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Monday, 28 November 2022

In Search of Lost Time: something missing in Proust?

Yesterday I was talking to a friend, and he told me that his brother had been rereading Proust. 

“He said there's something missing in Proust. Throughout all serious literature, characters who are deeply drawn have some conflict between desire and duty - what they want to do, and what they ought to do. And yet, despite being stuck in the narrator's head for thousands of pages, there is no sense there of duty, of "ought": he perceives the whole world purely in terms of his desires.

And since we aren't allowed to see anything beyond his perceptions, we get a very lop-sided view.

We get merely a sequence of desires, and of frustration of his desires.

He says it's all very witty and charming; the evocation of sensual effects are breathtaking; and so on. But there's always a sense of something missing.” 

I find that an interesting observation. 

When I think about it, the conflict between what one wants to do and what one ought to do is depicted in Flaubert, in Dickens and Thackeray, in Jane Austen and George Eliot, in Henry James and Edith Wharton, in Tolstoy and Chekhov, in Nabokov, in Muriel Spark, in Natsume Soseki, and so on, but not really in Proust—at least not in the 2 volumes I have read.

What do you think about this observation?

And if you agree, which other major novelist also doesn’t explore the conflict between duty and desire?

22 comments:

  1. That’s certainly an interesting observation. There are of course secondary characters who feel a sense of duty – Swann, for instance, who is at times entirely paralysed by his sense of what he ought to do, given who he is – but in terms of Marcel himself my instinctive response, which might perhaps be a bit glib, is that he’s an example of what happens when you feel that it’s your *duty* precisely always to follow your desires. He’s what happens when you lack that necessary moral tension between want and ought – and in the end he’s lucky that his desires eventually lead him to discover a duty (to recreate the world of desire in his novel…)

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  2. Oh that was me, Jonathan aka @tiny_camels

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  3. It's an interesting observation, although I'm not sure it breaks down as neatly as that. There are moments where the narrator is pierced by memories of his grandmother, for instance, which shows he's not just a desire- seeking aesthete at all costs. And if Proust's extensive portrait of Charlus is not a character study in the battle between duty (at least Charlus' warped sense of it) and desire than many of those other authors wouldn't count either.

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    1. In the writers I named, that conflict is in all the main characters I can think of.
      I think this observation about Proust is mainly or only about the narrator, not all characters in Proust. We don't really have access to other characters' thoughts anyway, except Swann in love.

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  4. I have multiple doubts about the premise, although perhaps fuller definitions of some of the terms would clear things up. I could answer your second question if I had a better sense of what "the conflict between duty and desire" meant. Just to stick to your list, is it an important part of Sentimental Education or Pale Fire or Custom of the Country?

    Still, the number of "no true Scotsman" fallacies - "[t]hroughout all serious literature"!

    It is possible that the person in question strongly likes stories of "the conflict" etc. and they thus become the definition of serious literature.

    It is also possible that said person is not interested in such conflicts in the field of aesthetics. Much of the content of the novels is a detailed recreation of the narrator's discovery of his duty, but a duty that is aesthetic rather than ethical.

    Maybe I am just puzzled by the idea that there is, without the help of some outside ethical criteria, something else Marcel "ought" to do. He fulfills his military service. He does not build a hospital for the poor or go into politics. There is other fiction about the idle rich, if that is the issue.

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    1. As "throughout all serious literature" aren't my words, I can easily shake them off, lol.
      I haven't read Pale Fire and don't remember very well Sentimental Education, but there's a reason that The Custom of the Country is seen as inferior to The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence: I think it's because the character of Undine is so hollow, and so obviously disliked and despised by her own creator. Edith Wharton doesn't allow her to be charming, the way Jane Austen does with Mary Crawford or Thackeray with Becky Sharp. And it's precisely because she's so hollow and so disliked by the author, she has no conflict, so the lack of conflict in her is an argument against the book, not for it.
      As for duty, I'm not talking about having a job or doing something for society as such, but it could be anything in daily life, when we feel torn between what we want to do and what we ought to do. In Tolstoy, it's in all the major characters: Pierre, Andrei, Nikolai, Natasha, Marya, Sonya, Anna, Dolly, Vronsky, Karenin, etc.
      Proust's narrator wants to pursue Gilberte, so he does; he wants to sell his aunt's silverware to give her flowers, so he does; he wants to run after Albertine and the girls, so he does; there's no sense of what he ought or ought not to do.
      But then again I'm arguing for someone else.

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    2. Yes, there's the "no true Scotsman." Undine Spragg is not deeply drawn, so that book apparently does not qualify. I reject the passive voice "is seen as inferior," since I take her as Wharton's greatest creation, a terrifying monster who to some degree escapes her creator. It's not the same kind of novel as Age of Innocence, which is good.

      What is the conflict between "want" and "ought" for Ivan Ilych (he counts as a major character, I assume? He wants to live and does not want to die. That seems to stretch the concept really far.

      I think someone else is asking Proust's books to be something they are not. It may be worth thinking about what difference the first-person memoiristic narration makes. The writers you mention, excepting the one who does not belong, are not only ethicists but rarely or never use the first person, perhaps because it lends itself so easily to deceit and self-justification and other fascinating and tricky artistic devices.

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    3. Now that I've read Vanity Fair, I can't help comparing Becky Sharp and Undine Spragg, and I think Becky is a much more vivid, complex, well-drawn character. Undine lacks something.
      With Ivan Ilyich, the way I see it is that he looks back at his life and examines the way he has always chosen what he wanted to do rather than what he should have done. So the idea of duty vs desire is there, just in a different way.
      It's possible that the brother likes novels that have that conflict, but I still find it interesting that he made that observation, which I didn't quite think about when reading Proust myself.
      My problems with Proust are different, but you already know.

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    4. I see an extension to my argument. Anyone looking for the "duty vs desire" business in Proust should review the curious inset third person novel "Swann in Love."

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    5. I think that Tom is onto something with the first- versus third-person narration; a first-person narrator like Marcel is certainly in conflict, but the conflict is with the reader's sense of propriety and rational behavior, so the primary engine of conflict is irony. If the novel had a third-person narrator (like the inset novel "Swann in Love"), we would see more clearly the conflicts inherent to Marcel's actions, as we see those of Swann.

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    6. My bias is probably because the conflict between duty and desire is also in first-person novels like Kokoro, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Devil (Tolstoy), Lolita, etc.

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    7. I guess the main thing for me is that if the subject of a work of art is humanity, there is much more to human existence than the conflict between duty and desire. A whole immense world of subject matter. I suppose that you could view Proust through an abstract enough lens to claim that it is about duty versus desire, though. When Marcel sells the inherited vase to finance his wooing, he is essentially choosing sex over his family. The social climb of Madame Verduran (I think) is all about desire and willfully ignoring ideas of "natural" social class. The Charlus story is all about choosing sex and an "unnatural" way of life over his family's public persona. The books are maybe 80% about desire, and how desire pulls us away from those around us instead of (and ironically) pulling us closer. Maybe to Proust, ideas of duty are based in a society for which he had little respect, as illustrated in Marcel's shifting view of the Princess Guermantes, who begins the books as a perfect goddess, and ends as a sort of faded harebrain. I'm probably spelling all these names wrong; it's been a while. But Proust wasn't writing a "how the protagonist achieved his goal" kind of novel. It's much more sophisticated than that. I would also argue that Lolita has a narrator who feels that his desire is his duty, and the conflict is between him and the object of his desire, and the world which would disapprove (it's essentially a crime novel, right? but the world as such is personified by Quilty, who pimps Lolita out anyway, like the world does to pretty young girls). Humbert is never delayed by the thought that he owes anything to anyone. I'm digressing, sorry. It's what I do.

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    8. Scott, that is why I would not put the Proustian Lolita on that list. It's ethical meaning comes from reading against the narrator, struggling with him.

      You also describe well why Proust became the founder of "gay fiction" - writers like Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst, who wrote directly about gay desire and pleasure and rejected any notion that there was some ethical argument otherwise as false. Hollinghurst is openly a hedonist - 100% about desire.

      I now see that the word "duty" is part of my problem here. In mid-century America, or 1890s France, a person has a duty to the state, and professional duties (in certain professions), but the ethics of interpersonal or even most social relations no longer involve "duties." No one talks that way. It is not Humbert's "duty" to keep his hands off young girls. Marcel has no "duty" to keep his aunt's silverware.

      I know we were just looking for a shorthand, but I doubt we would find any criticism about Lolita or In Search discussing their narrators' "duties."

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    9. This is why I was talking about the conflict between what one wants to do and what one ought to do, rather than duty vs desire, as the word "duty" has the sense of moral obligation that you're focusing on. It's not quite what I was thinking of.
      There's a difference between saying "it's Humbert's duty to keep his hands off young girls" (which nobody says) and saying "Humbert ought not touch young girls".

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    10. Speaking of young girls (I'm changing the subject), has anyone here read The Bachelor of Arts by Narayan? I'm more uncomfortable about it as I think more about it.

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  5. In Either/Or Kierkegaard delineates three different domains of life: aesthetic, ethical and religious. Proust is just concerned with the domain of the aesthetic.

    Like me, it looks like your friend has also not read the final volume because that's where Proust reveals the overall structure of the work: when the narrator realizes that he can transform the life he has lived into a work of art by representing it in language, and giving it a narrative structure i.e. by writing the exact book that we have been reading all along. This aesthetic justification of life is itself moving to a lot of readers I suppose.

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    1. I wrote at the beginning that he's rereading Proust, so he has read all the volumes before.
      I don't think the argument that his duty is transforming his life into a work of art is a sufficient refutation of the idea that throughout the novel, he doesn't experience any conflict between what he wants to do and what he ought to do.

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  6. This is an interesting idea. I guess I question the premise that all serious literature involves a conflict between duty and desire. Sure David Copperfield at times must master his desires, but I wouldn't say the conflict is central to the book; the book is rather a journey. Speaking of journeys, yes, the struggle between duty and desire is absolutely central to the Aeneid (it's a very Roman preoccupation), but I'm not sure I'd say it's central to the Odyssey. Odysseus is generally following his feelings; he is fighting to get home because he desperately wants to be there. It's central to some Shakespeare plays (Hal in the Henry plays jumps out), but not sure it's central to all (are Lear or Othello really about the conflict between duty and desire, or they about something else entirely)?

    Also, commenting on what someone else says above, Charlus certainly is an example of desire in conflict with -- if not duty, at least what society requires of him.

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    1. You're late to the party now, Michael.

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    2. Sorry. Post-Thanksgiving rush at work was heavy.

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    3. Charlus may be conflict with society, but I don't think he is in the least conflicted about it. He's absolutely comfortable with his desires and self-image. He goes so far as to brag about how he considers himself a German during the war ("I'm a Boche"), putting his own personality above everything else.

      The Odyssey is great example of a story that's not about desire-versus-duty. Though one could argue that as husband of Penelope and as king of Ithaca, Odysseus has a duty to return home. I don't think Homer makes those claims, though.

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    4. Interesting.
      Charlus seems fascinating, I want to see more of him but then I don't really wanna read Proust right now.

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