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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Nine, in which Proust is read with Binoculars

Roger Shattuck, in his book Proust's Binoculars: A Study of Memory, Time, and Recognition in "A la recherche du temps perdu", posits that this novel is a book of disenchantments.

The privileged moments experienced by the narrator define his "profoundest sense of reality--a fleeting recreation of the past in the present, conferring a rare and pleasurable sensation of timelessness."

The narrator speaks of looking at his experiences at the Guermantes' dinner party through an "interior stereoscope." He speaks of seeing things double in time as one might see something double in space. This is the basis for Shattuck's theory, that Proust's idea of memory is a "stereoscopic or stereologic consciousness which sees the world simultaneously (and thus out if time) in relief." He makes the meaning of this idea clear, and reveals the form and reason of the novel's structure of interval and forgetting: "Merely to remember something is meaningless unless the remembered image is combined with a moment in the present affording a view of the same object or objects. Like our eyes, our memories must see double;..." The novel is structured, and the narrator's experiences revealed, in the binocular nature of human vision: "the disagreement between the two different versions of space which reach our consciousness from two separated eyes." It is the combination of slightly dissimilar images in memory that provides the most accurate perceptions.

Part of the feeling of intimacy so many have noted may be a result of what Shattuck calls "a series of inconglomerate thought processes" by which we identify and follow the narrator. It is an unusual mixture of personal memories described with the thoughts as they happened, and past events reconstructed with thoughts in hindsight.

Proust's first uncompleted novel, Jean Santeuil, was discovered about twenty years after his death. Justin O'Brien found in it the germ of In Search of Lost Time, although Proust "has not yet learned to orchestrate his themes. The greatest value of this volume ... is to make the world appreciate at last the ingenious composition of his more familiar definitive work--the very quality upon which, as it was least apparent at first, he himself most insisted." In a letter to Paul Souday, Proust wrote, "My composition is veiled and its outline only gradually perceptible because it unfolds on so vast a scale."

Shattuck believes that forgetting in the novel is just as important as remembering, that having forgotten provides the temporal distance between memories that gives relief similar to that rendered by the spacial distance between our eyes. As a working formula for the novel, we can see the reason behind its length, and are provided with a clue in the brilliant final paragraph of the overture, which closes the opening so satisfactorily that it could stand alone, while at the same time acts as the most beautiful opening sequence to the grand drama which follows, most specifically:
I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy....

Read the rest of the sweet and saucy chapter at Involuntary Memory.

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