Proust and Social Distance

22 April 2020

Marcel Proust once wrote about a hypothetical sufferer of “spiritual depression.” Here’s a passage from it that resonates, in these days of forced interiority: 


He has no real incapacity that prevents him from working, walking, eating, being out in the cold, but he finds it impossible to will the various acts he is otherwise perfectly able to perform…


If you, like me, have walled yourself up at home for a few weeks—and are lucky enough not to suffer from anything more serious than the spiritual depression described above—then you might recognize yourself in this description. I find it all too easy to fall into this pattern, for brief periods at least. I think of it as an affliction of too much sameness. It comes over me when I lose contact with the new, when I limit my contact with others and my excursions out into the world. 


It is also an affliction of mental action. Proust says that this sufferer is not physically unable to act. Instead, he is unable to will: to make a decision that will actually cause any bodily action. It is his mental capacities that languish, not his muscles or his organs.


As the philosophy of mental action has grown in recent years, interest in disorders of mental activity has grown alongside it. Serious pathology in mental action awareness has been used to explain delusions of thought insertion. More local “will freezes” in the mind have been used to explain the weird, fragmentary content of our nightly dreams.


The disorder Proust describes here is not as extreme as schizophrenic delusions, and not as harmless as a muddled dream. It is meant to be something that we recognize, but not something we feel in our healthiest states. Those who experience it “live on the surface, in a perpetual forgetting of themselves, a kind of passivity which makes them the plaything of every pleasure and reduces them to the stature of those who surround them, jostling them this way and that.” This is how things are sometimes. It is not so good, but also not so bad.


This disorder may be particularly hard to avoid during state-mandated social distancing. But if we take Proust’s word for it, it is also one that can be cured—in fact, can only be cured—in a state that involves social distance. Of course, he would never put things so prosaically. “What is needed,” he actually wrote,


is an intervention that occurs deep within ourselves while coming from someone else, the impulse of another mind that we receive in the bosom of solitude… this is precisely the definition of reading and fits nothing but reading.


Proust made this point to directly contradict some claims made by John Ruskin, one of his literary heroes, who claimed that reading was a conversation with an author. (The source essay for all this is an introduction Proust wrote for his own translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies into French.) Reading, Proust wrote, is no mere conversation. According to him, real honesty is impossible in real-life conversation, ruined by our own civilities, our regard for our reputations, and our otherwise honorable impulses to do right by others: “all the courtesies, all the greetings in the entrance-hall, that we call respect, gratitude, and devotion and into which we mix so many lies, are unproductive and exhausting.” So much the better for reading, which gives you all the stimulus of another’s mental activity without any need to perform for them. It is only in solitude—or “social distance”—that you can treat another’s words purely as an impetus for your own thought, and think authentically, for yourself, in response. As he put it: 


Reading, unlike conversation, consists for each of us in receiving the communication of another thought while remaining alone, or in other words, while continuing to bring into play the mental powers we have in solitude and which conversation immediately puts to flight; while remaining open to inspiration, the soul still hard at its fruitful labours upon itself. 


To put it less well, we might say that reading constitutes a weirdly in-between social activity. It’s not quite done in company, but it doesn’t quite leave you to your own thoughts. 


This is precisely what’s meant to be curative about reading. When your thought patterns stultify—into ruminations about your cat’s disdain for you, or the perpetually undone dishes, or the uninspiring task of responding to a flood of emails—you need an impetus from outside to shake you out of this mental languor. Proust thinks of reading as not usurping your mental agency, but stimulating it. “Reading,” he said, “is merely a kind of instigation, which can in no way substitute for our personal activity; reading is happy simply to give us back the use of this ability.” For such a prolific reader, Proust knows that books aren’t things to ingest passively. They are jolts to your system, meant to spur you on to new and creative thoughts of your own. “An original mind knows how to subordinate reading to its own individual activity,” he said.


As a champion of reading, Proust is a good companion in these solitary times. If we take his word on this, he can only be such a good companion because he literally is not here with us. You can host him into your living room without politeness, civility, or deference. You can gobble up his words with the gluttony of a purely selfish consumer, hungry for a new adventure of thought that extends beyond the limits of your own four walls.



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