Proust and Derrida: Part II

by Daniel Hartley

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.