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 literature as a vocation. Here Marcel explicitly abstains from any rash resolution. “In the middle of all this I realized that, in the work of art I felt ready to undertake without having consciously resolved to do so, there would be great difficulties” (III:870). His skepticism lasts through 150 pages of soliloquizing and anguished socializing until he suddenly confronts the incarnation of his past and of lived time in the form of Mlle de Saint-Loup. This “goad” to his will tells him that it is time at last to begin writing the book that will show his life as worth living (III:1032). And so he does. Skepticism gives way to dedication. The moral strength that abandoned him and his mother in the opening pages comes back here at the end and allows him to record its case history.

Between these two events lies a lifetime full of personal experience and suffering. Marcel has to learn all his lessons for himself. But how does he survive the voyage? And why does the action seem to face the past so steadily as it moves forward in time? The earliest events of the story in Combray are bathed in a feeling of reverence that the accompanying comedy does not diminish. Aunt Léonie’s house has as magical and symbolic an existence as the village church. Is there an authority that ties us to our childhood more than to any other period? On this point the novel is clear: faith makes the difference. As children, we believe in the world around us as we never shall again. The Narrator states the case in the closing pages of Combray.

But I regard the Méséglise and the Guermantes ways primarily as the deepest layer of my mental soil, as firm ground on which I can still stand. It is because I used to believe2 in things and in beings while I walked along these two paths that the things and the beings they made known to me are the only ones that I still take seriously, the only ones that bring me joy. Whether it is because the faith which creates has ceased to exist in me, or because reality will take shape in the memory alone, the flowers that people show me nowadays for the first time never seem to be true flowers. [I:84]

In spite of strong family tensions and dark forebodings, Combray possesses the one essential quality that transforms it for Marcel into Eden. The congruence of his faith in desired things with the real presence of those things close to him produces a wholeness of experience that stays in his memory. It provides the eternal standard of a world not yet sundered by soul error. Once upon a time we were all believers in the completeness of our own existence. Faith in one’s own experience: do we need any further description of Eden? As an old man at the end of the novel, Marcel imagines how a young student, like himself many years before, might still be enchanted by the Guermantes mansion on the Avenue du Bois. “It is because he is still in the age of belief, which I had left far behind” (III:858).3


Combray means a time of life, an age of belief. It represents not only wholeness of experience but also the domain where the child remains in close proximity to unmediated sensation in the form of impressions. The narrative uses the two ways as a topographical scheme (almost like the mnemonic devices actors once relied on to learn their lines) of sorting out impressions into two contrasting sets. We later learn how inadequate the two ways really are as an organizing principle. They stand firm because Marcel once believed in them. On the other hand his first impressions, in which he loses faith all too soon as he grows up, turn out to be accurate. Twice toward the end of the novel the Narrator points out that Marcel’s first impressions of Gilberte and Albertine as precocious and lascivious young hussies were right after all (III:609, 694).

Proust was not so misguided as to believe we can revert to childhood or naïve sensation. Yet his literary imagination and stylistic power were bent on capturing the reverence of childhood experience. The important thing about the Search as a case history is not its presentation of Proust’s neuroses or coenesthesia or homosexuality. It is the way Marcel keeps the faith in spite of terrible reverses and finally finds the resolve to create a present for himself that encompasses the past. Living is nine-tenths endurance.


I sometimes feel that the long essay on memory, time, and art in the closing pages of the Search does a disservice to the understanding of the novel. Proust’s discursive, almost magisterial tone in those pages leads one to expect a final declaration that will weave back together all the raveled ends and resolve all contradictions. Critics with a hypothesis to support will often pick most of their quotations from this section as if it were more probative than any other. Proust gives them every reason to act this way. Yet the lesson of unreason many critics have read into these pages conflicts with the lucidity and logical sequence of its style.

Beginning with the earliest reviewers, there has been wide agreement that Proust’s portrait of the writer in the Search (and, by implication, of himself) presents a man passively responding to experience. Georges Bataille refers to “the rigor with which he reduces the object of his search to involuntary discovery.” In his book Proust and Signs, Gilles Deleuze devotes his entire last chapter to Proust’s thought as a form of abdication of will. “The great theme of Time Regained is that the search for truth is the characteristic adventure of the involuntary. Thought is nothing without something which forces and does violence to it.” Most of these critics hunt out the Narrator’s commentary on sudden memories near the start of the final commentary.

I had not gone out looking for the two uneven paving stones in the courtyard which I had stepped on. But precisely the fortuitous and inevitable way in which the sensation had come about determined the truth of the past it resurrected and of the images it set in motion. [II:879]

Fortuitous and inevitable. Choice, will, and deliberation thus appear to have no role to play in provoking a reminiscence. Beginning with the Madeleine sequence at the start of the novel, the Narrator insists on the involuntary nature of such experiences.

Do the original impressions, which provide the content of the reminiscences, conform to this pattern? Are they also untainted by any exercise of will? In its full freshness an impression appears simply to impinge on Marcel’s senses as an immediate and vivid whole. He never wills an impression, though his mental tonus clearly affects his receptivity. However it is significant that Marcel does not record as major events—and often omits them altogether—the initial impressions that surge back later in the major reminiscences.


He was mildly aware of the starched napkin at Balbec, of the whistles of pleasure boats, and of George Sand’s novel, François le Champi; but none of them struck him as anything more than an incidental part of the moment. He barely registered any taste or odor of the teasoaked Madeleine when his Aunt Léonie offered him a piece (I:52). It merely formed a fragment of her world. He apparently took so little notice of the uneven paving stones in the Baptistry of St. Mark’s in Venice that he didn’t even mention them at the time. When he saw the line of trees from the train (III:855), he did not consciously hear the trainman’s hammer tapping on the wheels. Yet later on it is precisely that sound that provides the Open Sesame for total recall of the scene (III:868). Why this apparent absence of mind at presumable crucial moments?

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud speculates that the elements of experience which enter consciousness do not leave memory traces. Consciousness provides a “protective shield” against stimuli—or at least a kind of by-pass for them. Only things we do not become conscious of make an imprint that may later be remembered. I find it a dismaying yet arresting theory. Is Proust saying something similar? Does the obscure mechanism, or Muse, that activates our receptivity to impressions and reminiscences operate only when left free and unobserved? Does any effort on our part to influence its working shut it off and float everything up into the desiccating air of consciousness? In this view, the only acceptable activity of mind for the artist is a passive yielding to contingent forces around him. Many critics have read the Search as the case history of a man whose intense aesthetic experiences issued from complete surrender to the present moment and from a systematic abasement of focused attention. But Proust goes far beyond the absent-mindedness that Freud glimpsed at the root of memory. He shows consciousness not as a protective shield but as a mysterious vital process.4

To limit the scope of Proust’s literary accomplishment to mental passivity would be like accepting “negative capability” as the full measure of Keats’s genius. Neither writer can be so confined. The force and reach of their sensibilities do not shun polarities. I have already insisted on the factor of will power in Marcel’s story. It reflects the choice that brought Proust to his full literary calling around 1909. At the beginning of the novel as at the end, the only real sickness afflicting Marcel attacks not his body but his will. The book hinges on the resolve Marcel discovers in himself. One has little difficulty in finding quotations that paint a very different portrait of the artist from the one in the preceding paragraphs. The number of texts Proust devoted to Baudelaire leaves little doubt about the tutelary role the poet played in the development of Proust’s sensibility and his theories of memory. There is nothing unintentional about the closing words of Marcel’s final meditation before entering the Guermantes’s salon.

In Baudelaire, finally, these reminiscences, more numerous even [than in Chateaubriand and Nerval], are less fortuitous and consequently, in my opinion, decisive. It is the poet himself who, with more choice than laziness,5 deliberately sought, in a woman’s odor for example, in her hair or her breast, the inspiring analogies that will evoke in him “the azure of a vast encircling sky” and “a harbor thick with flames and masts.” [III:920]

Baudelaire’s genius seems to have consisted in his capacity to apply choice and some kind of method to involuntary memory. In Marcel, Proust has created a figure in whose life the fortuitous and fleeting experiences of memory ultimately lead to a deliberately chosen self-dedication to literary art.

The passage quoted earlier on “the fortuitous and inevitable way” in which Marcel stumbled on the uneven paving stones is really incomplete. It belongs to a careful discussion of the sequence: impressions, reminiscences, art. The closing sentences correct many of the misconceptions I have been describing and speak not of passiveness but of effort.

The impression is for the writer what experimentation is for the scientist, with this difference: that in the case of the scientist the work of the intelligence precedes, and in the case of the writer it comes after. Something we have not had to interpret, to illuminate by our personal effort, something that was clear before we arrived on the scene, is not truly ours. Only those things belong to us that we draw out of the obscurity inside us and that others do not know. [III:880]

In every instance of involuntary memory, from the Madeleine through the multiple series at the end, Marcel tries at least briefly to find an explanation of the phenomenon. Otherwise, it would not be his experience. Pulsing beneath the rich textures of the Search, and expressive of Proust’s whole attitude, is a movement toward the mastery of life which is stronger than his complementary moods of passive resignation to it.

The last quotation and a few earlier ones have already slipped into this discussion a set of terms which define a closely related and equally important opposition of forces. In many contexts Proust names and assigns contrasting functions to two mental faculties: sensibility (or imagination, feeling, instinct) and intelligence. It will not be sufficient to label the former passive and the latter active, though a loose parallel of this nature can be discerned. Because Marcel moved through a series of positions about the separation of powers between these putative faculties, and because Proust was too canny to have stayed very long with any schematic description of the human mind, one can demonstrate almost anything by quoting from the Search.6

The tradition that divides thought into reason and faith, logic and feeling, goes back a very long way and may well coincide with that partial alienation from ourselves we call civilization. We should beware of these divisions and of the way they are reflected in our language and institutions. In using the terms of this dualism, Proust was not so much approving a conventional division of mind as attempting to reach the seat of thought by any means at hand. His writing—both his style and his story—implies that sensibility and intelligence are not distinct faculties but gradations along a continuous spectrum of mental process.

Now Proust never stops telling us that we can rarely possess or exercise all of our powers at once. According to the last quotation the scientist leads with his intellect, the writer or artist leads with his feeling or instinct. But Proust put forward other proposals. In the early treatment of these ideas that he rapped out as the preface to Against Sainte-Beuve, he appeals less to a chronological order of priority than to a subtle and nearly sophistical order of value.

And as to this inferiority of the intelligence, one must still ask the intelligence to establish it. For if the intelligence does not deserve the supreme crown, it alone can bestow the crown. And if the intelligence holds only the second place in the hierarchy of virtues, it alone is capable of proclaiming that instinct must occupy the first place.

The authority to bestow is also the authority to withhold. I know of few passages in Proust that appear so forthright and remain so ambivalent. This “hierarchy of virtues” is compromised by divided sovereignty. Proust’s confidence rings hollow and conveys his frustration over the knottiness of the problem. He never really does solve it. Rather he dramatized the struggle in the Search. Marcel is profoundly torn until, at the end, the revelation of art lifts him bodily out of the impasse.

However one passage deserves attention. It is frequently overlooked because it occurs in the midst of Marcel’s troubled weighing of what course to follow when Albertine leaves him. Is she leaving him in order to stampede him into marriage? He considers this the first hypothesis, the intelligent one. Is she leaving him in order to take up again with her lesbian playmates? This is the second hypothesis, the instinctive one. He is drawn powerfully to the second.

But—and what follows will make it even clearer, just as many episodes have already suggested it—the fact that the intelligence is not the subtlest, the most powerful and appropriate instrument for grasping the truth, is only one more reason for beginning with the intelligence, and not with an unconscious intuition, not with an unquestioned faith in presentiments. It is life itself which, little by little, case by case, allows us to notice that what is most important for our heart, for our mind [esprit], is taught us not by reasoning but by other powers. And then it is the intelligence itself which, acknowledging their superiority, abdicates, by reasoning, before them, and accepts the role of becoming their collaborator and servant. Experimental faith. [III:423]

It is a stunning text, studded with crucial words: vie, esprit, foi, expérimentale. The order of events is totally reversed here. Our intelligence must set our existential priorities not after but before the fact. On faith. Reasoned faith. We come inevitably to paradox, close to the paradoxes of theology. As it is reasonable to have faith in the impressions of childhood, it is reasonable to have faith in presentiments and other feelings that seek the truth. But that faith is experimental. It lies open to the examination and judgment of intelligence. We come back then to an alternation of states or stages, with the implication that reason has both the first and the last say. From his quest for the seat of thought Proust returned with this short version of a long journey: foi expérimentale. Scientific belief. Faith-filled experiment. Intelligence and intuition working together, checking and encouraging one another. The Search shows a man trying to find his mind—his whole mind. Often it seems to have two opposed parts. Like Plato’s charioteer, he learns to control his two steeds and make them pull as one.

Copyright © 1974 by Roger Shattuck.

This Issue

September 19, 1974