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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Theorizing Novels

Posted by Matt Greenfield on 07/14/05 at 07:38 PM

Proust, whom I have been reading on my family vacation, sometimes sounds like a contributor to Theory’s Empire: in the final volume of In Search of Lost Time, Proust says things like “I began to perceive that I should not have to trouble myself with the various literary theories which had at moments perplexed me”; “Authentic art has no use for proclamations of this kind, it accomplishes its work in silence”; “And it is perhaps as much by the quality of his language as by the species of aesthetic theory which he advances that one may judge of the level to which a writer has attained in the moral and intellectual part of his work.  Quality of language, however, is something the critical theorists think they can do without, and those who admire them are easily persuaded that it is no proof of intellectual merit, for this is a thing which they cannot infer from the beauty of an image but can recognize only when they see it directly expressed”; and “A work [of art] in which there are theories is like an object which still has its price tag on it.” These are peculiar suggestions for Proust to make, since they come in the middle of sixty or so pages of literary theory.  Inside the novel is a substantial work on the theory of the novel.  The culmination of this sequence of novels, the telos of thousands of pages of fiction, is the moment when Proust at last realizes how a novel should be written. 

There is also a lengthy theoretical digression in War and Peace: toward the end of the book, Tolstoy exits his fictional narrative and begins a treatise on historiography.  Tolstoy demonstrates that historians construct tidy narrative explanations that have nothing to do with the messy, infinitely complex unfolding of actual events.  Tolstoy’s discussion of historiography inspired Isaiah Berlin’s great essay “The Fox and the Hedgehog.” Similarly, many theorists of modernism have focused on Proust’s explicit discussion of his theory of the novel. 

Do these grand theoretical statements illuminate the other parts of the novels that contain them?  Why insert a lengthy treatise in a novel?  Are these novels great in spite of their treatises or because of them?  Do Tolstoy and Proust somehow need the theoretical sections to counterbalance the moments when they tunnel into the consciousness of a single individual?  Both authors try to discover the general laws governing human behavior.  Is this a plausible ambition for a novelist?  Or do the generalizations squeeze the juice out of the narrative?  Does articulating general principles of sociology and narrative form break the reader’s connection to the characters?  Clearly literary critics cannot do without literary theory if great writers are so immersed in it.  But we can also take an antithetical lesson away from Proust and Tolstoy: producing authentic theoretical insights often requires that one wound oneself or undermine one’s projects.

How many literary works contain such lengthy theoretical insets?  I have been trying and failing to think of any other examples quite so extreme.  Melville inserts essays on cetology and whaling into Moby Dick, but these are quite modest in scope next to the theoretical sections of War and Peace and In Search of Lost Time.  Anna Karenina of course contains a fair amount of social theory.  There is a large georgic inset in Paradise Lost, but that is not disruptive in the same way: it is still narrative poetry, and its presence in an epic is justified by epic tradition.


Comments

Your comments on Proust raise some interesting questions, and I can’t help but see in this event on the Valve faint echoes of another relatively prominent debate (now mostly forgotten) over literary criticism in which Proust involved himself. It’s probably helpful to remember that the lens through which one would tend to view Proust’s anti-theory claims is not necessarily giving us a very accurate image, and that “theory” meant something quite specific to him that it does not to us. I would go so far as to say that, to claim in the early twentith century, in France, “I am against literary theory” would amount to an alliance with a specific set of literary theories. I’ll explain.
Around 1908 Proust completed a work that doesn’t get a lot of attention today titled Contre Sainte-Beuve. To put that date in context, keep in mind Swann’s Way first began to appear in excerpts in 1912. The whole work is relatively difficult to situate within any established genre mainly because it’s a weird mash-up of autobiography, literary criticism, essay and narrative. Great big chunks of it show up almost unchanged in various parts of In Search of Lost Time. Meanwhile, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869) was a giant of French letters and was, among other things, a literary critic. It is in that capacity (and in 1908 he was still hugely influential) that his writings clearly trouble Proust and much of the theorizing about the novel one finds in A La Recherche comes straight out of this earlier work.
What it interesting (and somewhat evident from the quotes you posted) about Proust’s theorizing is the extent to which it would, at the time, have been a rather reactionary viewpoint insofar as Sainte-Beuve was concerned. Sainte-Beuve, remember, was one of the first to suggest that literary criticism ought to be a rational, even scientific/analytic enterprise. His criticism had two main objects: 1.) to produce readings that were historically situated, 2.) and to systematize the process as much as was possible. Sainte-Beuve saw lit crit as practice that could and ought to cross-disciplinary lines: psychologically, sociologically and historically situated readings where what he sought. Hopefully this isn’t too glib, but it’s total anti-formalism. Contre Sainte-Beuve is, primarily a text in romantic and sentimental (specifically Wordsworthian) mode and Proust establishes this in the first sentence: “Every day I set less store in intellect,” Proust says (echoes of Preface to the Lyrical Ballads there) and goes on to say that a work is “a thing apart” from it’s author, directly contradicting Sainte-Beuve. There is ample material out there if your want to explore the debate in detail, but Proust’s best points are these:
+S.B’s insistence on knowledge of the historical background of an era, the social settings, the individual talents of authors, their psychological profiles leads criticism away from it’s true object: the work itself and constitute a “materialistic criticism.” Here, Proust leads the formalists by about a decade and the new school by even more.
+The authorial “self” of the literary work is not the same “self” of the author’s personal life
+When it comes to “getting it” S.B. proves himself, again and again, to be on the wrong side of history. Were one to follow his tastes, non-entities like Bernard, Vinet, and Meilhan would be read rather than Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Baudelaire and Zola (none of whom S.B. particularly liked).
+S.B.’s own subjectivity is pretty thinly disguised in all this, and keeps slipping in to his supposedly objective authorial portraits

All well and good, but I should point out that S.B. was at least honest on this last point: “If I had to judge myself, pursuing self-love in all its disguises, I would say: S.B. paints no portrait without reflecting himself in it; on the pretext of depicting someone else, it is always his own profile which he describes.” Although Proust argues pretty effectively against S.B.’s theoretical framework as S.B. practiced it, a lot of S.B’s ideas are not so easy to dismiss. A debate for another time, I suppose. At any rate, Proust pursues two brilliant rhetorical moves in Contre Sainte-Beuve, the first one simple, the second less so.
According to Proust, S.B.s best work is his poetry, not his criticism. This has the effect of minimizing the S.B.’s authorial role in his own body of work, which works to Proust’s favor, but is all the more devastating when it slowly becomes apparent that Proust also thought S.B. was a fairly derivative poet.  Proust’s second move is--to my mind--a kind of microcosm of what is going on in A La Recherche. The critical essay on S.B. forms the core of the book, but it occupies less than half of the page count and is surrounded by pages and pages of autobiography, essays on other subjects (including a long passage on sleep that is quite similar to the famous section that begins Swann’s Way). Why put the main subject of his book amid so much completely disparate material? To Proust, I suspect, it’s a way of acting out his own argument against S.B. and “pure” literary criticism, since Contre S.B. is anything but pure criticism. What’s more, subjective authorial personal gets endlessly fragmented, a reflection in a hundred different mirrors. To my way of thinking, this is Proust’s warning against the easy psychologizing that S.B. practiced all to often.
You mention that Proust “sometimes sounds like a contributor to Theory’s Empire,” but I think his anti-theory rhetoric is just that: a device to distance himself from the prevailing “analytic” school of criticism, rather than a sincere belief that literary theories are useless. You mention this quote:  “Authentic art has no use for proclamations of this kind, it accomplishes its work in silence.” That struck a chord with me, and clearly was not just a throwaway line, for it appears in Contre S.B. too: “books are the work of solitude and the children of silence.” It’s from there that one ought, if one dared, explore what comprises Proust’s theory of literature. As this post is getting far to long, I’ll save all that for later. A simple suggestion: I’m not sure the digressions mini-essays, etc. which fill so much space in A la Recherche are somehow other to the narrative or undermine it. Maybe, it’s the other way around, even. I’ll leave it at that for now, my main point anyway was to look ay why a statement like “I began to perceive that I should not have to trouble myself with the various literary theories,” might mean more that what it says, that it might even carve out it’s own strong theoretical position of its own.

By on 07/15/05 at 02:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, James, for the very helpful account of Contre Saint-Beuve.  In the section from which I was citing, Proust makes it clear that he also has another specific body of theory in mind--Zola and the exponents of naturalism.  Proust spends some time justifying his refusal to focus on questions of social justice.  By taking the quotes out of context, I was perhaps making them slightly stranger than they really are.  But they are still pretty strange.

I am fascinated by your suggestion that the narrative undermines the theoretical sections rather than the other way around.  It does often seem as if both Proust and Tolstoy see the things for which we value them most as means to a theoretical end.  In Proust, in particular, episodes of the narrative often seem to culminate in a general aphorism.

I am glad you responded to my post.  It was deliberately written in a different way than any of the other posts on Theory’s Empire: I wanted to inject just a bit more of the authentic strangeness of literature into the discussion.

By on 07/15/05 at 08:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t read any Proust at all (for eminently castigatable reasons), but a great portion of my favorite fiction writers could be said to “embed” or “inject” abstract theorizing into their narrative. Similarly, much of my favorite philosophy and criticism could be said to embed or inject narratives.

Rather than viewing these shifts as unpleasant anomalies (as some fiction readers do) or welcome respites (as most readers of philosophy and criticism do), isn’t it more realistic to admit that writing is a patterned discursive act, that discourse naturally incorporates both the narrative of anecdote and the narrative of argument, and that these writings are discursive structures in which modal changes form part of the patterning?

By Ray Davis on 07/15/05 at 10:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, I want to respond to your excellent post via James’ response, but before I get to that, let me just say that this sentence in James’ response--Proust “sometimes sounds like a contributor to Theory’s Empire,” but I think his anti-theory rhetoric is just that a device to distance himself from the prevailing “analytic” school of criticism, rather than a sincere belief that literary theories are useless--doesn’t quite work for me.  As I mentioned in my initial response, I think the “anti-Theory” camp rejects neither theories nor Theory per se so much as it, well, is trying to distance itself from the prevailing school of criticism.  My attempts to recuperate Hillis Miller via erudition should, I hope, speak to that. 

Now, as there’s no way for me to be more useful than James, I will try to be differently useful.  First, Proust and Tolstoy are two examples of authors who successfully incorporate literary theory into their novels; the move itself can’t be separated from the mind that made it, unless we want to leave the back-door open for the Rands and, much as it pains me to say it, the Stephen Heros of the world.  (More on Joyce in a moment.) Second, I think you’re asking questions that need to be thought of distinctly: 1) how does literary theory internal to a text influence the way we read it? and 2) why insert it there in the first place?

One of the hallmarks of modernist self-consciousness is the firm belief that the audience won’t understand the artefact before them.  An insecure writer--say, the young Joyce--will incorporate a theory of how to read the book into the book out of pure anxiety.  So in Stephen Hero, his aesthetic theory is presented, regularly, throughout the extant manuscript: first with Maurice, then with the president of the university, then at a public lecture, then with Cranly.  It is not integrated into the narrative as it will be in the Portrait.  The difference between the books is, as you suggest, how the theory propounded (for SH‘s aesthetic/epiphanic theory is identical to P‘s) turns the reader from the theory to the narrative, and then from the narrative to theory.  Asking “why is this in here,” in other words, is a question we should only ask of narratives which incorporate it successfully.

I’ve read precious little Proust--and what I did read was during my High Modernist phase, which is now a distant memory--but I think the question worth asking is what we do with a theory of the novel which is complex but not entirely apposite to the novel in which it’s propounded.  (I’m looking at you, Ulysses.) James’ summary of this context of Proust’s argument suggests that much of the theory in his work is of the justificatory type Joyce incorporated into SH; but from what I remember, the discussions about art contributed to the narrative moments they interspersed, which would make such incorporations more like those of the P.  If I’m entirely off-base, feel free to laugh endlessly and with vigor at my ignorance.  The thing is, ignorance notwithstanding, I find this a fascinating set of questions.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/15/05 at 04:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, in the interest of continuing what promises to be a genuinely interesting, if not well-attended, discussion, (might we say that, if this Valve event is a kind of party, this particular post is the equivalent of three guys smoking out in the backyard?) I’m going to post a few thoughts and a response to Scott, who says “I think the ‘anti-Theory’ camp rejects neither theories nor Theory per se so much as it, well, is trying to distance itself from the prevailing school of criticism.”
It seems that, by way of disagreement, we’ve ended up occupying exactly the same position and I agree completely that Proust is playing the role of anti-establishmentarian to Sainte-Beuve’s establishmentarian in all this. But in the end--and this is why I noted that comparison’s to Theory’s Empire don’t really hold up—that one social dynamic (insider vs. outsider) is about all that the two situations (ours and Proust’s) have in common, because the terms of the debate have changed radically in the intervening years. One of the reasons I provided a gloss on S.B.’s theories was to show that they don’t have all that much in common with what we call contemporary literary theory. Similarly, there is little correspondence between Proust’s literary-critical ethos and that of the authors of Theory’s Emp. If anything, I think a lot of what S.B. was getting at prefigures literary criticism in the decades prior to the emergence of Theory. So it seems to me that, to map our theory/anti-theory debate onto Proust who had his own axe to grind, is to make the assumption that the terms of literary debates are diachronic continuities rather than synchronic events. Factually, such a position doesn’t hold up. So what are we left with? The old anti/establishment dichotomy, but I thought that in other posts it had been collectively agreed by the partisans of Theory’s Empire that the debate was about much more than that. Anyway, no snark intended and I am glad, Scott and Matt, that you found an unsolcited discussion of Contre Sainte-Beuve helpful. I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting for some reason, any reason, to justify my having bothered with it.

Scott, I don’t think that Proust’s theorizing is driven by any particular anxiety that his readers will misapprehend his project. (That said, I think A la Recherce is driven by enormous anxieties concerning Proust’s Jewishness and gayness, and his theorizing about those subjects makes that quite clear.) In my earlier comment, I mentioned that I wasn’t sure if the “digressions mini-essays, etc. which fill so much space in A la Recherche are somehow other to the narrative or undermine it.” And I suggested that it might be the other way around. This probably overstates it, and in any case it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question as far as what engenders what in the novel. In Proust, there is a delicate and wonderful balance between the feeling you mention in early Joyce, Scott, of all this discursive theorizing being somehow tacked on as a security measure, and the other extreme, where theory/theorizing about the novel seems to be pre-original to the narrative itself. Off the top of my head, I can think of only two authors for whom narrative often seems supplemental or secondary to the theorizing (though I’m sure there are more): Balzac and Robert Musil. Quite a few of the Comédies Humains seem to be excessively clogged with Balzac’s theories and criticism qua literature, so much so that I wonder if he didn’t set out to write an essay and tried to convert it to some sort of narrative at the last minute. Musil’s The Sorrows of Young Törless is a book I can’t recommend highly enough. But its narrative resides inside a theoretical framework so dense and exhaustively detailed that the story often seems to get lost. It’s as though Musil lifted the hood of the novel to display all the inner workings of an engine usually hidden from the reader. Still, it’s an absolutely amazing first novel. It’s the kind of work I could discuss forever and actually has a lot to say with regards to the subject of Matt’s post. My impression, however, is that Musil isn’t read so much right now. I know of a few academics who are starting to do some interesting work on Musil and in his behalf, so maybe this state of affairs will begin to change. The whole novel, by the way, is somehow available online, in English translation along with excerpts of some other works. I haven’t really looked to see if that translation is any good, but the site (http://www.xs4all.nl/~jikje/New/works.html#exc) is interesting and you can’t fault the price.
I started out here with the intent of looking at Scott’s excellent formulation: “1) how does literary theory internal to a text influence the way we read it? and 2) why insert it there in the first place?” but once again, I seem to have gotten distracted. Let’s hope this discussion keeps up, and I’ll try to come back with something more.

By on 07/16/05 at 02:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d like to pick up on Ray Davis’s remark. While the insertion of literary theory into a novel has a certain particular interest, perhaps even a priveleged status, as already mentioned, novels are host to all manner of theoretical incursions. In particular, science fiction is full of inserted theory, much of it made-up to explain the advanced scientific principles operative in the fictive world.  But in the work of Samuel Delaney you’ve got semiotics inserted into the mix. And then there is the whole book-as-machine trope explored by David Porush in The Soft Machine. Here you will find abstract accounts of cyberspace along with the implication that, after all, the book you’re reading is but another nexus in cyberspace.

Another example that comes to mind is Mann’s use of Schoenberg’s music theory in Doctor Faustus. Alas, it’s been so long since I’ve read it that I have noting to say.

But let me go in a different direction with this, animation. One of the standard episodes in the old Disney TV show was a behind-the-scenes look at how animation was done. One might even think of the (in)famous Sorcerer’s Apprentice episode from Fantasia as a myth about animation, what with the Sorcerer himself modeled on Disney and all those repetitions of the out of control broom stick troping all the frames of a film.

The thing is, this behind the scenes look was built into the first animations done in the USA by Winsor McCay. In his earliest films there are live action sequences where McCay demonstrates his animation technique. And he framed Gertie the Dinosaur as a bet with some friends that he could bring a static image to life. (Note that that technique preceded animation itself. Flip-books were common in the late 19th century and McCay himself had a career making them.) So animation, in a sense, starts with a theory of itself already there in celluloid.

Is this just fiction, or modernism and it’s aftermath?

By bbenzon on 07/16/05 at 08:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Three people smoking in the back yard at a party is a pretty good description of the world of blogging.  The Valve has had 300,000 hits, but I know that I have accounted for hundreds of them myself.  Three people smoking in the backyard is also an excellent description of my goal in becoming a literary critic.  I published something in PMLA last year, and I know a lot of people in my field read it or at least skimmed it, but only one person I wasn’t acquainted with wrote to me.  And now I am driving my wife and my toddler up to his summer house next weekend.  Anyway, I am glad you are all here.

Science fiction is an interesting case: readers are often willing and even eager to put up with lengthy inset essays on topics like cyberspace and alien genetics.  But these are rarely self-reflexive; Delany is something of an exception.

Self-reflexivity is a general property of literature: lyric poems conduct reflections on their own forms, plays reflect on theatricality, and novels reflect on the structure of their own narratives--some more than others.  Tolstoy and Proust represent extreme cases, and so, as James says, do Mann, Musil, and Balzac, although perhaps to a lesser degree.  In most literary works the self-reflexivity is better integrated into the text and does not challenge the boundaries of the genre.  The novel may be a baggy monster, but it definitely does have general rules and boundaries: that is why THe Joy of Sex and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and biographies of Thomas Jefferson and, more to the point, S/Z and The Origins of the Novel get shelved in other sections of the bookstore.  I occasionally encounter articles that say that in the postmodern period genres no longer matter, but a quick look at the shelving in a bookstore will cure one of that illusion. Nabokov’s self-reflexivity is seamlessly integrated into the fiction, and Proust’s is not.

By on 07/16/05 at 08:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Musil and Delany are among the writers I was thinking of. (I’ve sometimes described _Dhalgren_ as a hard science fiction novel whose science is literary structuralism.) The embedded literary biography in Nabokov’s The Gift is another extended example. And of course there’s Chapter 5 of Bouvard & Pécuchet.

Although explicit (and often fictional) exposition is a genre convention of science fiction, and although some “Modernists” and even more “Post-Modernists” make a special fuss over self-analysis, I’d say analytical/anecdotal shifting is inherent from the beginning. Even if we restrict ourselves to analysis of literature itself, Don Quixote isn’t only a parody of chivalric romance—he’s a critic. (Albeit with a Peter-Travers-like lack of discrimination.) Trollope, Andersen, Fielding, Sterne all mention supposed rules of story-telling, often in explicit or ironic contrast to what the story’s actually doing at the time. Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World is an account and defense of its own creation. For that matter, Shakespeare’s contemporary John Marston has characters remark sardonically on theatrical conventions.

If Proust’s interjection is unusually long, well, as Cowboy Curtis explained to Pee Wee Herman, “You know what they say, Pee Wee—big boots… big feet.”

By Ray Davis on 07/16/05 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Et peut-etre est-ce plutot a la qualite du langage qu’au genre d’esthetique qu’on peut juger du degre auquel a ete porte le travail intellectuel et moral. Mais inversement cette qualite du langage dont croient pouvoir se passer les theoriciens, ceux qui admirent les theoriciens croients facilement qu’elle ne prouve pas une grande valeur intellectuelle, valeur qu’ils ont besoin, pour la discerner, de voir exprimee directement et qu’ils n’induisent pas de la beaute d’une image. D’ou la grossiere tentation pour l’ecrivain d’ecrire des oeuvres intellectuelles. Grande indelicatesse. Une oeuvre ou il ya des theories est comme un object sur lequel on laisse la marque du prix. On raisonne, c’est-a-dire vagabonde, chaque fois qu’on n’a pas la force de s’astreindre a faire passer une impression par tous les etats successifs qui aboutiront a sa fixation, a l’expression.

[And perhaps you can judge better by its quality of language than by its aesthetic allegiance to what extent an intellectual or moral work succeeds. But inversely, this “quality of language”, which the theoreticians believe they can do without, their admirers simplistically take to be of no intellectual value (a value that they would need, in order to discern it, to be expressed directly and which they are incapable of inferring from the beauty of an image). Whence the writer’s rude temptation to write “intellectual” works—a great indelicacy. A work containing theories is like a gift with a price-tag. A man reasons, that is to say, errs, whenever he lacks the strength to focus himself and put his impressions through each of the successive states that will accomplish its fixation, its expression.]

TP 882

How would we begin to make sense of this passage? What is its purpose (but) and how will we be able to tell if that purpose is accomplished (aboutir)? Accomplished? In what manner? In the manner of a gift. There is more than one sense in which a work that contains theories is “rude” (grossier). Bad literature, that is, “theory”, is like a gift with a price tag (marque de prix). We know what it costs. “Grande indelicatesse”. But why? Because it can never be fully received. Because it still “belongs” to the giver, is still marked as “the giver’s”, has its “price”, that is, its “value” in *that* sense. Value? Values. The “intellectual” work, by its very “values”, lacks “value” because it does not belong and in a way cannot belong. The intellectual work is vagabond.

We, too, are theorists, the theoretical “we” that is neither of us, “we” occupy the liminal space between giving and receiving where the gift, the possession, is never what is possessed. We are doomed to theory, cannot escape it, cannot escape the impulse or the instinct, however hard we try.

And isn’t that Proust’s project? To make “literature” into a possession?  To escape from theory into possession?

Ce que nous n’avons pas eu a dechiffrer, a eclaircir par notre effort personnel, ce qui etait clair avant nous, n’est pas a nous.

[What we’ve had to decipher, to clarify by personal effort—what was clear before us—is not within us.]

What was clear “before us” is not within us. “Before” in what sense? In the sense of what is present or in the sense of what is past? Doesn’t Proust find the past only in the present, only in the sensation of the present—but a sensation *become* past—not in the sense that it is gone, but in the sense that it is finally here? This is akin to Dedalus’ “thought is the thought of thought” (Ulysses, 26)—the past become what is present and so effacing the distinction between present and past.

But does Proust accomplish this?  Through his mania for possession (Is “Albertine Disparrue” “Le Temps Retrouve”?)? Out of a purely aesthetic concern for the “grace” of thought?  And is his beloved ‘psychology’ the psychology of the everday and the everyman—does it too “belong” to *us*?  It seems rather like Proust has answered the question “Why write?” only in order to force us to ask, “Why read?” “Mais, bien sur, parce-que lire c’est ecrire.”

By Alex L on 06/24/06 at 05:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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