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?”