Sunday, April 19, 2009

More Proust, and An Astonishing Regret

Regarding my Proust reading schedule (I know this phrase is amazingly pretentious, but see the previous posts on Proust as to why it's unavoidable), I've decided to make a couple of changes. For one thing, 1300 pages of Marcel Proust is getting a little heavy, and I find myself in need of a change of style in what I read before I continue with this project. I found this semi-autobiography of Federico Fellini in a bookshop in Windsor last month, and when I finish Within a Budding Grove / In the Shadow of Young Flowering Girls in the next few days, I'll start on that instead of The Guermantes Way. The next volume of In Search of Lost time will follow the Fellini book, and I think I'll read the series like that over the next year, alternating between Proust and some other, shorter book. I picked up some cheap Faulkners in that Windsor bookshop along with the Fellini, and since I've never read any Faulkner before, I'll have to add them to my list.

I suppose that in a book this long and this psychologically complex, any reader is bound to find at some point a passage that strikes painfully close to one's own life. I found one such passage the other day. The narrator has made friends with a middle aged painter, Elstir, who lives in the resort community where he's spending the summer in volume two. Around page 600, he discovers that this wise painter was, as a young man, the arrogant prick painter who was barely talented, and who slept with Swann's girlfriend Odette. Elstir admits it freely, and does not try to justify himself, but simply explains.

"There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived a life, the memory of which is so unpleasant to him that he would gladly expunge it. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man – so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise – unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded. . . . We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world."

I think everyone has done some pretty terrible stuff, for the context of their environment, at some point in their lives. And if you don't think you've done terrible things to people in your past, that's a sign that you're still doing it. When you're first beginning to make your own decisions in life, a lot of those decisions are made for selfish motivations. In itself, selfishness isn't so bad, but selfishness is often articulated with callousness. It's from that callous attitude that emotional suffering can be inflicted on people. It's only when we're forced to perceive the suffering we've created that we can develop the wisdom that Proust is talking about there. Of course, once we understand that suffering, it's still possible to accept it just as much as renounce it. But I think the point of this kind of wisdom is to be aware of the power of your actions, so that you can keep their effects in control. What you decide to do with your knowledge of your power is still up to you.

Thoughts on the latest Doctor Who tv movie, Planet of the Dead, will come later this week. Or so I think.
As a reward to myself for finishing my term's work without stressing out like a beast – despite some aggressive backs and forths with my philosophy of mind professor – I picked up the Fever Ray record. I've been a fan of The Knife since they dropped Silent Shout in 2006, and this is the solo record by that band's singer, Karin Dreijer Andersson. Strongly recommended by the Pitchfork set, and they once again steered me right. Not quite the pop record that Silent Shout was, but definitely high quality, haunting material.

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