Marcel Proust died a century ago on Nov. 18, 1922, leaving behind one of the most remarkable literary investigations into human nature and society.
The specter of death and the expiring world of La Belle Époque haunts Proust’s work. He wrote it as he was dying; in fact, Proust was making corrections to the manuscript the night before his death in his hermetically sealed, cork-lined bedroom in Paris.
The novel was a lens that allowed me to reflect on the disintegration, delusions and mortality around me. Proust gave me the words to describe aspects of the human condition I knew instinctively, but had trouble articulating.
He elucidates the conflicting ways we perceive reality, exacerbated in war, and how each of us comes to our own peculiar and self-serving truths. He explores the fragility of human goodness, the seduction and hollowness of power and social status, the inconstancy of the human heart and racism, especially anti-Semitism.
Those who see in his work a retreat from the world are poor readers of Proust. His power is his Freudian understanding of the subterranean forces that shape human existence. The novel is grounded in the bitter wisdom of Ecclesiastes: The beauty of youth, the allure of fame, wealth, success, power, along with literary and artistic brilliance, reap a horrendous toll on those beguiled by them, for they are transitory, and perish.
I was in Croatia as Serb villages were being ethnically cleansed by the Croatian army. I watched an elderly veteran of the partisan war being pushed out of his home, which he would never again inhabit, in a wheelchair, bedecked with his World War II medals on his chest. The rise of ethnic nationalism had extinguished the old Yugoslavia and with it his status and place in society.
The last volume of In Search of Lost Time is populated with the aged shells of once-great actors, writers and aristocrats, forgotten as the crowd flocked to new luminaries.
The celebrated actor La Berma, a thinly disguised Sarah Bernhardt, too infirm to take to the stage, is ignored. The courtesan Odette de Crécy, the passion of Charles Swann, one of the central characters in the novel, was once a great beauty who entranced Paris but in senility is relegated to a corner of her daughter’s fashionable salon where she is a figure of ridicule.
She had become “infinitely pathetic; she, who had been unfaithful to Swann and to everybody, found now that the entire universe was unfaithful to her,” Proust writes of Odette.
The pedestals the powerful and the famous stand upon — and believe are immovable — disintegrate, leaving them like King Lear, naked on the heath. When Swann denounces the persecution of the Jewish army Captain Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly accused of treason, he becomes a nonperson and, along with other “Dreyfusards,” is blacklisted. Émile Zola, France’s most famous novelist at the time, was forced into exile because he defended Dreyfus.
“For the instinct of imitation and absence of courage govern society and the mob alike,” Proust notes. “And we all of us laugh as a person whom we see being made fun of, though it does not prevent us from venerating him ten years later in a circle where he is admired.”
War elucidates these Proustian truths. Death, as in the novel, permeated my existence in Sarajevo, a besieged city being hit with hundreds of shells a day and under constant sniper fire. Four to five people were dying daily, and perhaps another dozen or so were wounded. But even with death all around us, those desperately clinging to life sought to obscure its reality. Death was something that happened to someone else.
This denial of death, and our impending mortality, is captured by Proust when Swann informs the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes that he is ill and has only three or four months to live. On their way to a dinner party and not wanting to cope with the finality of death, the duke and duchesse dismiss the prognosis as fiction. Swann warily accepts that “their own social obligations took precedence over the death of a friend.”
“You, now, don’t let yourself be alarmed by the nonsense of those damned doctors,” the duke tells him. “They’re fools. You’re as sound as a bell. You’ll bury us all!”
Mutations of the Self
The death of the narrator’s grandmother, as well as the death of his lover Albertine, a version of Proust’s lover and chauffeur Alfred Agostinelli, who was killed in a plane crash in 1914, exposes the mutations of the self. Marcel, the narrator, does not lament grief, for it retains the connections to those we have lost. He laments the day he no longer grieves, the day the self that was in love no longer exists. He writes:
“I too still wept when I became once again for a moment the former friend of Albertine. But it was into a new personality that I was tending to change altogether. It is not because other people are dead that our affection for them fades; it is because we ourselves are dying. Albertine had no cause to reproach her friend. The man who was usurping his name was merely his heir. We can only be faithful to what we remember, and we remember only what we have known. My new self, while it grew up in the shadow of the old, had often heard the other speak of Albertine; through that other self, through the stories it gathered from it, it thought that it knew her, it found her lovable, it loved her; but it was only a love at second hand.”
Inanimate objects carry within them a mystical force that can awaken these lost feelings of grief, joy and love. They return not by an act of will, but through involuntary memory. A smell, sight or a sound suddenly ignites what is buried and otherwise inaccessible, the most famous example being the dipping of the petite madeleine into the tea that evokes a sudden memory of Marcel’s childhood at Combray.
“I find the Celtic belief very reasonable, that the souls of those we have lost are held captive in some inferior creature, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate thing, effectively lost to us until the day, which for many never comes, when we happen to pass close to the tree, come into possession of the object that is their prison,” Proust writes. “Then they quiver, they call out to us, and as soon as we have recognized them, the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and they return to live with us.”
Art — literature, poetry, dance, theater, music, architecture, painting, sculpture — give the fragments of our lives’ coherence. Art gives expression to the intangible, nonrational forces of love, beauty, grief, mortality and the search for meaning.
Without art, without imagination, our collective and individual pasts are disparate, devoid of context. Art opens us to awe and mystery. Art is not, as the painter Elstir says in the novel, a reproduction of nature. It is the impression nature has on the artist. It wrestles with the transcendent.
Imagination, however, is a blessing and a curse. It can be self-destructive when we mistake what we imagine for reality. Swann’s infatuation with Odette, for example, is driven by her resemblance to the women painted in the Florentine Renaissance by Sandro Botticelli. It is the painting, the image, not Odette that Swann worships, a fact he eventually faces, amazed that he has courted a woman “who was not my type.” Marcel will come to a similar conclusion at the end of the novel, seeing the aristocratic elites who dazzled him in his youth as mediocrities, elevated to the status of demigods by his imagination.
At the same time, imagination is the fuel of art. Art, Proust reminds us, takes work — as in the fictional piece of music, the “Vinteuil Sonata,” which Swann associates with Odette.
“Often one hears nothing when one listens for the first time to a piece of music that is at all complicated,” he writes. “For our memory, relatively to the complexity of the impressions which it has to face while we are listening, is infinitesimal, as brief as the memory of a man who in his sleep thinks of a thousand things and at once forgets them, or as that of a man in his second childhood who cannot recall a minute afterwards what one has just said to him.”
It is, he writes, “the least precious parts that one at first perceives.” He goes on,
“But, less disappointing than life, great works of art do not begin by giving us the best of themselves […] But when those first impressions have receded, there remains for our enjoyment some passage whose structure, too new and strange to offer anything but confusion to our mind, had made it indistinguishable and so preserved intact; and this, which we had passed every day without knowing it, which had held itself in reserve for us, which by the sheer power of its beauty had become invisible and remained unknown, this comes to us last of all. But we shall also relinquish it last. And we shall love it longer than the rest because we have taken longer to get to love it.”
The external world of the five senses in Proust is always defeated by the inner world constructed by imagination. Nothing could be truer in war. Those in war work incessantly to make sense of the senseless. They form stories out of chaos. They seek meaning in meaninglessness.
In a firefight you are only aware of what is happening a few feet around you. But once that firefight is over, two things happen. Those who emerge victorious from the firefight rifle through the pockets of the dead, examining the photos and documents on the bodies of those they killed. At the same time, they piece together a narrative of what happened.
This narrative is largely a fiction, for only bits and pieces are available to be cobbled together to make a coherent whole. But without that narrative, the experience, like life itself, is not bearable.
Gare Montparnasse, Paris, November 1917. (Édouard Brissy, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)
Proust chronicles the poisonous effects of World War I on French society, embodied by the hostess Mme. Verdurin, who uses the war to elevate her social prestige while the suicidal tactics of French generals leads to 6 million casualties, including 1.4 million dead and 4.2 million wounded, along with numerous army mutinies.
Generals and war ministers are celebrities. Artists are reviled or ignored, unless they produce wartime kitsch. Women adorn themselves in “rings or bracelets made out of fragments of exploded shells or copper bands from 75 millimeter ammunition.”
The rich, bursting with patriotism, while sacrificing little, busy themselves with charities for the soldiers at the front, benefit performances and afternoon tea parties. Wartime clichés, amplified by the press, are mindlessly parroted by the public. “For the idiocy of the times caused people to pride themselves on using the expressions of the times,” Proust notes.
The war eradicates the demarcation between civilians and the military. It degrades language and culture. It fuels a toxic nationalism. It ushers in the modern era of industrial war where nations turn their resources over to the military and, with it, outsized political and social power. The war, the backdrop of the final chapter, signals the end of La Belle Époque.
1900 World Fair in Paris during the Belle Époche. (U.S. Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)
The public fell into line with the modernists of war, “after resisting the modernists of literature and art,” Proust writes, because it is “an accepted fashion to think like this and also because little minds are crushed, not by beauty, but by the hugeness of the action.”
Proust captures the disparity between the sensory world of war and the mythic version of war that plagues all conflicts, leading to a bitter alienation between those who experience war on the battlefield and those who celebrate it in safety. Those who imbibe the myth of war engage in an orgy of self-exaltation, not only because they believe they belong to a superior nation but because as members of that nation they are convinced that they are endowed with superior virtues.
The flip side of nationalism is racism and chauvinism, for as we elevate ourselves, we denigrate others, especially the enemy. Proust, when he writes about anti-Semitism, makes an important distinction between vice and crime, a distinction quoted at length by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism.
In the decadence of La Belle Époque, Jews were admitted to the great salons, until the Dreyfus affair. They were seen as exotic, albeit tainted with the vice of Jewishness. Vice is not an act of will but an inherent, psychological quality that cannot be chosen or rejected.
“Punishment,” Proust writes, “is the right of the criminal” of which he is deprived if “judges assume and are more inclined to pardon murder in inverts [homosexuals] and treason in Jews for reasons derived from…racial predestination.”
The difference between vice, which can never be removed, and crime, defines war, as it defined fascism a few years after the publication of Proust’s novel. Enemies embody evil not solely because of the acts they commit but because of their intrinsic nature. Eradicating evil, therefore, requires the eradication of all those infected with vice. The only way to survive is to renounce and hide your essence.
Jews in France converted to Christianity. Homosexuals pretended to be heterosexual. Muslims and Croats in Serb-held Bosnia pretended to be Serbs. Serbs and Muslims in Croatia pretended to be Croats.
These mutations, Proust warned, turn the blessed and the damned into caricatures easily manipulated by demagogues and the mob. The hostility to difference is an ominous step toward tyranny, either the petty tyranny of the ruling class or the larger tyranny of totalitarianism.
Proust has a dark view of human nature. Those who carry out acts of charity and kindness in the novel almost always have ulterior or, at best, mixed motives. We betray people for bagatelles. We surrender our professed morality for self-advancement. We are indifferent to human suffering. We attack the faults of others but succumb to the same faults if “sufficiently intoxicated by circumstances.”
But because Proust expects so little from us, he extends pity, compassion and forgiveness to even the most loathsome of his characters, as they fade away at the end of the novel in a danse macabre. Our inner life, he concludes, is finally unfathomable, for it is always in flux. As we age, we become shells, faded masks identifiable only by our names.
Human folly, however, is redeemed because of our childlike yearning for the impossibility of the eternal and the absolute in the face of the destructive maw of time.
Proust reminds us of who we are and who we are to become. Lifting the veil on our pretensions, he calls us to see ourselves in our neighbor. By immortalizing his vanished world, Proust exposes, and makes sacred, the vanishing world around us.
His perceptions were a balm, a deep comfort, in the madness of war, where the mob bays for blood, death strikes at random, delusion is mistaken for reality and the impermanence of existence is terrifyingly palpable.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of show “The Chris Hedges Report.”
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