Sunday, January 23, 2011

Proust's Concept of Will

As I read Proust this time, I’m noticing something new. He talks often about the self having different and successive personalities, sees these even as different selves. Perhaps we’d say different stages of our lives, our ego manifesting itself differently over time. Proust likes to show how people change their behavior, their looks, their beliefs over time. But then I come upon this passage about the will versus the mind and the desires.

I think of Plato who divided the soul (= psyche) into three parts: mind, desire, and will. He said the will and the desire were separate, because we could desire not to look at something terrible or repugnant, like an automobile accident, say, but our will would look anyway. We could make a mental decision, but our will might flout it.

It struck me first that this “will” of Proust’s was the Unconscious. But I see the Unconscious as being potentially both positive and negative. We need in this period to acknowledge that in our less conscious mind, we can have quite negative motivations, and, as I see it, we need to integrate into our consciousness that “shadow” side.

As I look back on my life, I see a pattern I only glimpsed or sensed earlier. Perhaps we’d say a destiny. Now I can focus more than I ever have, and with less effort on my part, on my creative writing: diary novels, mystery novels, diary, poetry. I’ve had a crooked, path I’d say, but looking back, I see now that my vocation, my need or gift to be a writer, was at work through everything. See what you think in the poem below. Maybe you’d see Proust’s “will” differently. Judy Hogan

My mind saw this pleasure, now that it was assured, as being worth not very much. But the will in me did not share that illusion for an instant, being the persevering and unwavering servant of our successive personalities, hidden in the shadow, disdained, forever faithful, working unceasingly, and without heeding the variability of our self, making sure it shall never lack what it needs. When a journey we have longed to make begins to become a reality, and the mind and sensibility are starting to wonder whether it is really worth the effort, the will, which well knows that, if it turned out the journey could not be made, these feckless masters would immediately long for it to become possible again, lets them loiter in front of the station, having their say, hesitating until the last minute, while it makes sure of buying the tickets and getting us into the train before departure time. It is as invariable as the mind and sensibility are changeable; but because it is silent and never gives its reasons, it seems almost nonexistent; all the other parts of our self march to its tune unawares, though they can always see clearly their own uncertainties. --Marcel Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, p. 449-50 [Grieve translation/Penguin-Viking]

What Proust calls will I call the Deep Self,
that part of us which knows better than we
do what we need to stay on our destined path
in this fragile, yet tough, life of ours.
Our consciousness, our here and now life,
can be obliterated in a moment if some other
driver loses control of his car, doesn’t notice,
is drunk or distracted, and hits us head on.
Yet our frail, vulnerable bodies stick it out,
persist through indescribable fatigue,
intolerable anxiety, abandonment, despair,
even terminal illness, obsessed to the last
with the desire to live, whether we care to
or not, whether we recognize what we give
to others, or not. Its goal, as far as I can
read It, is that we use our gifts. Had he not
obeyed this will or Self, which Bach
probably called God, he would not have
written such persistently, achingly beautiful
music, nor would Glenn Gould have so
devoted himself to mastering all those
French and English suites, partitas, inventions,
fugues, Goldberg Variations. We are grateful
to Bach, to Homer and Proust for their
unswerving devotion to their gifts, what
Something in them knew better than
they did what the main requirement of their
life was to do and to be. As if we were at
birth given a commandment from the
Creator: Be all that you are. Live completely.
If in you a large Gift resides, a sensitivity
to sounds, colors, words, the world of spirit,
which makes you happier and more at peace
than anything else, then give it away as fast
as you can. If you emerge into your mature
years with your Gift in tact, whatever your age,
condition, state of health, network of
relations and commitments, do what you
must, what you have no choice but to do.
Carolyn Heilbrun once wrote how we
sometimes find out that we can’t get
unmarried, and if our love is lucky,
we greet this knowledge with laughter.
If it is our Gift we’re married to, and
we can’t get away, if our greatest pleasure
and our highest duty to ourselves, to Life,
to God, to other people, is to write, paint,
or compose music, then all we have to do
is obey that deep inward will. We are,
in every other way, perfectly normal and
ordinary, not beautiful unless some see
beauty in the serenity of our smile; not
clever necessarily or quick to find the
metaphor we want, not elegant word smiths,
not dazzling or impressive, but those
abilities matter as little in the end as
repartee and quick retorts. They amuse
but don’t satisfy. If something in us can
speak to real human hunger, for Truth,
for Understanding about What Matters,
then we’d best carve out time, create
a place that protects, nurtures, and
stimulates that most prized of all human
gifts: the visits of our Muse. If we build
our ordinary life so as to honor Her,
she won’t be able to stay away.

1 comment:

  1. Judy,

    I appreciate what you're saying. And the way you've placed the words down. Perhaps there are times, no, there ARE times when I could get distracted from the "mission" but its easier now to evaluate and differentiate btw what's really vital and nourishing. And what is not. I wonder where intuition fits in this discussion of will?