Quite sorry for the lengthy delay; however, we are now ready to begin our reading of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, Swann’s Way. This work is notoriously difficult for good reason. ˇThe prose is difficult, and the fluidity of place and subject makes it difficult to follow along. However, there is no reason to worry because I have you covered :). This entry covers the first five to six pages (yes; the text is that dense).
We are going to read this text very incrementally, because it is painfully difficult, and there is just so much, in every instance, to decipher. So, let us begin dissecting this first page. I think there is a lot to be taken from this first page, e.g., we can see that this great work will focus a lot on experience, consciousness, and subjectivity. So, we start with a memory, the memory of going to bed early. The description “early” is quite important here. “Early” is not only meant in the common sense of arriving before the formal start of an event. Lurking behind this common usage is something philosophically important, that to be early is to be infelicitous. So, having gone to bed early usually means that one shall experience a good quality of sleep, but in the deeper sense of ‘early’, I think we see that our subject will not only experience a decreased quality of sleep, but something that does not qualify as sleep.
There is another derivation; the division between structure (or really any external matter) and experience (internal). The speaker notes sleep is usually prompted by a candle going out; this is something external to the sleeping subject. The candle is a signifier, what it indicates, on the one hand, is conventional and unreflective; it going out indicates sleep, but how this relates to the subject is not so definite. Ideally, the precise moment at which the candle goes out, sleep is initiated; this is the classical structuralist model of meaning. When a signifier is present, so too is the signified. However, one can forecast complications. What if one goes to sleep before the candle is out? Are they awake since the sleep signifier has not been activated. What if one is awake after? Are they then dreaming? This position of the mind in the flux of signs of geography and time is precisely what Proust is on about.
He immediately gives us a demonstration of the sign’s breakdown. The thought that it is time for sleep awakens him. This is certainly a complex event to diagram, it indicates something that is absolutely vital, the mingling of wakeful-life and unconscious-dreams. Usually we speak as if these things are separate; however, Freud noted that each provides material for the other. I think this goes further to say that given going to bed early, the two do not have any real fixed distinction at all. So, the temporal specifications of each are transgressed. For Freud, we always sleep with the light on and stay awake when it is off, as Proust demonstrates so beautifully.
One immediately sees how the spheres of wakefulness and dream are not separate. (By the way, we are still concerned with the first paragraph.) Of the dreams, he says he was the ‘immediate subject’, that is, what the dreams were about, but also the dream’s subject in the sense of the experiencer. So, I characterize the distinction between wakefulness and dreaming as a distinction of activity and passivity. However, going to bed early, in this context meaning prematurely, means the mind has not carved out the distinction. So, he is the experiencer and the object of experience. You know, Foucault had written something of this, not on dreams, but as a general philosophical characteristic of modernity, that man is the subject and object of investigation, something he calls ‘empirico-transcendental’. This means that man investigates himself. So, since he had gone to bed too early, prior to the light going out, the light of experience is still lit and he is “a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V”. Now, how can one be the subject and object of a dream? He was not dreaming of himself, as to say “hey, it is I–Swann dressed up like Charles V”. Rather, it is that he generalizes his subjectivity and imposes it on the dream-realm. This is how dreams work; one takes the objects of wakeful life and modifies them to have a function in the dream, and to make an even larger point of this, modern philosophy, particularly phenomenology, says that objects only have existence to speak of in the form of our experiences. Therefore, one is always subjectivizing the world. However, Proust takes this a step further and says, even if we are always subjectivizing, there are not even two distinct spheres of subjectivication, wakefulness and dream, even these collapse into a single continuum of subjectivization. Also, it is rather interesting that he is a rivalry. One can understand being an object, but one has to be on pretty strong narcotics to be a relation; this is almost as odd as when one of my friends was quite high and believed he was music. Anyways, this displacement of identity on rivalry symbolizes the human consciousness as the contested space between the generativity of the mind and its ‘passive assimilation’ of the external world and past events. However, it is apparent that the contest is false, as given the break down between the two, what there really is, is an ultimate transcendental subjective ontology which merges the two.
Upon waking from this merger, there is a space, he can either attach the consciousness to phenomena or not, which is how intentionality, the state of mind is about something, usually works. We can either orient our mind to a book or leave it be, we can direct whether we are one with it, continuously renewing the fixation, not as he was in his dreams.
He then wakes up in a disorientation because his state of consciousness has changed. Yes, we have spoken of an immanent subjective ontology that incorporates the subjectivity of wakefulness and dreaming, however one cannot experience it. It is indirect, just as Being must be an indirect extrapolation for Heidegger (this will make more sense when we read Being and Time). He only hears things, but from these sounds, the mind constructs thoughts, pathways, networks, for elucidation. The train sounds allow him to make a narrative of the man who rides it, awed and facing oddity, but then also the comfort of the return to familiarity. Recently, I spoke to a professor on the topic of Don Quixote; the most esteemed professor said that he is about everything and everything is about him. This is the nature of Proustian subjectivity; Swann’s world is invariably the perpetual mutual determination of his mind and the world, with his mind as the source. He can take the specific and discrete and make a symphony of it, as does Robert Musil, and there is a mild solipsism at play, as he can always project his fragile consciousness across space and time, imagining others and locating himself in them. This serves to affirm how mentalistic existence really is.
He burns a match to look at his watch, a transient bit of elucidation. He sees it is midnight, but the light seen through the bottom of the door says it is morning. Which is right? The enlightenment legacy of precision, quantification, and measurement, or the traditional manner, the regularity of our actions, the natural flow of events, where we make our own various associations? The enlightenment represents human narcissism, that we can construct the world in such a way that we are its masters. Or, does it represent an enlargement of the world, the awareness of new horizons, rendering us smaller and lost? This is how Sloterdijk (we will also read his texts) sees the legacy of the enlightenment. Whatever it is, this method says it is midnight, meaning he has far more agony to endure. However, the folk method of figuring time and place through a series of Humean associationalist-causal determinations, provides comfort. It says it is morning and help will soon come. It ends up being midnight, and this realization is truly torture. The enlightenment has proved correct, but one is still in despair. Even our knowledge will not save us, and indeed, the pain only just begins when we know.
He would wake up sporadically, the room would still sleep, another disjunction; he would have nightmares of his uncle, pulling his hair, the pain ceased when they came off, which he forgot in his sleep, but even in his sleep, the mind-world is incomplete. Notice the room is sleepy. Is it another example of mental projection? Can the world have a color? I think so. When one describes modernity as anxious, the ascription is deeper than people in the world are anxious; the two are inextricable.
In his dreams, he encounters a woman who would come from him like Adam from Eve, but this to me demonstrates the lateral relation of wakeful life and dreams. The woman, a dream, comes from him, not from anywhere, but his side, a token of equality. So, dreams, memories and life all go hand and hand.
He speaks of existential-identitarian disruptions that are incurred from abnormal sleep, and in the immediate after-haze there is only pure animal conscious, no intentionality, just pure experience. Memory would draw a line back to existence, but is it not the same in sleep? Does mind, through conception, make a static-non-dream world, i.e., a sort of Platonic world of ideas that are second order and built on the material world, the contents of which embodied in wakefulness and sleep. Whatever its source, which at this point, I find it to be memory, this ideal world is the driving force of the transcendental subjectivity aforementioned. Upon waking, the room is in flux until the mind remembers what it was like before sleep. But, it is all about imprints in making up the world, rightly-wrongly; in some sleep positions there is a correspondence to his time in Combray and the affective and bodily memories of past experiences in Combrary bring him back there, but this is only available in that hazy interregnum between sleep and wakefulness proper. In another memory, in the country, it is there, again, a formal (platonic forms) world of memory, that also stands, not phenomenologically as dreams and wakefulness but, ontologically lateral to ‘reality-present’, in stasis to be accessed, but it is only accessible in the transient waking-dream (The hazy interregnum)? Nonetheless, he finds great “satisfaction” in being shut in from the outer world. He mentions various rooms he shifts between, some explicitly memorial, some like Louis, which he mentions as a dream; so it is hard to distinguish if he is speaking of dreams or memory rooms, but it is a false distinction as they are the same. What controls this insanely overwhelming flux of difference? It is custom, which develops with time, simultaneously infinite and brief, fixing all things in place. So custom in every instance is an attempt to repudiate the incoherent flux of life. Finally, he says he is now awake, things being stable. The angel of certainty has rendered things approximately in their right place. Now, this is fascinating. That an angel has fixed things, to me, indicates that it is mere facade. Modernity is conventionally seen as ushering in an age of secularism, so an angel of certainty is an illusory comfort, i.e., angels and certainty are illusory. Secondly, this certainty only corresponds to approximate certainty, which reeks of Kantianism. It was Kant’s contention that space and time are essential faculties of the mind that organize the world. Since one can only experience phenomena in terms of space and time, and given the space between experience and reality, there is the consequence that space and time modulate reality in the form of our experience, such that one can never really know what reality really is. I think this concern rises organically due to the speaker’s concern with the instability of location and temporality. Congratulations, in two-thousand words, we have covered the first six pages of the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu.