An Introduction to the Literary Philosophy of Marcel Proust, Presented in a Monty Python-Style Animation

Those who know the name Mar­cel Proust, if not his work itself, know it as that of the most soli­tary and intro­spec­tive of writers—a name become an adjec­tive, describ­ing an almost painful­ly del­i­cate vari­ety of sen­so­ry rem­i­nis­cence verg­ing on tantric solip­sism. Proust has earned the rep­u­ta­tion for writ­ing what Alain de Bot­ton above tells us in his Proust intro­duc­tion is “offi­cial­ly the longest nov­el in the world,” A la recher­ché du temps per­du (In Search of Lost Time). The book—or books, rather, total­ing dou­ble the num­ber of words as Tolstoy’s War and Peace—recounts the main­ly con­tem­pla­tive tra­vails of a “thin­ly veiled” ver­sion of the author. It is, in one sense, a very long, mas­ter­ful­ly styl­ized diary of the author’s loves, lusts, likes, moods, and tastes of every kind.

Those who know the iPhone app, “Proust”—a far few­er num­ber, I’d wager—know it as a game that har­ness­es the com­bined pow­er of social net­work­ing, instant online opin­ion, and sur­vey tech­nol­o­gy in a relent­less­ly repet­i­tive exer­cise in face­less col­lec­tiv­i­ty. These two enti­ties are per­haps vague­ly relat­ed by the Proust ques­tion­naire, but the dis­tance between them is more sig­nif­i­cant, stand­ing as an iron­ic emblem of the dis­tance between Proust’s refined lit­er­ary uni­verse and that of our con­tem­po­rary mass cul­ture.

Proust, a con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly frag­ile elit­ist born to wealthy Parisian par­ents in 1871, con­clud­ed that a life worth liv­ing requires the unique­ly sen­si­tive, fine­ly-tuned appre­ci­a­tion of every­day life that chil­dren and artists pos­sess, uncol­ored by the spoils of habit and dead­en­ing rou­tine. “Proust” the game—as the host of its vicious­ly satir­i­cal video pro­claims in an ambigu­ous­ly Euro­pean accent—concludes “It’s fun to judge”… in iden­ti­cal, rain­bow-col­ored screens that reduce every con­sid­er­a­tion to a vapid con­test with no stakes or effort. It too rep­re­sents, through par­o­dy, a kind of phi­los­o­phy of life. And one might broad­ly say we all live some­where in-between the hyper-aes­theti­cism of Proust the writer and the mind­less rapid-fire swipe-away triv­i­al­iz­ing of Proust the app.

De Bot­ton, con­sis­tent with the mis­sion of his very mis­sion­ary School of Life, would like us to move clos­er to the lit­er­ary Proust’s phi­los­o­phy, a “project of rec­on­cil­ing us to the ordi­nary cir­cum­stances of life” and the “charm of the every­day.” As he does with all of the fig­ures he con­scripts for his lessons, De Bot­ton pre­sumes that Proust’s pri­ma­ry intent in his inter­minable work was to “help us” real­ize this charm—and Proust did in fact say as much. But read­ers and schol­ars of the reclu­sive French writer may find this state­ment, its author, and his writ­ing, much more com­pli­cat­ed and dif­fi­cult to make sense of than we’re giv­en to believe.

Nonethe­less, this School of Life video, like many of the oth­ers we’ve fea­tured here, does give us a way of approach­ing Proust that is much less daunt­ing than so many oth­ers, com­plete with clever cut-out ani­ma­tions that illus­trate Proust’s the­o­ry of mem­o­ry, occa­sioned by his famed, fate­ful encounter with a cup of tea and a madeleine. The teatime epiphany caused Proust to observe:

The rea­son why life may be judged to be triv­ial, although at cer­tain moments it seems to us so beau­ti­ful, is that we form our judg­ment ordi­nar­i­ly not on the evi­dence of life itself, but of those quite dif­fer­ent images which pre­serve noth­ing of life, and there­fore we judge it dis­parag­ing­ly.

We may take or leave De Botton’s inter­pre­ta­tion of Proust’s work, but it seems more and more imper­a­tive that we give the work itself our full attention—or as much of it as we can spare.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Mon­ty Python’s “Sum­ma­rize Proust Com­pe­ti­tion” on the 100th Anniver­sary of Swann’s Way

Mar­cel Proust Fills Out a Ques­tion­naire in 1890: The Man­u­script of the ‘Proust Ques­tion­naire’

What Are Lit­er­a­ture, Phi­los­o­phy & His­to­ry For? Alain de Bot­ton Explains with Mon­ty Python-Style Videos

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (8)
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  • Michelle says:

    Please cor­rect: it is not ” A la Recher­ché du temps per­du” but ” A la Recherche du temps per­du”, it is the same as writ­ing ” in searched of lost time”!!

  • Pedro L Loureiro says:

    What a shal­low text that sug­gests that either the author has not read “A la recherche (and not “recher­ché”) du temps per­du” or was unable to under­stand it.
    I would sug­gest read­ing “Proust and the signs” by Gilles Deleuze to get a grasp of the depth of Proust lit­er­a­ture, instead of wast­ing time read­ing this piece of banal­i­ty…

  • Quentin says:

    The nov­el title in the first para­graph needs to be cor­rect­ed. It is “À la recherche du temps per­du” (french uni­ver­si­tary speak­ing).

  • Josie says:

    uni­ver­si­tary = aca­d­e­m­ic
    (no com­ment)

  • Victoria says:

    This is a ridicu­lous sum­ma­ry. What I find appalling is that the title the À la recherche du temps per­du is not to be trans­lat­ed lit­er­al­ly. It is described as Remem­brance of things past.

    I only read it in French and then even­tu­al­ly in eng­lish and the title on my Eng­lish ver­sion is “Remem­brance of Things Past” and this treat­ment of what has come to be known as the expe­ri­ence of “deja vu” is just lack­ing in under­stand­ing.

    I hate this!

  • Matt says:

    The “Remem­brance of Things Past” trans­la­tion was tak­en from Shake­speare, it is not the prop­er trans­la­tion of À la recherche du temps per­du.

  • bob says:

    Both trans­la­tions exist; the lit­er­al trans­la­tion (“In search of lost time”) is gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered best, since it is clos­er to the orig­i­nal mean­ing than “Remem­brance of things past” (which intro­duces these unnec­es­sary “things”). If you have read it in French, and under­stand Eng­lish, you can sure­ly see that.

  • Stefan Szczelkkun says:

    Those who’d like to see my notes of Proust’s analy­sis of social class might like to look here:

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