Proust’s Ethics of Sacred Imagination

Marcel Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu “In Search of Lost Time” is concerned with creating a world where his readers are able to communicate in a sacred place: a world where they can discover coherence between time and space, where the establishment of a new form of truth through experiencing felt time is made possible. Using Kirsteva’s brilliant lectures as a launching pad, I want to review the primary instruments, style, and aesthetic techniques that Proust employs to move the reader outside of linear time and into a new space for imagination and remembrance of the past, and the new truth that this project establishes and enables for the reader.

Julia Kristeva’s lectures, Proust and the Sense of Time bring Proust into a new theoretical light, as a writer concerned with an ethical and moral project. What I found most significant in Kristeva’s lectures was Proust’s ethical concern for the creation of felt time in the realm of sacred imagination – and that this is indeed a profound and intentional literary project. Proust establishes a new form of truth that can be used to center the subject (reader) in a space where time becomes once again restored from the cruel reality of modernity.

The creation of this shared social space is nothing new in French literature up to his time (early twentieth century), but what Proust modified was that he incorporated the novelistic forms with poetic forms (sensations, flavors, smells, scents, etc.) into the space of memory (6).

Proust is concerned not with metaphysical time, but with felt time, thus his project can be considered a project to restore for the reader a sense of their own felt time, to center the reader in felt time. By situating an I that cannot be decentered from the flux of material events, he offers a sort of escape:

Read me, and you will be part of the world but without being taken in by it. I can give you the Divine Comedy of the life of the psyche, not just mine, but yours as well, ours, that is the absolute.

I read into this a Platonic project, as Deleuze believes, but Kristeva’s lectures point to another possibility, which we will explore in more detail below. Kristeva argues with convincing force that this effort amounts to both an ethical position, in so far as the goal of the project of A la recherché is to contrast the self lost amidst the chaotic world and the self ever-longing to restore the temple of felt time as experienced in felt time.

Proust’s ethics comes in to play by the fact that his style, what he refers to as his ‘telescopic approach’ seeks to resurrect our capacity to feel a sense of power and realization in material enjoyment of effective action. By recovering sensation, after the event in present reality; with old sensations being recreated in the here and now, towards the creation of a new fusion of analogies, where this new material becomes a new truth, Proust is able to use analogy and metaphor to reach a state of joy. As Proust writes:

Truth will be attained by the writer only when he takes two different objects, states the connection between them – a connection analogous in the world of art to the unique connection which in the world of science is provided by the law of causality – and encloses them in the necessary links of a well-wrought style; truth – and life too – can be attained by us only when, by comparing a quality common to two sensations, we succeed in extracting their common essence and in reuniting them to each other, liberated from the contingencies of time, within a metaphor (111. 924 – 5).

Kristeva on Proust

The Instruments of the Search

Psychic time is the realm that Proust works within, constantly seeking to bring together two elements, (two sensations, one that triggers the memory of the same sensation in the past) – for example when he remembers the Madeline offered by mother, and Madeline offered by Aunt Leonie. These sensations are fragments of time in a pure state. Because the perception of present reality is a disappointment, and only the imagination can find enjoyment, by piecing together memories triggered from sensations, Proust is seeking to communicate his inner being, a source that can only be realized via subsumption into the ‘essence of things.’

The ‘search’ is for those moments in the present reality that enable the author to experience a ‘sudden shudder of happiness’, whereby his ‘true self’ awakens, freed from the confines of time. Beneath signs and the image, the narrator feels something irreducible – a hidden essence that can restore the reader, and the narrator’s sense of place, time, and self. Proust seeks to “draw forth from the shadow, what I had merely felt, by trying to convert it into its spiritual equivalent” (111. 192).

Another device that Proust puts into great effect is analogy. Analogy allows the narrator to pass through the visible until he achieves a ‘transparent unity’, where things become integrated into the general essence of things, whereby the author is satiated in an experience of joy. Nut this feeling of joy can only come through what Proust calls X-Ray perception into the people and things around him. “If I went to a dinner party, I did not see the guests: when I thought I was looking at them, I was in fact examining them with X-Rays” (111. 738).

In the world of analogy, society becomes a mere spectacle. And Proust’s X-Ray vision into objects and people are dealt with equally. The attention to revealing the shallowness and contradiction in the upper-bourgeois lifestyles that Proust is frequently exposed to are brought into the same scrutiny as he does to a kiss, seascape, or experience.

Time is regained in terms of metaphors of sensation, links conjoining Eros and image, and this is what Kristeva recognizes as the primary purpose of Proust’s method. There is a further step involved, and that is the role of identity. The world and work are devouring of the author, narrator and everyone around him. This all-encompassing ubiquity of reality is the very thing that Proust seeks to escape, and as we see from the characters in Time Regained, all that remains of significance is the sense of passion and the rightness of artistic composition (71).

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