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.


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