Suffering and Solitude as the Companions of Art
by Mary Kathryn Wiley
In the seventh and final volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Time Regained, Marcel finally realizes that he does have something to contribute to the artistic community and to society at large. Marcel begins to realize the importance of his experiences of suffering, and the insight he has gained from those experience – he begins to realize that those experiences are important and need to be shared. Marcel realizes that the work of literature he has long wanted to write is the story of his own past. This realization, however, is a long time in coming. In the midst of his worst suffering, Marcel is too distracted to think seriously about literary contributions he once dreamed of making. And afterward, he is too consumed by grief and self-doubt to attempt such a daunting project. There are two essential components that enable Marcel to realize what he is supposed to write, and that, additionally, enhance the insights he ultimately has to share. Suffering and solitude, or isolation, are the two aspects that lead Marcel to his epiphanies about the nature of art and the specific art he feels he is supposed to produce.
Early in Time Regained, Marcel recognizes and regrets that he does not feel a greater sense of nostalgia in walking his favorite boyhood paths in Combray. Proust writes that Marcel felt “the conviction that I would never be able to write, reinforced by the conviction that my imagination and my sensibility had weakened… I was distressed to see how little I relived my early years” (2). Marcel is saddened that, through the passage of time, his hold on old sensations, old feelings seems to be fading. He worries that this means he will never write the long creative work he once dreamed of writing. The reality is that Marcel has changed. He no longer sees the world as he did when he was an idealistic, sensitive child. Proust makes the power of change, and the power of time to change an individual, abundantly clear. He writes, “[Gilberte]… had changed so much that I no longer thought her beautiful, that she was no longer beautiful” (2). Gilberte, Marcel’s first love, has lost much of her charm over the years. Even Marcel’s best friend, Robert, is hardly recognizable as the young man Marcel once felt so close to (11).
Proust elaborates on this idea of change and the decay that occurs over time, taking this notion a step further: “For in this world of ours where everything withers, everything perishes, there is a thing that decays, that crumbles into dust even more completely, leaving behind still fewer traces of itself, than beauty: namely grief” (7). One might suspect the alleviation of grief could only be a good thing; but that is not necessarily the case. Proust presents this as a neutral thing – or something with a possible negative side. The intense emotions that accompany grief are debilitating if they last, but they give one a perspective impossible to recapture when the acutest pain fades. The worst of Marcel’s grief over his grandmother and Albertine may be over, but that does not mean his existence since their loss – or even before their deaths – has been a particularly happy one.
On learning of the death of Robert Saint-Loup, the narrator notes, “I felt an inconsolable regret that [Albertine’s] life as well as his had been so short” (229). It is important to realize that at this point in the novel, Marcel is no longer spending much time thinking of Albertine, much less grieving for her. He fully realizes that he would have continued to be unhappy with her, had she lived; he also understands that the Robert he interacted with in later years little resembled the Robert he thought he had been close to earlier in life. But in spite of all this, he regrets both Robert’s and Albertine’s early deaths. If for no other reason, Marcel perhaps feels a longing to know what might have been – what changes might have come, and what paths might have crossed and recrossed – had they not died so young.
In spite of his repeated emphasis on his grieving process having ended, Proust never gives a clear suggestion of what might have driven Marcel to seek respite in a sanatorium for years of his life. Perhaps, even if he no longer feels acute grief for Albertine, his regrets and disappointment are strong enough to tie him to the past – to the point that he is unable to take hold of the present anymore. It is also possible that Marcel is suffering from major depression, which might stem in part from his frustrated artistic aspirations. He might, it is possible, have a nervous condition, perhaps chronic anxiety, or even insomnia.
For reasons Proust never explains, Marcel goes to a sanatorium early in Time Regained (46). He stays there for years; during the entirety of his initial stay he visits Paris only once and receives only a very few letters. He is shut off from society, from company; he spends whole years in isolation. During this time, the narrator observes, “I had in any case completely renounced the project of writing” (47). Writing, then, was not his focus in seeking solitude. It seems clear that he is being treated for a mental health disorder, although the specifics of it are never clarified. Marcel leaves this first sanatorium only because it can no longer be run due to a shortage of medical personnel (47).
After this Marcel does return to Paris, but again, his return does not seem to be a particularly long one: again, he leaves Paris for a sanatorium (238). Once again, isolation is prescribed as the best treatment for his problems (88). Marcel assures the reader, however, that isolation does not provide a sufficient solution in and of itself. Instead, he says, “The new sanatorium to which I withdrew was no more successful in curing me than the first one, and many years passed before I came away” (238). If the treatment is proving unsuccessful, why does Marcel stay at the sanatorium for so long? Is he hoping for some improvement to manifest at last? Alternately, it is possible that – depending on the nature of his health issue – he is experiencing lethargy and extreme apathy. In that case, once he reaches the confines of the sanatorium, it probably seems easier to stay than to leave and immerse himself once more in the busy, superficial Parisian social scene. Perhaps, too, something about the isolation Marcel experiences for so many years appeals to him.
Proust does not clarify why he returns to Paris from a sanatorium the second time – but this time, he is returning for good. There is little to indicate why Marcel chooses to leave the sanatorium at this time, exactly how long he has been there, or whether he has any hope of improving his condition by escaping the isolation of the sanatorium. Instead, what Proust offers is a detailed account of the train ride back to Paris from the sanatorium. He simply skips over years of Marcel’s life that have been spent in relative seclusion.
One thing is quite evident, however. Marcel clearly is not feeling optimistic on his train ride to Paris. Perhaps he has given up on treatment, instead accepting that whatever problems he has been suffering from for so many years are simply going to stay with him indefinitely. On the train, Marcel seems bitterly disappointed at his lack of literary achievement. He notes in great detail the sights in nature that would once have stirred him to write, to sing nature’s praises. But now these glimpses of beauty leave him hollow. Proust notes that Marcel “made these observations with… absolute indifference” (239). This declaration of indifference is perhaps meant to be a bit tongue in cheek. While the sight of the treetops or the brilliance of the sunset fail to stir in Marcel the kinds of intense emotions and longings he felt as a child and young adult, he does make note of these things – observing accurately the smallest details. He may be unmoved, but his power of observation has not diminished. And indifferent seems hardly appropriate to Marcel’s feeling; he seems bitter, even forlorn that the passions he once felt so readily are now far more difficult to tap into. Ultimately, Marcel accepts with bitter regret that he simply is not meant to write anything at all – after years of longing to do just that. Proust writes, “the famous ‘work’ which for so long I have been hoping every day to start the next day, is something I am not, or am no longer, made for and perhaps does not even correspond to any reality” (240).
This is Marcel’s line of thinking as he returns from the sanatorium, with little apparent interest in life or his surroundings. Still, through force of habit, he attends a party, and it is there he experiences his series of epiphanies (255). It is in this section of the novel that Marcel comes to a number of important conclusions about the function of art and literature, and about his own role in sharing his artistic abilities with the world. Marcel realizes that the work he has been wanting to write for so long has been written once already, in his lived experiences. Now it is his task to recover and explore those past events and ideas. Proust writes, “we have to rediscover, to reapprehend, to make ourselves fully aware of that reality… which it is very easy for us to die without ever having known and which is, quite simply, our life” (299). Proust carries this idea further: “Real life… the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived – is literature, and life thus defined is in a sense all the time immanent in ordinary men no less than in the artist” (299).
In literature, then, Marcel discovers a means of capturing time, harnessing the past and using his artistic talents. Proust makes these observations about art:
But art, if it means awareness of our own life, means also awareness of the lives of other people – for style by the writer, no less than colour for the painter, is a question not of technique but of vision: it is the revelation, which by direct and conscious methods would be impossible, of the qualitative difference, the uniqueness of the fashion in which the world appears to each of us, a difference which, if there were no art, would remain for ever the secret of every individual (299).
Marcel, then, has a vision – a view of the world that is unique and, when shared, will present a new and unprecedented picture of human existence to whoever may read his work. The most important point in Proust’s comments about art may be that such observations about the world and human nature cannot be forced. Instead, profound insights into the human experience are gained through experience, Proust says, and may not even be recognized as such. Marcel himself, after all, goes through much of his young adulthood having no idea that his day-to-day life will later be the subject of his own novel.
Marcel’s revelations about the nature of art continue to unfold. Proust writes, “Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees… Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists” (299). It is true, then, that art as a means of self-expression is, for Proust, an essential element of true art. Art must stem from the self, from one’s own experience; in this way, it becomes relevant to others – sharing new insights, and corresponding with other’s experiences. Proust suggests that there are endless ways of viewing the world; that each of us may, really, see the world in slightly different ways. Those who are able to capture their view of the world in some form of art enable others to see past their own sense of perception, and engage with another view of the world around them.
How is Marcel able to come to these important conclusions about the nature of art, and literature in particular? How is he able to discover and accept the challenging project of self-expression and exploration that he ultimately undertakes? Marcel does not return to Paris expecting any sort of epiphany. He is not interested in social life; he only attends through force of habit the party where he stumbles upon these ideas. When Marcel returns to Paris, he does so under the impression that his long stays in sanatoriums have done him no lasting good – they have only added to his growing list of time forever lost.
But all this time is not lost, at least not forever. At one point Proust writes, “we can only imagine what is absent” (263). It is only in retrospect, he suggests, that people become enlightened about the nature of their sufferings. Only after the fact can they look back and begin to understand the way suffering shapes and changes not only them, but the entire landscape of their existence. It crafts their perception, molds their experience of the world around them. Suffering is key, Proust says, to understanding one’s own experience, and the experiences of others. Without suffering, one’s insight is rather constrained.
Suffering, says Proust, is invaluable to the artist – it coaches him and rewards him with wisdom like no other teacher (308). Writing, in and of itself, he implies, can be a healing process toward the relief of that suffering (308). Proust writes, “It is only while we are suffering that we see certain things which at other times are hidden from us” (301). Suffering is vital, then, to an artist’s experience, to an artist’s ability to convey something meaningful to a waiting world. Without suffering, Proust implies, one’s understanding of self and humanity will be extremely limited. Only through suffering can one hope to work toward new insights – and only through suffering can one begin to shape an understanding of the world.
But there is, perhaps, a key to creating meaningful art which Proust does not emphasize enough. It is not during, nor even immediately after his most intense experiences with grief and loss that Marcel makes his discoveries about art and literature. Instead, it is many years later. This may be because he has been able to spend years in relative isolation – years of solitude in which he has been removed from society and almost entirely removed from the important people in his life so far. Proust does note, “the pleasure which this contemplation had, at rare intervals, given me in my life, was the only genuine and fruitful pleasure I had known” (515). So he does acknowledge the merit of contemplation – perhaps he realizes, too, to some extent, the importance of isolation, of solitude, for analyzing and delving into the secrets uncovered during the agony of grief and suffering.
Proust writes, “It is our passions which draw the outline of our books, the ensuing intervals of repose which write them” (317). Spending time in a sanatorium may not exactly constitute repose in the most pleasant sense. But Marcel did spend years there, years in which he was removed from society, detached almost completely from his former life. While Marcel’s sufferings gave him the subject matter for his novel, his extensive stays in health care facilities may have provided the solitude he needed to deeply explore his experiences of suffering – and discover unexpected insights.
It is only shortly after his return to Paris from this long isolation that Marcel makes his life-changing discoveries about art and literature, which lead to his decision to write the narrative that makes up In Search of Lost Time. Ultimately, Marcel discovers that:
[The] work of art was the sole means of rediscovering Lost Time… And I understood that all these materials for a work of literature were simply my past life; I understood that they had come to me, in frivolous pleasure, in indolence, in tenderness, in unhappiness, and that I had stored them up without divining the purpose for which they were destined or even their continued existence any more than a seed does when it forms within itself a reserve of all the nutritious substances from which it will feed a plant” (304).
Like the plant, Marcel has long been storing up the memories which he will share – the time he thought was lost forever will be recaptured, experienced once again, experienced over and over in the pages of his novel.
Ultimately Marcel discovers that he does have something new to say – that the kinds of intimate observations he makes about other people, and about himself, are not common to all of humanity. His insight, once shared, can impact the way others view the world. Additionally, he realizes that his work is also worth sharing because it is relatable: his observations about human nature are profound, but his experiences are believable, the kinds of grief and betrayal experienced by most people in their adult lives, if not before. Through years of suffering and still more years of solitude, Marcel at last comes to have a clear view of art and literature – and to an understanding that he can and should share his visionary art with the world. Only in doing so can he recapture the time he has lost.
Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time Volume VII: Time Regained. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1981.