Vues Optiques

Proust's Binoculars

by Roger Shattuck
Random House, 153 pp., $3.95

Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust; drawing by David Levine

Professor Shattuck shows the marks of the addict who has fought his way through his addiction to the standpoint of the interpreter, if not of the critic. I can read with pleasure almost any book about Proust, even those written by fellow addicts, which usually have the weakness of leaving the novel unrelated to the rest of literature, as if it were some kind of solitary revelation. Although he makes few comparative judgements and admits no serious shortcomings, Professor Shattuck does avoid mere wallowing enthusiasm. For he has at least one substantial point to make about the novel’s composition which is not acknowledged in Feuillerat or in Germaine Brée. Against Feuillerat he argues that the confusion of times and dates in the narrative is no blemish, due to unrevised accretions to the first draft, but rather is necessary to the final revelation in Le Temps Retrouvé, correctly interpreted: and Professor Shattuck has an interpretation of time and memory in Le Temps Retrouvé which does throw light on the arrangement of the novel.

Proust believed that we can overcome the subjectivity of our ordinary experience of persons and things, only if we can see the same persons, and the same things or places, from different standpoints in time: his was a theory of temporal perspective. As we distinguish the apparent from the objective physical properties of objects in space by varying the standpoint of the spectator, so, and more fundamentally, we can only perceive the real nature of changing things and persons, including ourselves, if, in the meeting of memories, we take a “cut” or a “fix” on them from different temporal angles. Only under this condition of re-activating the past in our mind, can we see the person or thing or place in the round, as a three-dimensional object that is independent. This is the binocular vision of the title, and there are many relevant references in Proust to X-rays, stercoscopic effects, telescopes, and other equipment.

The essential point, I think, is the use that Proust made of this doctrine of time and of timeless vision, of illusion and reality rather than the philosophical implications of the doctrine. In common with all great comic writers, Proust’s philosophical starting point was the problem of personal identity, and of the play of false identities. There must be a discoverable self, a constant individual nature, that persists through all the metamorphoses and disguises, in the Arabian Nights adventures of social life, of love and friendship. An uncertain sense of identity naturally concerned someone who, like Proust, was always a brilliant mimic and parodist, and who could lose himself in others, in passive submission to any strongly individual style. He became a writer, and he had always been a social observer, in virtue of his irrepressible gifts as a parodist; he only slowly suceeded in escaping through parody into a style of his own—through the discovery…

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