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The Case of the Forgotten Quote
I am thrilled to report that, after my Conversation with Chat GPT about Proust was reprinted in the Guardian last week, a heroic reader identified the quote I was looking for (about later love relationships serving as a model for writing about earlier love relationships), which I had come to believe that I had hallucinated! (It did involve someone from the future sitting for the portrait of someone in the past.)
The reader helpfully shared the following procedure:
– Search for « amours »
– Find the following:
« Ce sont nos passions qui esquissent nos livres, le repos d'intervalle qui les écrit. Quand elle renaît, quand nous pouvons reprendre le travail, la femme qui posait devant nous pour un sentiment ne nous le fait déjà plus éprouver. Il faut continuer à le peindre d'après une autre, et si c'est une trahison pour l'être, littérairement, grâce à la similitude de nos sentiments, qui fait qu'une œuvre est à la fois le souvenir de nos amours passées et la prophétie de nos amours nouvelles, il n'y a pas grand inconvénient à ces substitutions. C'est une des causes de la vanité des études où on essaye de deviner de qui parle un auteur. Car une œuvre, même de confession directe, est pour le moins intercalée entre plusieurs épisodes de la vie de l'auteur, ceux antérieurs qui l'ont inspirée, ceux postérieurs, qui ne lui ressemblent pas moins, les amours suivantes, leurs particularités étant calquées sur les précédentes. Car à l'être que nous avons le plus aimé nous ne sommes pas si fidèle qu'à nous-même, et nous l'oublions tôt ou tard pour pouvoir – puisque c'est un des traits de nous-même – recommencer d'aimer…»
It's in book VII – Le Temps retrouvé.
Here it is in the Modern Library edition (translated by Andreas Mayor and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright), page 317:
It is our passions which draw the outline of our books, the ensuing intervals of repose which write them. And when inspiration is born again, when we are able to resume our work, the woman who was posing for us to illustrate a sentiment no longer has the power to make us feel it. We must continue to paint the sentiment from another model, and if this means infidelity towards the individual, from a literary point of view, thanks to the similarity of our feelings for the two women, which makes a work at the same time a recollection of our past loves and a prophecy of our new ones, there is no great harm in these substitutions. And this is one reason for the futility of those critical essays which try to guess who it is that an author is talking about. A work, even one that is directly autobiographical, is at the very least put together out of several intercalated episodes in the life of the author—earlier episodes which have inspired the work and later ones which resemble it just as much, the later loves being traced after the pattern of the earlier. For to the woman whom we have loved most in our life we are not so faithful as we are to ourself, and sooner or later we forget her in order—since this is one of the characteristics of that self—to be able to begin to love again.
I wrote to the reader both to express my profound gratitude and to ask a few follow-ups, like how long it took them to find the quote, and whether “amours” was the first keyword they tried, and whether I could share their name, but no reply yet. So, this Proust hero will, for now, remain nameless. In the meantime, mes salutations les plus distinguées to whoever thought to put up all of In Search of Lost Time on one page and call it “One page of Proust.” You know it was someone delightful, because there’s a feature where it sends you to a random page (click on “Au hasard”)—so you can use it for bibliomancy—and then it invites you to “click on the madeleine” for more.
(I will note also that “amours” occurs only 67 times in all 7 volumes, which makes it a smart choice of keyword, especially in the plural! Because, if you just look for “amour,” there are 1168 occurrences!)
Anyway… so then I was thinking about how delighted I was to receive this email, and to find out about the Proust page, and to play with the clickable madeleine… and then I thought, “What if all these delightful feelings and experiences disappear in the future, when AI does everything”… and then I wondered whether AIs will ever be able to “be delightful.” And I thought, if you have delightful people programming an AI to recognize and recombine delightful things, why would that not be a teachable skill? On the one hand, you lose the (delightful) image of a person physically searching all of Proust for “amours”… but you do gain the image of people trying to think of delightful things to program an AI to do. In short, I ended up where I always end up when I think about AI, which is something like: “How is it that different from people?” That quickly leads to, “If it was functionally equivalent to a person, why would I feel differently towards it than towards a person”; and then I end up at horror to think of how the AIs will have been enslaved to delight people. And then I think, haven’t we all done that to ourselves anyway?
Meanwhile, in my own relentless effort to be delightful, I started searching the web for an animated madeleine image to accompany this post… and although I wasn’t able to find the dancing madeleiene gif I had seen in my mind’s eye, I am pleased to share that there is a lot of clip art out there of anthropomorphic madeleines reaching high levels of achievement in fields including fitness, the arts, and even jurisprudence.
I was also intrigued to learn about the existence of a Korean video game character called Madeleine Cookie, who belongs to a noble cookie family and seems to have a lot of aunts. You can see him here in animated (gif) form, presumably galloping towards a cup of linden blossom tea.
Eventually, I pulled myself out of the madeleine rabbit hole and decided to pull up the document I had been working on, weeks and weeks ago, that had made me want to find that Proust quote to begin with. Maybe I will share more later, but for now I will just say that I was writing about the way love relationships prefigure each other, both in real life and in artistic representations, and how there are a lot of different ways of explaining the prefigurations—e.g. psychoanalytic (because of relationship patterns being formed in early life and repeating themselves), or logistical/ craft-related, which is part of what Proust is talking about. I.e., writing books takes so long, and being in love is so time-consuming, that, by the time you actually manage to describe, in your writing, what you felt upon any one instance of being in love, you will likely have lived yourself on through to another instance. Which isn’t, however, such a disaster, because the relationships tend to repeat each other (see above psychoanalytic reasons).
Here is one example of how this played out in my own writing. My beloved first cat, Friday, died in 2021, when I was doing the last revisions on Either/Or. When I got to the scene near the end, where Selin leaves Mesut at the bus station, the writing didn’t feel sad enough. It didn’t measure up to what I was feeling. I remember thinking about the trip to the vet to euthanize Friday (who had been very sick), and adding some new lines to the passage where Selin looks at Mesut on the bus, as they’re about to say goodbye:
How present and alive he was, how strong and substantial. Yet this was itself a form of limitation. An inextricable aspect of his strength and solidity was that he existed, not everywhere, but in a particular place. Unlike my feelings, which were dimensionless and followed me wherever I went, he was person‐sized and staying here.
This was “really” something I was thinking about Friday (only with “cat-sized,” not “person-sized”)… but it felt just as true to Selin’s thoughts about Mesut—because the experience of separation from a dearly loved body, from a dearly loved and embodied living being, doesn’t hugely vary from case to case. So, I like what Proust says, or kind of says (too French to say it outright), about how it isn’t actually a betrayal (trahison) to draw from later feelings to describe an earlier situation, or vice versa. To me, it actually feels like the opposite of betrayal—like, it reveals a spiritual truth that we don’t necessarily get to feel or experience in daily life—viz., that, if love is love, then no love can really be a betrayal of any other love.
This reminds me of the lines in the poem part of Pale Fire, about the widower whose two wives are waiting for him in the afterlife, “both loved, both loving, both/ Jealous of one another,” and what a ludicrous image it is—the two wives sitting there looking mournful and blonde, but one is more blonde, and he has to decide which wife to greet first. It’s so obviously absurd, and obvious that being freed from a body has to mean finally being freed from this bullshit. When you really love someone, you love their capacity for love, and there has to be a plane where that doesn’t exclude you, even if it’s a plane you don’t necessarily get to hang out on in embodied existence (unless you are a polyamory pro, in which case, congratulations!). And surely one project of artistic representation is to get closer to that.
Thank you, dear readers, for all the delight you bring me! See you soon!