Proust: The Accidental Buddhist

Cartier-Bresson Valencia, Spain.jpg

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Valencia, Spain, 1933

Buddhism is often called a “science of the mind” because, if it’s true to its eponymous first practitioner, it is less a religion than a training in taking the objective measure of reality. When the Fourteenth Dalai Lama describes it, he always stresses that, as a “non-theistic” tradition, its ideas about God and the hereafter are much less important than its commitment to an empirical, scientific investigation of the way things are; the title of his last major work in English was Beyond Religion. The Buddha, as I understand it, ultimately devoted himself to the simple exercise of sitting still and resolving not to get up until he had looked beyond his many delusions and projections to the truth of what he was (or wasn’t) and how to make his peace with that.

Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds very much like someone in a cork-lined room, almost alone for years on end and turning a fierce and uncompromising light on all his experiences and memories so as to see how much of them might be wishful thinking, and what they owe to illusion and the falsifications of the mind? Marcel Proust never formally meditated, so far as I know, and he never officially quit his gilded palace to wander around the world, practicing extremes of austerity and cross-questioning wise men. But if I want to understand the tricks the mind plays upon itself—the ways we substitute our notions of reality for the way things are and need to dismantle the suffering false thoughts can create—I can’t think of a better guide and friend than the author of À la recherche.

Many a Tibetan mystic goes on a three-year retreat and comes back with a sense of stillness and attention that suggests great understanding, but most of these monks are masters of silence more than of the written word. The beauty of Proust is that he ventures into the farthest reaches of self-investigation and reflection on subjectivity, but brings his understandings back into language and archetypal episodes that anyone can follow. “So long as you distract your mind from its dreams,” the painter Elstir tells the narrator at one point, “it will not know them for what they are; you will always be being taken in by the appearance of things, because you will not have grasped their true nature.”

Yet these words of wisdom are at once poignant and droll because we know that their young listener is already far too prone not to distract his mind from dreams. He knows what it’s like to be in faithless love, unable to see what’s in front of him for the memory that arises, awakening to the emptiness of the infatuation that held him not long before—and yet his creator places all these observations on the page, and on the larger canvas that sitting still at his desk for many years opened up to him.

On first picking up Proust, more than twenty years ago, I was startled by how funny he was, as duchesses in his pages compete for the honor of entertaining artists they’ll never understand. Going through his initial volume, passage by never-ending passage, I wondered if Evelyn Waugh was collaborating with the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki. I also realized I could read only a couple of pages at a time, because I had to copy down every other line. These weren’t just aperçus, fortune-cookie epigrams, or flashes of illumination of the kind I cherished in Wilde or Emerson or Nietzsche. They came from some much deeper place, in which language was stretched to the breaking-point, and sentences or paragraphs went on for minutes in their attempt to keep pace with our always agile facility for justifying our projections and then doubling back to investigate our justifications. Proust was the rare master of words with the patience to see how often our use of them stands in the way of truth. And he was the rare master of contemplation who had no aversion to trying to put words around our silences.

To take a few examples, almost at random, from the volume of Proust I was just reading, the second in the series, translated in my edition as Within a Budding Grove: “We do not receive wisdom,” Elstir tells the narrator (who has just realized that “this man of genius, this sage” is a “foolish, corrupt little painter” in another context), “we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us.” Could the Buddha, enjoining his disciples to “Be a lamp unto yourselves,” have phrased it any better? Or: “If there were no such thing as habit, life might appear delightful to those of us who are constantly under the threat of death—that is to say, to all mankind.” I can’t think of a clearer formulation of the Western Buddhist’s teachings that habit is how we keep ourselves away from truth, imprisoned in our heads and not the world. As the narrator also notes, with characteristic dryness, “One short-sighted man says of another, ‘But he can scarcely open his eyes!’”


Few writers have cut through themselves, their assumptions, their romances, so unsentimentally as the intermittently reclusive Frenchman, who notes in the same book that “We ought at least, for prudence, never to speak of ourselves, because that is a subject on which we may be sure that other people’s views are never in accordance with our own.” And after pages and pages on what he so Buddhistically calls “the variability of the self” and on the tenacity with which we cling to an image of someone even as that person is constantly changing, he simply concludes, “What one knows does not belong to oneself,” as if placing the entire frame of his project in a building without a roof.


Why, you may wonder, am I quoting from only the second of the seven books? Because in more than twenty years of reading him, I’ve completed only three of Proust’s great volumes. I finished the first after a decade or so, and then—worried that I might not live long enough to see him through to the end (a wise editor of mine had once written an article on why no one should read Proust before the age of forty)—I skipped five books and read, over the next eight years, the final volume. Then I went back to Volume 2, to start going through the whole series in sequence, now that I knew how the final summation would put everything inside a larger context.

Before my immersion in Proust, my favorite reflector on the self had been that other great master of sitting still, alone, Thoreau. His bringing the Lotus Sutra into English—in a translation from the French for The Dial in 1842—was less a cause than a symptom, I felt, of his interest in looking unsparingly into the source of things. It’s not surprising that, in his relative isolation, he came independently to some of the same conclusions that many Chinese and Japanese hermits did. But the drawback with Thoreau is that he shows us how the self can create its own society—and then turns his back on the society in which most of us have to conduct our lives. His revolution was so absolute that he cultivates his insights alone and does not often bring them into the realm of passionate love, the family, the cuts and rivalries of the social whirl.

Proust, to his credit, spent too much time with snobby hostesses, lost his heart to pretty girls and boys, wryly registered all the small print of social climbing—and saw that the easy ways in which we separate the “trivial” from the “essential” are themselves part of our delusion. The most frivolous passing stranger can bring deep feelings to our surface, he notes, as even a great work of art (or great man) can seldom do. The most trifling thing—this is in part what the madeleine is about—can open up a universe.

“It is not common sense that is ‘the commonest thing in the world,’” he declares in Within a Budding Grove, sounding again a bit like the Dalai Lama. “It is human kindness.” Everything that an artist possessed, he writes at another point—“ideas, works and the rest, which he counted for far less—he would have given gladly to anyone who understood him.” In many respects, his book is an investigation into loneliness, the truths that come out of being alone with one’s fears, one’s thoughts, and whatever sense of the timeless, or at least the not-so-impermanent, one can conjure out of them.

Every night, the narrator writes, descending into his second home, the subconscious, “we’re initiated into the mystery of extinction and resurrection,” travel into a different, parallel self and then back into the one we recognize, as if reborn. “In the state of mind in which we `observe,’” Proust recognized, “we are a long way below the level to which we rise when we create.” And, in radiantly affirming what could easily be seen as meditation, or at least the contemplative life, he writes, “Before we experience solitude, our whole perception is to know to what extent we can reconcile it with certain pleasures which cease to be pleasures as soon as we have experienced it.” Is there anyone who’s spent time sitting alone who doesn’t know that sensation of coming up with a thousand reasons not to do so until, having settled down at last, one wonders how one could ever have tried to reason oneself out of what is truly the great adventure, without which all our other, more obvious actions make little sense?


When writing a book once about the Dalai Lama, I was startled to realize that the very core of one of his lessons was expressed for me by none other than the pampered-sounding Frenchman, who notes, at the very beginning of his final volume, as if to put things in perspective, “For in this world of ours where everything withers, everything perishes, there is a thing that decays, that crumbles into dust even more completely, leaving behind still fewer traces of itself than beauty: namely, grief.”

I couldn’t tell you much about the plot of À la recherche, its characters, its events, anything of its surface. Proust’s genius, like that of his compatriot Cartier-Bresson (who called himself “an accidental Buddhist”), is to register every detail of the surface and yet never get caught up in the superficial. Here is the rare master who saw that surface was merely the way depth often expressed itself, the trifle in which truth was hidden thanks to mischievous circumstance (or, others would say, the logic of the universe). It takes stamina, bloody-mindedness, concentration, and a fanatic’s devotion to stare the mind down and see how rarely it sees the present, for all the alternative realities it can conjure out of memory or hope. Proust had the sense to belabor us with little theology, academic philosophy or overt epistemology; yet nearly every sentence in his epic work takes us into the complications, the false fronts, the self-betrayals of the heart and mind and so becomes what could almost be called an anatomy of the soul. I’m not sure sitting under a tree in Asia 2,500 years ago would have produced anything different.

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