Proust on the Benefits & Limitations of Reading

It is a truth universally acknowledged that reading contributes to the public good.  As any librarian or public service announcement will tell you, the benefits of reading are too many to count.  libraryNot only does reading magnify our capacity for empathy and strengthen our ability to be open-minded, it fortifies the foundations of democracy itself.  On the societal level, literacy reduces crime, fosters freer, more stable governments, and promotes social activism.  Books empower us with the tools to be strong critical thinkers and bestow us with the gift of words to depict our world.  Books are museums, ways of preserving the wisdom of our collective past, and crystal balls that grant us insight into our possible futures.  Books are medicines that can cure almost any ailment, from the most life-threatening bouts of existential angst to more common cases of hard-to-place melancholy.  Books are lamps and life rafts, friends and teachers, time machines and time capsules.  “We read to remember.  We read to forget.  We read to make ourselves and remake ourselves and save ourselves,” Maria Popova once said.

British philosopher Alain De Botton insists reading has yet another benefit: it sensitizes us.  In our hyper-exposed era where we’re relentlessly besieged by sexualized images, disturbing portrayals of violence, and tasteless profanity, books offer a bastion against the inhumane forces working to desensitize us.  Rather than blunt our ability to feel distress at scenes of cruelty or anesthetize us to brutality, books make us feel: love, empathy.  And because they describe what we usually neglect— the wrinkled topography of someone’s face, the sky on a cold December morning— they can stir us from our semi-conscious stupor and remind us life is endlessly fascinating if we only pause to look. 

In his charming self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same trove of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and avoid the enticing lure of platitude and cliche, Botton argues Proust’s adoration for British art critic John Ruskin is an example of the power of books to transform us.  Proust first discovered Ruskin when he was one thousand pages into writing his first novel Jean Santeuil.  “The universe suddenly regained infinite value in my eyes,” he said of reading the great Victorian author.  Proust was so taken with Ruskin that he abandoned his novel and spent the next three years translating his idol’s prolific body of work into French. 

So why did Ruskin have such a tremendous impact on the budding author?  Botton hypothesizes in Ruskin “he found experiences that he had never been more than semiconscious of raised and beautifully assembled in language.”  Though at some level Proust surely recognized the grandeur of northern France’s great cathedrals before reading Ruskin, Ruskin helped him more keenly experience their beauty and, in so doing, restored to him a bit of the world.  In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the influential critic minutely described one particular statue in Rouen Cathedral, a figure of a little man carved into one of the structure’s magnificent portals.  Proust had never noticed the statue before.  But by writing with the same heartfelt attention a portrait painter pays to his subject, Ruskin showed Proust that the statue was worthwhile and that, perhaps, life was as well:  

“For Proust, Ruskin’s concern for the little man had effected a kind of resurrection, one characteristic of great art.  He had known how to look at this figure, and had hence brought it back to life for succeeding generations.  Ever polite, Proust offered a playful apology to the little figure for that would have been his own inability to notice him without Ruskin as a guide (“I would not have been clever enough to find you, amongst the thousands of stones in our towns, to pick out your figure, to rediscover your personality, to summon you, to make you live again”).  It was a symbol for what Ruskin had done for Proust, and what all books might do for their readers— namely, bring back to life, from the deadness caused by habit and inattention, valuable yet neglected aspects of experience.”

monet's cathedrals

But though books possess the conscious-raising power to reinvigorate our senses and revive us from the numbing effects of over-exposure and habit, they have their limitations.  Yes, reading writers we admire can be inspiring (what a joy to revel in the inexplicable pleasure of a graceful sentence, a delight to discover a beautifully-crafted arrangement of words!).  And yes, a brilliant book can sometimes be an effective antidote for writer’s block: a prescription of Proust, for example, can inspire us to more deeply delve in our own characters’ psychology; a pill of Plath can rouse us to write with raw emotional ferocity; a spoonful of Anais Nin can rekindle our passion for the poetic aspects of language, leading us to play with figures of speech and write with more elegance and delicacy.  

But when we worship an author too fervently, he becomes the cruel yardstick with which we measure our own efforts.  “Why can’t we write with Didion’s understated restraint?” we wonder, unable to scribble a single sentence since reading her landmark essay “Why I Write.”  “Why can’t my sentences sing with the lyrical simplicity of Solnit’s?  Or mesmerize with the exquisite beauty and intricacy of Fitch?  It is often we bookish writers who find ourselves most debilitated by self-hatred and self-doubt.  Because we’re so well-versed in the canon— or, as Matthew Arnold once termed, “the best that’s been thought and said”— we possess a centuries-old library in the shelves of our heads, hundreds upon hundreds of volumes with which to compare ourselves.  When we craft a sharp bit of wordplay, we might momentarily delight in our own cleverness only to glance backward and see the towering presence of Shakespeare himself.  Our attempts at double entendre are god-awful compared to his.  Certainly our wit will never be a match for the bard’s! 

So though reading is invaluable to a writer’s formation, too much reading can discourage us from writing at all.  After all, why put pen to page if x, y and z author has already said what you wanted to say and said it better?  Even the most talented writers have opened the pages of their favorite novels and felt a terrible sense of their own inadequacy.  Take titan of modernism Virginia Woolf.  Despite her indisputable genius, she— too— suffered agonizing periods of self-doubt after encountering what she thought was the work of a superior writer.  In a 1922 letter to English painter and fellow member of the Bloomsbury Group, Roger Fry, she raved about In Search of Lost Time, the magnum opus of Mr. Marcel Proust:

“Well – what remains to be written after that?  I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.  How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped – and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance?  One has to put the book down and gasp.”

Virginia Woolf

Reading Proust, Woolf felt nothing short of wonderstruck.  She was astounded by his facility with language, his ability to weave a story with both the “utmost sensitivity” and “utmost tenacity.”  So in awe was she of his talents that she came to question her own.  She wanted desperately to write like Proust but her attempts at imitation revealed— much to her dismay— that she could only write like herself.  Later she told Fry:

“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence.  Oh if I could write like that!  I cry.  And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures— there’s something sexual in it— that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t.”  

Even after writing Mrs. Dalloway, a masterpiece of never-before-seen stream-of-consciousness that would come to be regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century, Woolf still felt herself lacking.  “I wonder if this time I have achieved something?” she confessed in her diary, “Well, nothing anyhow compared to Proust…he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.” 

Thankfully, Woolf didn’t let her admiration for Proust discourage her too much: she continued to write and would go on to publish such ground-breaking novels as The Waves and To the Lighthouse.  But hers is still a cautionary tale: we shouldn’t exalt human beings to the status of idols.  If our admiration for an author slips into adulation, if we glorify books as if they were bibles, we’ll eventually discount our own talent.  The result?  The Virginia Woolfs of the world will try to write the next In Search of Lost Time instead of To the Lighthouse.  Or, convinced they’ll never reach the same literary heights as their heroes, they’ll surrender to despair and not write at all.

Proust on How Cliche Narrows Our Perceptions & the Obligation of the Artist to Create His Own Language

Proust praised his friend Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld’s novel The Lover and the Doctorproust as a “superb, tragic work of complex and consummate craftsmanship” but criticized its reliance on cliches: “There are some fine big landscapes in your novel,” Proust began, “but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality.  It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.”

Why, we might ask, did Proust loathe the cliched phrase?  After all, when we break up with someone, isn’t it occasionally true that “it’s not you, it’s me”?  Don’t beautiful women have “long blonde hair”?  Aren’t attractive men usually of the “tall, dark, and handsome” variety?  For a cliche to gain popularity and enter the common idiom, it must have at one time expressed a truth in a never-before-seen way.  To describe a tidy girl as “neat as a pin” or a quick wit as “sharp as a tack” once was an original articulation.  At first, these phrases had flavor, spice.  But with overuse, such expressions became insipid and trite. 

Nearly all writers share Proust’s distaste for cliche.  “Anything you’ve heard or read before is a cliche,” Janet Fitch once told an interviewer, “If you’re a writer, you have to invent from scratch.”  Francine Du Plessix Gray agreed.  “Combat the embrace of all words that are too long married,” she instructed her pupils.  In a wonderfully un-cliched metaphor, she likened the tired phrase to tepid sex, a “form of verbal missionary position.”  For her, good writing was intoxicating, passionate, hot-blooded.  A writer who didn’t titillate us with his every word was a writer who failed in his one goal: to seduce us.

In his delightful self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same compendium of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and remember the benefits and limitations of reading, British philosopher Alain De Botton argues we should avoid cliches “because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”  The problem with stale expressions is not only that they bore instead of captivate our audience— they are too imprecise and vague.  And when our language is inexact— general instead of specific, superficial instead of complex— so is our experience.  Like Rebecca Solnit, who maintained “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness,” Botton believes how we describe the world determines how we perceive it.  We all write our own stories.  But if we only depict life in the most unoriginal terms, we’ll only see it in the most unoriginal ways.  Art which is truly novel, on the other hand, has the “ability to restore to our sight a distorted or neglected aspect of reality.”  A fresh portrayal of something mundane, like Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, can resuscitate us from the slumber of our customary ways of seeing and help us understand the world in a new way:

“In 1872, the year after Proust was born, Claude Monet exhibited a canvas entitled Impression, Sunrise.  It depicted the harbor of Le Havre at dawn, and allowed viewers to discern, through a thick morning mist and a medley of unusually choppy brushstrokes, the outline of an industrial seafront, with an array of cranes, smoking chimneys, and buildings.  

The canvas looked a bewildering mess to most who saw it, and particularly irritated the critics of the day, who pejoratively dubbed its creator and the loose group to which he belonged ‘impressionists,’ indicating that Monet’s control of the technical side of painting was so limited that all he had been able to achieve was a childish daubing, bearing precious little resemblance to what dawns in Le Havre actually look like.  

The contrast with the judgement of the art establishment a few years later could hardly have been greater.  It seemed that not only could the Impressionists use the brush after all, but that their technique was masterful at capturing a dimension of visual reality overlooked by less talented contemporaries.  What could explain such a dramatic reappraisal?  Why had Monet’s Le Havre been a great mess, then a remarkable representation of a Channel port?  

The Proustian answer starts with the idea that we are all in the habit of ‘giving to what we feel a form of expression which differs so much from, and which we nevertheless after a little time take to be, reality itself.’  

In this view, our notion of reality is at variance with actual reality, because it is so often shaped by inadequate or misleading accounts.  Because we are surrounded by cliched depictions of the world, our initial response to Monet’s Impression, Sunrise may well be to balk and complain that Le Havre looks nothing like that…If Monet is a hero in this scenario, it is because he has freed himself from the traditional, and in some ways limited, representations of Le Havre, in order to attend more closely to his own, uncorrupted impressions of the scene.”  

impression sunrise

A stylist who fashioned his own distinct manner of expression, Proust believed artists had a single responsibility: to develop an authentic voice.  “Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own tone,” he wrote.  No path is more difficult or disheartening than the path to discover our own style: the trail is not straight and clear-cut but winding, obstructed by the overgrown shrubbery of insecurity and self-doubt.  We worry that our ideas are stupid and unoriginal, that we’re not talented or witty or interesting enough.  So we make feeble attempts to be other people, at various times imitating the controlled compactness of Hemingway and the ritzy lyricism of Fitzgerald.  Writing begins with mimicry, impersonation.  But, for Proust, a “writer” only earns the elevated title of “artist” when he finally strips away the costumes of his idols and finds the confidence to dress like himself.

While Proust contended the artist had an obligation to create his own language, leading man of letters and literary editor of La Revue de Paris Louis Ganderax believed the writer had a duty to adhere to the established rules of the language.  At one time appointing himself “Defender of the French Language,” Ganderax was a linguistic traditionalist who took offense to the slightest deviation from conventional grammar, the kind of pompous purist for whom the use of “good” instead of “well” was an unforgivable faux pas.  According to his philosophy of art, literature had to sound literary: a good writer was one who wrote with the grandiloquence of his 19th century forefathers.  Proust despised this overblown mode of expression.  When in 1908, he came upon an excerpt from Ganderax’s preface to Georges Bizet’s collection of correspondence, he laughed, calling it a piece of “enormous, comic pretension.”  So outraged was he that he wrote to George Bizet’s wife, Madame Straus:

“‘Why, when he can write so well, does he write as he does?’  ‘Why, when one says ‘1871,’ add ‘that most abominable of all years,’  Why is Paris dubbed ‘the great city’ and Delaunay ‘the master painter’?  Why must emotion inevitably be ‘discreet’ and good-naturedness ‘smiling’ and bereavements ‘cruel’, and countless other fine phrases that I can’t remember?'” 

proust #2But what, exactly, was so terrible about Ganderax’s prose?  Because Ganderax insisted on upholding the traditions of his literary predecessors, Proust believed, he could only spew the most meaningless cliches and banal ideas.  The result was a parody of literary-ness, writing that perhaps sounded sophisticated but contributed nothing new or interesting to the topic.  “I don’t mean to say that I like original writers who write badly,” he clarified to Mrs. Straus, “I prefer— and perhaps it’s a weakness— those who write well.  But they begin to write well only on the condition that they’re original, that they create their own language.  Correctness, perfection of style do not exist…The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame Straus!”