Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Grief and Forgetting: A Positive Proust Update

So many of my posts about Proust lately have been so mean-spirited, a reader would probably wonder why I was continuing with the book for any reason other than stubbornness. While it is true that the narrator’s selfish, jealous, manipulative behaviour has made me scream at him through the pages, my frustration has given way to admiration again. It’s not a matter of brilliant creation of paradoxical and consistent characters, which was the highlight of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Much of The Fugitive is the narrator dealing with the fact that Albertine is never coming back to him. It’s a process of grief that shares elements with what I think is how many people get through the permanent and painful end of deep friendships and intimate relationships. The Fugitive is the shortest novel in the series at less than 400 pages, and suffered from the most difficult editing because it was the farthest from total completion when Proust died. But his insights into the grieving process and, even more poignant, the process of forgetting about who you’ve lost, is some of the best psychology I’ve ever read.

Because I think this engagement with grief that Proust’s narrator goes through is, detail for minutely rendered detail, is an engagement that is shared by anyone who has ever lost someone who was immensely important to you, whether through death or breakup or any other kind of irreparable split.

Reading these reflections, which are the main focus of the first half of The Fugitive, and recur throughout the more story-focussed second half, I’m reminded of the old friends that I’ve had who I’ll never see again. No one very close to me in an intimate personal manner has ever died, but I did lose some of my closest friends a couple of years ago.

For the first year or so after that last catastrophe of those relationships, I couldn’t walk around St John’s without feeling depressed, because every piece of that city’s geography reminded me of something I did with them. It was a sorrowful rage because I was depressed that they were out of my life, and angry that they had cut me out of their lives with such callousness. I think that state of my thinking contributed to why I leapt so enthusiastically into moving to Ontario in summer 2008.

Since then, my former friends have sometimes entered my thoughts, and when that happens, they bring that melancholy anger with them. But that happens with less and less frequency now, so that I only think of them when I purposely recall those memories. Just as Proust said, you don’t accept the end of a deep intimacy. You simply forget it, and live every day as if it never existed. I think the influence of those friendships and those splits is still part of my personality. I think very differently about how I act and what I want out of life because of those experiences.

But the memories themselves simply fade away. It’s entirely possible that one day, I’ll forget about them as individual people, and only a few last echoes of the emotions they inspired will be still carved into my brain. They’ll probably be overwritten soon enough, if not already.

In a few sentences, the process sounds pedantic and clichéd. But over the course of the 100 plus pages Proust focusses on it, it feels fresh, insightful, tender, and utterly sad. I now understand why some critics have said that all of human possibility is captured in In Search of Lost Time. Even though the story is about an upper class French intellectual in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I now understand how those critics could be right.

No comments: