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Proust’s «In Search of Lost Time»: The History of a Vocation

Meindert Evers

Marcel Proust (1871-1922) grew up in the fin de siècle, a period associated with melancholy and decadence. He knew the temptations of decadence, but freed himself by developing a new conception of art: Perspectivism becomes the aesthetic and philosophical principle of In Search of Lost Time. The novel traces out the path to becoming an artist. It is the history of a «vocation». The main figure is initiated into the hidden beauty of the universe by various artists and by «signs» from his own life, like involuntary memory. A variety of dangers however, lie along the path of the artist. Besides aestheticism, there is the siren call of worldly life which has to be resisted. In the end, art triumphs. For Proust art is not a refuge from life, but the only way to do justice to the modern world. The fascinating and equally disturbing consequence of Proust’s radical conception of art is the complete absence of cultural criticism. An advertisement for soap may contain as much poetry as the Pensées of Pascal.

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CHAPTER II: A la Recherche as the history of a vocation

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CHAPTER II A la Recherche as the history of a vocation A la Recherche has to be considered as what the Germans call a “Bildungsro- man”. Proust himself calls his work the history of a “vocation”: “And I under- stood that all these materials for a work of literature were simply my past life. And thus my whole life up to the present day might (and yet might not) have been summed up under the title: A Vocation.” a 1 The book is the story of a learning process.2 In the novel, the main character, the narrator, receives “les- sons” from various people – above all from artists – and from life itself. These open his eyes to the beauty of life, and ultimately to a realisation of the essential nature of art as “illumination”, as a means to realise life.3 His path is, however, not without its dangers and distractions. One of the greatest dangers is aestheticism. Proust combats its spirit by per- sonifying it in Swann and Charlus. Other dangers are this worldly life, love, and even friendship. But every experience is also a learning experience. “When I considered my past life, I understood also that its slightest episodes had contrib- uted towards giving me the lesson in idealism from which I was going to profit today.” b 4 For a long time he is unsure. He keeps putting off starting to write, from weakness of will. He envies the energy of the maid Françoise as she prepares a...

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