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Proust's Solitude

Dernière mise à jour : 7 avr. 2023

Extracts from :

Une Chambre Mentale: Proust’s Solitude

by Jon Kear

"Few writer’s rooms are quite so emblematic as the strange solipsistic environment of Proust’s cork-lined bedchamber at his second storey apartment at no.102 Boulevard Haussmann, and fewer still have acquired such an integral relationship to the understanding of its author.

Yet, the relationship of literature to the place in which it is produced has generally been a neglected issue in literary studies. This matter immediately raises a number of questions about how we conceive of such a relationship. What relationship exists between the space that Proust wrote in and the work he created, and did his ideas about literature shape the environment he created to write in ?

In a period of the ascendance of biographical approaches and the increasing consciousness of authors and artists about their public persona, to what extent does Proust’s apartment need to be seen not simply as a private space but as a space of literary self-fashioning ? In short are we to see the author’s apartment simply as a passive context for writing or as part of the actual conditions of literary production ?

Proust moved into the apartment at the boulevard Haussmann, one of the fashionable new Parisian boulevards, in 1906, and it was here he began A la recherché du temps perdu. It might be said that it was while he was at this address that he first became a novelist, for despite a prolific output of short stories, literary sketches and criticism for newspapers and symbolist reviews, to date his early aspirations as a novelist had resulted in only the aborted Jean Santeuil.

Proust was to stay at the Boulevard Haussmann for the next thirteen years semi-invalided for much of the time due to the gradual worsening of severe asthma he had contracted as a child, and it was in the apartment’s bedroom that doubled as a studio, he wrote most of the manuscript of his novel. The apartment on the Boulevard Haussmann therefore holds a special place in accounts of the writer’s life and his quest to become a writer.


Proust's bedroom (musée Carnavalet)

By the end of the nineteenth century discourses on metropolitan life had become increasingly focused on alarmist fears about the depleting effect of the conditions of modern urban existence, which was widely regarded as producing neurasthenia. Such concerns spurred on new psychiatric research into neurosis and scientific investigations into various forms of perceptual and attention deficit disorders, of which the synaesthesia so often cultivated by writers associated with Symbolism, was taken to be one example.

Charcot’s investigations into the suggestibility of patients under hypnosis seemed to offer evidence of just such influence operating below the threshold of consciousness. His research provided a conception of the subject as neither really defined, permanent or

stationary but rather as illusive and floating, multiple and intermittent and as such continually subject to the febrile suggestive power of the external environment.

Charcot’s characterisation of the furtive influence of external factors and unconscious forces on the subject’s psyche profoundly compromised the idea of the bourgeois subject as an autonomous individual with a clearly defined personality and the ability to exercise free will.

The new modern interior was thus conceived as a soothing, regenerative and appropriately vitalising envelopment to counter the perceived anxieties, exhausting pace, spatially de-natured and the over stimulating sensory barrage of the modern city that passified mental will, eroded nerve fibres and penetrated deep into the subject’s psyche.

The modern interior thus became seen as an alternative self-sufficient realm, emblematic of self-fashioning, a space at once removed from the contingencies of modernity but whose decor combining evocations of natural imagery, dreams and allusive fantasy constructed an alternative realm of the virtual, that substituted for the frenetic and depleting public realm. In short the modern interior became a place where a form of self-fashioned subjecthood reasserted itself over the divided self that inhabited the public domain.

Such ideas provide a general context in which to understand Proust’s secluded living arrangements. However, in contrast to the new modern interior filled with objets luxe designed either for aesthetic contemplation or revitalising visual stimulation, Proust’s apartment seems by comparison remarkably spare and minimalist.

Visitors frequently remarked on the drabness and dimness of his cell like bedroom, of Proust’s apparent indifference to the aesthetics of interior design, exemplified in his exclusion of almost all images from the walls of his bedroom, and the lack of taste of his furnishings, which Proust himself mockingly described as a

"triumph of bourgeois bad taste”.

Unlike the Goncourts whose apartment was constructed as an intimate, nostalgic space of reverie that provided an alternative world to the modernity of Haussmanisation, or the fictional Des Esseintes’ elaborate and visually palpitating interiors in Huysmans A rebours (1883), Proust’s apartment was arranged as a space that restricted not only visual and aural stimulous from the outside world but visual, aural and even olfactory distractions from within.

As Albaret’s memoir details, the hypersensitive Proust went to exceptional lengths to control the sights, smells and most particularly the sounds he was subjected to.

Céleste Albaret

Of these senses Proust regarded sound as the most aggressive and intrusive of the senses (the ear, as an always open instrument was perpetually vulnerable to external assault. Likewise, acutely sensitive to smell, Proust banned all flowers, perfumes and polishes from the apartment and food was ordered from local restaurants to protect the author’s defenceless nose from the unbearable aromas of cooking.

This sensory inhibition became more extensive as time wore on. The telephone and théatrophone, on which Proust used to listen to music and plays piped directly into his bedroom, were removed toward the end of 1914. The radical restriction of visual and aural sensation within the writer’s studio stands in direct contrast to the importance of these sensations in the novel itself and the privileged place the senses occupy in provoking the involuntary memories that retrieve the past (most especially taste and touch which Proust described as baring unflinchingly “in the tiny and almost palpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection”.

An extraordinary division exists between the detailed sensory description of A la recherché du temps perdu and the withdrawn consciousness that self-reflexively recalls, meticulously analyses and reflects upon its meanings. Despite Proust’s professed Cartesian denigration of the senses, particularly sight and sound, as deceptive, few writers have written so unremittingly from the senses. A la recherche du temps perdu could be described as an observatory of visual constellations in which the pleasures of a conscientious curiosité is ever present and the pleasures of visual description take centre stage.

As Malcolm Bowie has written, the seizing of every opportunity for enlarging, multiplying, clarifying, analysing and deepening perception of the succession of images, sensations and appearances that make up the narrator’s field of perception articulates a desiring optics, that imitates scientific scrutiny in its quest for precision.

The array of optical instruments and contraptions and the various forms of visual representation, transmission and projection, from painting, to photography, to magic lantern shows, constitutes a forceful presence in the novel. A similar point can be made about sound. The inhibition of sound in Proust’s studio similarly contrasts with the emphasis on sounds and in particular on music in the novel, as well as the particular savour Proust took in representing the rhythms and intonation of speech.

It is as though this restriction of sensory perception had become the precondition of Proust’s productivity, that the force of the representation of sensation in A la recherche du temps perdu had for Proust become founded on its exclusion from his existence as a writer, as if, Proust was aspiring to a condition of innocence from which sensation could be experienced purely cerebrally and entirely afresh and thus, experienced as such, become the powerful vehicle of involuntary memory.

In this regard, as Diana Fuss has remarked it is significant that in Le Côté de Guermantes the narrator, in a series of synaesthetic passages, twice invokes the image of deafness as a paradigm of creativity and rebirth:

“take away for a moment from the sick man the cotton-wool that has been stopping his ears and in a flash the broad daylight, the dazzling sun of sound dawns afresh, blinding him” and later dreams of “an Eden, in which sound has not yet been created”.

This episode parallels the statement by the painter Monet, who Proust much admired, of wishing to see afresh as though he had been born blind and suddenly regained sight.

As this suggests, Proust’s preoccupation with progressively inhibiting particular kinds of sensation associated with the social and environmental distractions of the modern urban milieu in his living arrangements reflects more than a desire to create a secluded space apart in which to write. His attempts to exert greater and greater control over his physical environment and to isolate himself from the social world he depicts was intricately

connected to the particular understanding of the conditions of literary production that was emerging in his writing.

The conception of the interior as a sanctuary was a disciplinary mechanism of sorts, a place to conserve his fragile energy, protect his nerves in order to focus his attention on the great novel he had as yet failed to realise, certainly, but it also implied a theory of literary production. Indeed, Proust constantly reflected on the conditions, both environmental and psychological, he regarded as necessary for him to write.

While these reflections were by no means unprecedented, rather they emerge out of a Symbolist intellectual milieu that, rejecting the empiricism of realism, saw the ostensible disengagement with modern life as a prerequisite of true artistic creation, the importance Proust placed on solitary reflection takes on a deeper and more complex meaning in relation to the distinction he drew between the "moi social" and the "moi profond" he regarded as essential to creative processes of writing and able to be materialized only through and in the act of writing.

This distinction, is first properly elaborated in his essay Contre Sainte-Beuve, one of a series of pieces in which he takes issue with the positivism of France’s then leading literary critic, where he writes:

“A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, our social life and our vices.”

The act of writing thus conceived becomes a matter of making contact with the

"deep self which is rediscovered only by abstracting oneself from other people and the self that knows other people, the self that has been waiting while one was with other people, the self one feels is the only real self; artists end up by living for this alone.”

For Proust the social self lacked depth and unity, being comprised of only the momentary expressions of a public persona, a surface or superficial selfhood that is conditioned by the company or circumstances the subject finds itself in. It is only when the self is no longer at the mercy of others, Proust argues, when we are solitary and isolated from the words and voices of others that we find ourselves again.


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