Proust Essay - Critical Essays

Samuel Beckett


Central to Proust are Beckett’s notions of habit and memory. People are, he argues, victims of their past. It is easy to fall into comfortable and familiar habits, believing that they lend the world a sense of safety and coherence. This boring succession of habits, however, generates a kind of haze of preconceptions and conventions that eventually clouds over reality and hides the essence of objects. Hence, human beings usually exist in a kind of narcosis. One must create the world every moment of every day, and one tends to create it in ways that have become habitual. Only during periods of massive change in one’s life—during, that is, breaks in habitual behavior—does one fully live. Habit dulls perception. During change, however, one’s perception sharpens and one enters “the perilous zones . . . dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being.” Although these periods produce an increase of anxiety, they also cause an intensification of the cruelties and enchantments of reality. One learns to see and feel more clearly. One becomes, in other words, an artist, creating one’s world anew. Proust’s work exhibits this death of habit, both in its experimental form, which shocks its readers into seeing the universe in a revitalized way, and in the lives of many of its characters, who are forced by dramatic events to perceive reality in new ways.

Beckett goes on to make a distinction between two types of memory. The first he calls “voluntary.” Voluntary memory is the memory of habit. It recalls what happened with a kind of scientific precision that gets all the facts right and all the events in the correct order. The second type of memory Beckett calls “involuntary.” Involuntary memory is the sort that breaks the bonds of habit. It is “explosive,” associative rather than logical. It forges creative connections that others have never seen before, thus revealing reality beneath convention. “But involuntary memory is an unruly magician and will not be importuned,” Beckett writes. “It chooses its own time and place for the performance of its miracle.” In Proust’s work, Beckett argues, it appears twelve or thirteen times. The most well-known example is when the narrator in the first book of Remembrance of Things Past dips his madeleine in his cup of tea and suddenly is confronted by a chain of associations which leads him into the reality of his past. At such moments, the imagination triumphs over time. Beckett argues that Proust’s work may be seen as a monument to involuntary memory.

Several other key ideas guide Beckett’s Proustian meditation on Proust. Beckett stresses that for Proust art is solitude. Art is created and exists apart from others. Since such notions as society and friendship are governed by conventions—by habit—it follows that the purest art is produced outside the social realm. Beckett carries this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion by asserting that in art there is no communication: “Either we speak and act for ourselves—in which case speech and action are distorted and emptied of their meaning by an intelligence that is not ours, or else we speak and act for others—in which case we speak and act a lie.” That is, either the artist creates for himself, in which case he is bound to be misinterpreted by those who live by habit, or he creates for others, in which case he...

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