Monday, August 25, 2008

The Long View Of Life

I've been a little under the weather the past few days, so I'm not up to regular standards of originality and so on. Nothing serious: just a few aches, pains, upset stomach, whatever.

After I wrote this post about being a culture snob, and about reading Proust, I thought to myself, "You know, you last read those books over ten years ago. Wouldn't they be worth reading again?" So I started in with Volume 1.

I'm just getting toward the end of Volume 2. And honestly, what I'm struck by is how deeply sad these books are. Even when the story is happy, the reflections are really fucking sad.

Or, at least, they're making me sad. I don't remember feeling quite this way the first time, so maybe I'm just getting old.

One reason they may have this effect on me is that Proust often takes the long view of life: he sees the arc of a human life, and humans, as if from a long way off. Here's Proust talking about some girls he meets as an adolescent. These are girls he worships from afar and is finally is introduced to. He can't help but think of their future selves, and of the future selves of all of us, and of how little we know ourselves:

"I knew that, as deep, as ineluctable as Jewish patriotism or Christian atavism in those who imagine themselves to be the most emancipated of their race, there dwelt beneath the rosy inflorescence of Albertine, Rosemonde, Andree, unknown to themselves, held in reserve until the occasion should arise, a coarse nose, a protruding jaw, a paunch which would create a sensation when it appeared, but which was actually in the wings, ready to come on, unforeseen, inevitable, just as it might be a burst of Dreyfusianism or clericalism or patriotic, feudal heroism, emergins suddenly in answer to the call of circumstance from a nature anterior to the individual himself, through which he thinks, lives, evolves, gains strength or dies, without ever being able to distinguish that nature from the particular motives he mistakes for it."

The truth of these kinds of observations makes me feel really unhappy. So much so that I wonder if my aches and pains and upset stomach aren't somehow a symptom of reading. Isn't that what melancholy is like? The long view of life is tough.

People like to say that there's a kind of moral responsibility to believe the truth. And it's cases like this that always make me wonder how far that's supposed to go. If I believe the truth about my own decay and my own ignorance about myself, I might not have the force of life required for getting up and going about the day. So can I just pretend that today is forever? Or is that irresponsible somehow?

I contemplated giving up the Proust re-reading project, but as that passage shows, even though these books are sad they're also really funny. Just typing out "would create a sensation when it appeared," when applied to a someone's paunch, made me laugh. So in addition to the obvious reasons (greatness etc.), there's that.

Maybe I'll take the books with a couple of advil. I'll let you know how that goes.

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