On books and the Proustian incentive

So, I did finish The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, which was good, but not brilliant. This is my problem with modern fiction; sometimes it’s OK, but rarely is it extraordinary, and life is a little too short. At least if you read something from the canon of English literature, even if it’s a slog, generally you have learnt what the story was aiming to teach, which was something worth learning. With modern novels though, this is questionable. The final “point” of this one seemed to be that the heroine had “more important things to do with her life” (quote from the last page) than to get married. Whoop de doo. I didn’t really need to read a (long) novel to learn this view on the whole phenomenon. Such is everywhere.

To be fair though, it is an interesting book, and turns out to be quite a fascinating observation of one character’s struggle with manic depression, and of another’s with “religion”. It is worth reading on those points.

I am now reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton. I’m making a point of reading through some of the unread books on my shelf (despite buying the one above on hoildays), and this is one of them. It’s not likely I’ll find the time to read all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, so I am enjoying this synopsis.

Back to this point that perhaps people are perhaps more remarkable for not always getting what they want, de Botton and Proust have some interesting things to say:

… it is worth pointing out that feeling things [which usually means feeling them painfully] is at some level linked to the acquisition of knowledge.

In fact, in Proust’s view, we don’t really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped …

Though we can of course use our minds without being in pain, Proust’s suggestion is that we become properly inquisitive only when distressed. We suffer, therefore we think, and we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context, it helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions and reconcile ourselves to its presence.

It follows that ideas which have arisen without pain lack an important source of motivation. For Proust, mental activity seems divided into two categories: there are what might be called painless thoughts, sparked by no particular discomfort, inspired by nothing other than a disinterested wish to find out how sleep works or why human beings forget; and painful thoughts, arising out of a distressing inability to sleep or recall a name — and it is this latter category which Proust significantly privileges.

He tells us, for instance, that there are two methods by which a person can acquire wisdom, painlessly via a teacher or painfully via life, and he proposes that the painful variety is the far superior; a point he places into the mouth of his fictional painter Elstir, who treats the narrator to an argument in favour of making some mistakes:

There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or even lived in a way which was so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. But he shouldn’t regret this entirely, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man — so far as any of us can be wise — unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be reached. I know there are young people … whose teachers have instilled in them a nobility of mind and moral refinement from the very beginning of their schooldays. They perhaps have nothing to retract when they look back upon their lives; they can, if they choose, publish a signed account of everything they have ever said or done; but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires and their wisdom is negative and sterile. We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.

Why can’t they? Why is this painful journey so indispensable to the acquisition of true wisdom? Elstir does not specify, though it may be enough that he has defined a relation between the degree of pain a person experiences and the profundity of thought they may have as a result. It is as if the mind were a squeamish organ which refused to entertain difficult truths unless encouraged to do so by difficult events. ‘Happiness is a good for the body,’ Proust tells us, ‘but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.’ These griefs put us through a form of mental gymnastics which we would have avoided in happier times. Indeed, if a genuine priority is development of our mental capacities, the implication is that we would be better off being unhappy than content, better off pursuing tormented love affairs than reading Plato or Spinoza.

A woman whom we need and who makes us suffer elicits from us a whole gamut of feelings far more profound and more vital than does a man of genius who interests us.

It is perhaps only normal if we remain ignorant when things are blissful. While a car is working well, what incentive is there to learn of its complex internal functioning? When a beloved pledges loyalty, why should we start to dwell on the dynamics of human treachery? What could encourage us to investigate the humiliations of social life when all we encounter is respect? Only when plunged into grief do we have the Proustian incentive to confront difficult truths, as we wail under the bedclothes, like branches in the autumn wind.

I am not going to endorse Elstir’s idea of passing through all the fatuous and unwholesome incarnations of a thing. It is perhaps sufficient to face a genuine temptation and resist, a la Jesus (Hebrews 2:18), though it would seem Jesus himself did have to experience human suffering in order to learn something (Hebrews 5:18) and truly sympathise with us in it (Hebrews 4:15). And obviously I do believe their is value in teaching wisdom, but I suspect this is all too true with regards the effectiveness of the learning.

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