Proust on Intuition and “Love”

I’ve read Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” a couple times, in two different translations, and I’m often tempted to take a third pass. It’s easy to get lost in the beauty of his prose, but what draws me back from time to time are his ideas … his thoughts about art, philosophy, and memory are well known and well glossed.

But I’m most haunted by Proust’s theory of love. He wrote a 3500 or so page novel filled with hundreds of relationships, the most vivid of which are highly tortured. Somewhat early in his project, Proust drops this thought about what’s going on when someone falls in love:

At the Champs-Élysées I had had an inkling, which since those days had become clearer to me, that when we are in love with a woman, all we are doing is projecting on to her a state of our own self; that consequently what is important is not the merit of the woman, but the intensity of that state; and that the emotions which a mediocre young girl can give us may enable us to bring up to consciousness elements of ourself which are more private and personal, more remote and essential than anything which we may acquire from the conversation of an extraordinary man, or even the admiration with which we gaze at his works.

It’s not one of his most famous passages, but it might be the most essential statement of his novel. What Proust is saying here is that falling in love tells you absolutely nothing about your beloved, but nearly everything important about you. And throughout this work, readers have to keep in mind that no matter what Marcel the narrator is recalling, none of it is capital-T true. The relationships being recalled, the details, slights, crushed hopes and dreams, all of the drama of his project is playing out in the dark recesses of Marcel’s psyche, and his memory of those relationships is based not on a deep understanding between two people, but almost entirely through his highly-developed sensitivity and insight.

Proust’s massive novel is an examination of how an incredibly intuitive human being perceives the world, and it is at times shockingly insightful to behold. But, again, it’s also completely false. That is because Proust, though his narrator, is applying this template of love over and over again … not as a flesh and blood relationship between two people, but as a state of mind that exposes the unconscious of the person afflicted with the state.

He, in essence, turns love into a pathology. And if you think I’m overextending one quote, consider this:

What makes one so happy is the presence of something unstable in the heart, something one contrives constantly to keep in a state of stability, and which one is hardly even aware of as long as it remains like that. In fact, though, love secretes a permanent pain, which joy neutralizes in us, makes virtual and holds in abeyance; but at any moment, it can turn into torture, which is what would have happened long since, if one had not obtained what one desired.

This is a very odd and complicated thought that I’ll try to rephrase in a less poetic way that I can understand. Happiness requires an instability in our feelings, but this in turn leads us to imagine that the very thing destabilizing us can be something stable, maybe even permanent. What we call love — this instability — creates a permanent pain in us that is neutralized through sex. But if this love is unrequited, it can turn into torture. This metaphor will be extended throughout his project. Here’s one example from the third book:

It has been said that silence is a powerful weapon; in a quite different sense it has a terrible power when wielded by those who are loved. It increases the anxiety of the one who waits. Nothing so tempts us to approach another person as what is keeping us apart, and what greater barrier is there than silence? It has been said too that silence is torture, capable of driving the man condemned to it in a prison cell to madness. But what an even greater torture it is, greater than having to keep silent, to endure the silence of the person one loves!

And here, in book 4, he speaks of the torture of waiting for his beloved to break silence through a phone call:

I began once again to listen, and to suffer; when we are waiting, the double trajectory, from the ear that gathers in the sounds to the mind which processes and analyses them, and from the mind to the heart to which it transmits its results, is so rapid that we are unable even to perceive its duration, and we seem to be listening directly with our hearts. I was tortured by the ceaseless recurrence of my longing, ever more anxious but never longing, ever more anxious but never fulfilled, for the sound of a call.

And later in The Prisoner, Marcel sees in love a war not worth fighting:

Happy are those who see it in time not to be drawn into a useless, exhausting battle, surrounded on all sides by the limits of our imagination, where jealousy struggles so humiliatingly that the same man who once, if the eyes of his constant companion fell for a moment on another man, imagined a conspiracy, suffered who knows what torments, may later allow her to go out alone, sometimes with the man he knows is her lover, choosing this torture which is at least familiar in preference to the terrible unknown. It is a question of finding a rhythm which one afterward follows from habit.

As you can tell, this is not the standard rom-com level of romantic friction leading to a love-conquers-all conclusion. In Proust’s construction, love is a torturous affliction we have to endure. But why? Why permit this form of “state of mind” love to take hold when all it creates is pain and disappointment?

At this risk of being incredibly reductive, I can offer this possibility — without this torture, Marcel has nothing to recall. It is the pain of his disappointments that sustain his life. And, in turn, without this pain, Proust has no novel. There are no mysteries solved, no battles won, no great discoveries made across Proust’s Lost Time. There is only this torment, this deep examination of his soul, which he admits at a surprisingly early point in the project has absolutely nothing to do with any of the characters he portrays. They are ultimately innocent, because they were oblivious to this affliction.

Marcel kept this torture to himself … and therefore had the raw material for this grand epic of him.

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