Before I abandoned the series*, one part of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque cycle (apparently) impressed itself in my mind. It’s a part where Daniel Waterhouse tries to explain to Robert Hooke the reason why the public does not consider him to be as great a man as Isaac Newton:
“Newton has thought things that no man before has ever thought. A great accomplishment, to be sure. Perhaps the greatest achievement any human mind has ever made. Very well—what does that say of Newton, and of us? Why, that his mind is framed in such a way that it can out-think anyone else’s. So, all hail Isaac Newton! Let us give him his due, and glorify and worship whatever generative force can frame such a mind. Now, consider Hooke. Hooke has perceived things that no man before has ever perceived. What does that say of Hooke, and of us? That Hooke was framed in some special way? No, for just look at you, Robert—by your leave, you are stooped, asthmatic, fitful, beset by aches and ills, your eyes and ears are no better than those of men who’ve not perceived a thousandth part of what you have. Newton makes his discoveries in geometrickal realms where our minds cannot go, he strolls in a walled garden filled with wonders, to which he has the only key. But you, Hooke, are cheek-by-jowl with all of humanity in the streets of London. Anyone can look at the things you have looked at. But in those things you see what no one else has. You are the millionth human to look at a spark, a flea, a raindrop, the moon, and the first to see it.”
I thought of this scene while I was reading Proust’s In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower – which is the sequel to Swann’s Way – because I don’t think any other work of literature I’ve read has so inspired me with the thought that I could write a masterpiece.
Proust’s virtue seems, at times, to be so akin to Robert Hooke’s. He’s able to see what other people can’t. When you think about it one way, that’s amazing. How can someone possibly have written something new on the subject of – for instance – adolescent love? It was certainly not a novel subject even in the early 20th century. But as amazing as it is, at least the ability to see new things is not an incomprehensible talent.
Many of the talents of a great author can seem either unremarkable or incomprehensible. How do they decide to write about these situations? How do they come up with these words? How do they decide to write about these people? How do they decide that out of all the infinite possible stories they can imagine, this story is the one to which they will devote years of their life?
But the ability to see new things is not incomprehensible. It seems pretty simple. Proust had kind of the opposite of an exciting life. He just sort of hung out in the upper echelon’s of bourgeois French society for forty years, and then devoted the next fifteen years to remembering it…..I could do that.
Of course, Proust’s virtue is not that he sees new things, it is that he sees new ways of seeing things, and that he applied these new ways to everything around him, in order to generate a flood of observations.
I really love Proust’s mode of psychological observation, but I am not quite sure how to describe it. I think it is mainly marked by a refusal to reduce a person to unitary characteristics. Most of the time, when we try to observe a person, we are attempting to pigeonhole them, as cruel or kind, intelligent or stupid, tactful or rude, etc…to seek some meterstick that will allow us to know how they will act in all situations.
And as we come closer and closer to our judgment of that person, we are required to throw out more and more data that does not support that judgment. Thus we arrive at a lovely assessment…which doesn’t actually explain their behavior. Proust does not do that with his characters. He just accretes more and more characteristics upon them, and describes them in more and more situations, so you can gain a little insight into how they are with one group of people, but not feel like you understand them totally. The more he describes a character, the more thick and impenetrable they become.
The second volume progressed much more smoothly for me than did Swann’s Way. It appeared to me to have a much smoother progression between scenarios, characters, and topics. But what I perceived was not a difference in the structure of the novel, but instead an improvement in my own subconscious understanding of the linkages that underpin the novel.
At one point, the novel gives you, the reader, pretty good advice on what your own reaction to the novel will be (but perhaps by giving the advice, it imposes a certain form on that reaction?), and like probably hundreds of thousands of college students before me, I am going to use these passages to structure my reaction to the novel.
In the middle of the first part – which details the narrator’s adolescent love for Swann’s daughter Gilberte – Proust is listening to a piano sonata, and writes:
“In the Vinteuil sonata, the beauties one discovers soonest are also those which pall soonest, a double effect with a single cause: they are the parts that most resemble other works, with which one is already familiar”.
I find that in this book – as in the previous one – the parts that I enjoy most are the ones that deal with the vanities of high society, particularly Part I of this book and Part II of the last, as well as innumerable little bits scattered throughout. Proust’s tales of social maneuvering in Paris salons are fairly similar to other authors I’ve enjoyed: Austen, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Thackeray, etc.
The parts that I don’t enjoy – and sometimes even find incomprehensible – are the parts that are most different, the parts that my eye, acting against my conscious will, skips over and that my mind forgets. These parts are the long walks, the descriptions of flowers, and all the countless bits of little paraphanelia that are stuffed in between and amongst the parts I am paying attention to. This is particularly annoying when my eye skips over things that I think I am interested in, things that somehow exert some kind of attraction on me, like Proust’s psychological musings about himself and his own motivation.
Most of the time I plod through these interstitial parts without knowing what I am missing, except sometimes, when for some reason, maybe because the light is good, maybe because I am sitting upright, maybe because I have just woken up, one of these parts will leap out at me, like the part where the narrator is looking out the window of his hotel at the seaside resort of Balbec (where the latter 3/5ths of the book are set) and I will notice some particularly beautiful passage, like:
“On the very first morning the sun kept smiling and pointing out to me the sea’s distant blue summits, named on no map, until its sublime transit of the resounding chaos of their cliffs and avalanches brought it dazzled into my room, out of the wind, to lie about on the unmade bed and strew its wealth on the wet washstand, in my opened trunk, it’s very splendor and extravagance increasing the effect of untidiness.”
Or, later in that same passage:
“…sprinkling from a lemon’s leather gourd a few golden drops on a brace of sole, which soon left our plates the plumes of their skeletons, as fragile as flowers and as resonant as zithers…”
And I realize that there are probably beautiful passages studded throughout the book, passages which I somehow can’t understand and don’t know how to read, and that I’ve lost out forever on my chance of appreciating them for the first time, but that, now, I will have to content myself with the joy of discovering them, perhaps, on some subsequent read-through.
In this, Proust’s series inspires perhaps less melancholy than other books for which I’ve had the same feeling (like Lolita) in that I am far from being done with it, and that the lessons I learn in reading through each volume can be applied to the next, so that there is at least the hope that by the time I finish the seventh, I will have gone through all the stages of appreciation that this novel describes in the passages directly following the one on the Vinteuil sonata (quoted above):
“…when those parts have receded, we can still be captivated by another phrase, which, because its shape was too novel to let our mind see anything there but confusion, had been made undetectable and kept intact; and the phrase we passed by every day unawares, the phrase which had withheld itself, which by the sheer power of its own beauty had become invisible and remained unknown to us, is the one that comes to us last of all. But it will also be the last we leave. We shall love it longer than the others, because we took longer to love it.”
*Because I found it interminable and dull, although perhaps I’d like it more, now.