New Year’s Day of Old Men
(Written on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2001)
In this book on flowerings and beginnings, on genealogies of taste, manner and love, a depressing realization comes to Marcel on New Year’s Day. He thinks like an old man. Old men know that their future will resemble their hopeless present; nothing changes. They think like this:
“I had just spent the New Year’s Day of old men who differ from their juniors … because they themselves have ceased to believe in the New Year.” [Vol I, BG, 526)
The hope of newness, the anticipation of future happiness when one’s life will really have begun are conceits confined to the young. The young think like this:
Future, n. that period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured. [The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce.]
But today M aligns himself with the old men who are hammered by life’s vicissitudes, disappointments and disillusions, they are disabused of the illusion of a rosy future; they are resigned to the sameness of time. What particular events brought M to this gloomy pass on New Year’s Day where he sheds hope and future dreams like so much nursery incunabula? Within a few pages, the particulars of M’s disillusion with freedom of choice (career), with aesthetic pleasure (Berma) and with love (Gilberte) are promoted to the general abstraction about the homogeneity of time, its “eternal common substance.”
M returned home from his very first live experience with Art. He had been allowed to attend the theatre to see Berma in the role of Racine’s Phaedre.Burning with her grand reputation and the image of her Jansenist pallor, he worked himself into one of his neurasthenic frenzies of idealized expectation. But reality was starkly different. It had “…fallen far short of what I had promised myself.” M is disappointed in art.
That same evening, his father observes that since he is no longer a child, his taste is unlikely to change. He is free to fashion his future. M now waits “for the time to arrive when, thanks to the freedom of choice that they allowed me, I should or should not begin to be happy in life.” But on the idea that his “inclinations no longer liable to change,” painful suspicions took hold. What if the future had already arrived? What if future is just the same as present?
“The first [suspicion] was that … my existence had already begun, and that, furthermore, what was yet to follow would not differ to any extent from what had gone before.” [Vol I, 520]
The thwarted expectation of a sublime experience in Art is now conjoined to a nagging skepticism regarding freedom of choice to fashion one’s own future; he sees himself situated in Time; he is subject to its laws; he feels the identity of its phases. Particularly, he views the future to come as the doppelganger shadow of the present. It will be the same then as now. This view for M is dark; it is tantamount to a feeling of powerlessness and lack of agency in virtue of the larger, oceanic power of time, its unrelenting sameness. M is disappointed in freedom of choice.
Disbelief in his power to alter Love brings him to the same gloomy place two pages later. He had decided to rebuild his friendship with Gilberte on a new site with a firm ground. He would send her a letter at the New Year in which
“ I told her that our old friendship was vanishing with the old year, that I would now forget my grievances and disappointments, and that, from this first day of January, it was a new friendship that we were going to build …” p524
But, on the way home from New Year’s Day visits to relatives and family friends, the demise of belief in the future is reinforced when he stops near a column of playbills advertising a performance by Berma on January 1. He recognizes that his desire to kiss her picture is no different from the desires of other men before him. And then,
“… I suddenly had a feeling and a presentiment that New Year’s Day was not a day different from the rest, that it was not the first day of a new world ….I …had sensed the … unheeding fluidity of the old days and years.” p525
Likewise, there was no reason to suppose that Gilberte’s heart had altered in its indifference toward his. For all that he might “dedicate this new year to Gilberte … it was in vain.” M is disappointed in love.
He returns home as one who “had just spent the New Year’s Day of old men …” resigned to the principle that the future will resemble the past and present. Art, Choice, and Love gloomily coalesce in Time (New Year’s Day) in a masterstroke of a few pages.
PS. But is Marcel right? The view that the future will resemble the continuing present can’t be all dark and downside. Do you remember last year at this time? M’s outlook would have come in quite handy when, at 11:59p on Dec 31, 1999 we were loathe to enter our elevators, fly in planes or use our plastic lest the millenarians, suckled by Y2K soothsayers of doom and gloom, be proved correct. Their breathless projections had us falling through many floors, crashing in planes that had lost their flight plans and emptied of our portfolios through automated confusions on the file servers. M, how we could have used your New Year’s card then. We yearned for the truth that the future will be just like the present; that nothing really changes. Your card would have been a comforter rather than a wet blanket.
The second-time reader casts a bemused eye over these histrionics of young Marcel – his view of change will change. Opposed to the old men on New Years Day are the metaphors of chrysalis and kaleidoscope – they tell us that change happens, but slowly, slowly. The oft-quoted phrase “social kaleidoscope” is not quite right. Over time, oppositions and reversals do take place, but not just in society. They take place both in the self too; so the kaleidoscope focuses on the solitary individual as well as on his larger social context. The class of vulgar, moneyed bourgeois morphs into the class of the elite and privileged, but also, disinterested love turns into passionate desire. And desire turns into dispassionate habit. The future may be worse or better than the present but it will not be the same.