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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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Proust and his work occupy an unusual position in modern times. From the In- dustrial Revolution up to and including our time, writers and thinkers are repeat- edly complaining about the ugliness of the mechanised world. Nearly all of them are cultural pessimists. Proust is one of the very few who show no sign at all of this pessimism; the best refutation of The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig is to be found in this writer, who wrote: “And very soon it is we ourselves who are on the horizon for the generations that come after us; all the while the horizon retreats into the distance, and the world, which seemed to be finished, begins again.” a 121 One could even claim that his work has brought cultural pessimism into question, in that he has exposed it as a form of idolatry, of aestheticism. Anatole France was a prominent writer at that time and initially very much admired by Proust. When he complains that after the eighteenth century nobody can write any more, the basis of his complaint, Proust is convinced, lies in the idolatrous worship of literary forms which used to be once expressions of life and thought.122 Proust’s vitalistic answer goes: The great artist is reborn every time. But he is not immediately recognised as such, first he has to treat people’s eyes like an ophthalmologist: “‘Now look!’ and suddenly, the world, which, far from having been created once and for all, is created afresh each...

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