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

by Daniel Hartley

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.