Walter Benjamin's Proust

Image: João Nitsche.


Commentary on Benjamin's Interpretation of Marcel Proust

One way of honoring certain figures in the intellectual, philosophical and cultural universe is to comment on their aesthetic tastes, their political loyalty, their favorite writers and the authors who most influenced them along their path. Addressing the preferences of great thinkers – can say more about the meaning of their work than the analysis itself of the ideals and worldviews they expressed. The shoulders on which they leaned say a lot about looking at things in the lives of some intellectual personalities – this (the shoulders on which we ourselves lean), it is true that we do not always admit, also reveal something of our loves. It is not mere chance that three of the greatest literary critics of the XNUMXth century found Marcel Proust the great love of their lives. Preparing a Novel I e II, one of Roland Barthes' last courses at college de france – and which made explicit the confessed desire for fictional writing, the real ambition of the French critic – was a kind of elegy for the author of the In Search of the Lost Time and the way in which he writes a novel (long, of an entire experience, essentially arranged for an extensive presence) in contrast to the minimal enthusiasm of the Haiku Japanese – the slight but effectively necessary annotation in the preparation of the fictionalized text, Barthes would say –; and in the words of Walnice Nogueira Galvão, for whom Antonio Candido had been an inexhaustible reader, in addition to having placed his critical lens on the classics of universal literature (Shakespeare, Goethe, Vitor Hugo), Marcel Proust was his magnanimous writer[I]. Our greatest critic has devoted himself to the In Search of the Lost Time for your whole life. He was his eternal passion.

It was no different with Walter Benjamin. Proust constituted himself as his eternal absent interlocutor; in his protective confidant; in its space of beauty and critical allegory. Benjamin's Proust – it is the Proust that is whispering to our ears about what the dense fog of everyday life (similarity) insists, with pernicious effectiveness, on glossing over.

The Image of Proust; Walter Benjamin as he never ceased to be. Radical, singular materialist, averse to social democracy, erudite philologist, intransigent critic of the bourgeoisie, dialectical essayist, sensitive, literate, friend of Hannah Arendt, revolutionary (and messianic communist). A Benjamin who took Marcel Proust not as the (boring) writer of memory – even the involuntary one. But that he interpreted the In Search of the Lost Time like a letter read and whispered (a poetically anxious warning) about the violence of snobbery. This is why Benjamin commented that Proust did not meditate exhaustively to create his novel; it was rather a plot “opposite of Penélope’s work” [ii], because what he accomplished was instituted as the gateway to a world imbricated in the habits of deceit, the aestheticized force of the condemning gaze: a system of coexistence that did not even allow Marcel to participate. However, Benjamin made us realize that Marcel never wanted to share in the Guermantes. Proust stopped at the frontispiece wanting to nail the narrative arrangement of the “warp” [iii] criticism, so that only in this way would he be able to project the “light [to] […] intertwined arabesques” [iv] of the palaces that hid (with impudence) an entire social group. And at each of those moments – standing at the porticoes, on the frontispieces – he reviewed the previously woven impressions.

Indeed, Walter Benjamin will say, the ever-exhausted Proust drove his “[editors] and typographers to despair” [v] with every correction he worked out of those cynical palaces. Furthermore; such a style of writing protected Proust from the paradigm of snobbery. It was like the In Search of the Lost Time to exercise the magic of self-emptying to be able to trace the evils of a society that rejected, with vile intentions, “the impulse of happiness”[vi]. Thus, Benjamin's Proust – the opposite of Gilles Deleuze's Proust, who retained the various signs of existence, Georges Poulet's Proust, for whom filling the space of memory was a novelist's obligation, and Samuel Beckett's Proust, for whom the profusion of habit acquired a primordial aspect in the experience of individuals – it is the “child [who] never tires […] of emptying with [the] gesture”[vii] from language the society of glamorized clothes, pince-nez essential for noble conversation, the fine purse, the fragile appearance, the violent distinction because it demands similarity. Identical to a bee that jumps from flower to flower in search of a sweet “dialectic of happiness”[viii], Benjamin's Proust, his singular Proust, as the builder of the Self that is tirelessly restarting the rebellious whisper about "our world deformed by resemblance"[ix] of class, is the writer who understood the very meaning of the XNUMXth century. However, before he “made the XNUMXth century” [X] its place of remembrance – and is teaching us in this age of intransigent snobbery (the XNUMXst century) to see the “force fields” that are hidden by the language of the similarity of taste. That's why Benjamin's Proust is subversive; the voluminous plot he tells does not offer us a simple space for cultural criticism in the face of oppressive social structures: his novel throws us to “shrapnel”[xi] spiritual aspects of a world represented in every group (Guermantes, Verdurin), in every condemning estate gaze (Mr. De Charlus' distrust of masculinity), in every sexual cynicism (Marcel's obsession with Albertine) and in every "family unit" ”[xii] (synthesized in the French nationalist society in the Dreyfus case). A world that Proust, with his long paragraphs, did not allow the organized breathing of the snobbish class air of the “pretensions of the bourgeoisie” [xiii], and that thus, without that one, it was “knocked down to the ground”[xiv] by the relentless syntax of In Search of the Lost Time.

But there was something in Walter Benjamin's reading of Proust that singularly enchanted those who frequented both. It was (and is) the emergence of a philology of (critical) mimicry. Proust did not go through French (and European) society with the intention of building the real and concrete cosmos of the relations of interests that made up the (restored) life of that time; there is not in Proustian whispers a Luciano Rubempré (by Balzac), a Julian Sorel (by Stendhal) and an Ema Bovary (by Flaubert). His mimesis, in addition to making reality explicit, had the aspect of “curiosity” [xv] passionate in the pursuit of transcendence. Benjamin saw with materialist-philological-curious astuteness, those that Adorno also found in Kracauer, for whom there is no human without interior and exterior, that is, the tense language of non-identity, and which made him, with this anti-systematic trait, an enemy of philosophy (it was Benjamin himself who called it that[xvi]), that Proust was blowing through mimicry: the “foliage of society”[xvii] to which the “servants, […] the world of domestic servants”[xviii], were the metaphorical counterposition of the sincere “graceful” gestures in search of happiness – “the dialectic of happiness”[xx]. Thus, as a master of hermeneutics against the grain, Walter Benjamin read in the intimate texture of the In Search of the Lost Time that the articulation between the mimetic disposition and the rapture of the metaphor was a novelistic expedient that was able to bring down “the mask of the big bourgeoisie, [the mask] of the ten thousand people of the upper class [who for Proust] were […] a clan of criminals”[xx].

Benjamin will also comment on the meaning of “nervous asthma” [xxx] of Proust transfigured into language. Transformed into an allegorical structure. Here, the essayist from the exception of those below, understood more than anyone else the circumstance in which the athymia of Proust's breathing, made explicit in the torrential elaboration of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs – and more paragraphs, “[an] eternity” [xxiii] of paragraphs that suffocate the self – that leave the narrator (Marcel) and the reader without the foundations of air as a condition of speech was, in fact, the latent desire to make the reminiscences of “intercrossed time” [xxiii] erupt into the “lived existence” as a “rejuvenating force capable of facing the relentless”[xxv] iron glove (Conceição Evaristo) of class similarity: “[put] at the service of [the] class [of the Guermantes-Verdurins]” and its moral and cultural “veil” violently demanded of all. In fact, like a kind of Ponciá Vicencio, Marcel returns to his original moments – to cast them in a transliterated way on the face of a social group that turned its daily life of compulsory similarity into a long paragraph to “cover up the unique and decisive mystery of its class: the economy”[xxiv]. Hence, Walter Benjamin can say that “the past is reflected in the instant, [in] […] [instant] that the landscape”[xxv], the experience of oneself in the otherness of the world, “shakes like a wind”[xxviii], but a historical wind that turns into dense “lightning” when reaching those whom Benjamin’s Proust insisted on whispering, tenaciously, to our ears that they would reveal the violence of snobbery in the “final fight”[xxviii]. In Search of the Lost Time it was the scaffolding upon which Walter Benjamin built his fire notices. And in this new time of the world, in acedia – we will always be in a situation of suffering and death.

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



[i] The “citation” here is from memory, or from the head as the popular language says, of an intervention by Walnice on the occasion of the Antonio Candido's 100 Years Seminar held at USP in 2018. For the moment I lost the speech notes and the table video disappeared from youtube.  

[ii] Walter Benjamin – The Image of Proust. In: Selected Works. Brasiliense, Vol. 1, 2010, p. 37.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibidem, p. 39.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibidem, p. 40.

[X] Ibid.

[xi] Ibidem, p. 41.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibidem, p. 43

[xvi] On this passage, see Theodor W. Adorno – The Curious Realist: Three Times Siegfried Kracauer. New Cebrap Studies, no. 85, 2009.

[xvii] Walter Benjamin – The Image of Proust. In: Selected Works. Brasiliense, Vol. 1, 2010, p. 43.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid p. 39.

[xx] Ibidem, p. 44.

[xxx] Ibidem, p. 48.

[xxiii] Ibidem, p. 45.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibidem, p. 46.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ibidem, p. 45.

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