Sunday, 27 November 2011
In the Shadow of Blossoming Young Girls
I've at last reached the end of the first third of A la Recherche, a re-reading project I mentioned way back in April. Marvellous throughout, but interesting to see how Proust saves some of his profoundest reflections on art via the painter Elstir ( ironically offset by the narrator's beautifully-drawn, flirtatious liaisons with Albertine and her friends) for the last few hundred pages of A L'Ombre de Jeunes Filles en Fleur (how did Montcrieff ever get away with calling it 'Within a Budding Grove'?). There' ve been various speculations on which artist Elstir is modelled on, although this passage makes him sound rather Cezanne-like:
The effort made by Elstir to strip himself, when face to face with reality, of every intellectual concept, was all the more admirable in that this man who, before sitting down to paint, made himself deliberately ignorant, forgot, in his honesty of purpose, everything that he knew, since what one knows ceases to exist by itself, had in reality an exceptionally cultivated mind.
All important literature (and this is the essence of its importance) imprints the reader for a short time at least with its own distinctive rhythms, syntax, perspectives and colourings - a distillation (at some remove) of the author's individual world-view. There are few books this is more true of than Proust's A la Recherche: reading it on the tube each morning and coming out at Liverpool Street during rush-hour felt like a wonderful corrective - through sheer contrast and opposition - to the chaotic, money-minded, workaday world I was entering.
It made me consider how Proust's mode of perception - endlessly concatenating, imaginatively generous, evasive about pinning down a thought or impression whose implications are potentially infinite - might be as impossible to sustain in our short-attention-span, quick-fix society as the kind of leisured middle- and upper-class milieu Proust depicts would be impossible now to aspire towards politically or socially.
To borrow that rare mode of aesthetic perception, however, albeit briefly, can only amount to a beneficial widening of consciousness, a glimpse beyond the dumbed-down, black-and-white reductiveness and desensitisation we are continually, cynically fed.