On Friendship and Solitude

I still remember a colleague of mine years ago, who boasted proudly that she had given as summer holiday read Joyce’s Ulysses to her students, Italian  students of about 17 years old, actually. “And….are you sure, they will read it?” was my dubious reply. “Of course”, she said. She had no doubts, good for her. I always envy such decided people. I moved to another school then, so I couldn’t check the outcome of that educational choice, but I would bet nobody had truly opened Joyce’s book. An easy win, I dare say. In fact,  how could half ignorant adolescents enjoy the read of such a bulky, complex novel, when I …………had not. It is time to confess that I skipped many parts of the masterpiece, read only the last pages of Molly Bloom’s famous monologue and that I have reserved the same destiny to Proust’s In Search of Lost time. Yes , I did it and I don’t mean to make amend for it. That does not mean, for sure, that both novels are not good enough for me, but rather, I am not good enough for them. The global literary knowledge I should have  – my edition of Ulysses came with  another book twice as big as the original to enlighten us mortals about the numerous literary references and interpretations – and the experimental syntax craft are just too much for my humble person.

Yet, when you allow yourself to be touched inadvertently and unprejudiced by their words, you can never be indifferent. Never. In fact, I was recently conquered by following the passage during a lecture,  before knowing it was actually Proust the source of the unexpected pleasure. I had to dive into the ocean of “In Search of Lost time” for a while, actually, before finding the passage I wanted to share with you, and here it is: so modern, so real, so thought provoking. This is how Proust deals with the theme of friendship:

“People who enjoy the capacity—it is true that such people are artists, and I had long been convinced that I should never be that—are also under an obligation to live for themselves.”

So far nothing exceptional. He was a decadent, so he shared the idea that the artist was the superior being whose talent should not be contaminated by the taste of vulgar masses, but he goes a little further here, as in those masses friends are included:

And friendship is a dispensation from this duty, an abdication of self.”

Hence,  we understand that it is  wrong for an artist to consider friendship as a dispensation from that duty, as friendship is a sort of partnership in which you self is not free to expand itself, but must “abdicate” for the sake of that friendship.

“ Even conversation, which is the mode of expression of friendship, is a superficial digression which gives us no new acquisition. We may talk for a lifetime with-out doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute,”

These words may induce you to believe that Proust was a snobbish, solitary man, but he was not. He was a man who enjoyed society and much. In fact, Proust began very young to frequent the refined circles of the upper middle class and the aristocracy, thanks to the social and economic position of his family. He met illustrious writers, like Paul Valéry and André Gide, nevertheless, he found all that time spent in the habit of conversation useless and vacuous, an unpardonable weakness especially  in an artist:

whereas the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths, in the only direction that is not closed to us, along which we are free to advance—though with more effort, it is true—towards a goal of truth. And friendship is not merely devoid of virtue, like conversation, it is fatal to us as well.”

Only in the “bliss of solitude”  the artist can proceed into the depth of thought and avoid being kept at the surface by the  vacuity of light conversation and friendship works the same :

For the sense of boredom which it is impossible not to feel in a friend’s company (when, that is to say, we must remain ex-posed on the surface of our consciousness, instead of pursuing our voyage of discovery into the depths) for those of us in whom the law of development is purely internal….”

I was wondering, how often have you felt this sense of boredom at a dinner with your friends, for example,  even if you are not one for “whom the law of development in purely internal” or experienced that “vacuity of the minute” which repeats itself ? I am sure that you have and often. Hence:

that first impression of boredom our friendship impels us to correct when we are alone again, to recall with emotion the words uttered by our friend, to look upon them as a valuable addition to our substance, albeit…”

Here lies the danger, we tend to believe that  what a friend says, just because he is so, may in a way enrich “our substance”, but according to Proust this is impossible:

 “we are not like buildings to which stones can be added from without, but like trees which draw from their own sap the knot that duly appears on their trunks, the spreading roof of their foliage.”

No matter how clever, poignant or true the words spoken are, they are just like bricks and bricks cannot make a tree  grow. They are made of  different substances, after all. The living, creating sap may only come from within, and that must be the focus of an artist in particular and maybe men in general.

In short, the time used to cultivate friendships is not only useless but also unproductive. In the company of others we cannot be our real self  and constantly remain chained to what is superficial rather than go into the heart of things. It is a dynamic which does not allow the growth of a human being. I don’t fully agree with him, but if it is so, is  this monstrous society of “friends” connected worldwide in the never-ending practice of conversation allowing the growth of any sensible human being?

P.S. There is another question I would like to ask you and please don’t lie to me: “Is  there anyone out there who has truly read Ulysses from page one to page “too many” and enjoyed it?”


27 thoughts on “On Friendship and Solitude

  1. First, many books I’ve not read, and Ulysses being one of them.

    Second, friendship has multiple levels and definitions. By some, I have (and had) many friends. By others, I have one friend. By my definition, a few, although these days the definition blurs because of the internet.

    I can say I’m gregarious by nature but antisocial when it comes to forming close friendships. And, of course, I greatly limit and control any significant interaction with others.

    Let’s face it; not just friends, but any closeness to another individual is a burden. Some say the benefits outweigh the burden, but other than Melisa, I’ve not found that to be the case. Probably, again, partially my fault because of the buffer zone I maintain.

    • These are precisely the words my husband would have written, especially the conclusion of your comment. I may say I enjoy the company of friends in general, but at the same time I value all the moments I am alone or with my husband . That is why I did not suffer at all from lockdown seclusion, quite the contrary.
      I understand what Proust says, overindulging in the joys of society and company of friends is often just a diversion, a way to fill a void which however cannot be filled by the vacuity of one or more minutes and that is a truth.

    • Yeah . . . for us, the lockdown was just what we normally do, only we then had an excuse and were labeled conscientious as opposed to antisocial.

      We’re still playing that hand, but it doesn’t ring as true now . . . unless Delta kicks up again (which it looks as if it will). Take care . . . and read a book or something.

    • I have one other comment/question:
      I have one book (originally in English — Pioneers, Go Home) that I first read in Italy (Vacanze Matte — I still have it). It’s a book I really enjoyed for the humor, mostly due to the style of writing.

      Last year, I bought the English version . . . not as funny. And I mean, not even close.

      Now, it could be that my humor was shaped in my youth and it’s influenced by the pacing of the Italian language . . . but I don’t think so as I consider myself more an English speaker/reader than Italian. Meaning, there’s plenty of English material I find funny.

      The point is that (by the strength of one example) I think the translation of a work into a language different from the original can substantially alter the presentation of the material.

      To wit, when you speak of the richness of Proust’s writing, can we really assume it would read the same in its original French? Meaning, should the credit for the crafting of the words go to the translator?

      Side Note: There are a number of songs in the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that to this day occasionally earworm their way into my consciousness (I first saw the movie in Italy). The thing is, the words are not the same; they are substantially different from Italian to English which changes the meaning of the songs. So, two examples of translations altering the original works.

      • First of all I think that it is very unlikely that a humorous book once translated into another language may achieve the same effect as the idea of “funny” differs in every country.
        I often wonder, for example, what an amazing job the translators of Montalbano must have done turning ( half invented) Sicilian into the language of their countries and make it a hit all over the world. But, is it possible to translate “di pirsona pirsonalmente” (yes) and achieve the same effect? No, it isn’t.
        One more example. Joyce’s Eveline starts with an apparently harmless: ” she sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue” , which becomes in Italian: ” seduta alla finestra guardava la sera invadere il viale”. Correct, but while reading it , you understand that there something that doesn’t work, something missing: the sound. In fact ,Joyce marks the passing from day to night with an alliteration of the “w” which turns into a “v” while the vowel sound grows darker and darker as night approaches. All this in 11 words, and this is only Dubliners!
        Hence, in a translation there is always we miss, it cannot be otherwise.

      • But, you didn’t answer the question . . . Who should get the credit for the praise given to Proust? Proust or the translator? Can we be sure the English passages you quote match and are faithful to the intent of the same passages in French?

        As for the humor in Vacanze Matte versus Pioneer Go Home, the situations and turn of events are funny in both books . . . But I give an edge to the Italian narration as being funnier on top of the situational humor. Meaning, the original isn’t a funny as the translated work.

        By the way, it was turned into a movie with Elvis Presley, thus completely ruining it.

      • Those who translate such works are scholars before being translators. It took more than10 years to Giulio De Angelis to translate what Joyce called “romanzaccione”( can you translate this?) and he was helped by other scholars as Cambon, Izzo and Melchiori. And for Proust it is just the same.
        As for the quote, I had trouble to find it in English, as I had heard in French first. So, I read it in French , in English and ….. in Italian ( you know, I needed to be really sure I had understood what I wanted to talk about😀).

      • No, I can’t, but then, there are a lot of phrases both in English and Italian that I can’t translate (meaning, they become non-sensical).

        And by that, I mean I can translate the words and even maintain the intent, but they’re not quite the same, often because the root word conveys imagery in addition to what might be a cultural context (for, example, sfumature/sfumati/etc), and does so differently than an equivalent English word (for clouds, I would say ‘wispy clouds’ but – for me – it doesn’t have the same ring). A given turn of phrase may have no equivalent in other languages. Of course, that might just point to my poor mastery of both languages.

        OK, I grant that people who translate works probably do a pretty good job, but my original question addressed a different topic.

        There are neural pathways and connections in the way languages structure the brain that makes matching nuances difficult at best. The point being that a translated work, even if accurately translated in both context and intent may end up with passages that are more beautiful/impactful than the original. But the author gets the credit.

        Ideally, I’d like to mix languages to get the exact meaning I want. I only know two — and I’ve lost a lot of my Italian — but I imagine being fluent in more languages would give me lots more choices. We sometimes see foreign words be adopted into a language as concepts both because of expediency and because they convey meaning that has no equivalent expression.

        Anyway, I’ll stop beating this dead horse and . . . no, wait . . . I presume you’ve read Shakespear in Italian . . . how does it compare to the original? Of course, you could say anything since I’ve not read his works in any language.

        No, no, let’s just stop, as this has already highjacked this post and taken it off its path. Thanks for your time and input.

  2. Loved this. I had just chatting about U with another – I cannot finish it, either. It’s probably all that’s said about it, but I find the tone relentless for all its varieties of form. Stifling.
    And, Monsieur Proust, yes, I am still working through the Swann’s Way. Lovely writing, exquisite, and a joy to read in most cases. But too much also.
    I will persevere with this.
    I remember the shocked looked on fellow student faces who had chosen this for their last year option: the size of it; the need for attention – no skipping here!

  3. My dear friend and one of the most interesting person to speak to. Of course not is My answer to your last question so you have been in “such a jocund company” on this side. . .on the other hand I have been given a precious edition of la recherce du temps perdu (Sorry for mispelling) and I have never read It from the beginning to the end but your article strongly invited me to start tomorrow because my eyes are getting very old and at night I can Only read digitally making the font bigger. Thank you so much for your interesting, motivating suggestions and thoughts that feed readers’ curiosity all the time.

  4. Loved that quote on the vacuity if a minute and the buildings and trees one..
    For me some books are meant to be possessed and held but not really read!(except passages here and there) Ulysses is one such..😊

  5. This is so interesting, even more so because I’m slowly reading Proust at the moment. I read Ulysses with a couple of friends and absolutely loved it. Every new episode was a struggle to begin with but as soon as we got to grips with it we were blown away – our reactions to the writing were often physical, for example a feeling that we could breathe as they left the claustrophobic library. It really is the most wonderful writing, but definitely one for a shared reading experience – it’s too rich to be read alone.

  6. Last things first, and no, I’ve not read Ulysses — too much else yet to read. But I’ll never say never…

    This thing about ‘wasting time’ talking with people who might or might not become friends, or who talk so much at length that you wonder when it will stop… I don’t personally do well with ‘small talk’ — the weather, traffic, politics — and I know many who are similar, though I can err by over-sharing on subjects dear to my own heart. Maybe ‘artists’ are the same?!

    • As Aristotle said, man is a “social” animal and indeed.we are “social” , but there were not so many “voices” at Aristotle’s times and the world was less crowded. So, I am sure that today he would agree that a little solitude would be good for us.

  7. My dear wise teacher, I must enjoy your lessons again and again. I think that we are all individual, like trees and not like buildings. I am totally agreed with Proust, and also, as he said: we are all artists. It is a present given to us by God, or whosoever, to keep the power of creation continually in the universe. Although, unfortunately, it didn’t work unconditionally! The artist is solitary, is alone under the pressure of her/his huge power of creation, though, has to come to terms with that. But to discuss these all with friends helps better to reach the goal.
    I have read “In Search of Lost Time” many years ago, a great read. And about James Joyce’s Ulysses, as I remember well, it was at the end of the ’90s that my late brother, Al, has bought the book and read it in a few days. Then he had given it to me to read, said: that is a must!. I am still reading it, and I will finish it one day before I die, I promise! 🤗💖

  8. Ulysses is worth it. But you have to read it twice, I think: first time to gather what on earth is going on, then second time to enjoy and appreciate it. And life may be too short for this indulgence. For those in need of a little help I can thoroughly recommend The Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires as a reading companion…

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