Proust and the arts

LEDA CATUNDA, Katrina, 2009, acrylic on canvas and fabric, 260x340cm


Considerations on Roberto Machado's posthumous book

Roberto Machado not infrequently released a boutade: he said that his books were not “uspian” and that, in fact, he wrote them as a reaction to that “model”, which perhaps he considered serious, or synonymous with a centralization that, even when Roberto Machado was still among us, he no longer said much about Brazilian philosophy in the XNUMXst century. What amused us was that the provocative tirade collided with the opinion of another teacher, also “anti-USpian”, in her own way, for whom Roberto Machado's books were above all… USPian.

It was the first memory that came to my mind when I started reading Proust and the arts, posthumous publication of this great figure who left us in 2021, leaving an impossible gap to fill. Everything indicates that the author left the book ready, but the material was organized for publication by Pedro Süssekind, who also signs the ear and to whom we all owe a little.

For those who, like me and so many of my generation, began to study philosophy by reading Nietzsche and the truth, learned his first lessons about Michel Foucault by reading the microphysics of power, assimilated bold theses such as the one he presented in Zarathustra: Nietzschean tragedy, or revered monuments of historical-critical synthesis such as The birth of the tragic and so many other books, not to mention the translations and, how to forget, his classes and public interventions – when he dominated the audience like an Ariano Suassuna –, Proust and the arts it can only be read as a last class, a glamorous farewell, like everything that surrounded him. Let us therefore speak of the book, since the temptation to speak of the author is great.

In the year of the centenary of Proust's death, 2022, the book comes out at the same time as a third complete translation of the Research in Brazil, translated by Mario Sergio Conti and Rosa Freire D'Aguiar, In search of lost time (Companhia das Letras); indicating its differential already in the title, which differs from Globo and Ediouro's option, everything leads to believe that the new translation should start a renewed cycle of readings and studies, in which Roberto Machado's work should gain prominence.

I start with what Roberto Machado himself also indicates in the introduction: “[…] in addition to presenting, in a literary way, ideas traditionally considered philosophical – about reality, the subject, time, space, knowledge, perception, imagination, memory, thought… – there is a metaphysical aesthetic in Proust, inspired by philosophical reflection – logical, rational, conceptual – on art. But this reflection, which intends to reflect on the relationship between art and reality, is expressed artistically [...]” (p. 35). For the author, it is possible to read the outcome of the Research as an “aesthetic dissertation”, “an essay on the philosophy of art, with ideas deeply integrated into the plot of the novel” (p. 10); this is the invitation that Roberto Machado left us: an aesthetic-philosophical reading of in search of lost time. The paths he suggests along this path deserve some consideration.

Like everything he did, something seems licentiously daring at first, after all, would it even be possible to support the thesis that the Research would be a “novel of formation” (in line with the Bildungsroman German and the Roman d'apprentissage French) and that Marcel, the hero, discovers his literary vocation throughout the seven volumes, and still defend that the circularity of the thousands of pages is only revealed in its last lines by the narrator, who is, simultaneously, the central character of the book?

If we consider the metaphor of “excavation”, perhaps it is the case of thinking that Roberto Machado's reading methodology follows in the footsteps of Michel Foucault's archaeological path, different from the reception of the novel recognized by most of us through Benjamin's criticism. Not being unpublished – Paul Ricouer, for example, defended it, Maurice Blanchot too –, the thesis of the German training novel, “translated” as “learning novel” in French, was appropriated in different ways by Paul Ricouer – because, when At the end of the novel, we have a “disillusionment” and in another way still by Gilles Deleuze, who defines it as “research for the truth”, distancing himself from reading that emphasizes memory, for example. We need to think about the reasons that led Roberto Machado to bet on this path, let's say, not canonized.

The senses, or rather what the author calls “sense impressions”, are fundamental to understanding his reading proposal. Thus, he informs: “I detected around thirty of these experiences”. What do they consist of? In the “conditions of the literary project exposed in the work” (p. 37). Therefore, when dissecting the Research With rigor, Roberto Machado leads us along paths that I will call new, while suggesting, through the same paths that we are used to following in the novel, a global interpretation of the Proustian set from a new perspective. It would not be the case here to decide for right or wrong; we are literally on Nietzschean-Foucaultian ground, that is, Roberto Machado may have suggested that Proust's work inaugurates a new episteme of the XNUMXth century; specialized readers will say if this is an exaggeration, but it is worth remembering how much Roberto Machado valued impressions, for that it is enough to remember the immediately previous book, entitled Impressions of Michel Foucault (n-1 editions, 2017); by the way, as he himself registers, a musical metaphor. What I highlight is Roberto Machado's ability to read the novel from a key that merges sensations and literary revelation, sensitive impressions and philosophical aesthetics.

Intermezzo: at a certain point in the book Roberto writes the following: “What characterizes this moment in which Marcel has so many impressions chained together is that, by making an effort, in solitude, he manages to discover the cause, the reason for the intensity he feels when living these experiences and, from there, discover what the literary work he intends to do is” (p. 55). It's impossible to read this and not think about how much Roberto Machado valued solitude [never isolation]. Proust and the arts it couldn't be otherwise; although radical in its scope, it is the result of laborious and solitary work, including, as it seems, the radical nature of its reading.

These are the arts that Roberto Machado highlights as essential to the novel. Marcel Proust's great passion, music, especially Wagnerian music, the plastic arts and the literature that permeates everything; Let's do it by steps. If Marcel pursues his literary vocation throughout the seven volumes, music is a fundamental part of his apprenticeship, Proust even considered it superior to literature. To approach it, Roberto Machado closely follows the book by Jean-Jaques Nattiez, Proust musician (Christian Bourgois, 1984). At this point in the book, a name becomes inevitable and perhaps obvious when dealing with Roberto Machado, for whom Proust “is a modern, someone who was marked by the 'death of God', to use Nietzsche's expression” (p. 73 ).

With this cue, Roberto Machado shows how Marcel manages to get rid of the frivolity of a character whose culture has a great deal of importance to a certain point in the novel: Charles Swann; something that happens to other characters as Marcel goes on his learning path. However, Swann turns out to be a mediocre listener, whose decay and frustration is gradual and fatal. It is curious to note that, not infrequently, Roberto Machado speaks of Marcel Proust's position on music: “Proust is not interested in the technical aspects of musical theory” (p. 79); “Proust begins his reflection by presenting how Swann feels and thinks about music” (p.82); “If I studied Swann's understanding of music, it was above all to contrast it with the conception of the narrator, which is basically Proust's” (p. 103).

The space of a review is certainly limited to discuss “the position of the narrator” in the Research. In the introduction, Roberto Machado discusses this issue and takes a stand, which is why I leave this pleasure to the reader. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that “it [the conception of the narrator (by Proust!?)] appears at various moments in the story. Research, demonstrating a progression, a learning that, little by little, the central character makes of the nature of music, and it will be fundamental for the discovery of his literary vocation” (p. 103).

A Research, therefore, it is not only Marcel’s learning path, the story of how the arts touch him, move him, make his “involuntary memory” overflow, but also [or mainly?] the way that Proust found to bequeath us a teaching against the time of modernity, being, as Roberto Machado points out, a Nietzschean author, not a platonic one, interested in metaphysical projections, rather a writer concerned with what was happening in his time; it is no coincidence that Baudelaire is the poet and one of Proust's fundamental references. Thus, as a “novel of formation”, in search of lost time it is also a novel set against the time coeval with that of its author, the time of capitalism. But the book is not a reading guide, and I doubt that its author would forgive us if we read it in a laudatory way, that is, many questions remain that, unfortunately, we will not be able to ask.

When Proust's voice is invoked again, in the passage in which Roberto Machado states that “by referring to 'progress, if not in the value of artists, at least in the society of spirits', Proust is suggesting that, due to the fact of being later, a artist is not necessarily superior” (p. 105), several questions arise, but the author ignores them. Perhaps tired of the discussions about “Nietzsche vs Wagner”, all the passages where Proust literally takes sides for the composer are absent from the book. When this appears, it is in a general way: “[…] in order to maintain that Proust defends progress in art, it is necessary to clarify that this means for him that the great artist, the brilliant artist, always creates a new, original work, which breaks with the past […] (p. 106).

Roberto Machado takes Kant and Schopenhauer as sources of support for his argument, ignoring Nietzsche's criticisms of Baudelaire and Wagner, because, for him, “[…] Proust is resuming a modern tradition that defines the great artist as an original creator” ( p. 125), thus, “[…] Kant, one of the first to defend this position, says, in paragraph 46 of Critique of the faculty of judgment, what a genius 'is a talent to produce that for which no determinate rule can be given […]; consequently, originality it has to be your first property'” (p. 125). All this is explained by the fact that Roberto did not write a book to promote a debate on the philosophy of art, but to show us how [a] novel can be, in itself, a source of aesthetic improvement, and, thus, it makes sense. , I would like to believe, statements like this one: “Proust seems to be resuming this modern conception of genius, followed by the romantics and by Schopenhauer” (p. 125). How could Proust be “Nietzschean” and follow Schopenhauer and Kant?

These and other tensions that the book offers us to think about will certainly feed good discussions in our classrooms, but I insist a little more on the position that Roberto Machado assumes in the book by ignoring passages like this one: “I had not, in my admiration for the master from Bayreuth, none of the scruples of those to whom, like Nietzsche, it is their duty to flee art as in life from the beauty that tempts them, and who, tearing themselves away from Tristan just as they deny Parsifal, by spiritual asceticism, from mortification to mortification, arrive, following the bloodiest of the ways of the cross, to rise to the pure knowledge and perfect adoration of the Postilion of Longjumeau” [Marcel Proust, the prisoner (São Paulo, Globo, 2011, p. 180.] In this and in other passages we find, perhaps to the surprise of some, Proust taking sides with Wagner, in a discussion that we did not know was so important as to be immortalized in the novel.

I quote one more: “I have already said […] what I think of friendship, namely: that it is worth so little that it is hard for me to understand that men of a certain talent, like Nietzsche, for example, had the naivety to attribute a certain intellectual value to it and , consequently, to refuse friendships to which intellectual esteem was not linked. Yes, I was always astonished to see that a man who carried sincerity within himself to the point of withdrawing, as a matter of conscience, from the music of Wagner, would imagine that the truth could be fulfilled in that mode of expression, confused and inadequate by nature. , which are generally actions and, in particular, friendships, and that there could be some meaning in the fact that someone leaves work to go visit a friend and cry together when they hear the false news of the Louvre fire” [Marcel Proust , The Way of Guermantes].

The curiosity to know the reasons for the path chosen by Roberto Machado will still lead to many conversations and the book does not lose its merit because we continue debating something that he thought had perhaps been overcome. Of great interest are also the passages on painting, the real artists and those invented by Proust, the “superior knowledge” that Marcel felt when contemplating Vermeer’s painting, View of Delft, which Proust “had seen in The Hague in 1902” and considered “the most beautiful painting in the world”.

In this sense, I understand when reaching the end of the book that the bet on the idea of Research as a “novel of formation” has a lot to do with this last term, so dear to the Germanic debate, the Education. Would Roberto Machado be indicating in a final way a last breath of integrity, something like a return to the arts as a way out of barbarism, regardless of minor quarrels and, therefore, as an antidote against the country he left and whose breath of hope he could not to feel? Like a good novel, only at the end does Roberto's book fully reveal itself and this pleasure cannot be taken away from readers.

There are many questions that we will not be able to ask our author. When a figure like Roberto Machado disappears, it is common for our proximity to them to be invoked, with pride and vanity. It is not different in my case, although what I am going to report is intended to illuminate the reading, more than to praise a false intimacy. When I invited him to join my faculty committee, his direct response was more or less this: “I no longer want to participate in any committee, in any congress, I just want to dedicate myself to a writing project unlike anything I’ve done, something between literature and philosophy.

He did this in the aforementioned Impressions of Michel Foucault and perhaps he repeated the dose in this posthumous one, despite the book seeming closer to his earlier works. Anyway, Roberto Machado left us another USP book, that is, as I understand the joke, meticulous, demanding, rigorous, but with the feet of a bird.

*Henry Burnett is a music critic and professor of philosophy at Unifesp. Author, among other books, of Musical mirror of the world (Phi publisher).


Robert Machado. Proust and the arts. São Paulo, However, 2022, 240 pages (

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