Fereshteh Priou

Thoughts on Proust....


By: Fereshteh Priou

December 2016


Proust often makes observations about objects in his writing. For him, objects are not only material things one can own, such as a painting or a family heirloom, but also things of a broader dimension or an abstract concept such as a city, a church, a musical phrase or even a name or an idea. One thing that most objects have in common is that they reawaken an involuntary memory. The Madeleine, the view of the church in Cambray, and Vinteuil’s musical phrase are a few examples. In the last volume of Proust’s book, “Time Regained,” the narrator falls upon a book that his mother read to him as a child, and suddenly the images of that long-ago time rush back into his mind. He is overwhelmed, not sure whether it’s the red leather binding of the book or the words within the book that revive these memories. The object is either the book or the words - the boundaries between material and immaterial are no longer distinct. The passage beautifully describes the strong force an object has on our subconscious.

In his writing, Proust describes objects either as familiar ones that comfort us or unfamiliar ones that make us uneasy. His readers vividly remember the narrator’s reflections, as a young child, of the magic lantern in “Swann’s Way.” He describes in great detail how the lantern, set as a shade on top of his lamp only on some evenings, looms maliciously over his bedroom creating all kinds of shadows, colors and imagery on the walls that keep him awake. The lantern is not an everyday object in his surroundings and the foreignness of it daunts him. Later on the narrator as a young man describes his first night at the hotel room at Balbec where he is spending the summer with his grandmother. He talks about the clock, the curtain and other items in his unfamiliar hotel room depriving him of his sleep. During his subsequent visits, these objects lose their threatening aspect because they are no longer unfamiliar. The habit removes the threatening aspect and makes the object recede into oblivion.

Proust also explores our attachment to our belongings and the sense of comfort that they bring us. We are all materialistic beings and objects without doubt fascinate us, but they also comfort us. In Proust’s book, Mr. & Mrs. Verdurins transport their furniture and paintings with them to the already fully furnished vacation house they rent for the summer. They want to recreate the comfortable and known environment of their Parisian home by surrounding themselves with familiar objects while away from home. This is a natural tendency in many of us. Babies often get attached to a toy and can't sleep without holding it. The toy comforts the baby, hence the term security blanket. Children also habitually have a hard time letting go of their toys and must be taught to share them with other kids. As we age, we sometimes continue to feel the same attraction and attachment to objects and the same urge to own them.

Apart from comfort, objects help us to be perceived by others in a particular way. One of the characters of Proust’s book, Duchess de Guermantes, has paintings by an unknown painter called Elstir hung in an obscure room in her house. Once Elstir becomes famous the artwork is transported and hung in the drawing room for all to see. This is because we sometimes feel that our possessions define us, and some even view their standing within their society by what they own. An expensive car, a designer bag, or a state of the art gadget makes certain people feel that we belong to a desired class. We tend to believe that through objects we can impress others and show our importance and success. 

We also treasure certain objects for the memories they carry. This concept is present in Proust’s writing. Proust believed objects retained something of the eyes which looked at them. We associate certain memories with an object and the object etches a certain image into our mind and occupies forever a definite place in our consciousness. The memories of the person who gave us an object or the circumstances of the place and the time we acquired it, make it special. An object that has been in the family carries strong history and memory through its connection with the people we feel close to. Or the object could be something we purchase. Is it because the first time we set eyes on it, we found its beauty touching and irresistible? Does it remind us of that particular time and place and we like to renew the memory of that special moment by owning the item? There are many possibilities that attach us to the objects that surround us.

This memory concept enables an object to have a tight grip on us. We feel desperate if we lose a beloved object. In reality, the attachment we have to the objects we own is not evident to us until we lose possession of the treasured item. We mourn a cherished broken vase or a lost heirloom piece of jewelry that we might have taken for granted, completely ignored, or forgotten while we owned it. Proust says that it is with careful attention that we acquire an object, and with the force of habit that we dispatch it into oblivion. But this oblivion vanishes if we lose the object. This is evident when you see people who have lost their belongings in a disaster such as a flood or fire. They walk around like ghosts going through the remnants of what is left.

The ownership of an object in itself is a curious concept. Things we own can enrich our lives, but they can also become a burden. In some cases, it becomes a psychological issue such as with hoarders, who become consumed and obsessed with things. They cannot let go of the items they own, even old T-shirts or old newspapers. They are in a way a collector with an undiscriminating view. Everything is precious to them. This could become a great problem, making one wonder whether the individual owns the object or the object owns the individual.

To accept that our belongings continue to exist long after we are long gone is to acknowledge our mortality. Therefore we amass things as if we will exist forever or as if we are going to take it with us. We will eventually leave our things behind, but without us, they will be objects empty of meaning. They become mere stuff, until they find another owner who will associate his or her own memories with them and gives them fresh voice. Marcel Proust left behind the ultimate object, the gift of his creation that gained a life of its own by bringing pleasure to all his readers, without letting the force of habit transform it into an ordinary object.

Article by: Fereshteh Priou - December 2016