Thoughts on Proust....

A Focused Life

By: Fereshteh Priou

April 2018

Idleness… is it the root of all evil, as the saying goes, or is it, as Kierkegaard said, a divine life, if one is not bored?… Idle and futile activity, sometimes described as leisure, is typical of a life that lacks focus and purpose. We all need to have a goal that we can set our eyes on and strive to achieve. Without that specific and clear purpose, we put minimum effort in our daily doings and resort to all kinds of meaningless distractions in order to fill our time, appear occupied and avoid boredom. We busy ourselves by partying, drinking, oversleeping or engaging in other idle activities that help us pass time and find amusement. These activities bring us immediate satisfaction without the effort and exertion that any work of substance requires. Our instinctive tendency leans toward avoiding hard work, but we also hate prolonged periods of idleness and prefer doing something rather than nothing. However, doing something without a clear goal to guide us, could render us as cursed as Sisyphus, engaged in futile endeavors to bring superficial meaning and purpose to an absurd life. 

Proust’s writings can be summarized in a simple sentence: find your vocation and your passion and make it your life’s work. Proust admires any quest done with hard work and careful attention. His book is filled with characters from all walks of life and with all kinds of pursuits. Whether it is Elstir the painter, Vinteuil the musician, Cottard the doctor, Burma the actress or Bergotte the author, they all follow their passions and find satisfaction in what they do. Even Françoise the maid is praised for the care and attention she puts into serving the family. Proust beautifully describes her careful planning, shopping and preparing family’s daily meals and compares her food preparation to an artistic creation, such as a musical piece or a painting. Despite the menial and repetitive nature of her work, her life has meaning and she is therefore happy. 

Proust’s book is also filled with idle characters who waste life on meaningless activities. One of these characters is Aunt Leonie-- an elderly woman spending her days in her bedroom feigning a total lack of interest in the outside world; nevertheless, she watches the happenings of the village from her window, getting excited at the sight of any unknown creature. Any man, woman, child or even a dog that she doesn’t recognize rattles her. In her idleness, she lets her imagination concoct great misdeeds by her servants whom she perceives as thieves and miscreants. Another is Mme. Verdurin, a rich socialite who runs a tightly controlled salon where her little clan gathers at her wish. They have to adhere to her strict rules of conduct or else. She eventually manages, through the power of her fortune, to reach the highest echelon of respectability by marrying an aristocrat. We can say that she has fulfilled her life’s goal, in a way, but the ultimate futility of her life and the pettiness of her behavior do not escape the reader.

Even Charles Swann who has literary ambitions and has been forever working on an essay on Vermeer, whiles away his life in pursuing Odette de Crécy with whom he has fallen in love. He eventually marries her, but in the end he regrets it because he realizes that she is not really his type and that his love was for an image he had created of her in his head. In Swann, Proust depicts a character who is a total failure, and an example of a man of high potential and low focus.

Proust even describes love, especially obsessive love, as a form of idleness which can be all-consuming. Like Swann, the narrator falls in love with a girl called Albertine, but he is frustrated with not being able to know her true feelings about him. He struggles with his inability to possess fully her mind and her thoughts, failing to realize that to possess a person in any manner is an impossibility and any attempt of the kind is futile. Their relationship is a sort of tug of war fueled by obsession, jealousy and rage which does not allow for any other pursuits. This obsession and jealousy eventually forces her to flee the circumstances that make her feel like a prisoner. That is when the narrator himself feels free from the obsessive pattern of the life he was leading and can finally focus on his literary ambition.

Although Proust praises the idea of a meaningful life, he does not hide the fact that the narrator of his book spends his whole life in futility, albeit an intellectual one, full of reflective moments. The narrator is a social climber who does nothing other than attending aristocratic gatherings and seeking the company of blue-blooded Parisian nobility. He coordinates his daily walks to encounter Duchesse de Guermantes on her daily outings and give her a salute with the tip of his hat and make himself known to her. He flatters persons of influence in order to get an invitation to a much sought-after society event that is attended by the crème de la crème of elite society. But this idleness of the narrator is depicted as a good thing. The sluggish life for him and for Proust himself is a voluntary inactivity that becomes the nourishment that feeds their imagination. While idling his life away, the narrator continuously reflects on various matters such as love, life, friendship, death, art, imagination and memory. He reflects on the past and his memories of his childhood using a writing style described as stream of consciousness. As an old man, the narrator reflects on his life experiences and finds redemption through his writing; he uses his memories of those times to inspire his literary ambitions and write about his search for memories, of the past and for the lost time.

Article by: Fereshteh Priou - April 2018