We think of our century as the age of innovation and technological advances, forgetting that those who lived at the turn of the last century also thought of their era as a time of incredible technological advances such as the advent of aviation, as well as the invention of photography, cinema and the telephone among many other new and incredible modern discoveries of that era. Like any new thing that has not yet been subjected to the force of habit, a force which transforms all extraordinary things into ordinary, Proust was in awe and wrote about these innovations in a manner that we can easily relate to. He observed these inventions with an amusingly philosophical, often poetic and yet a keen eye that perfectly illustrates the newness of it all. Reading his reflections on new advances of his time, reminds us at how strange we felt when we first had to leave a voice message or how sending an e-mail only a decade or two ago was a novelty that needed getting used to.
Proust loved the changes made to the City of Paris under Napoleon III. The sewer, the catacomb, the metro and the large parks were all projects initiated during that period. He lovingly talks about the wide avenues and the change of light at the Pont des Invalids and the gas lights that bring an eerie effect during the crepuscule. A wealthy man due to his inheritances, he invested heavily - but not always successfully - in the stock market. He knew the value of innovation and enjoyed looking for companies that were engaged in the state-of-the-art, revolutionary machines and ideas.
To explore Proust’s thoughts on modernization, we focus on three innovations of the time, the telephone, photography and aviation.
Proust reflects on love as a sensation that creates a vortex of perpetual motion and unrest. The turbulence created by this emotion might cause one to forget the exact features of the face of the beloved when he or she is not present. The narrator of In Search of Lost Times thinks of a photo as a constant reviver of the memory of the face of the woman he is in love with at that point in time. As an adolescent, Proust’s narrator fell in love with Gilberte, but when they were not together, he couldn’t remember her exact features – only an idea of her – which was most probably the reason he fell in love with her in the first place. A photograph therefore, was a treasured image. He also speaks metaphorically about the development process of a photograph by comparing the memories of a loved one to the negatives of a photo that we develop when alone with our “thoughts”, or in his words; “our inner darkroom”.
The telephone is another innovation that leaves Proust in a state of wonderment. Hearing the voice of someone who is miles away, living in a completely different place than us seems completely normal nowadays, but back then it was something almost magical. Proust’s narrator has his first experience of a phone call in a provincial town where he places a call to his grandmother in Paris. Proust skillfully describes the effect of a phone call to a person he habitually conversed with face to face. The narrator always talked to his grandmother while looking at her and seeing her features, especially her eyes. On the phone call, her voice engages only one of his senses, his sense of hearing. He does not recognize the voice at first. A voice he thought he knew so well appeared on the phone as if he was hearing it for the first time. The effect of this isolated engagement of one sense heightens its power and intensity to the point of reversing one’s preconceived ideas of certain experiences.
Airplanes were another mysterious innovation that tickled Marcel Proust’s curiosity. Commercial aviation was a byproduct of the use of planes as a tool of terror in the skies during World War I. Proust found the apparition of these iron birds in the skies amazing and compared them to visions of gods in the Greek mythology. Planes had another important significance for Proust. His secretary and lover, Alfred Agoustinelli was killed in a plane crash that devastated the author.
Proust not only recognized the technological feat of being able to fly in an airplane, but also the intellectual impact of it. The narrator of his book bursts into tears when he sees for the first time, a plane flying above while he rides his horse in the woods. The emotion is caused by the realization that this is a god-like creature offering freedom not only because flying does suggest a certain liberty, but also because the newness of flying implies freedom from being a prisoner of “habit”. He is also moved by the realization that this innovation is one that signifies the start of a vaster connection among citizens of the world.
Proust contrasts the sharpness of a new discovery with the dullness of old conventions. He illustrates how an invention can hone a sense to the point of altering an old voice to a foreign sound that fills one with uneasiness. But on the other hand, a novel thing also offers us an exhilarating freedom. Proust famously said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Modernity affords us new eyes to look at the world with immense wonder and excitement.