How Proust Can Change Your Life

How Proust Can Change Your Life CoverIt’s been quite a while since I’ve written about a book I read this year, it’s time to catch up! First in my queue is How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain De Botton. Earlier this year I was really on a Botton-kick and bought this book right after reading On Love since I enjoyed that one so much.

I’ll start by saying that that I had not, and still haven’t, read anything by Marcel Proust. In fact, after reading this HPCCYL I probably never will. Not because his work seems bad (in fact, it seems rather fascinating) but rather because I think that I will glean more from his work reading about it rather than reading it. De Botton painted Proust’s work as very verbose, meandering and hard to follow. This was, at times, the point.

I’ll be honest, it’s been many months since I read this book. Nonetheless, as I’m going through it again my notes are reminding me of some of the beautiful and intriguing parts of it. Though my thoughts on the book may be lacking, I’m hoping they will coalesce as I write this post.

The newspaper

Proust loved reading the newspaper. Not because he was that interested in the events of the previous 24-48 hours, but rather because it was a sensual and emotional exercise for him to do so. “That abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper,” wrote Proust, “thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last twenty-four hours, the battles which cost the lives of fifty-thousand men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don’t even care, into a morning treat, blending in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of café au lait.”

Wow, that was a long sentence. But also, pretty amazing if you stop to think about it! When I encounter a newspaper I usually meet it’s stare with extreme apathy. I simply don’t have the emotional capacity to deal with everything that’s happening in the world. It amazes me that someone can spend a huge portion of their day simply empathizing with people that he doesn’t even know!

“He read newspapers with great care. He wouldn’t even overlook the news-in-brief section. A news-in-brief told by him turned into a whole tragic or comic novel, thanks to his imagination and his fantasy.”

I can’t believe I’ve had the audacity to be bored in my life! You don’t get to say I’m bored. A great exercise would be to try and live like Proust would for a day, in this way. Unleash your curiosity on everything, let your imagination run wild.

Who does the talking

One of the reasons I enjoyed learning about Proust so much was not because of his prose but because of his adroit observations. Observations regarding situations that I’ve been in but haven’t had the wherewithal to view the situation as he has. For instance, “When two people part it is the one who is not in love who makes the tender speeches“.

Though not always true, I think that this line speaks to many fundamental human truths. When one person is no longer in love, they need to convince themselves that they are, in fact, a good person. I can see the eloquent speech that they make telling their former lover how they’re amazing but it’s just not going to work etc. etc. I really enjoy how much one sentence can evoke such strong emotions. While pondering this, though, it reminds me of a School of Life video about how to end a relationship. TL;DR if you actually care about the other person let them hate you (yes, I’m aware that I’m only citing things related to De Botton right now I’ll find other stuffs to talk about, gawd).

Tritisms

Proust hated them. He grimaced when someone would refer to the Mediterranean as “the Big Blue”, use the French equivalent of “it’s raining cats and dogs” or the actual French phrase “il fait un froid de canard” (which translates to something like ‘it’s duck-cold’ outside. Apparently in France when it gets really cold all of the ducks migrate to Africa!). When a friend asked him to critique his book, Proust wrote that it had some great parts but that, “…at times one would like [the landscapes of the novel] to be painted with more originality. It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.”

Harsh. So why does he hate these clichés so much? De Botton believes that it’s not because they contain false ideas but rather because they are superficial articulations of ver good ones. Clichés are so good at describing a situation that they very often become the last word of a discussion and don’t prompt the contributors to think any deeper about the subject. Though the moon does, in fact, shine discreetly that doesn’t really mean anything. Anyone can describe it as such. Why not describe the moon as Proust did: “Sometimes in the afternoon sky, a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, without display, suggesting an actress who does not have to ‘come on’ for a while, and so goes ‘in front’ in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself.”

In that beautiful metaphor Proust seems to avoid any tritisms regarding the moon and paints a beautiful, unique picture. I am definitely a victim of this myself. It’s easier to take phrases and thoughts of others and stew them into a mixture of your own words and thoughts. It’s much hard to come up with unique commentary on the world. To Proust, this is laziness. And though I don’t follow Proust’s advice, I see where he’s coming from. At the core, life can be a stranger substance than cliché life…

Thank you for being a friend

Proust had a seemingly dissonant relationship with friendship. According to almost everyone that knew him he was an amazing and generous friend. He would tip 200% at restaurants (not directly related to friendship but generally spoke to his generous demeanor), not talk about himself all of the time, remembered important events in people’s lives, was modest. etc. What makes these facts stand out is that Proust also believed that in the end friendship was no more than, “… a lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone”

Whoa. Here is an amazing friend who would give everything he has to his friends just to make them a bit happier who thinks that friendship is, at its heart, useless.

To Proust, the fact that friendship is a sham (this could be said about many things, but let’s use friendship as an example for now) doesn’t make it any less meaningful. Though, he still valued friendship and through his actions developed many devoted friends as well. It’s like contemplating death: at a certain time in your life you’ll realize that death is inevitable and you can mentally meander toward the worlds of nihilism or humanism (this isn’t a direct opposition but bare with me). Wherever you go, those who are enlightened will realize that death is fated and will go on to live wonderfully fulfilled lives as if it weren’t. I like to think that they will do so in spite of that fact.

On beauty

In the mind of Proust, beauty abounds. “…beautify is something to be found, rather than passively encountered, that it requires us to pick up on certain details, to identify the whiteness of a cotton dress, the reflection of the sea on the hull of a yacht, or the contrast between the color of a jockeys coat and his face.” Everything is beautiful, if you pay attention.

On sex before marriage

Remember, Proust was around during the turn of the 19th century. A time when sex in general was uncouth, let alone se before marriage. But Proust wasn’t against this, no. He was simply against sex “before love. And not for any starchy reasons, simply because he felt it wasn’t a good idea to sleep together when encouraging someone to fall in love was a consideration.” 

An interesting mantra for the time. It reminds me of demisexuality which is “a sexual orientation in which someone feels sexual attraction only to people with whom they have an emotional bond.” The book doesn’t go into much detail if this is an orientation that Proust might have aligned himself with, but he does seem to possess some inclinations toward it.

On reading

The mediocre usually imagine that to let ourselves be guided by the books we admire robs our faculty of judgement of part of its independence. “What can it matter to you what Ruskin feels: feel for yourself.” Such a view rests on a psychological error which will be discounted by all those who have accepted a spiritual discipline and feel thereby that their power of understanding and of feeling is infinitely enhanced, and their critical sense never paralysed… There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together wish his.

To make [reading] into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce u to it: it does not constitute it.

And with that rare semi-colon actual-colon sentence, I’ll depart from the book in consideration of my conclusion.

Conclusion

To be fair, I didn’t do this post justice. It’s been so many months since I’ve read this book that I had to rely heavily on my notes and less on what I recall of the piece. After skimming it through again though, I’ve found that it contains many interesting pieces of information. One thing I do recall, is that this is how the entire book seemed to me: interesting tidbits in relation to Proust’s life that don’t have too much standing in my own life but are simply, well, fun to think about.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed skimming through this book again and think this blog post will suffice in terms of what I would like to take away from HPCCYL. With that, bon nuit Marcel.

On Love – Alain de Botton

On Love book coverI first heard of Alain de Botton from a podcast he did with Tim Ferriss. I really enjoyed his philosophy on life and wanted to learn more, so I picked up two of his books and went on my way. The first book I read was On Love, a book about love as told through a love story. It follows our narrator ( looking back I don’t think we ever learn his name?) and his fall down the rabbit hole of love with the beautiful Chloe. The novel has an interesting format which is essentially a group of many ordered lists. Each list item (sorry for potentially jumping into coding vernacular here) is about half a page, and each chapter is broken up into about 20 or so items. I’ll talk more about the way the format played into the philosophy at the end.

The first quarter of the book is a playful narrative of how our friend and narrator serendipitously meets Chloe on an airplane and proceeds to fall in love with her. We’ve all been there: the infatuation on first sight, the self-conscious thoughts as to whether or not you said the right thing, the nervousness that you’re not worthy of even speaking to this other person, etc. de Botton captures the essence of this stage of love, and how quickly and seemingly randomly it is to get here.

The interesting philosophical parts began after this, once the couple has just begun ‘dating’. “[W/r/t a lover] How could they be as divine as we had hoped when they have the bad taste to approve of someone like [ourselves]?” What an interesting irony! Our narrator is referring to a love-interest suddenly losing value once we realize that they, in fact, might feel the same way about us as we do about them. This tends to be slanted toward those who are a bit more self-deprecating and have low self-worth but in love, I think it’s a fairly ubiquitous feeling. “If s/he really is so wonderful, how could s/he love someone like me?”

On How We Choose a Partner:

“Albert Camus suggested that we fall in love with people because, from the outside, they look so whole, physically whole and emotionally ‘together,’ when subjectively we feel dispersed and confused. We would not love if there were no lack within us, but we are offended by the discovery of a similar lack in the other. Expecting to find the answer, we find only the duplicate of our own problem.”

Many of us are shocked when we find out that our SO for many years isn’t as wonderful as we though, or has many of the same problems that we have ourselves. This quote speaks to me because it offers some reasons as to why that might happen. Specifically, love makes the recipient of our love so beautiful and perfect that we often forget that they’re human too. In fact, I’ve found that the flaws that we can identify in ourselves are often the flaws to some degree in the other. A simple, but powerful observation.

On When to Fall in Love:

“We base our fall into love upon insufficient material, and supplement our ignorance with desire… Therefore, in the mature account of love, we should never fall at first glance.”

On Beauty:

“There is a tyranny about perfection, a certain tedium even, something that asserts itself with all the dogmatism of a scientific formula. The more tempting kind of beauty has only a few angles from which it may be glimpsed, and then not in all lights and at all times. It flirts dangerously with ugliness, it takes risks with itself, it does not side comfortably with mathematical rules or proportion, it draws its appeal from precisely those details that also lend themselves to ugliness. As Proust once said, classically beautiful women should be left to men without imagination.”

Though de Botton is talking about physical beauty, I believe there’s room here to expand the thought into other realms of beauty as well.

On Saying “I love you”:

“It was as though the core of our relationship, configured around the word ‘love,’ was somehow unmentionable, either too evident or too significant to be uttered. It was simple to understand why Chloe had never said anything. She was suspicious of words. ‘One can talk problems into existence,’ she had once said, and just as problems could come from words, so could good things be destroyed by them.”

On Observing Beauty:

“Because only the body is open to the eye, the hope of the infatuated lover is that the soul is faithful to its casing, that the body owns an appropriate soul, that what the skin represents turns out to be what it is. I did not love Chloe for her body, I loved her body for the promise of who she was.”

On Growing with Your Lover:

“I was afforded a chance to mature, thanks to the insights into my personality that Chloe afforded me. It takes the intimacy of a lover to point out facets of character that others simply don’t bother with. There were times when Chloe would tell me frankly that I was defensive or critical, or more colorfully, ‘a jumped-up twerp’ [idk, British people] or ‘as nasty as congealed gravy’ [ibid] – and I would be brought face-to-face with areas of myself that ordinary introspection (in the interests of inner harmony) would have avoided, that others would have been too uninterested to highlight, and that it needed the honesty of the bedroom to reveal.”

On Who You Are with Your Lover:

“Everyone returns to us a different sense of ourselves, for we become a little of who they think we are. Our selves could be compared to amoebas, whose outer walls are elastic, and therefore adapt to the environment. It is not that the amoeba has no dimensions, simply that it has no self-defined shape. It is my absurdist side that an absurdist person will draw out of me, and my seriousness that a serious person will evoke. If someone thinks I am shy, I will probably end up shy; if someone thinks me funny, I am likely to keep cracking jokes.”

I find this quote especially powerful. Many people refer to liking “why they are” with their SO or “what they bring out” in them and I think that this sums up that feeling nicely.

On Past Love:

“Her casual reference to a past lover provided the necessary objectification for me to realize that, however special I was to her, I still existed within certain definitions (‘a guy’; ‘my boyfriend’), and that in Chloe’s eyes, I was necessarily a simplified version of myself.”

The author also clearly feels that as special as he might be to Chloe right now, he too could eventually be a past lover.

On the End of Love:

Hanging over every love story is the thought, as horrible as it is unknowable, of how it will end. It is as when, in full health and vigor, we try to imagine our own death, the only difference between the end of love and the end of life being that at least in the latter, we are granted the comforting thought that we will not feel anything after death. No such comfort for the lover, who knows that the end of the relationship will not necessarily be the end of love, and almost certainly not the end of life.”

[The following quotes, as you will surely surmise, take place after the lovers have separated]

When Love Ceases:

“One does not get angry with a donkey for not being able to sing, for the donkey’s constitution never gave it a chance to do anything but snort. Similarly, one cannot blame a lover for loving or not loving, for it is a matter beyond their choice and hence responsibility- though what makes rejection in love harder to bear than donkeys who can never sing is that one did once see the lover loving. One finds it easier not to blame the donkey for not singing because it never sang, but the lover loved, perhaps only a short while ago, which makes the reality of the claim ‘I cannot love you anymore’ all the harder to digest.”

How to Live After Love:

“Rendered pessimistic by the intractable pains of love, I decided to turn away from it altogether. If romantic positivism could be of no help then the only valid wisdom was the stoic advice never to fall in love again. I would henceforth retreat into a symbolic monastery, see no one, live frugally, and throw myself into austere study. I read with admiration stories of men and women who had escaped earthly distractions, made vows of chastity, and spent their lives in monasteries and nunneries.”

Or, Perhaps Not:

“But sitting at a dinner party one evening, lost in Rachel’s eyes while she outlined the course of her office life for me, I was shocked to realize how easily I might abandon stoic philosophy in order to repeat all the mistakes I had lived through with Chloe. If I continued to look at Rachel’s hair, tied elegantly in a bun, or at the grace with which she used her knife and fork, or into the richness of her blue eyes, I knew I would not survive the evening intact. The sight of Rachel alerted me to the limits of the stoic approach. Through love might never be painless and was certainly not wise, neither could it be forgotten. It was as inevitable as it was unreasonable- and its unreason was unfortunately no argument against it.”

Final Thoughts:

There are numerous other worthy quotes throughout the book but you can gather much of its essence from these. ‘On Love’ does a beautiful job of elucidating the good, the bad, the beautiful, the evil of love. If you’re interested in the philosophy of love (not only romantic love, I believe many of the lessons can be adapted to platonic love as well) then I definitely recommend this book.