The Joy of Proust – the Riddle of Happiness

The Joy of Proust – the Riddle of Happiness

March, 2004

Throughout the Search, there are moments of unexplained joy or happiness –  (e.g, madeleine, three steeples, three trees, paving stones, spoon, napkin, Vinteuil sonata, the airplane). The first is the famous madeleine-soaked-in-tisane. While we are still basking in the enchantment of Combray rising from the teacup, the narrator alerts us to the puzzle that will tantalize throughout:

” … although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy ”  [Vol I pg 51]

Well, why did this moment and all the others make him so happy?

By now I have trained myself to resist a reduction like “they made him so happy because through involuntary memory, he recovered lost time and himself.”

That reduction certainly can’t be wholly true; for, when we review the joyous moments, it is apparent that some are not even concerned with memory. For example, the exaltations at the sight of the three steeples of Martinville or at the three trees of Hudimesnil occur with the primary experience, not with the secondary remembrance of them. Yet, these primary moments are charged with that same exaltation and joy and mystery. With the trees –

“I experienced, suddenly, that special pleasure which was unlike any other…”[Vol I, SW, 197]

“… with the steeples, I was overwhelmed with a profound happiness which I had not felt since Combray, … ” [Vol I BG , 770]

In Time Regained (Vol III), M faces the task: “to solve the riddle of happiness” (Vol III, 899). Before he enters the Guermantes library, he experiences several such illuminating and exalting moments. Now, he is determined to divine the reason and why it makes death “a matter of indifference.” (Vol III p 900) He will frame an inquiry into the “cause of this felicity.” (pg 904).

What he has learned throughout his life is that the first and fundamental impulsion is or should be towards discovering THE ESSENCE OF THINGS. The essences constitute reality and truth and discovering them produces joy. Experiencing, discovering and “probing” for Essences IS the fount of exaltation. The consequence of this insight for M is his dedication to the pursuit of essence

“To this contemplation of the essence of things I had decided therefore that in future I must attach myself” (Vol III, TR, p909)

This pursuit will bring him joy (and is the stuff of art and metaphor – but that’s another post.)

The question, the riddle, the inquiry is transformed from “What was the reason for my joy?” to something like “Sometimes I have pierced through to the very essence of things and therefore have experienced great joy. What was it about those occasions which allowed me to get to the essence of things?” (my words)

Dividing up the moments of joy into those which involve memory and those that don’t, there are (at least) two explanations.

First, with regard to the memory moments (eg Madeleine, paving stones etc.). What happens here is – surprise! – not a recovery of lost time at all but an exit from time altogether! Memory calls forth my inner being, my inner self who is able to pierce through to the essence of things by existing “outside time.” The essence of a thing is that which is common to any particular manifestation, past or present. This inner being comes to life only intermittently

 “It was an intermittent personage, coming to life only in the presence of some general essence common to a number of things, these essences being its nourishment and its joy.” (Vol III, 738)

The essence of “essence” is commonality – shared attributes, shared properties. An apple and and orange share roundness. The glow of milk in a bowl and the moonlight reflected in water share whiteness. So the mystery of essence lurk in roundness and whiteness. The moon in the water is a metaphor for the milk. Those examples are of objects right in front of me. But the interesting aspect of memory is that it too presents “commonality.” There is a shared attribute in the impression – which partakes of the past and the present.

“something common both to the past and to the present, is much more essential than either of them …”[Vol III, TR, 905]

The remembered impression which causes such joy has a mixture of the past (its original nature and setting and the “moi” who experienced it) and the present (the remembered nature and setting and the “moi” who is experiencing it). The remembered impression calls forth that inner being, that “moi” who then exists extra-temporally. Unity of the past in the present is a passport to timelessness. The unity can only be experienced by the inner being of me; that inner me is “called”, it springs forward, only in the presence of essence. This inner being is my true self – persisting through time. When the inner true self meets the atemporal object – that’s joy, essence and eternity.

(There are several other marvelous particular benefits to the timeless state, above the pure reward of exalted joy. For one, anxiety about my future time (ie death and afterwards) vanishes; I am therefore unalarmed by the “vicissitudes of the future.” [Vol III pg 904-905] The timeless state, though brief and fugitive, brings a sense of celestial eternity (p 908). A second benefit from this state is the curious annulment of a “law” concerning imagination. Normally; the domain of imagination is what is not present – “we can only imagine what is absent”(905) because, by definition, if the object were present, we would SEE or HEAR it, not IMAGINE it.. Timelessness breaks this law: the noise of the present spoon links to the noise of the past hammer. Through this “subterfuge” my imagination is not limited to what is absent, it can savor what is present! the law is annulled. (pg 905) )

Turning now to the moments which do NOT involve memory (eg trees, steeples), how did they participate in the enjoyment of the essence of things. M reflects that as a boy when his attention was fixed on an image – a cloud, a triangle, a church spire – he had the feeling that these were “hieroglyphs” for something deeper that lay beneath them; that these were merely “signs”. (Pg 912), that they were trying to tell him something. To arrive at the hidden truth beneath, he had to begin the laborious work – the work of deciphering, interpreting, drawing forth the truth from the shadow. But, this inner book which reveals the truth lies within us. Reading the signs is

“an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us …” [Vol III,  913]

These close encounters of the non-memory kind bring joy because joy is inherent in the very “work” of causing the hidden to surface; of finding essence. We feel “in ourselves the joy of rediscovering what is real” (page 913)

So the puzzle about joy and exaltation that tantalized at the beginning of the Search is at last solved in these pages [Vol III, pp 899-916 – approximately]

Addendum: With the understanding of the above, here are some thoughts on the relation of memory, art and metaphor.

1. Metaphor captures commonality in objects and images.
2. Commonality gestures at essence.
3. Hence, metaphor can capture the essence of (things, feelings, reflections).
4. But memory has a commonality component too (past and present impressions.)
5. Thus, memory is a metaphor for metaphor. I believe that Simon Stack wrote a Yahoo post related to this idea ??
6. Since metaphor captures essence, the heart of art is metaphor.


One thought on “The Joy of Proust – the Riddle of Happiness

  1. Craig Davidson

    Your post is from long ago, but I want to let you know I appreciate it. I have just completed Germantes Way. Onward.




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