Saturday, September 26, 2020

Thoughts on Reading Proust Part 2

Singing to the ocean, I can hear the ocean's roar
Play for me, I play for free, I play the whole night long
Sing about the good things and the sun that lights the day
I used to sing for the ocean, has the ocean lost its way? (I don't think so)

- Led Zeppelin, The Ocean, Madison Square Garden, 1973

The expressed world is made of differential relations and of contiguous singularities.

- Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense

A philosopher who was not sufficiently modern for her, Leibniz, has said that the journey from the intellect to the heart is a long one.  - Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, In Search of Lost Time Vol. 4

As far as I can tell, the last quote appears a fabrication by Proust, therefore making it interesting to speculate why he chose one of the inventors of calculus to deliver that information, a philosopher also known for his theory of the monad.  "Leibniz held the famous thesis that each individual monad expresses the world" (Deleuze, LoS).  Leibnez may have been chosen simply for his intellectual brilliance, to become that luminous and expressive with the intelligence of the heart makes for a long journey, takes a long time, then again, traveling through In Search of Lost Time also constitutes a long bardo journey.  Or maybe Leibnez did say it, and no one noticed but Proust?

On one level, In Search of Lost Time provides an education for what G. I. Gurdjieff called the Emotional Centrum.  Contemporary mainstream culture, for the most part, doesn't acknowledge the complexity and power of this centrum to act as a brain as equally, if not more, complex, nuanced, and motive than the Intellectual Centrum.  "And later when my "I," that is, this "something unknown" which in ancient times a certain eccentric — called by those around him a "learned (wo)man," as we still call such persons — defined as a "relatively mobile arising, depending on the quality of functioning of the thought, feeling and organic automatism." (Gurdjieff, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, translation modified).

Many tools, resources, programs and facilities - libraries, colleges, universities, Think Tanks etc. exist to educate the mind, the intellect, however we desire.  Now, you can type in any subject to google and receive knowledge at your fingertips.  It also seems relatively easy to educate and improve the physical mechanism, the organic automatism, i. e. the body which also has a unique intelligence, it has its own brain, the nervous system.

Education of the heart can happen with an effort to engage with Art.  Repeat as necessary; difference and repetition.  Music, literature, paintings, etc. generate aesthetics that open up tracks into new territories reaching far beyond the semantic symbol systems and rationalism of the thinking centrum.  So does learning to play an instrument, writing a story or making a drawing.  Most people appear unaware of this vast unknown territory and the power it may enable.  The power to create.  Just like you can study, research and experiment with a science until becoming an expert, or like achieving exceptional physical fitness, discipline and mastery over the body at a gym, dojo, or ashram, the same intensity of applied effort can yield equally dramatic results for opening the feeling centrum.  And it all  seems cumulative, even with setbacks, it all comes back with persistence.

Gurdjieff designated the expanded, mostly undiscovered and unrealized territory and intelligence of the heart as the Higher Emotional Centrum.  Timothy Leary, his heir apparent in the taxonomy of consciousness, called it the neuro-electric circuit (C6) acknowledging it as a "brain" that received and transmitted electrically.  

Reminiscing on the women he has loved, the narrator, Proust, says:

"Yet my one joy was to see them, my one anxiety to wait for them.  It was as if a virtue having no connection with them had been adjoined to them incidentally by nature, and that this virtue, this electricity-like power, had the effect on me of exciting my love, that is to say of directing all my actions and causing all my sufferings.  But from this, the beauty, or the intelligence, or the the goodness of these women was wholly distinct.  As though by an electric current that moves you, I have been shaken by my love affairs, I have lived them, I have felt them; never have I succeeded in seeing them or thinking them

- The Guermantes Way, Vol. 3

If we take the word "heart" in the Leibnez quote to mean the Higher Emotional centrum, then it certainly makes for a long journey for the intellect to get there.  Once there, you then need to learn to stay and how to function there, to not get completely stunned or frightened by the experience, the increased intensities and hyper sensitivities.  Much of what I've read of Proust reveals a sense of that territory and how to manage there.    

"Then my grandmother came in , and to the expansion of my ebbing heart there opened at once an infinity of space.

... I knew, when I was with my grandmother, that however great the misery that there was in me, it would be received by her with a pity still more vast; that everything that was mine, my cares, my wishes, would be, in my grandmother, supported upon a desire to save and prolong my life that was stronger than mine own; and my thoughts were continued in her without having to undergo any deflection, since they passed from my mind into hers without change of atmosphere or of personality.

I threw myself into the arms of my grandmother and clung with my lips to her face as though I had access thus to that immense heart which she opened to me. And when I felt my mouth glued to her cheeks, to her brow, I drew from them something so beneficial, so nourishing that I lay in her arms as motionless, as solemn as calmly gluttonous as a babe at the breast." 
- Within A Budding Grove, Vol. 2

Gurdjieff would say, it's definitely not all "roses, roses" we find many thorns there too.  Increased sensitivity applies to both pain and joy with whole range of emotions and mixture in between.  Proust has an incredible ability to explore all the degrees and various intensities of emotional flows.  Just as, if not more, important he shows how emotions of all kinds non-verbally communicate, through signs.

Deciphering signs shows one major way the intellect journeys to the heart.  Gilles Deleuze writes:

Learning is essentially concerned with signs.  Signs are the object of a temporal apprenticeship, not of an abstract knowledge. To learn is first of all to consider a substance, an object, a being as if it emitted signs to be deciphered, interpreted.  There is no apprentice who is not 'the Egyptologist' of something. One becomes a carpenter only by becoming sensitive to the signs of wood, a physician by becoming sensitive to the signs of disease. Vocation is always predestination with regard to signs.  Everything that teaches us something emits signs; every act of learning is an interpretation of signs or hieroglyphs.  Proust's work is not based on the exposition of memory, but on the apprenticeship to signs.
Everything exists in those obscure zones we penetrate as into crypts, in order to decipher hieroglyphs and secret languages.  The Egyptologist, in all things, is the (wo)man who undergoes initiation — the apprentice.
- Proust and Signs, p. 4 

His comment about the apprentice connects with this quote from the Overture in Swann's Way which talks about degrees of emotion around love:

"— to him that anguish came through Love, to which in a sense it is predestined, by which it must be equipped and adapted; but when, as had befallen me, such an anguish possesses one's soul before Love has entered one's life, then it must drift, awaiting Love's coming, vague and free, without precise attachment, at the disposal of one sentiment to-day, of another to-morrow, of filial pity or affection for a comrade.  And the joy with which I first bound myself apprentice ..."

"Alas! in the freshest flower it is possible to discern those just perceptible signs which to the instructed mind indicate already what will be, by the dessication or fructification of the flesh that is to-day in bloom, the ultimate form, immutable and already predestinate of the autumnal seed." 
 - Within A Budding Grove

* * * * * * 

Of all the arts, perhaps good music provides the optimum way to access higher states of consciousness; to educate the heart, the higher emotional centrum that serves as Grand Central Station for tracks into unknown new territories.  I may be biased, though Deleuze said he wrote philosophy only because he couldn't play the music that would express his ideas.  Most, if not all, great literary writers have some musical component in their writing and/or write about music.  We find a great deal of music in Proust.  

In this passage, from Sodom and Gomorrah, ISoLT Vol. 4, the narrator grieves for his grandmother, not long dead, at Balbec, a summer resort town they stayed at some years past.  At the time, he felt very anxious about staying in a strange place so his grandmother told him to knock on the partition separating their quarters and she would be right over.  It shows the connection between music and the subtleties of emotion as well as how emotions communicate through signs.

I turned toward the wall, but, alas, against me was the partition that had served of old between us as a morning messenger, that partition which, docile as a violin in rendering all the nuances of a feeling, spoke so exactly to my grandmother of my fear both of waking her up, or if she was already awake, of not being heard by her, and of her not daring to move, then at once, like a second instrument taking it up, announcing her coming and exhorting me to stay calm.  I no more dared to approach that partition than a piano on which my grandmother had been playing and that was vibrating still from her touch.  

The last line use a musical analogy to illustrate the emotional reaction triggered by the partition and the depth of the narrator's grief.  

The Guermantes Way, Volume 3 of our saga, has a scene towards the end that shocks the younger narrator when he receives the  full wrath of a prominent society figure, M. de Charlus, whom he barely knows, for an imagined wrong.  The whole confrontation gets compared by both characters at different moments to aspects of symphonic music.  For instance, we feel the emotional intensity, the fear in the air, when hearing:

(His normally forceful voice, which tended to make people turn in the street, was a hundred times more forceful as a forte is when played by an orchestra rather than on the piano, and changed to a fortissimo at the same time.  M. de Charlus roared.)

This violent outburst takes the narrator completely by surprise and thrusts him into unknown, chaotic territory.  Will he be able to keep it together?  Not really.

Almost everything else was the result of a feeling yet unknown to me, and which I could not therefore be blamed for underestimating.  In the absence of my familiarity with this feeling, I could at least, had I remembered Mme de Guermante's words, assumed an element of madness in this pride of his.  But at the time, the element of madness did not cross my mind. As I saw it, he was filled merely with pride, I merely with fury.

Violent actions ensue, the narrator in his fury destroys his accuser's top hat.  They argue for a few pages then de Charlus starts to calm down though still lecturing condescendingly to the narrator.  First we see him directing the narrator's attention to paintings to shift the mood, then Proust blatantly and synchronisticly brings  music into the scene to start resolving the dischord; de Charlus speaking to the narrator:

"If this sort of beauty appeals to you more, here is a rainbow by Turner beginning to shine out between these two Rembrandts, as a sign of our reconciliation.  Can you hear?  Beethoven has come to join him." And indeed, the first chords of the third movement of the Pastoral Symphony, "Joy After the Storm," could be heard, performed somewhere close by, on the first floor perhaps by a group of musicians.  "There you are, one never knows.  One really never knows.  Invisible music."

Proust gives music a central role early in the novel when he makes a musical passage, the Vinteuil Sonata, a mnemonic device with for the love Charles Swann has for his paramour Odette, later to be his wife.  This piece of music and the feeling it conjures recurs both literally and figuratively a few times in Swann's Way.


  1. Terrific piece. The fifth movement of Beethoven’s Sixth has the subtitle “Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm”, not the third movement.

  2. Thanks for the correction, Eric. I wonder who got that wrong, Proust or the translator?