Proust and the Will

Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust; drawing by David Levine


Because of its constant preoccupation with states of mind and hidden motivation, In Search of Lost Time seems to qualify as an exhaustivé psychoanalytic case history. Of course, Proust did not discover the unconscious and the influence of long forgotten or suppressed events by reading Freud. Furthermore the novel does not simply record Proust’s own case.1

The I in Proust is an eternal pivot chord. Marcel, the boy who grows up in the course of the novel and who does not know at any given point what the future holds for him, says I. The Narrator also says I; he is Marcel grown old and become a writer who, as he tells his own story in roughly chronological order, both reflects on it and refers to events that violate the chronology. Within and around the essentially double I of the story sparks a constant arc of irony, sympathy, and regret.

Beginning with recognizable symptoms of anxiety, the Narrator carries his explorations back into the past until he locates the magnetized and luminous event that lies at the source of everything. Then the case history moves forward through successive revelations that grow in scale and detail until they seem to lay bare the patient’s life. “Analysis” is constantly going on, probing toward the functioning of the psyche. Can we distinguish patient from analyst in this narrative? The two persons of the drama are not separated here by professional competence signified by the paying of a fee; they are separated by age and experience, as signified by various overt and covert signals in the narrative voice. The Search records the achingly sustained self-analysis of a fictional character projected into the double role of Marcel and the Narrator. Both of them contribute passages of deep analysis that sometimes seem to bring the action to a full stop. Yet it always moves on. The Search remains fundamentally a story—a temporal, linear narrative in which the reader feels a pressure of events propelling him from a beginning to an end. The general movement depicts a growing up and a growing old.

Marcel’s specific case circles around the question of resolution, of will power. When the lens of the narrative comes into focus in the opening pages, it fixes on Marcel’s first self-affirmation as a child. “I had just made the resolution not to try to go to sleep without seeing maman again, and to kiss her whatever happened” (I:32). This resolution leads to a double abdication: his mother’s, when she indulges his whim; and his own, when he cannot confess that he doesn’t really want her to spend the night in his room after all. The story begins with a compound failure.

Near the end of the novel, Marcel goes through an analogous sequence, but in reverse order and at another level. Arriving at the Prince de Guermantes’s reception, he begins his long meditation on…

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