Sunday, June 5, 2011

Proust's Many Selves

Proust’s Many Selves

In Wallace Fowlie’s book on reading Proust, he writes:

The human self, immersed in time, is never exactly the same two days in succession. All the elements of personality are constantly being affected by time: they are either being weakened or strengthened. They are receding or in the ascendant. Even the self which is in love, deeply, jealously and passionately, will change, according to Proust, and become disillusioned.

The self is never one but a succession of selves. If this is true–and the substance of the book as well as the method of writing are based upon this Bergsonian assumption—what happens to the selves we once were? Do these selves, which were once real, sink into oblivion? Proust answers this question with a vigorous no! They are not lost. They do not disappear. They are in us, in that part of us that is often called the subconscious. They live in our dreams and indeed at times in our states of consciousness. The opening theme of Proust’s novel is the protagonist’s literal awakening. This is a familiar experience for everyone every morning when we leave the state of sleep for the state of consciousness. Proust looks upon this emergence as an effort to recover our identity, to find out who we are, where we are, and what particular self we are inhabiting.
I don’t think of it this way. We change, yes, we mature, mentally and emotionally, or we fail to mature and begin to disintegrate. Our selves are rooted in the deep part of the mind, and there dwell important memories that still influence us, like Bach and the bougainvillaea vine from the mid-1960s still have their influence on me from forty-plus years ago. Yet for me the self that wakes up in the morning is the same self I’ve always been and, hopefully, will always be. My phases or stages of life have changed. I’ve aged. I live a more leisurely life–part-farmer, part-writer, and still teacher, mother, friend.

But I don’t see permanence in those memories that become an important part of our Deep Self, but the Deep Self itself and its connection to the Universe, or Universal Mind, as Mikhail called it. For me the experience of permanence is when I make these connections with people, with the chickens, with my own Deep Self, and words come to me, or I connect with the huge natural world that is out there, and to which now I may live in close relationship.

I can look out the back door and see the tall tulip tree in the meadow surrounded by the still rioting pink and purple cosmos. Or I can look at the oval garden where many of the cosmos plants have died or partly died, and I notice suddenly that there’s a new carpet under them, and it’s not bamboo grass or other weeds, as I thought. It’s hundreds of cosmos seedlings, about two inches high. The plants have dropped their seeds and are ready to begin again. They won’t survive the frost, but how amazing that they are there, as if it were spring. I had told myself, "No, I don’t need to plant cosmos next spring. Enough seed is already scattered." But the cosmos didn’t wait for spring.

The sea in me is very rich and very generous. I’ve never had to go through extraordinary suffering, but, if I did, I think I’d be okay.

My Self, my Sea, is well-anchored, trusts Itself, Life, the way the Universe is made, and somehow or another has learned the rhythms and impulses of that Universe, that mystery at the heart of things. It gives and loves; it also sets limits and allows consequences. It’s essentially good, but it can’t prevent the suffering that accompanies, is part and parcel of, our mortality, and yet love, which is its most essential nature and motion, wins out, even over our errors, our suffering, our failures, our creatureliness, because we’re human and can learn, and can learn to love and to be loved. No, I have a bigger view than Proust’s. More like Shakespeare’s, or Homer’s, or Bach’s.

Judy Hogan, Excerpt from Proust and Pears: the Fourth Farm Book, Chapter 22, "What the Sea Casts Up." [unpublished]
[Wallace Fowlie, A Reading of Proust, Second Edition, The University of Chicago Press, 1975, pp. 52-53

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