himself once more’. Pleasures in the presence of the loved being are like clichés – photographic negatives (cf. Tom McCarthy’s ‘scratching the negative’) – which can only be developed once he has entered his ‘interior dark room’, one which is forbidden to others just as the room at Combray could be locked by key to keep out trespassers of the self. In other words, enjoyment can only be enjoyed in the absence of (the loved one’s) presence; the present must absent itself in order the better to present itself.

At this stage, let us make two ‘flashpoints’, like camera flashes briefly dazzling the eyes of the text. The first is a snapshot of Derrida on Rousseau’s ‘dangerous supplement’:

Rousseau will never stop having recourse to, and accusing himself of, this onanism that permits one to be himself affected by providing himself with presences, by summoning absent beauties. In his eyes it will remain the model of vice and perversion. Affecting oneself by another presence, one corrupts oneself [makes oneself other] by oneself [on s’altère soi-même]…

And sexual auto-affection, that is auto-affection in general, neither begins nor ends with what one thinks can be circumscribed by the name of masturbation. The supplement has not only the power of procuring an absent presence through its image; procuring it for us through the proxy [procuration] of the sign, it holds it at a distance and masters it. For this presence is at the same time desired and feared…Pleasure itself, without symbol or suppletory, that which would accord us (to) pure presence itself, if such a thing were possible, would be only another name for death. [5]

This triggers a flash of déjà vu: the guilt Marcel feels before his grandmother for being inactive by reading inside,[6] the hiding himself in his chair and then in his mind (the two dark rooms), followed much later by the simultaneously desired and feared presence of Albertine. Which brings us to that other lightning flash – the ‘éclair au café’. Whether it was intended or not (and even if it were not, there are strong reasons to believe that the subterranean logic of the text would have been enough to generate it via its own momentum) this is a touch of pure genius on Proust’s part. ‘Éclair au café’ means ‘coffee éclair’, and is a seemingly insignificant confectionery that the narrator just happens to use as a defence against the immediate presence of Albertine. So insignificant, in fact, that he just happens to refer to it again two paragraphs later, this time as that which triggers his memory of having met her and as that which she also remembers of their first meeting (RTP, p. 685). Both times the ‘éclair au café’ is located within the proximity of photographic ‘clichés’. An ‘éclair’ in French is not just a cake, it is also the word for a flash of lightning, a flash of inspiration, or the ‘blink of an eye’ – one might even say, a Husserlian Augenblick. It is the same éclair, the same instant, the same blink of an eye that will have constituted the absolute centre of the entire novel: ‘d’obtenir, d’isoler, d’immobiliser – la durée d’un éclair – ce qu’il [mon être] n’appréhende jamais: un peu de temps à l’état pur’ (RTP, p. 2267; my italics). But this éclair is ‘au café’, its lightness tinged by darkness and shadow, a gastronomic equivalent of the Combray bedroom with its single reflected ray of light in a general gloom; the Augenblick is never ‘pure’, it is violated by the economy of differance which produces it.

On learning that Albertine had remembered the exact same details of their first meeting, including the ‘éclair au café’, he notes:

…j’avais causé un moment avec une personne qui, grâce à l’habileté du prestidigitateur, sans avoir rien de celle que j’avais suivie si longtemps au bord de la mer, d’elle lui avait été substituée. J’aurais du reste pu le deviner d’avance, puisque la jeune fille de la plage avait été fabriquée par moi. Malgré cela, comme je l’avais, dans mes conversations avec Elstir, identifiée à Albertine, je me sentais envers celle-ci l’obligation morale de tenir les promesses d’amour faites à l’Albertine imaginaire. On se fiance par procuration, et on se croit obligé d’épouser ensuite la personne interposée. (RTP, p. 686)

In a sudden flash of realisation it becomes clear that this girl who remembered the éclair au café, the coffee-dark-flash, is a substitute for the mysterious, unknown Albertine of whom he had fantasized up to that point. The new Albertine supplements the first Albertine who, as it happens, was not original in any case: she had been ‘fabricated by me.’ The character of Albertine, in other words, is constituted by the structure of the cliché. Hence it is not fortuitous that we become engaged by proxy [par procuration], just as for Derrida’s Rousseau it is only via the proxy of the sign that presence can be safely mastered. Marcel continues:

D’ailleurs, si avait disparu provisoirement du moins de ma vie, une angoisse qu’eût suffi à apaiser le souvenir des manières comme il faut, de cette expression «parfaitement commun» et de la tempe enflammée, ce souvenir éveillait en moi un autre genre de désir qui, bien que doux et nullement douloureux, semblable à un sentiment fraternel, pouvait à la longue devenir aussi dangereux en me faisant ressentir à tout moment le besoin d’embrasser cette personne nouvelle dont les bonnes façons et la timidité, la disponibilité inattendue, arrêtaient la course inutile de mon imagination, mais donnaient naissance à une gratitude attendrie. (RTP, p. 686)

After having stated that both Albertines were in some sense substitutes or simulacra – clichés – we now learn that one of the most pleasant memories he has of her (bearing in mind that pleasure is constantly deferred and that memories are only photographic ‘clichés’) is her manner of using the vaguely highfalutin word ‘perfectly’. Prior to this passage he quotes three examples of her usage of the word: ‘perfectly mad’, ‘perfectly common’ and ‘perfectly boring’ (RTP, p. 685). That the one he remembers is ‘perfectly common’ is not coincidental. She commonly repeats the word perfectly like a perfect commoner who is trying to be perfect (‘perfectly’ connotes a ‘degree of civilization’, we are told); the word ‘perfectly’ becomes a cliché, but a perfect cliché, a cliché unique to this chain of substitutions called ‘Albertine’. The common cliché mouthed by commoners mutates into the perfection of ‘perfectly common’, into something original. The machine those long-dead printers mimicked, the machine that made a cliché of cliché, that machine is attempting in Proust to generate originality. The machine longs for the original event, and as Derrida warns us:

If one day, with one and the same concept, these two incompatible concepts, the event and the machine, were to be thought together, you can bet that not only (and I insist on not only) will one have produced a new logic, an unheard-of conceptual form. In truth, against the background and at the horizon of our present possibilities, this new figure would resemble a monster…[But] the new figure of an event-machine would no longer even be a figure.[7]

Can we not begin to sense the absolute horror of pure presence at work here, like the lone teenager who senses the imminent intruder in a slasher film? The ‘brotherly sentiment’, one of absent libido and familial proximity, is a hair’s breadth away from inverting into pure libido and incestuous proximity; the machine and the event are ruled by the same disturbing dynamic. And then the photographic clichés re-enter:

Et puis comme la mémoire commence tout de suite à prendre des clichés indépendants les uns des autres, supprime tout lien, tout progrès, entre les scènes qui y sont figurées, dans la collection de ceux qu’elle expose, le dernier ne détruit pas forcément les précédents. En face de la médiocre et touchante Albertine à qui j’avais parlé, je voyais la mystérieuse Albertine en face de la mer.  (RTP, p. 686)

Since we have just introduced the language of machine and event, we shall articulate this thinking thus: memory is a machine generating ‘clichés’ which are, ironically, pure original events. As singularities they lack all syntagmatic, narrative and even temporal sequentiality. In other words, Proustian voluntary memory is the concept capable of thinking the machine and the event together.

[1] Mark Osteen, The Economy of Ulysses (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), p. 362.


[3] Fredric Jameson, ‘Marx’s Purloined Letter,’ reprinted in his Valences of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 132-133.

[4] I can find only three major references to Proust in Derrida’s work. Firstly, he discusses Jean Rousset’s analyses of Proust in Derrida, ‘Force and Signification,’ Writing and Difference, pp. 1-35; secondly, he analyses J. Hillis Miller’s comments on Proust in Derrida, Without Alibi, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford. CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 166-169; finally, J. Hillis Miller himself mentions Derrida’s having given a brief seminar on the frequent recurrence of ‘prendre’ verbs in a passage on the death of Bergotte. See J. Hillis Miller, J. Hillis Miller Reader (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 416.

[5] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1997), p. 153 and pp. 154-155 respectively.

[6] Paul de Man makes much of this guilt in his chapter on Proust in Allegories of Reading.

[7] Derrida, Without Alibi, p. 73.

Cliché: Proust and Derrida

Proust’s Room

In a conversation between Tom McCarthy and Lee Rourke, published in today’s Guardian, and brought to my attention by Steve Mitchelmore, two things caught my eye: firstly, a mention of Blanchot’s essay, ‘The Gaze of Orpheus’ and, secondly, McCarthy’s statement that ‘scratching the negative’ is what artists do at their very best. I think I capture some of the issues involved here in an essay I wrote earlier this year on the concept of ‘cliché’ in Proust and the ways in which it relates to Derrida’s reading of Husserl. I’ve already published a blog post on the suggestive etymology of the word ‘cliché’, but I’ve now decided that over the next few days I shall serialize the Proust-Derrida essay here on my blog. Every one or two days for the next week I shall publish one section – all except the last because it’s too weak and was rushed and ill thought-through. (That said, the entire essay isn’t exactly the sharpest thing I’ve ever written). My hope is that I can ‘develop’ (that pun will make sense on reading the essay) McCarthy’s wonderful concept of ‘scratching the negative’. Here is the first installment, minus the boring intro. Unfortunately, my English edition of A la recherche is elsewhere, so I’ve simply left the quotations in the original.

Reading the Dark Room

With a novel as gigantic as Proust’s, any point of entry for analysis is inevitably arbitrary; fortunately, certain fundamental motifs, metaphors and metonymic chains provide hidden passageways through which one can navigate the labyrinth.[1] The easiest way into the various issues at stake in this essay is via an examination of two such motifs – those of reading and the dark room – which appear early on in the first volume:

…je m’étais étendu sur mon lit, un livre à la main, dans ma chambre qui me protégeait en tremblant sa fraîcheur transparente et fragile contre le soleil de l’après-midi derrière ses volets presque clos où un reflet de jour pourtant trouvé moyen de faire passer ses ailes jaunes, et restait immobile entre le bois et le vitrage, dans un coin, comme un papillon posé. Il faisait à peine assez clair pour lire, et la sensation de la splendeur de la lumière ne m’était donné que par les coups frappés dans la rue de la Cure par Camus…contre des caisses poussiéreuses, mais qui…semblaient faire voler au loin des astres écarlates ; et aussi par les mouches qui exécutaient devant moi, dans leur petit concert, comme la musique de chambre de l’été ; elle ne l’évoque pas à la façon d’un air de musique humaine, qui, entendu par hasard à la belle saison, vous la rappelle ensuite ; elle est unie à l’été par un lien plus nécessaire ; née des beaux jours, ne renaissant qu’avec eux, contenant un peu de leur essence, elle n’en réveille pas seulement l’image dans notre mémoire, elle en certifie le retour, la présence effective, ambiante, immédiatement accessible.[2]

What a beautiful evocation of the summer sun! And yet, where is it? Is it present? Does it present itself? Partially: a single reflection or glimmer [reflet] of light pierces the shutter’s protective veil, but no sooner does this (mirrored) part of the whole – this (reflected) synecdoche of the sun – make its entrance than it metamorphoses, it metaphorphoses into a butterfly, a figurative static presence. And what else is a butterfly but a metamorphosed caterpillar? The sun presents itself via the proxy of its proxy – its reflected ray – which transforms into a butterfly which was once logically a caterpillar: let us keep in mind these chains of substitution, since they become increasingly important. It was barely bright enough to read, and the splendour of the sun was given only by the blows Camus beats upon the crates (outside) and by the flies (inside) whose quintessentially summery music certifies – note the jargon – the return of immediately accessible, effectively present summer days. Essentially, the narrator is in his room to read [un livre à la main], but the light is barely bright enough, thereby undermining the very essentiality of his purpose. The sun, already distanced via a complex chain of figurative substitutions, is now morcellated even further: via the synaesthetic blows of Camus and the anthropomorphic music of the flies. And yet, the link between this music and the summer is ‘necessary’; paradoxically, it is as if the summer – and by extension the sun – is more present via figurative substitution than by real presence.

This impression is confirmed in the following passage:

Cette obscure fraîcheur de ma chambre était au plein soleil de la rue, ce que l’ombre est au rayon, c’est-à-dire aussi lumineuse que lui, et offrait à mon imagination le spectacle total de l’été dont mes sens si j’avais été en promenade, n’auraient pu jouir que par morceaux ; et ainsi elle s’accordait bien à mon repos qui…supportait pareil au repos d’une main immobile au milieu d’une eau courante, le choc et l’animation d’un torrent d’activité. (RTP, p. 74)

The dark coolness of the bedroom is to the sun what the shadow is to the sunray. Which is to say? Which is to say ‘as bright as it’. A shadow is as bright as a sunray: nonsense! Except that here nonsense seems to make sense; to borrow Frege’s terminology, this sentence is sinnvoll but bedeutungslos, it makes sense but lacks true, logical reference. And this split between sense and reference, which fissures the classical analogy’s structure (‘a is to b as c is to d’), enables the imagination to perceive the total spectacle of summer which, had the narrator been walking outside, the senses – crucially – would have enjoyed only ‘in pieces’ [par morceaux]. The logos of analogos has to splinter to hold the figure together, and by doing so enables a total recuperation of an absent presence: the summer. What we have here is, firstly, an allegory of reading, and secondly, a textbook example of everything on which Derridean deconstruction feeds. The two aspects conjoin in what Derrida, in an early text, called the ‘theology of simultaneity’: the myth of a total reading or description of a text, promoted to the status of a regulatory ideal.[3] He quotes Jean Rousset: ‘In any event, reading, which is developed in duration, will have to make the work simultaneously present in all its parts in order to be global.’[4] We must not be hasty, but already we can see that the full presence of the sun and the full presence of a total reading are not dissimilar in À la recherche. It is a search for lost time, but that lost time is not the past: it is the present, a present which fully presents itself – but only via metonymic chains of substitution, mirrors of the very morceaux which, paradoxically, fragment real presence. The search for lost time is also a search to lose time, in which the old hag of metonymy, bound to time and death, tarts herself up in the gladrags of eternal metaphor; like a Proustian face, from across a Parisian salon she looks a million dollars, but kiss her and the derelict surface of her cheeks screams mortality.[5]

At this point we shall have to invoke Paul de Man. His great work, Allegories of Reading, constitutes a virtuoso attempt to uphold the Kantian distinction between cognitive and performative language, between rationality and aesthetics, across a whole range of readings in literature and philosophy. De Man enjoins us to bind ourselves to the mast of cool reason, warding off the siren-like calls of irrational voluptuousness which threaten to scupper our weak-willed ratio on the rocks of a figurative fascism.[6] One can well imagine, then, his response to the ‘truly seductive force’ (his words) of the passage just quoted, in which the narrator, by distracting us with the sensuous and figurative chains of light and darkness, heat and coolness, has attempted to convince us that shadow is as bright as a sun’s ray: ‘One should ask how a blindness comes into being that allows for a statement in which truth and falsehood are completely subverted to be accepted as true without resistance. There seems to be no limit to what tropes can get away with.’[7] Would it be too much here to suggest a certain subterranean Orientalism at work in De Man’s thesis? Proust states explicitly in the final volume that his great work is to be the new The Thousand and One Nights (RTP, p. 2398), a child of darkness and silence; is De Man perhaps suggesting that Proust’s endless phrasal arabesques – the ‘Nile of language’ as Walter Benjamin tellingly called them – are the linguistic equivalent of those mythical Eastern belly-dancers, whose mysterious gyrations distract all reason, seductively veiling our (masculine) eyes with those tassels of far-flung silk? De Man explains the allure of these dangerous tropes thus: ‘[There is a] general pattern of substitution which all tropes have in common. It is the result of an exchange of properties made possible by a proximity or an analogy so close and intimate that it allows the one to substitute for the other without revealing the difference necessarily introduced by the substitution. The relational link…can then be called necessary.’[8] De Man’s theory of tropic seduction is one of spatial proximity. Properties are seen as entities capable of illicit miscegenation simply via logical closeness. Ironically, the problem with this theory is that it ignores the very dictum of Pascal which De Man chose as the epigraph for Allegories of Reading: ‘Quand on lit trop vite ou trop doucement on n’entend rien.’ Speed and friction are the variables which determine understanding, and speed is not only a matter of space, it is also a matter of time. The time of reading affects the time of understanding. By slowing the speed of reading, by constantly retracing the lines of one’s frayage through the textual jungle, and by reading against the grain of the text, one increases one’s understanding. Paul de Man is a great reader of Proust, not because he finds a spatial vantage point from which to unmask the false proximities of tropic substitutions, but because he reads slowly, because he takes his time. Do not all great readers combine the time and trajectory of the flâneur with the obsessive compulsiveness of the neurotic?

More fundamental, however, is the following implicit conclusion: reason, or logos, only functions at a certain speed, at a certain time. Read Proust quickly and you will remain ignorant of the subtle figurative substitutions, but read him slowly, mercilessly and the text begins to come apart at the seams – at the seems. Perhaps what we need for reason to function at its optimum efficiency is some sort of quiet space, some place to be alone with our thoughts, where we can take our time. It cannot be outside in the full, fracturing presence of the sun and of other people; we need a room of our own away from prying eyes and the desperate hands of time, somewhere presence can safely and fully present itself. We need a dark room. And there are many dark rooms in Proust, little nooks and crannies in which illicit things take place. Two of them – figurative dark rooms, linked metonymically to the others – are mentioned just after the above quoted passage. On being urged outside by his grandmother, the narrator heads out to the garden and sits

dans une petite guérite en sparterie et en toile au fond de laquelle j’étais assis et me croyais caché aux yeux des personnes qui pourraient venir faire visite à mes parents.

Et ma pensée n’était-elle pas aussi comme une autre crèche au fond de laquelle je sentais que je restais enfoncé, même pour regarder ce qui se passait au-dehors ? (RTP, p. 74)

There is a remarkable duplicitousness to Marcel’s duplicity, and it will become central to his aesthetic theory. Reading requires not only a literal dark room or voyeuristic hidey hole, it also requires that thought itself be conceived as one: like viscous Russian dolls, just when you think you have found the boundaries of one room, you instantly find another immanently supplementing the first. When he is a child, unable to bear the ‘torture’ his aunt carries out on his grandmother (a precursor to the two scenes of staged homosexual sado-masochism) he flees to his ‘refuge’, the room at the top of the house: ‘la seule qu’il me fût permis de fermer à clef, à toutes celles de mes occupations qui réclaimaient une inviolable solitude: la lecture, la rêverie, les larmes et la volupté’ (RTP, p. 20). These activities are all played out on the border between self and other, interior and exterior: reading is internal mimicking of external words; reverie hovers between conscious, intentional application of thought and passive dreaming; crying exits liquids from the body; and masturbation – Rousseau’s ‘dangerous supplement’ – is the greatest embodiment of internally fractured self-presence. The very room itself is inside and outside simultaneously, with its scent of orris root and the flowery blackcurrant branch which has sprouted through the outer wall. In other words, the ‘inviolable solitude’ which is so central to everything Proust wrote, is always already violated. The moment of pure presence and the act of sheer isolation are impossible; or, rather, their condition of possibility is coextensive with their condition of impossibility.

Jacques Derrida’s room of his published books

Enter Derrida. He argues that Edmund Husserl’s entire phenomenology stands or falls precisely on the possibility of this pure presence. In his Logical Investigations (1900), Husserl posits two fundamental types of linguistic signs: ‘indicative’ and ‘expressive’. The latter are imbued with ‘the communicative purpose or intentional force which animates language,’ whilst the former are mere ‘“lifeless” tokens in a system of arbitrary sense.’[9] The division is not one simply between writing and speech, but between those signs – like speech and voluntary gestures – which are willed exteriorizations whose ‘willedness’ remains immanent through and through, and those – like writing, involuntary gestures and facial expressions, and natural traces – which signify, but do so visibly and spatially without this vital phonetic, animating impulse.[10] The importance of this distinction cannot be overstated, since the aim of Husserl’s entire project is to reground the certitudes of reason via a neo-Cartesian transcendental reduction designed to separate the pure, logical structures of consciousness and perception from mere psychological subjectivism. In other words, the transcendental reduction is the process whereby the higher ego withdraws from the ‘natural attitude’ oriented towards the world of existing things and observes itself observing. Phenomenology does not aim to provide abstract, indicative truths, but only those worthy of the vital animation of the expressive voice: indeed, for Husserl, pure logicality is expression. It is ‘present to the self in the life of a present that has not yet gone forth from itself into the world, space or nature’.[11] For logic to be logical, the self must be present to itself in a self-present present: ‘If the punctuality of the instant [of the “now”] is a myth, a spatial or mechanical metaphor, an inherited metaphysical concept, or all that at once, and if the present of self-presence is not simple, if it is constituted in a primordial and irreducible synthesis, then the whole of Husserl’s argumentation is threatened in its very principle.’[12] We can now begin to make out that the pure self-presence which constitutes the clandestine metaphysical presuppositions of Husserl’s phenomenology is precisely that lost time of which Proust found himself retrospectively to have been in search. What the one found before finding, the other found without finding: as we shall see, that which they both found was already, and would remain, lost.

How so? Both Proust and Husserl, in their different ways, require a pure auto-affection. For the latter this is inherent to the voice as such: ‘This self-presence of the animating act in the transparent spirituality of what it animates, this inwardness of life with itself, which has always made us say that speech [parole] is alive, supposes, then, that the speaking subject hears himself [s’entendre] in the present.’[13] It is a pure presence in time which believes itself to have effaced all exterior spatiality – even that of the inward surface of one’s own body. Thus it is that for Husserl the voice evades his stricture that any language which communicates something is necessarily indicative; the interior voice, if his logic is to hold up, cannot be said to communicate anything, since the interiority is one of pure presence and immediacy. When one speaks to oneself (silently) one is not communicating anything. Expression is pure event, unassignable to any repetitive economy of reference. But this grievously misunderstands two things. Firstly, a sign is never an event, a pure singularity. It is of the essence of a sign that it be repeatable; a sign is only a sign if it retains a certain ideal identity across all its phonic and graphic iterations, and this sameness is, according to Derrida, produced by its possibility for repetition. The ‘eventness’ of the singular event is constituted by its other, by the mechanical repetitiveness which institutes a trace of any kind. Secondly, the present is never self-present; or, which is the same thing, self-presence is never truly present. The “now” is never absolute novelty: ‘The living present springs forth out of its non-identity with itself and from the possibility of a retentional trace. It is always already a trace. This trace cannot be thought out on the basis of a simple present whose life would be within itself; the self of the living present is primordially a trace…This protowriting [archi-écriture] is at work in the origin of sense.’[14] Temporalization is ‘spacing’, it is ‘time’s pure leaving itself; it is the “outside-itself” as the self-relation of time.’[15] Hence the Derridean notion of différance, which expresses the self-differing, self-deferring presence of sense. Husserl’s transcendental ego, which is present to itself in pure intuition, is always-already breached by the ‘merely subjective,’ visible and spatial world it attempts to dispel, just as Proust’s interior dark room is not only hidden from prying eyes but constituted by them. The ‘inviolable solitude’ so central for both of these men is a possibility produced by primordial violation.

It seems we are a long way from the serpentine, heart-rending sentences of À la recherche, but in fact we are not. What is that great novel if not a painfully beautiful dramatization of the search to come to terms with the life-giving, death-dealing forces of différance? For, indeed, death overshadows the whole of this oeuvre. We must not get ahead of ourselves, but it is worth quoting this passage from the end of the novel: ‘Cette idée de la mort s’installa définitivement en moi comme fait un amour. Non que j’aimasse la mort, je la détestais…[L’]idée de la mort me tenait une compagnie aussi incessante que l’idée du moi’ (RTP, p. 2397). Before making some final comments on Derrida’s interpretations of Husserl, let us keep in mind this chain of associations in Proust between reading, solitude, masturbation, the self and – finally – death. They will become clearer further on, but they are not alien to Derrida’s own work. Husserl’s phenomenology is a philosophy of life – expression and auto-affection are supposedly reserves of pure vitality. But what we began to show above is that when these presuppositions are put into question, one must reconsider the very concept of life itself. Indication, that type of assignation which consists of mere lifeless tokens, is the process of death at work in language: ‘The appearing of the I to itself in the I am is thus originally a relation with its own possible disappearance. Therefore I am originally means I am mortal.’[16] The meaning of ‘I am’ does not require the author who wrote it or said it to be alive, thus mortality is immanent to every phonic, graphic or gestural utterance – indeed, without it, one would be speechless. Another way of saying the same thing is to state that the origin (of speech, presence, subjectivity) is always already supplemented: ‘The strange structure of the supplement appears here: by delayed reaction, a possibility produces that to which it is said to be added on.’[17] Let us rephrase this to emphasise the oddity of what Derrida is suggesting here: presence is the name for that which différance retroactively produces. There never was a Garden of Eden; paradise is the retrospective projection produced by a self-différant present, like a mirage in the desert of time. No wonder the idea of death accompanied Marcel just as incessantly as the idea of his self: without the one, the other would have been impossible. Being-for-itself (subjectivity) is being-towards-death.

Proust and Derrida Part II – Cliché

Proust and Derrida Part III – Proust’s Aesthetic Theory


[1] Aside from reading the novel itself, this idea of labyrinthine chains first struck me forcefully on reading Julia Kristeva’s Le Temps Sensible(Paris: Gallimard, 1994).

[2] Marcel Proust, À la recherché du temps perdu (Paris: Gallimard, 1999), p. 74. All further references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the main body of the essay. The title will be abbreviated to RTP.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 28-29.

[4] Cited in ibid., p. 28.

[5] Cf. the scene in which Marcel kisses Albertine’s cheek in Le Côté de Guermantes, RTP, pp. 1028-1029.

[6] Obviously, the phrasing is mine, but since it is widely believed that his later works on aesthetic ideology were a silent repentance for his youthful right-wing extravagances, I think it not inappropriate. For more on this aspect of de Man, see the ‘Postscript to the Third (2002) Edition’ of Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2002).

[7] Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 62.

[8] Ibid. Italics are mine.

[9] Norris, Deconstruction, p. 44.

[10] For detailed analyses of the differences between indication and expression see Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 32-47.

[11] Ibid., p. 40.

[12] Ibid., p. 61.

[13] Ibid., p. 78.

[14] Ibid., p. 85. My addition in square brackets.

[15] Ibid., p.86.

[16] Ibid., p. 54.

[17] Ibid., p. 89.

Response to Mitchelmore: The Guilt of Modernism

It is only after a third, close reading of Steve Mitchelmore’s recent essay (see yesterday’s post) that I have come to appreciate how profoundly interesting and problematic what he is saying really is. The best way to begin my response might be to recapitulate what I take to be his principal points.

Essentially, he is making a case against those who argue that recent ‘creative non-fiction’ (mainly war-reportage) is usurping contemporary fiction. First of all, he rejects the criteria by which new non-fiction is judged to be superior: excitement, intensity and cultural relevance. These factors already presuppose a definition of what literature is, does and should be with which he cannot concur. Mitchelmore points out that the likes of Dyer and Siegel are essentially after good old storytellers, someone who can tell a rip-roaring yarn about ‘the big stories of our time’ (9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan). These books may well irradiate an ‘existential urgency and intensity’, but, as Mitchelmore rightly argues, this is more a result of their subject matter and severely limited perspective than of any more profound self-probing. Ultimately, then, Dyer and Siegel may well be right on their own terms, but these very terms of debate mask the larger existential issues at stake.

At this point, he offers the alternative of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Because of the story’s structure, in which the governess’ letter intervenes between the narration and the events, ‘the plot…becomes the lucidity and obscurity of the governess’ experience. James uses the distance between the real words and the real world to create the ambiguity of the children’s innocence’. And here is where I find his essay takes its most impressive turn:

The complexity of this ambiguity may be easily correlated to the narration of writers embedded in an occupying army among the ghostly, recalcitrant servants of Afghanistan. The governess becomes the imperial force invading an alien land, seeing danger and evil everywhere except in itself. In fiction, however, the reader is astute enough to recognise the governess may not be reliable.

Henry James between light and shade

What he does here, though without using these terms, is to draw a parallel between traditional, non-self-conscious story-telling techniques, whereby the narrator simply gets on with telling it how it was, and empire. Or, to put it differently, between empire and empirical observation. That there is no apparent moral vision at work in such war reportage is, so Mitchelmore tells us, precisely the moral vision itself: ‘Their evasion is as necessary to the books as it is to the military action itself. In their forensic attention to detail and narrative drive, they match the military’s unflinching prosecution of executive orders’.

Far better, then, to follow the likes of James and Kafka. James, as Blanchot tells us in a fine phrase, was a master of ‘the art of stalking a secret which, as in so many of his books, the narration creates’. In other words, the very inner structures of these works tend towards a realm of absolute moral and existential ambiguity, a realm of which Mallarmé might be said to be the dubious guardian. It is a place (again, the phrasing is mine) of paradoxical identity of opposites: there where Kafka’s innocence was at its most absolute was precisely there where the shadow of his guilt was darkest. It is a place of ‘pure indeterminacy’, where the very act of writing itself casts its own shadow, and it is precisely this intense doubt that the likes of Dyer and Siegel have ignored and shunned at their peril.

Now, a simple way of summarising Mitchelmore’s view might be that ‘creative non-fiction’ isn’t as good as modernism. Judging from the examples he cites, it is clearly those texts (James, Kafka, Proust) which lend themselves to different types of self-referentiality that appeal to him. He reads this self-consciousness on the part of the text – one severely lacking in the new non-fiction – as the locus of whatever morality might still be possible today: not an absolute moral judgement, nor an ‘infinite meaninglessness’, but a ‘nagging ambiguity’.

by Francis Bacon

This is fine as far as it goes, but one can’t help but think that Mitchelmore’s determinedly modernist tastes are in themselves rather limiting. It is difficult to tell whether his argument is simply that non-fiction war reportage is incapable of this sort of ambiguity, or whether such ambiguity should be an aim for any fiction worth the name. In other words, is he offering a description of non-fiction or a prescription for fiction? If the former, then one is inclined to agree with him since it is merely an important and interesting observation; if the latter, then one would surely have to disagree and point out the complex origins of literary modernism and their being bound up with various historical pressures, such that to continue writing in such a way might be politically and morally dubious.

‘Point of view’ in the novel, for example, (of which James was perhaps the master), marks what Bachelard would have called a coupure épistemologique: the substitution of the unity of psychology for the unity of action. For Fredric Jameson, point of view ‘is something a little more than sheer technique and expresses the increasing atomization of our societies, in which the privileged meeting places of collective life and of the intertwining of collective destinies – the tavern, the marketplace, the high road, the court, the paseo, the cathedral, yes, and even the city itself – have decayed, and with them, the vital sources of the anecdote.’ The novel of ‘point of view’ is a literary expression of a historical problem (namely, bourgeois individualism, Weberian rationalisation, social atomization). If it enables James to edge towards a morality of absolute ambiguity, this is only because the form itself is already engaged in the politics and morality of a wider history. So, whilst Mitchelmore is quite right to suggest the inadequacies of the non-fiction war reportage, it must not be assumed that their rectification, especially their moral rectification, can be found in literary forms which are themselves in a sense already guilty.

In other words, unless we can achieve a more nuanced conceptualisation of the mediation between historical guilt, literary-formal guilt and existential guilt, we risk falling into the trap of subsuming all three beneath the same rubric and then passing it off as ‘human nature’.

Javier Marías & Proust

Javier Marías

It seems it has become an automatic reaction of certain critics to compare the work of Javier Marías to that of Proust. This is mainly on the strength of the former’s recent trilogy, entitled Your Face Tomorrow (Tu rostro mañana in the original Spanish). Here, I’d like simply to make a few remarks on why this might be and why it is or is not justified. At the outset, I must stress that I’m no expert on either, and that my reading of Marías is based on the first volume of the trilogy alone, the only one I’ve read thus far.

The most obvious reason for the comparison is that most people, quite understandably, haven’t read Proust. And of those who have, most have read only the first tome, and the few who have read it in its entirety have read it through the lens of received interpretations, which on closer scrutiny turn out to be questionable at best. (For example, À la recherche was first translated into English with the title Remembrance of Things Past, which suggests that Proust was concerned with reconstructing a lost past, but anyone who’s read this great work carefully will know that it is the present of which Proust is in search, one capable of a mythical self-plenitude). The result of this situation is that most people think they know what Proust is about without having read him or without having read him carefully.

So it is that whenever an author writes a long book about time, memory and the frailty of identity, especially one using long sentences, it is almost always compared to Proust. But there are three points on which Proust and Marías differ. Firstly, those long sentences. I was delighted to come across a blog by Steve Mitchelmore, who seems to share my view of the incompatibility of Proust and Marías, in which he quotes from an article he wrote for the TLS:

If Proust also sent us on long journeys without too many fullstops, his sentences at least clarify and enrich the context of a specific observation. In Your Face Tomorrow, they tend only to accumulate superfluous qualifications and synonyms. Indeed, the series itself seems to be one of accumulation rather than development.

I agree with the general observation, but I’d prefer to make it a little more precise. Proust’s great, snaking periods, which Walter Benjamin once referred to as ‘the Nile of language’, are predominantly hypotactic. This means that they consist of innumerable sub-clauses, all of which sketch myriad details – either temporal or spatial – surrounding the initial observation, idea or description of the main clause. Marías, on the other hand, as Mitchelmore rightly points out, does not engage in hypotaxis; rather, his sentences are driven by a sort of neurotic parataxis, full of thesaurus-like lists of synonyms and vast arrays of permutations of a single idea. Proust aims to capture an object in language by spiralling it with an increasingly bloated boa constrictor; Marías tends to do so by making alternative avatars of a single idea bounce off one another, in the hope that the consequent vibrations will give rise, like a desert mirage, to the unnameable.


Secondly, there is the concept of identity. Simply put, for Proust there is no basic identity. Our ‘self’ is in such constant flux through time that it is impossible to say we have a single identity; ‘I’ is an illusion, an enforced habitual unity masking a vertiginous multiplicity. But the very title of Marías’ trilogy (adapted from Shakespeare’s ‘thy face tomorrow’ of Henry IV Act II, Scene II) betrays his own conception of identity: the self may well be inconstant, but it is not necessarily multiple. I may not be able to foresee your face tomorrow, but it will still be your face tomorrow; for Proust, on the other hand, even this small consolation remains elusive.

Thirdly, there are those philosophical digressions. The first volume of Your Face Tomorrow opens with a masterly disquisition on the secret act of faith involved in telling anyone anything, but it is not Proustian by any means. Marías’ digressions, for all their protractedness, are mere aphorisms compared with their Proustian counterparts. But quantity is not the only difference. There is a certain philosophical exhaustiveness about Proust’s musings, the sensation of a mind at full intellectual stretch, a real straining for truth in the laboratory of life. Marías, on the other hand, is nonchalant in tone and timbre, apparently (but only apparently) much wiser and more knowing in outlook, less penetrating. The difference is that between a hypochondriac in a cork-lined room, racing against death to communicate eternal truths, and a Madrilenian sat at a high apartment window, coolly smoking a cigarette and looking down on the world, bemused and supercilious.

Ultimately, however, this whole game of comparing modern writers to past writers is idealist to its very core. It ignores the dramatically differing historical situations to which the respective writers were responding, in no matter how conscious or unconscious a manner, and presupposes some Platonic realm where Great Writers from all epochs converse with one another in an eternal, pristine dialogue. Beyond that, it enables the legions of literary critics to maintain a steady wage; by publicly flaunting their entropic systems of name-dropping and historically rootless stylistic comparisons, they conjure the impression of an arcane literary know-how to which witless literature graduates the world over can aspire.


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