How to Open Your Eyes
The happiness that may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfaction may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.
Here’s the famous madeleine passage:
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disaster innocuous, its brevity illusory…. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.
By a quirk of physiology, a cake that has not crossed his lips since childhood, and therefore remains uncorrupted by later associations, has the ability to carry him back to Combray days, introducing him to a stream of rich and intimate memories… it isn’t his life that has been mediocre so much as the image of it he possessed in memory. Proust noted elsewhere:
The reason why life may be judged to be trivial although at certain moments it seems to us so beautiful is that we form our judgment, ordinarily, not on the evidence of life itself but of those quite different images, which preserve nothing of life – and therefore we judge it disparagingly.
Proust made the distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory:
Voluntary memory, the memory of the intellect and the eyes, [gives] us only imprecise facsimiles of the past which no more resemble it than pictures by bad painters resemble the spring…. So we don’t believe that life is beautiful because we don’t recall it, but if we get a whiff of a long-forgotten smell we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.
What separates involuntary and voluntary memory is both infinitesimal and critical. Before he tasted the legendary tea and madeleine, the narrator of “À la recherche du temps perdu” was not devoid of memories of his childhood. Yet the memories were lifeless because they lacked the equivalent of the touches of the good painter, the awareness of light falling across Combray’s central square in mid-afternoon, the smell of Aunt Leonie’s bedroom… – details that suggest it would be more accurate to describe the madeleine as provoking a moment of appreciation rather than recollection.
Why don’t we appreciate things more fully? The problem goes beyond inattention or laziness. It may also stem from insufficient exposure to images of beauty, which are close enough to our own world in order to guide and inspire us. Because of the speed of technological and architectural change, the world is liable to be full of scenes and objects that have not yet been transformed into appropriate images and may therefore make us nostalgic for another, now lost world, which is not inherently more beautiful but might seem so because it has already been widely depicted by those who open our eyes…[But] beauty is to 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 jockey’s coat and his face.
The images with which we are surrounded are often not just out-of-date, they can also be unhelpfully ostentatious. When Proust urges us to evaluate the world properly, he repeatedly reminds us of the value of modest scenes:
True beauty is indeed the one thing incapable of answering the expectations of an over-romantic imagination…. What disappointments has it not caused since it first appeared to the mass of mankind! A woman goes to see a masterpiece of art as excitedly as if she was finishing a serial-story, or consulting a fortune teller or waiting for her lover. But she sees a man sitting meditating by the window, in a room where there is not much light. She waits for a moment in case something more may appear, as in a boulevard transparency. And though hypocrisy may seal her lips, she says in her heart of hearts: “What, is that all there is to Rembrandt’s Philosopher?”
However touching, this does sit somewhat uneasily with evidence that Proust himself had rather a taste for ostentation… the accusations run something like this: he had elaborate names in his address book, he went to the Ritz all the time, he went to many parties. Proust was ready with an honest answer. It was true, he had been attracted to the ostentatious life…however…Proust was disappointed by glamor when he found it.
[But] rather than ceasing to discriminate between people altogether, we may simply have to become better at doing so. The image of a refined aristocracy is not false, it is merely dangerously uncomplicated. There are of course superior people at large in the world, but it is optimistic to assume that they could be so conveniently located on the basis of their surname.