Notebook, 1993-

[From: Moss, Howard. The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust. New York, The MacMillan Company, 1962.] ]

The Magic Lantern
of Marcel Proust

"We contain within ourselves every lost moment of our lives. It is necessary to be made aware that they are lost before we can regain them. Music informs us of this loss without specifying the nature of what we have relinquished. Like time, it tells us everything and nothing . . . . " [pp. 96-97]

" . . . . In truth, Proust reaches for "great laws" through "petty details," and he uses, figuratively, both the microscope and the telescope as instruments of perception.

The microscope and the telescope share in common lenses of magnification. The first deals with the invisibly small; the second with the invisibly distant. As such, the first is an instrument of space, the second an instrument of space-time. When we look at an amoeba under a microscope, what is minute is merely enlarged. We assume that process can be stopped in order to be described. When we look at a star through a telescope, an abstract system of geometry must be brought into play in order to make what we see have meaning, for the star is at a distance that has become transformed into time--time no longer measurable in terms of human consciousness, such as minutes and years, but only in "light years," an abstract concept of the mind that does not proceed from the sense. Empirical description in the microscope is transformed, in the telescope, into conjectural analysis. In the first, we observe phenomena; in the second, we try to understand the laws that govern them.

Proust offers for our inspection slide after slide under a microscope. Just when we think we have looked most closely, he reminds us that what we are looking at is, if not false, certainly partial. We have forgotten about time, which is altering the specimen under the lens as relentlessly as it is altering the observer. Our eyes glued to the aperture, we barely notice that a telescope has been substituted for the microscope.

Like the substance of space-time through which we look up at the stars, the forgotten years that lie behind, or the unsuspected years that stretch ahead of any moment effect the quality of that moment though the perceiver may not be aware of it when it is occurring. Process cannot be arrested, except in death. Even then, it continues in physical decomposition, and because the dead are still able to provoke changes in the living. Proust attempts to do two things at once: to arrest the moment; and to show us the moment hurrying on to qualify itself, to contradict itself, even to nullify itself. No fact or phenomenon is too minute for Proust to examine thoroughly; yet each of these examinations is placed in a structure so vast, seen from a viewpoint so timeless that what at first appears to be a wormÍs-eye view of reality turns out, in the end, to be a dazzling reach of perspective. Like the effect of the "zoom" lens of a camera, we start infinitely close to the object and find the field of vision increasing in depth, distance, and meaning. The microscope-telescope figure is uniquely relative, for no matter how large the small may be made to appear, it remains, always, in ratio to distance.

In Proust, we have two analogical metaphors that have application to the microscope and the telescope. The magic lantern of his boyhood is similar to the microscope. It enlarges the image it projects. Windows are analogous to the telescope. Though no physical magnification takes place, the significance of what is seen by a particular viewer is calibrated in exact ratio to the psychological distance of the viewer from the scene . . . . "[pp. 8-10]

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"Proust uses two other methods to demonstrate the relativity of time to perception: direct statements about it, and indirect shifts in the structure of the novel itself . . . . "[p. 13]

"Revelation in Proust is intensified by the length of time we are made to wait for it, and its power, though it appears to increase through difference, actually increases through similarity. What appears to be different becomes the same, once the specimen has been stained by time. The clarity of the lens, the keenness of the vision behind it, are trifles by comparison. Personality is by nature incongruous, being a product of time. Time, at any given moment, tends to obscure this. Taken as a whole in any given lifetime, it reveals it . . . . "[p. 12]

"If there is a duality in the viewpoint of the novel [Marcel, the observer; Marcel, the observed], in its structure [the two "ways"], and in its theme [the problem of a reality equally perceptible in the opposed dimensions of the microscope and the telescope, the present and the eternal], there is also a duality in its subject matter in plain terms of human consciousness. And that is the important distinction Proust makes between "the name" and "the place" --or, more appropriately, "the thing," for this distinction bears, finally, upon everything. In the Proustian universe, nothing is what it first appears to be: there is a prevision that attaches itself to the mere name of place, people, and events. This early vision is preverbal--not involved with the word per se but the sound of the word.

To a child, names are magical sounds that precede and then identify objects of reality. These must, of necessity, be in the immediate vicinity: familial figures, domestic objects, personal effects. [This childhood fascination with sound is repeated when Marcel is an adult in his description of the cries of the street hawkers of Paris, the names of the railway stops on the "little crawler" that connects Balbec with Douville, and his interest in the etymology of place names and titles.] The magic of a sounded word identifying an object is in direct proportion to the distance of the object, for, imagination intervening, the object may be shaped to the sound in any number of fantastic ways . . . . " [p. 14]

"The sense of place is never disinterested. Wherever one is seems permanently fixed; wherever one is not is invested with glamour. Both notions are illusory. The sense of place merely precedes the sense of dislocation. The security of Combray produces the romance of Balbec, the boredom of Balbec the excitement of Venice. Susceptibility is the key to interest." [p. 15]

"Place, then, is one of the first instigators of expectation and, therefore, one of the cornerstones of disenchantment. It is merely one link in a chain of similar circumstances . . . . " [p. 16]

"But there is still another turn of the screw. Emotions may make illusions of perception. Time can make illusions of the emotions . . . . Though there are as many realities as there are perceivers, one quality of reality can always be taken for granted: it cannot be truly perceived at any point in time without a knowledge of the past and the future. Points of time are artificial and deceptive; they foster the illusion that they are real and complete in themselves.

Proust attempts to get at reality from three points of view at once, the past, the present, and the future. The structure of his book cannot by intention be chronological. It is, rather, centrifugal. The floating narrator, trying to fall asleep, slowly becoming aware of the various rooms and places in which he has lived, might be compared to a spider at the center of a circular web, spinning a world out of his own consciousness. The web, already finished in his own mind, allows him to dart to this point or that on the rim of the circle -- flying away from the center, then back. His books expand successively outward and downward from himself. Or, like a pebble thrown in a pond, each incident in Proust widens out to its farthest perimeter.

The enchantments of the past must always become the disenchantments of the future. But memory, a preservative, may intervene. The embalmer of original enchantments, it is the only human faculty that can outwit the advance of chronological time. Art, the embalmer of memory, is the only human vocation in which the time regained by memory can be permanently fixed. It is these two saving graces that Proust enshrines in a world that has not others. " [pp. 17-18]

" . . . . These extratemporal moments are true revelations and offer us a profound sense of renewal simply because they have been experienced before. The only true paradise is always the paradise we have lost. Time lost is about to be regained in the writing of the novel. The sparks along the internal, wired connections of his nerves can be used to rekindle all the worlds they have ever lit: "But when from a long-distant past no thing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls . . . . and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the vast structure of recollection." [SW 65] [pp. 108-109]

" . . . Circular in structure, its end leads us back to its beginning. The word "time" embedded in the first sentence of the book, rings out grandly as the last word of the novel and brings us once again to where we started. The circle is not one place but exists in three--or to be true to Proust's intentions, four--dimensions. His novel is architectural rather than linear, like the church of Saint Hilarie at Combray which, conquering location by physical mass, derives its energy from the epochs of time that have seeped into its very cells. The material church, absorbing time, can no longer be divorced from it. ProustÍs book is such a monument. Time is a substance as well as a process and all things are immersed in it.

Memory exists outside of time. The beautiful girls at Balbec are not necessarily the hideous, fat dowagers across the room, made monstrous by the years. Their youth dwells, as does our own, within ourselves. It has merely to be recaptured from time where it exists as an eternal moment.

The regaining of time is the true quest of mankind. An instant freed from the order of time in the individual is man liberated from the same order. Time, more deceptive even than memory, can prevent us from knowing this. We assume chronology is succession . . . . Yet, as Proust shows us, he holds the magic lantern that illuminates everything . . . . "[pp. 109-110]

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"Marcel exhausts more than the illusions of love and society; he exhausts the illusion of personality. It is one thing to see that the physical surface of people and things is a delusion; it is quite another to see that, beyond the outwardly perceptible, we come upon a world equally illusory. Nothing exists until it is connected by memory to a former experience; the connection between two nonrealities gives them an existence. A starched napkin has no meaning in itself; Balbec and the sea are forgettable. In the linkage of the two, Blabec and the sea are resurrected.

Love is a disease of the ideal but of enormous value because it informs us of the ideal. Without Albertine, there would be no Rememberance of Things Past. Similarly, sensation is valuable though mortal. It leads us to where immortality may be. Only intelligence is under attack in Proust as a mode of perception. But as only those people who have loved can speak of it as a delusion with authority, it is only through intelligence that one has the privilege of categorizing it. Explaining everything, Proust creates a universe that does not exclude the inexplicable."

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"Proust is the greatest of disenchanters. But only because he was so greatly enchanted. Rememberance of Things Past is a gigantic disappearing act in which the magician vanishes along with his magic in the service of illusion. He does so to prove to us that the illusory is real. By the time we reach the end of Rememberance of Things Past Swann and the Duchesse de Guermantes, upon whom so much time and elucidation have been expended, are revealed at last for what they are. Two human beings in the boyhood of Marcel Proust he once conceived of as gods. Now the true god, the writer, paying homage to the dieties of his childhood, secreting their lives from within himself, confers upon them a genuine immortality. "[p. 110-111]

[Moss, Howard. The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust. New York, The MacMillan Company, 1962.]



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