Marcel Proust – The Life of the Self

Bhupen Khakhar, Tailors, 1972.


Observations on temporality, memory and the formation of the Self in the book "In Search of Lost Time”

Thus, the open interaction between the Self, memory and temporality was formed: “The sun had set. Nature began to reign over Bois again, from which the idea that it was the Elysian Garden of the Woman spread; above the false world, the true sky was gray; the wind rippled the Great Lake into tiny waves, like a lake; great birds swiftly crossed the Forest, like a Forest, and uttering shrill cries, they landed one after the other on the great oaks which, under their Druidic crown and with the Dodonian majesty, seemed to proclaim the inhuman emptiness of the dispossessed forest, and helped me to better understand the contradiction that exists in looking in reality for pictures from memory, which would always lack the charm that comes from memory itself, and from not being perceived by the senses. The reality I had known no longer existed. It was enough that Mrs. Swann did not arrive exactly the same and at the same moment as before, for me the avenue was different. Neither do the places we know belong to the world of space where we place them more fatally. They were no more than a thin slice in the middle of contiguous impressions that made up our life at the time; the memory of a certain image is nothing but longing for a certain instant; and the houses, the paths, the avenues are fleeting, unfortunately, like the years”.

That is – according to Proust, the formation of the Self takes place in the affective oscillation between time and memory. The characters within their monologue-romance manage to undertake a fascinating undertaking; they constitute themselves as a pendulum between the inner memory and the extensive structure of material temporality. What we could diagnose as a battle, potentially, to end giving victory and legitimacy to one of the terrible contenders – the persistence of memory or the inaccessible tension of temporality, in Proust intersect uninterruptedly, in such a way that the subject of In the narrative, Marcel lays bare his possibility of configuring himself in the space of the world.

It is contingent determination of self-in-otherness (Hegel) that is exerting its delineation in this case. Another element that creates the life of the Self in the In Search of the Lost Time they are the different paths traced by the different characters in Romanesque architecture; when they make their choices of insertion in worldliness, they evoke for themselves constellations of relationships that, in intense clashes with the I-Marcel-Narrator-Narrated-Character, encourage him to temper his subjectivity and give experience to his own I as such. In this particular aspect of the Proustian subject’s life, the quality of the conversations with the feminine has a privileged stage: “I would like to end the day at one of those women’s houses, with a cup of tea, in an apartment with somber walls, like it was still Mrs. Swann […] where the roaring fire would shine, the red combustion, the pink and white phlegm of the chrysanthemums in the November twilight, for moments like those in which I […] had not been able to discover the pleasures I desired”.

We can perceive in the passage, the I within deep accesses of sensitivity – that erupt in the pleasurable space in which the feminine divinities are found, creating from there a latent temporality, since the reactions provoked by the vision of the desired women are radically amplified with the abbed meaning of the images that are formed in Marcel's contingent memory. It is in the passions of the Proustian character for his “lovers” that the complexity of memory, of immediate recall, is woven. In the microcosm of love relationships that the narrative manages to make the self emerge, in the otherness – in Hegelian language, it is in the determined negativity of desire that the I launches itself to form.

Now, one of the most symbolic functions of the reconstruction of memory (of the Self) in Proust's novel is the capacity that it, memory – the profane echo of the past-present of existence – represents in the character/narrator's fight against the perverse existing and ruiner of non-identical universality, and this is why it is overwhelmingly subjective. It is in the literary (aesthetic) procedure of instigating the past to jump in the flashing memory, having as a spark the affective interactions with the women in his life at the time that Marcel achieves the double plot contained in the In Search of the Lost Time: engage in a critical dialogue with its aristocratic and disturbing moment, and experientially, forge the Self and its latent subjectivity. Thus, “recognizing oneself” in the extrinsic fluidity of actuality, “the in-itself remembered” (Hegel) by the moments of the torn experience (Idem), of the other sex, serves as the dialectical movement, the contingent temporality that crosses the existence , of the constitution of the Self in Proust.

Furthermore, Proust conforms to another reading – that of the germination of subjectivity as true identity. In this passage, we can stylize Gilles Deleuze's interpretation of the signs present in the In search...: they are signs that vibrate like intoxicated instants of becoming-of-itself-in-determinity (Hegel). The material gestures of the signs are felt as a dialectical pulsation through the love-sign; sign-sensitivity; sign-worldliness; sign-art. Thus, the signs drive the alteration of the temporal structure, as they are exchanged in Marcel's affective intermittence and memories, allowing the narrator-character to erect, to spurt, the various tormented circumstances of the Self.

The sensitive, mundane, amorous and artistic signs created by Proust are the self-implicated immanent explanation of becoming-who-one-is in the course of time – in such a way that life itself does not submit to the linearity of everyday life, but come to confront the zones of naive emptiness mimicked by the formalism of the Guermantes. With these constellations that form the texture of the otherness, intertwining the passions of the character-narrator, they configure the uncontained “sensible universality” (Hegel) – they are threads that oscillate between the slowness and the rapture that throw the Self into its own subjectivity. Time and its imaginary network of perceptibility is the architected instrument, in which the variegated Proustian moments will perform their feat, here again is the formation of the I – the modern subject.

That is why Proust's novel is sensitive to a poetics of despair, which, when dialecticized in the web of profuse others, tells itself and existence the very meaning of its narrative trajectory. The sparks that arise in these situations of anguish of the subject, when he faces other selves in the arc of memories and effective gazes in Combray, Balbec and in the salons – and all these immanent conditions of moving and sustaining the In search…like a cathedral of time – constitute the decisive passions that conceive the I of Marcel or simply conceive Marcel the fabled I of Marcel Proust. Albertine and Odette; Andreé and Gilbert are experiential impulses condensed in the narrator's exaltation when enjoying the formative interaction with them. It is not about being female characters – they are, rather, the raising of voices that frame the becoming-who-one-is (Robert Pippin) in the intensity of language. In Search of the Lost Time more than the novel of memory (a self-fiction for some…) it appears in modern avant-garde literature, as the aesthetic figure of the narration of the I that is constituted in the vicissitudes of the now – a Hegelian-Marxist social theorist considered the Proustian novel the immersion of the subject in expressive fragments of the “here and now” in time[1] (Adornment).

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at USP.



[1] About Marcel Proust and the references cited throughout the text see, respectively: On Swann's Way, v. 1, In Search of the Lost Time, Globo, 1999; Theodor Adorno – Short Commentaries on Proust, In: Notes on Literature, v. 1, Columbia Press, 1991; Gilles Deleuze – Proust and the Signs, Forensic, 2003; Hegel – Phenomenology of Spirit, In: Os Pensadores, April, 1974; Robert Pippin – On “Becoming Who One Is” (and Failing): Proust's Problematic Selves, In: The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian Aftermath, Cambridge Press, 2005.


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