To Read Proust Or Not to Read Proust

Having finished the first volume of À la Recherche, I’m in doubt whether I should continue. The prose is first-rate, the descriptions rich as could be, the psychological portraits extremely fine. On the other hand, to state the rather obvious, the narrator is an aestheticist dandy, a wanna-be aristocrat, self-indulgent beyond measure, whiny, and an often, if unwittingly, cruel egomaniac.

Nature has ontological depth, this seems an obvious fact to him; other humans, less so. They are first of all surface, of aesthetic interest. That they might also have psychic depth and ontological independence is something he seems incapable of understanding — until he’s performed lethal psychological vivisection on them. The whole enterprise seems carried by a desire for holding everyone and anyone in a comprehensive, exhaustive vision, a totalizing, piercing gaze that burns through all layers of privacy. He does not let the Other be.

It’s seductive. It’s like soda. Sticky, sweet, addictive, unhealthy, and he knows it. He bribes his readers with one beautiful image after another, with moments of self-deprecating solicitations of pity. He buys himself space to flood us with the most minute and mundane details of his life, the Catalogue of Every Thought, Desire, and Judgment I Ever Knew.

He whispers to the reader: invest, invest emotionally, all you have, make it all matter to you; else this will be boring. Look at all as I do. Care about what I care about. When I sometimes destroy what I first taught you to care about, you will suffer as I did. In the end, you’ll see as piercingly as I do. Be my accomplice. Learn vivisection. Pretty stuff shall flow endlessly for you.

And I like pretty stuff as much as anyone, but I’m afraid that after 3000 pages of living in soda pop’s sociopathic mind, I’ll come out a worse person than I am. … Au sécours, chers amis, chères amies !

Note: I decided to continue in the end and hope to continue to write down some reflections on the experience along the way knowing that my judgment of the man will likely change in certain regards. Still I find it useful to have this record of a first impression.

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