Proust and the Multiverse

A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage… would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.  

This could be taken as dialogues from Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, or, Everything Everywhere All At Once, both 2022 movies flying high on the trending theme of multiple universes. But of course, the excerpt is Proust’s, and the universes he refers to are internal ones.

The above quote is taken from In Search of Lost Time Volume V: The Captive and The Fugitive (343), as the narrator Marcel acknowledges the infinite views that can arise from personal experiences of different individuals filtered through their own subjective lens. There are as many viewpoints as there are people, therefore, every object or event can evoke a variety of perspectives and responses. Subjectivity is Proust’s master stroke. Take this other excerpt from the same volume. As Marcel awakens in the morning:

… from my bed, I hear the world awake, now to one sort of weather, now to another! Yes, I have been forced to whittle down the facts, and to be a liar, but it is not one universe, but millions, almost as many as the number of human eyes and brains in existence, that awake every morning. (V:250)

Today, November 18th, is the centenary of Proust’s death at the age of 51 (1871-1922). A look at his contemporaries could help us place him in a historical context and probably source the influence of his introspective sensitivity and his ultra-reflexive writing. Again, the disclaimer here is that, I’m no Proust scholar… mere ripples out of my own tiny universe. I can think of the following iconic figures as I consider the historical context of Proust’s writing.

It was the era of psychoanalysis. I’m sure Freud (1856-1939) would have been eager to apply his own theory to explain the case of Marcel’s longing for his mother’s goodnight kiss as he lies in bed waiting for her to come up to his room every night. And then there was Carl Jung, (1875 – 1961), whose theory on personality and the unconscious could have sparked some light into Marcel’s epiphany of the involuntary memories: ephemeral flashbacks that fuel his imaginative mind with creative thoughts. It’s such kind of subliminal emergence of Time past that fills him with joy and meaning.

And of course, there are the other writers whom Marcel has mentioned in the book, Henry James (1843-1916) whose brother is also a prominent psychologist of the time, William James (1842-1910), across the Atlantic. Another notable, Marcel’s enthusiasm is heightened when talking about Dostoevsky (1821-1881), the master of characterizing the human psyche.  

And what’s with all the space travel idea, flying from star to star, while the Wright brothers had just successfully flown the very first aeroplane only in 1903? Huge imagination and insight for one to think of multiverses at that time. I’m not sure what the original French word is. Those who read In Search of Lost Time in French, is the word the same as its English translation, ‘universe’? (V: 250, 343)

Reading this sparked a personal flashback as I remember my experience of visiting “The Infinity Mirrored Room” created by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (born 1929) at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto a few years ago. Infinite reflections from these tiny silver balls:

____________________

Having said all the above about Proust’s sensitivity to subjective universes, here’s the rub. It is utterly ironic that these insights are taken from Volume V: The Captive and The Fugitive. Why, here in this volume, Marcel has taken Albertine captive in his parents’ home where he stays while in Paris. He first met Albertine in Balbec; she has now become his lover/mistress. No, she isn’t in chains, but the restraints Marcel puts on her is psychological rather than physical. He tracks her every move, “whenever the door opened I gave a start.” (494) In reality, there just might be two captives in that house, Albertine and Marcel himself, both caught in a psychological tug of war, maintaining a fragile relationship based on lies and evasiveness.

As much as he knows about his own thoughts and feelings, or even that of his housekeeper Francoise’s, Marcel’s empathy does not extend to Albertine’s universe. He might think his keeping her in his house is for her own good, “to save her from her orgiastic life which Albertine had led before she met me.” (474). Yet his ‘love’ for her is built upon his own possessiveness and jealousy; his displeasure with her intensifies when he learns it’s with other women that she seeks intimacy. Eventually, fleeing a stifling life, gasping for the air of freedom, Albertine leaves the house abruptly one morning. The captive now becomes the fugitive.

The events that follow are like a test of Marcel’s love for Albertine, showing if it is genuine or merely self-indulgence, egotism, or even just lust. Spoiler Alert from here on.

Marcel has never gone out to look for the fugitive. Until one day, he gets the news that Albertine has died in a horse-riding accident. Surely there is grief and pain in the immediate aftermath, but what does he miss most? “I needed her presence, her kisses.” (642) While he goes on to reminisce the good and the bad sides of Albertine, not long after that he has given her up for another:

The memory of Albertine had become so fragmentary that it no longer caused me any sadness and was no more now than a transition to fresh desires, like a chord which announces a change of key. And indeed, any idea of a passing sensual whim being ruled out, in so far as I was still faithful to Albertine’s memory, I was happier at having Andrée in my company than I would have been at having an Albertine miraculously restored… my tenderness for her, both physically and emotionally, had already vanished. (809-810)

“like a chord which announces a change of key…” O the fickleness of desire! The deceits of hidden motives and the capricious emotion one calls love. Marcel might be insightful in acknowledging multiple universes within individuals, pure love remains elusive. Dr. Strange crushes his enemies from the multiverse spectacularly, but the beast that lurks within oneself might be more formidable a foe to conquer.

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Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

7 thoughts on “Proust and the Multiverse”

    1. Stefanie, I remember we read The Guermantes Way together. And after that we both thought that that would be all for us. Actually, not until I picked the rest up this year did I begin to appreciate why all the detailed descriptions of people, places, and events in the earlier volumes, and yes of course, the madeleine dipped in tea episode. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi Arti,
    I’ve tracked down the quotes you mention in the French original.

    Here’s the first one:
    Des ailes, un autre appareil respiratoire, et qui nous permissent de traverser l’immensité, ne nous serviraient à rien, car, si nous allions dans Mars et dans Vénus en gardant les mêmes sens, ils revêtiraient du même aspect que les choses de la Terre tout ce que nous pourrions voir. Le seul véritable voyage, le seul bain de Jouvence, ce ne serait pas d’aller vers de nouveaux paysages, mais d’avoir d’autres yeux, de voir l’univers avec les yeux d’un autre, de cent autres, de voir les cent univers que chacun d’eux voit, que chacun d’eux est.

    translated by (?? which translation have you been reading? Scott Moncrieff’s?)

    A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage… would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.

    The translation is fair and you can see that the word “immensité” has been translated into “space”, which is good and “univers” becomes “universe” at the same places.

    The second one now:

    …de mon lit, j’entends le monde s’éveiller, tantôt par un temps, tantôt par un autre. Oui, j’ai été forcé d’amincir la chose et d’être mensonger, mais ce n’est pas un univers, c’est des millions, presque autant qu’il existe de prunelles et d’intelligences humaines, qui s’éveillent tous les matins.

    Translation:
    … from my bed, I hear the world awake, now to one sort of weather, now to another! Yes, I have been forced to whittle down the facts, and to be a liar, but it is not one universe, but millions, almost as many as the number of human eyes and brains in existence, that awake every morning.

    Also a good translation and yes, the word “univers” is here again with its translation as “universe”

    About your post now.

    I’m no Proust scholar either. I know that Proust knew Freud and that Freud didn’t like Proust’s books.
    I think you’re missing two important references. Proust was influenced by Bergson’s philosophy (Time and Free Will / Matter and Memory) I haven’t read him, I can’t tell you more. And he was influenced by Impressionist paintings, as Elstir proves it.

    Plus, about time travel and all that, let’s not forget his time is the time of major science fiction books by HG Wells and Jules Verne (Journey to the Center of the Earth, A Voyage in a Balloon, From the Earth to the Moon) I don’t know if Proust enjoyed them or not but he knew about them, that’s for sure.

    And then, there’s the word “univers” in French which has, I think, a broader meaning that “universe” in English. I’m not an English native speaker but I understand “universe” as mostly the real notion of “outer space”. The word used in physics.
    In French, “univers” isn’t as straightforward.
    “bienvenue dans mon univers” => Welcome to my world
    C’est mon univers => it’s my environment, my home, my realm, my expertise
    Je viens de cet univers là ==> this is the background I come from.

    In these two quotes, “univers” is intended as “universe” but in the second one, it also means “millions of personal quotidians”

    The Captive and the Fugitive are the two books I like the least. They are stiffling. And I always associate The Captive with The Police’s song Every breath you take.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Emma,

      Thank you so much for the detailed translated excerpts! Yes, and it’s funny now that you asked and I checked. Volume V: The Captive & The Fugitive in this Modern Library box set is translated by Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, while Vol. VI Time Regained is by Andreas Mayor and T. Kilmartin. I thought it’s Moncrieff who translated all these volumes. Anyway, I’m glad to see the exact word “universe” is used, albeit I admit the connotation and semantics might be somewhat different than this modern English usage.

      And of course, you’re absolutely right about the era when Proust wrote this was the age of discovery of new worlds, both external and internal. I had H.G.Well’s The War of the Worlds in my mind, but I just went ahead to write about Proust’s quotes mentioning visiting Mars and Venus. What’s intriguing to me, and a great discovery for me when I came upon these passages is the phrases he uses, “hundreds of … universes” and “millions”. I know, what he means are the subjective universes within individuals.

      The concept of multiple universes have been trending as a theme in our pop culture in recent years, again, may not be exactly the same context as Proust writes. The word ‘Multiverse’ is commonly used now. While Dr. Strange might be fighting the physical villains from a different universe, the other movie I mention, Everything Everywhere All at Once (as the title so crazily denotes, and a 2023 Oscar hopeful) refers to the different universes the heroine of the story inhabits that are perceived by her only, appearing to her at the same time, subjective perspectives that Proust would have found interesting. And, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, we will be led into an unknown and precarious new world of Metaverse. You cans see why I’m so sensitive in picking out the word used by Proust.

      No matter, just some ripples from a movie reviewer. Again, thank you for your detailed reply. I look forward to your future posts on Proust. 🙂

      (BTW, my favourite Volume is VI: Time Regained. )

      Like

  2. A wonderfully intelligent and intellectual post that made me pause and think.
    If we inhabit our own multiverses (i.e., our physical senses, media universes, dreams, fickle emotions, real emotions , our past, present and future’s, etc.) how can we rely on which is most relevant or reliable?
    Does it make a difference?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First off, thanks so much Heather for your careful reading of my posts. Always good to know there are people who do read them! With regard to all these multiplicities, you’re absolutely right… who can we turn to for truth and relevance. Alas, in this postmodern age where subjectivity and pluralism rule, the Meta-narrative seems to have died. I’m glad though, for those who still have a rational mind, we can weigh and research and I think still can maintain some sort of a sound mind to judge and evaluate issues and happenings, which I’m afraid are getting more and more absurd and unreal in recent years. As for the relativity of values, as one who hold on to my Faith, I believe there’s Universal Truth, subsequently, there are still values which we do share as created human beings. As for books and movies, I have learned to appreciate the author’s (or the director’s) point of view, the artistic styling and intention, the characterization… etc. without needing to agree with their worldviews or personal behaviour. Like the smorgasbord analogy I used in my last Proust post, laid before me is an array of delicious offerings, while they all look great to the eyes, some may not agree with my digestive system. I have to be selective to fully enjoy the offerings, but I do need to appreciate the work and effort put into the making of and display of the buffet. Hope this makes some sense. 🙂

      Like

      1. Arti, Thank you for your thoughts!
        I greatly admire your wisdom and depth. I believe in shared values of human beings that cross many religions and cultures, as well.
        I enjoyed the analogy to food or smorgasbord — and the appreciation of many attractive items laid before us — yet some delicacies may be attractive, but unkind to our systems.
        Thus, we learn by delving perhaps 🤔 life has an experiential and experimental learning process.

        Liked by 1 person

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