Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1415
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 becomes a prisoner of habit and begins to live a lie. Since morality depends upon a system of socially accepted habits, true art is amoral. Beckett’s conclusion, which he asserts with characteristic pessimism, is clear: “We are alone. We cannot know and we cannot be known.”
Nevertheless, at least two positive results paradoxically follow from this bleak diagnosis. First, Proust—and those like Proust who shatter habit—transcends time and even death itself through the very creation of his experimental art. Second, Proust’s experimental art momentarily awakes the reader accustomed to conventional narrative from his or her habitual narcosis. Through his nonlogical form, dense style, and exploration of reality rather than convention, Proust engages the reader and makes him or her see things “as they are—inexplicable.”
Philosophically, Beckett’s monograph rhymes with many of the major tenets of existentialism, which surfaced in the middle of the century in the writing of such thinkers as Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Albert Camus. Both the existentialists and Beckett argue that man has become estranged from his own being. Both assert that man is alone in an inexplicable universe. Both believe that man has become caught in habitual systems of thought that separate him from reality; both hold that only when those habitual systems of thought are broken, casting man into a state of anxiety, does man come to experience true being. Both hold, finally, that real thought begins only when Cartesian logic is overthrown and irrationalism—Beckett’s involuntary memory—is embraced.
Beckett’s ideas in Proust also have much to do, as a number of critics have indicated, with those of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. As young men, both Proust and Beckett admired Schopenhauer, and, although Beckett mentions the philosopher’s name only four times in his essay, Schopenhauer’s influence upon him is clear. In addition to their generally anti-intellectual view of art, Schopenhauer, Proust, and Beckett share many common beliefs: that objects are distinct and unique, not members of categories; that the artist should deal with the concrete rather than the conceptual; that in good art intuition must replace reason; that the real artist is a will-less subject; and that music is the embodiment of the Ideal.
Proust is also a subtextual argument against Descartes, whom Beckett had first studied in 1928 and 1929, shortly before he began work on his critical essay. In Beckett’s mind, Descartes came to stand for reason in Western culture and for the Enlightenment belief that all sciences might one day be unified through a rational method. Beckett, however, subverted Descartes’ ideas by focusing on the gap between the mind and the body that is inherent in Descartes’ assertion that “I think, therefore I am.” In order to do this, Beckett turned to Arnold Geulincx, a Flemish follower of Descartes whose writing Beckett encountered in 1930. Geulincx radicalized Descartes’ notions. For him, there existed a mental world that was divorced from the physical one. Each person, according to Geulincx, is alone and locked in the prison of his or her mental life. In a very real way, then, Beckett is in agreement with Proust: Man cannot know and cannot be known. He is truly adrift in an inexplicable universe. Within this context, Beckett’s famous assertion in “Three Dialogues” (1949) concerning the role of the artist makes sense: “The expression is that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”
Aesthetically, Beckett’s monograph rhymes with the Russian Formalism espoused by such critics as Viktor Shklovsky, Osip Brik, and Boris Arvatov, who argued that the primary goal of art is to defamiliarize everyday perception. In conventional literature, the Formalists believed, the reader has come to expect certain perspectives and techniques; artistic devices have been backgrounded. In the best literature, however, artistic devices should be foregrounded in such a way that habitual modes of perception are disrupted. The result will be that the reader, through his or her disorientation, will suddenly see the object or event described in a fresh way. That, according to Beckett, is just what Proust does. Such an impulse is diametrically opposed to the realist tradition in art, since the purpose of the realist work is to reinforce conventional perception, to background its techniques, and to convince the reader that he or she is not reading a fiction but is actually viewing reality. From Beckett’s point of view, realism is an art which speaks and acts for others, and hence is a lie. Proust’s work, on the other hand, intends to foreground its own processes and makes the reader see anew. In this way it shares much with modern art and literature by such creators as Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce. It also looks forward to the radical experimentation found in the postmodern works produced by such writers as Alain Robbe-Grillet, John Barth, and Beckett himself.