And something not unlike my grandmother's illness itself happened to me shortly afterwards, when I still had not started to work on my book, in a strange fashion which I should never have anticipated. I went out to see some friends one evening and was told that I had never looked so well, and how wonderful it was that I had not a single grey hair. But at the end of the visit, coming downstairs, three times I nearly fell. I had left my home only two hours earlier; but when I got back, I felt that I no longer possessed either the memory or the power of thought or strength or existence of any kind. People could have come to call on me or to proclaim me king, to lay violent hands on me or arrest me, and I should passively have submitted, neither opening my eyes nor uttering a word, like those travellers of whom we read who, crossing the Caspian Sea in a small boat, are so utterly prostrated by seasickness that they offer not even a show of resistance when they are told that they are going to be thrown into the sea. I had, strictly speaking, no illness, but I felt myself no longer capable of anything, I was in the condition of those old men who one day are in full possession of their faculties and the next, having fractured a thigh or had an attack of indigestion, can only drag on for a while in their bed an existence which has become nothing more than a preparation, longer or shorter, for a now ineluctable death. One of my selves, the one which in the past had been in the habit of going to those barbarian festivals that we call dinner-parties, at which, for the men in white shirt-fronts and the half-naked women beneath feathered plumes, values have been so reversed that a man who does not turn up after having accepted an invitation - or merely arrives after the roast has been served - is deemed to have committed an act more culpable than any of those immoral actions which, along with the latest deaths, are so lightly discussed at this feast which nothing but death or a serious illness is an acceptable excuse for failing to attend - and then only provided that one has given notice in good time of one's intention to die, so that there may be no danger for the other guests of sitting down thirteen to a table - this one of my selves had retained its scruples and lost its memory. The other self, the one that had had a glimpse of the task that lay before it, on the contrary still remembered. I had received and invitation from Mme Mole and had learnt that Mme Sazerat's son had died. I determined therefore to devote one of those few hours after which I could not hope even to pronounce another word or to swallow a mouthful of milk, since my tongue would be tied as my grandmother's had been during her agony, in addressing my excuses to the one lady and my condolences to the other. But a moment or two later I had forgotten that I had these things to do - most happily forgotten, for the memory of my real work did not slumber but proposed to employ the hour of reprieve which was granted me in laying my first foundations. Unfortunately, as I took up a note-book to write, Mme Mole's invitation card slipped out in front of my eyes. Immediately the forgetful self, which nevertheless was able to dominate the other - is this not always the case with those scrupulous barbarians who have learnt the lore of the dinner party? - pushed away the note-book and wrote to Mme Mole (whose esteem for me would no doubt have been great had she known that I had allowed my to her invitation to take precedence over my labours as an architect). Then suddenly a word in my letter reminded me that Mme Sazerat had lost her son and I wrote to her as well, after which, having sacrificed a real duty to a factitious obligation to appear polite and sympathetic, I fell back exhausted and closed my eyes, not to emerge from a purely vegetal existence before a week had elapsed. During this time, however, if all my unnecessary duties, to which I was willing to sacrifice my true duty, vanished after a few moments from my head, the idea of the edifice that I had to construct did not leave me for an instant. Whether it would be a church where little by little a group of faithful would succeed in apprehending verities and discovering harmonies or perhaps even a grand general plan, or whether it would remain, like a druidic monument on a rocky isle, something for ever unfrequented, I could not tell. But I was resolved to devote to it all my strength, which ebbed, as it seemed, reluctantly and as though to leave me time to complete the periphery of my walls and close "the funeral gate." Before very long I was able to show a few sketches. No one understood anything of them. Even those who commended my perception of the truths which I wanted eventually to engrave within my temple, congratulated me on discovering them "with a microscope," when on the contrary it was a telescope I had used to observe things which were indeed very small to the naked eye, but only because they were situated at a great distance, and which were each one of them in itself a world. Those passages in which I was trying to arrive at general laws were described as so much pedantic investigation of detail. What, in any case, was I hoping to achieve? In my youth I had a certain facility, and Bergotte had praised as "admirable" the pages I wrote while still at school. But instead of working I had lived a life of idleness, of pleasures and distractions, of ill-health and cosseting and eccentricities, and I was embarking on my labour of construction almost at the point of death, without knowing anything of my trade. I felt that I no longer possessed the strength to carry out my obligations to other people or my duties to my thoughts and my work, still less to satisfy both of these claims. As for the first, my forgetfulness of the letters I had to write and of the other the things I had to do, to some extent simplified my task. But suddenly, at the end of a month, the association of ideas brought back a painful recollection of these duties and I was momentarily overwhelmed by the thought of my impotence. To my astonishment I found that I did not mind, the truth being that, since that day when my legs had trembled so violently as I was going downstairs, I had become indifferent to everything, I longed only for rest, while waiting for the great rest which would come in the end. Amongst other things I was indifferent to the verdict that would be passed on my work by the greatest minds of my age, and this not because I relegated to some future date after my death the admiration which it seemed to me that my work ought to receive. The best minds of posterity might think what they chose, their opinions mattered to me no more than those of my contemporaries. The truth was that, if I thought of my work and not of the letters which I ought to answer, this was not because I attached to these two things, as I had during my years of idleness and later, in that brief interval between the conception of my book and that day when I had to cling to the banister, very different degrees of importance. The organisation of my memory, of the preoccupations that filled my mind, was indeed linked to my work, but perhaps simply because, while the letters I received were forgotten a moment later, the idea of my work was inside my head, always the same, perpetually in process of becoming. But even my work had become for me a tiresome obligation, like a son for a dying mother who still, between her injections and her blood-lettings, has to make the exhausting effort of constantly looking out for him. Perhaps she still loves him, but it is only in the form of a duty too great for her strength that she is aware of her affection. In me, in the same way, the powers of the writer were no longer equal to the egotistical demands of the work. Since the day of the staircase, nothing in the world, no happiness, whether it came from friendship or the progress of my book or the hope of fame, reached me save as a sunshine unclouded but so pale that it no longer had the virtue to warm me, to make me live, to instill in me any desire; and yet, faint though it was, it was still too dazzling for my eyes, I closed them and turned my face to the wall. When a lady wrote to me: "I have been very surprised not to have received an answer to my letter," I must, it seemed, to judge from the sensation of movement in my lips, have twisted an infinitesimal corner of my mouth into a little smile. Nevertheless, I was reminded of her unanswered letter and wrote her a reply. Not wishing to be thought ungrateful, I tried hard to raise my tardy civilities to the level of those which I supposed that other people, though I had forgotten it, had shown to me. And I was crushed by the effort to impose upon my existence the superhuman fatigues of life. The loss of memory helped me a little by creating gaps in my obligations; they were more than made good by the claims of my work.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Yes, upon this task the idea of Time which I had formed to-day told me that it was time to set to work. It was high time. But - and this was the reason for the anxiety that had gripped me as soon as I entered the drawing-room, when the theatrical disguises of the faces around me had first given me the notion of Lost Time - was there still time and was I still in fit condition to undertake the task? For one thing, a necessary condition of my work as I had conceived it just now in the library was a profound study of impressions which had first to be re-created through the memory. But my memory was old and tired. The mind has landscapes which it is allowed to contemplate only for a certain space of time. In my life I had been like a painter climbing a road high above a lake, a view of which is denied to him by a curtain of rocks and trees. Suddenly through a gap in the curtain he sees the lake, its whole expanse is before him, he takes up his brushes. But already the night is at hand, the night which will put an end to his painting and which no dawn will follow. How could I not be anxious, seeing that nothing was yet begun and that though on the ground of age I could still hope that I had some years to live, my hour might on the other hand strike almost at once? For the fundamental fact was that I had a body, and this meant that I was perpetually threatened by a double danger, internal and external, though to speak thus was merely a matter of linguistic convenience, the truth being that the internal danger - the risk, for instance, of a cerebral haemorrhage - is also external, since it is the body that it threatens. Indeed it is the possession of a body that is the great danger to the mind, to our human and thinking life, which it is surely less correct to describe as a miraculous entelechy of animal and physical life than as an imperfect essay - as rudimentary in this where as the communal life of protozoa attached to their polyparies or as the body of the whale - in the organisation of the spiritual life. The body immures the mind within a fortress; presently on all sides the fortress is besieged and in the end, inevitably, the mind has to surrender.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
The idea of Time was of value to me for yet another reason: it was a spur, it told me that it was time to begin if I wished to attain to what I had sometimes perceived in the course of my life, in brief lightning-flashes, on the Guermantes way and in the carriage of Mme de Villeparisis, at those moments of perception that made me think that life was worth living. How much more worth living did it appear to me now, now that I seemed to see that this life that we live in half-darkness can be illuminated, this life that at every moment we distort can be restored to its true pristine shape, that a life, in short, can be realised within the confines of a book! How happy would he be, I thought, the man who had the power to write such a book! What a task awaited him! To give some idea of this task one would have to borrow comparisons from the loftiest and the most varied arts; for this writer - who, moreover, to indicate the mass, the solidity of each one of his characters must find means to display the character's most opposite facets - would have to prepare this book with meticulous care, perpetually regrouping his forces like a general conducting an offensive, and he would also have to endure his book like a form of fatigue, to accept it like a discipline, build it up like a church, follow it like a medical regime, vanquish it like an obstacle, win it like a friendship, cosset it like a little child, create it like a new world without neglecting those mysteries whose explanation is to be found probably only in worlds other than our own and the presentiment of which is the thing which moves us most deeply in life and in art. In long books of this kind there are parts which there has been time only to sketch, parts which, because of the very amplitude of the architect's plan, will no doubt never be completed. How many great cathedrals remain unfinished! The writer feeds his book, he strengthens the parts of it that are weak, he protects it, but afterwards it is the book that grows, that designates its author's tomb and defends it against the world's clamour and for a while against oblivion. But to return to my own case, I thought more modestly of my own book and it would be inaccurate even to say that I thought of those who would read it as "my" readers. For it seemed to me that they would not be "my" readers but readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers - it would be my book, but with its help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves. So that I should not ask them to praise me or to censure me, but simply to tell me whether "it really is like that," I should ask them whether the words that they read within themselves are the same as those which I have written (though a discrepancy in this respect need not always be the consequence of an error on my part, since the explanation could also be that the reader had eyes for which my book was not a suitable instrument). And - for at every moment the image uppermost in my mind changed as I began to represent to myself more clearly and in a more material shape the task upon which I was about to embark - I thought that at my big deal table, under the eyes of Francoise, who like all unpretentious people who live at close quarters with us would have a certain insight into the nature of my labours (and I had sufficiently forgotten Albertine to have forgiven Francoise for anything that she might have done to injure her), I should work beside her and in a way almost as she worked herself (or at least as she had worked in the past, for now, with the onset of old age, she had almost lost her sight) and, pinning here and there an extra page, I should construct my book, I dare not say ambitiously like a cathedral, but quite simply like a dress. Whenever I had not all my "paperies" near me, as Francoise called them, and just the one that I needed was missing, Francoise would understand how this upset me, she who always said that she could not sew if she had not the right size of thread and the proper buttons. And then through sharing her life with me had she not acquired a sort of instinctive comprehension of literary work, more accurate than that possessed by many intelligent people, not to mention fools? Already years ago, when I had written my article for Le Figaro, while our old butler, with that sort of commiseration which always slightly exaggerates the laboriousness of an occupation which the sympathiser does not practice himself and does not even clearly visualise - or even of a habit which he does not have himself, like the people who say to you: "How tiring you must find it to sneeze like that!" - expressed his quite sincere pity for writers in the words: "That's a head-splitting job you've got there," Francoise on the contrary both divined my happiness and respected my toil. The only thing that annoyed her was my speaking about the article to Bloch before it appeared, for she was afraid that he might forestall me. "You're too trustful," she would say, "all those people are nothing but copiators." And it was true that, whenever I had outlined to Bloch something that I had written and that he admired, he would provide a retrospective alibi for himself by saying: "Why, isn't that curious, I have written something similar myself, I must read it to you one day," from which I inferred that he intended to sit down and write it that very evening.
Friday, December 5, 2008
I was unable to acquaint Gilberte with the thoughts which had been passing through my mind for the last hour, but it occurred to me that, simply on the level of distraction, she might be able to minister to my pleasures, which, as I now foresaw them, would no more be to talk literature with the Duchesse de Guermantes than with Mme de Saint-Loup. Certainly it was my intention to resume next day, but this time with a purpose, a solitary life. So far from going into society, I would not even permit people to come see me at home during my hours of work, for the duty of writing my book took precedence now over being polite or even kind. They would insist no doubt, these friends who had not seen me for years and had now met me again and supposed that I was restored to health, they would want to come when the labour of their day or of their life was finished or interrupted, or at such times as they had need of me as I in the past had had of Saint-Loup; for (as I had already observed at Combray when my parents chose to reproach me at those very moments when, though they did not know it, I had just formed the most praiseworthy solutions) the internal time-pieces which are allotted to different human beings are by no means synchronised: one strikes the hour of rest while another is striking the hour of work, one, for the judge, that of punishment when already for the criminal that of repentance and self-perfection has long since struck. But I should have the courage to reply to those who came to see me or tried to get me to visit them that I had, for necessary business which required my immediate attention, an urgent, a supremely important appointment with myself. And yet I was aware that, though there exists but little connexion between our veritable self and the other one, nevertheless, because they both go under the same name and share the same body, the abnegation which involves making a sacrifice of easier duties and even of pleasures appears to other people to be egotism.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Bloch started to question me, as years ago, when I first began to go to parties, I had questioned others - a habit which I had not quite lost - about the people whom I had known in society in the old days and who were as remote, as unlike anybody else, as those inhabitants of the world of Combray whom I had often sought to "place" exactly. But Combray for me had a shape so distinctive, so impossible to confuse with anything else, that it might have been a piece of a jig-saw puzzle which I could never succeed in fitting into the map of "France." "So the Prince de Guermantes can give me no idea either of Swann or of M. de Charlus?" asked Bloch, whose manner of speaking I had borrowed long ago and who now frequently imitated mine. "None at all." "But what was so different about them?" "To know that, you would have had to hear them talk yourself. But that is impossible. Swann is dead and M. de Charlus is as good as dead. But the differences were enormous." And seeing Bloch's eyes shine at what marvellous personages these must have been, I wondered whether I was not exaggerating the pleasure which I had got from their company, since pleasure was something I had never felt except when I was alone and the real differentiation of impressions takes place only in our imagination. Bloch seemed to guess what I was thinking. "Perhaps you make it out to be more wonderful than it really was," he said; "our hostess to-day, for instance, the Princesse de Guermantes, I know she is no longer young, still it is not so many years since you were telling me about her incomparable charm, her marvellous beauty. Well, I grant you she has a certain splendour, and she certainly has those extraordinary eyes you used to talk about, but I can't say I find her so fantastically beautiful. Of course, one sees that she is a real aristocrat, but still..." I was obliged to tell Bloch that the woman I had described to him was not the one he was talking about. The Princesse de Guermantes had died and the present wife of the Prince, who had been ruined by the collapse of Germany, was the former Mme Verdurin. "That can't be right, I looked in this year's Gotha," Bloch naively confessed to me, "and I found the Princesse de Guermantes, living at the place where we are now and married to someone of the utmost grandeur, let me try to remember, yes, married to Sidonie, Duchesse de Duras, nee des Baux." This was correct. Mme Verdurin, shortly after the death of her husband, had married the aged and impoverished Duc de Duras, who had made her a cousin of the Prince de Guermantes and had died after two years of marriage. He had served as a useful transition for Mme Verdurin, who now, by a third marriage, had become Princesse de Guermantes and occupied a place in the Faubourg Saint-Germain a lofty position which would have caused much astonishment at Combray, where the ladies of the Rue de l'Oiseau, Mme Goupil's daughter and Mme Sazerat's step-daughter, had during these last years, before she married for the third time, spoken with a sneer of "the Duchesse de Duras" as thought this were a role which had been allotted to Mme Verdurin in a play. In fact, the Combray principle of caste requiring that she should die, as she had lived, as Mme Verdurin, her title, which was not deemed to confer upon her any new power in society, did not so much enhance as damage her reputation. For "to make tongues wag," that phrase which in every sphere of life is applied to a woman who has a lover, could be used also in the Faubourg Saint-Germain of women who write books and in the respectable society of Combray of those who make marriages which, for better or for worse, are "unsuitable." After the twice-widowed lady had married had married the Prince de Guermantes, the only possible comment was that he was a false Guermantes, an impostor. For me, in this purely nominal identity, in the fact that there was once again a Princesse de Guermantes and that she had absolutely nothing in common with the one who had cast her spell upon me, who now no longer existed and had been robbed of name and title like a defenceless woman of her jewels, there was something as profoundly sad as in seeing the material objects which the Princess Hedwige had once possessed - her country house and everything that had been hers - pass into the possession and enjoyment of another woman. The succession of a new individual to a name is melancholy, as is all succession, all usurpation of property; and yet for ever and ever, without interruption, there would come, sweeping on, a flood of new Princesse de Guermantes - or rather, centuries old, replaced from age to age by a series of different women, of different actresses playing the same part and then each in her turn sinking from sight beneath the unvarying and immemorial placidity of the name, one single Princesse de Guermantes, ignorant of death and indifferent to all that changes and wounds our mortal hearts.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
And often these fair-haired dancers had acquired, along with a wig of white hair, the friendship of duchesses whom in the past they had not known. Nor was this all: having in their youth done nothing but dance, they had been "touched" by art as once a noble lady might have been touched by grace. And as the seventeenth-century lady, when this happened, withdrew into a life of religion, so now her descendant lived in an apartment filled with cubist paintings, a cubist painter worked for her alone and she lived only for him.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
And now I began to understand what old age was - old age, which perhaps of all the realities is the one of which we preserve the longest for longest in our life a purely abstract conception, looking at calendars, dating our letters, seeing our friends marry and then in turn the children of our friends, and yet, either from fear or from sloth, not understanding what all this means, until the day when we behold an unknown silhouette, like that of M. d'Argencourt, which teaches us that we are living in a new world; until the day when a grandson of a woman we once knew, a young man whom instinctively we treat as a contemporary of ours, smiles as though we were making fun of him because to him it seems that we are old enough to be his grandfather - and I began to understand too what death meant and love and the joys of the spiritual life, the usefulness of suffering, a vocation etc. For if names had lost most of their individuality for me, words on the other hand now began to reveal their true significance. The beauty of images is situated in front of things, that of ideas behind them. So that the first sort of beauty ceases to astonish us as soon as we have reached the things themselves, the second is something we understand only when we have passed beyond them.