Archive for the ‘Proust’ Category

By tradition a Jew begins every day with the two words “modeh ani“. Basically  this means “I acknowledge and thank God for giving me the gift of life once again today”. Fundamentally, the Jewish notion of gratitude; even in the midst of obstacles, problems, and difficulties; is intended to make life more bearable in the face of so much we don’t understand. Gratitude breeds optimism. Optimism (which I am well known to often lack myself – but not for lack of trying) makes life easier. The question is to whom we should be grateful and the most obvious answer may well be “God”. This would lead to the conclusion that, without God, there can be no gratitude. But wait

Does Judaism really teach that you can only be grateful to God? If we consider the possibility that everything is part of God, sure. But, that’s a recursive argument because if God is everything, then being grateful to God is just being grateful to everything. Where’s the incremental value to God in that proposition? So let’s set that argument aside and look at another Jewish idea. The great Mussar Rabbi, Eliyahu Lopian (1872 – 1970), is said to have once been chatting with a student after prayers. Simultaneously, he was folding his tallit. The tallit was one of those big Orthodox ones so R. Elyah had to set it on a table to fold it. After he had folded up his tallit. the Rabbi noticed that the table was dirty so he went out to get a towel to clean it off. The student noticed what Reb Elyah was doing and started to go get him the towel. Reb Elyah stopped him. “No! No! No! Wait, please!, he said, I must clean it myself. I must show my gratitude to the table for being here for me.” In other words, we can be grateful just because; we should show gratitude to everything from which we benefit. Not gratitude to God; just gratitude… period.

So what would happen if we just set God aside for a moment? Well, let’s see what some well known atheists have to say. First, I LOVE this quote from Richard Dawkins:

“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings.”

That is an interesting take on living, but only partially on gratitude. In a quote that I’m not as enamored with, but which makes my point, Dawkins speaks directly to the issue. He says this:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die, because they are never going to be born. The number of people who could be here in my place outnumbers the sand grains of Sahara. If you think about all the different ways our genes could be permuted, you and I are quite grotesquely lucky to be here: the number of events that had to happen in order for you to exist, in order for me to exist. We are privileged to be alive and we should make the most of our time on this world.”

Essentially, Dawkins is saying that even in a Godless, atheistic, worldview there is room for gratitude. Why? Because in a universe of randomness there is much more of a chance that any one of us as an individual would never have existed at all. Why should we be grateful? Because we EXIST! And to whom? Well…. I don’t know…. maybe Brownian motion, maybe 1/f randomness, maybe white noise. But that random nothingness is not necessarily depressing or nihilistic  It can be wonderful… because out of random variation came ME! What kind of wonderful chance was there of THAT!

I’m not saying that I side with Dawkins. What I am saying is that you don’t need a Christ, or a Muhammad, or a Buddha, or a Shiva, or an Adonai, or any particular Godhead to feel grateful. Gratitude is a wonderful thing for everyone. Gratitude breeds optimism, which breeds happiness, no matter what religion you have or don’t have.

In my particular case, there are lots of things for which I’m thankful today. Number one is my unconditionally loving and supportive wife, Patt. This is a great example of how gratitude can come from any worldview. If I am with Patt because God brought us together, cool! I’m a happy guy. But… If it just happened by randomness, I’m cool with that too because, in that case, out of random variation came US! What kind of wonderful chance was there of THAT!

Another cause for gratitude this Thanksgiving is that I’ve been given the chance to go back to work for Grass Valley, a company I really love. God? Maybe. Seems like Brownian motion to me. But, I’ll chose to just think it was a perfect fit and those guys are lucky as hell to have me back 🙂 I could go on, and there are many more things I could think of from this past year. But since this is my year of reading Proust, and since those other things generally involve the people in my life, I’ll take a moment to share what Proust has to say about gratitude:

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” 

That is a beautiful way to express gratitude for friends. But, I’ll end with something I’ve said before because this is an àpropos way to close. Whether or not you believe in God, take to heart what one of my guru’s, Bob Nozick, has said – because this is a perfect expression of why one’s heart may feel gratitude, with or without a religious receiver. Take this into your heart and soul:

“It is a privilege to be part of the ongoing realm of existing things and processes… we identify with the totality and, in the calmness this brings, feel solidarity with all of our comrades in existing” — Robert Nozick (1989) 

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Sleeping problems, mother reading, the surprise compassion of father, the aunt who never leaves her bed, the servant, the church as the center of Combray, flowering trees in great detail, the first reaction to beautiful freckles,  the twin steeples of Martinville, the steeple of Vieuxvicq, Madame Guermantes, Monsieur Swann, Baudelaire’s “delicious” trumpet…

These are just some of the images that are juxtaposed in Swann’s Way. But, as I complete the chapter “Combray” I must ask myself “what happened?”. “What is the book about?” As yet there is no plot!

My first reaction to this is to think of my time, back in the day, when I regularly read Soseki, Kawabata, and Tanizaki. I used to say that the difference between western novels and Japanese novels was that the Japanese novels I love are all about “character” and very little about “plot”. So, I thought, “perhaps Proust is writing about character and the plot is really secondary”.  But it’s not so simple.

This is not a book, like Soseki’s Kokoro“, with a simple plot but in-depth character analysis. So far, it’s a book with NO plot but an in-depth memory analysis. If you asked me, in advance, whether I would like such a book, I’d quickly answer “no”. But, just as I came to love the detailed character studies of 19th and 20th century Japanese novels I’m, surprisingly, coming to love Proust’s memories. So far, they take you nowhere along a plot line. And, I’ll admit that I do find the page-long sentences annoying.  Still, these myriad images are BEAUTIFUL. I would not have expected it to be enough. But, perhaps I was wrong and it is.

I’m beginning to think of “Remembrances of Things Past” as a novel unlike anything, except perhaps Joyce’s “Ulysses“, I have read before. We tend to think of music, dance, film, and stories as being temporal – as moving forward through time. We expect a novel to be some kind of linear-kinetic series of events. But what if a novel were like a painting; like a cubist painting. What if the novel did not move forward in time but were, rather, stagnant. What, exactly, would it be doing as we turn the pages?

Perhaps the answer is this: Just as a cubist painting views an object from many angles. Maybe a novel can do the same thing. Maybe, as we read through Proust, we are not reading a time based event sequence. What if we were moving up and down a series of images and memories and feelings so as to see a life from a variety of angles; just like Picasso did visually. The events would not move horizontally through time. The result would not be a horizontal novel. So what, then?

I’m still very near the beginning of this great series of books. So, I’ll probably change my views 100 times. But, right now, I’m tending to feel like Proust has created a completely new genre:

The vertical novel!

If I really wanted to be like Proust, I’d tell you all about Petit Madeleines dunked in lime tea, make you lust for one, and then just drop the subject for the next 3000 blog posts. After all, one thing I know, even if I didn’t ever finish “In Search of Lost Time” in the past, is that the Petit Madeleine crumbs loom large…. someday.

For now, I just want to share a quick impression of the 40 pages on “why I have trouble sleeping”. It took me a while to fall into the cadence of the first section of Swann’s Way. But, interestingly, once I did, I loved it. There is the obvious Freudian aspect of the kid who want’s mom in the bedroom. True. But there is also the beauty of understanding how it feels to get (and to not get) what you crave. In a sort of anti-Freudian twist, it’s the father who acts compassionately and tells mother to spend time with the distraught child. Along the way, the feelings and imagery are almost magnetic in the way they draw you into something as banal as a child trying to get mother to say goodnight.

As I read this section I realized a few things.

First, I was pretty lucky when I was a child. In Swann’s Way, poor little Proust is whisked away to bed as soon as the guest arrives. Conversely, I have great memories of my parents letting me hang out with the adults when they had their friends (especially the Temple Havurah) over to the house. They never just whisked us away.

Second, this brought up lots of childhood memories for me. Not so much about my mother, but both of my parents. I was born with a very tiny esophagus and required a number of dilatations as a very young child. Proust’s childhood memories made me remember the many times my dad would take me to the hospital for these esophagus dilations,  sit over at Norm’s Restaurant worrying about me, and then bring me home again. I was not fond of the doctors who wanted me to drink some radioactive shit which they thought a 5-year-old was incapable of realizing WASN’T a vanilla milkshake (trust me on this… Barium ain’t vanilla flavored). I also remember being in the OR and seeing the anesthesiologist and his little mask. And, mom tells me that I used to come out of the procedure knowing all the names of the surgical instruments – which sort of makes me wonder just what “doctor anesthetic” was really up to.

What I don’t remember, but what touches me more deeply the older I get, it this. While I was drinking radioactive “vanilla milkshakes”  and memorizing surgical instruments, dad was worrying about his little kid enough to drive himself to having an ulcer. He wasn’t just eating breakfast at Norms. He was letting his love for me eat at him. And, when I realize what a little shit I was as a teen and a young man, I see just how much more I owed him than I knew.

What I find really interesting about what I just wrote is that it has nothing to do with “In Search of Lost Time“. But, it speaks to the power of the book to evoke memories. I’m now 3% of the way though this epic, and I already understand why It’s rumored to be addictive.

By the way… You’ll still have to hear more about lime tea and cakes…. But then I’ll just drop it (for a while).

A couple summers ago I decided to tackle one of those books that one always thinks of reading but never gets around to actually reading. It was a book that I thought I’d have to force myself to finish. That is what had happened with all previous attempts.The book was James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. I wasn’t blogging back then so I did not share the experience. I wish I had, because I ended up having an amazingly fun time with that book.

For the last 2 summers I’ve tried to recreate that experience with other books. In a nutshell, I failed. I just haven’t been able to find one of those classics that I really wanted to read. But, I did not give up and now I have begun an even bigger project than Ulysses. You see, in my quest for a “big read” I discovered something sort of cool.

On July 10th 1871, Marcel Proust was born. Eighty-Nine years later, on that same day, I was born. So Proust and I share a birthday! Now, if I didn’t think Proust was cool to begin with, I’d never try this. But, I like Proust. Because of that, and because I’ve never tried to read the 3000+ pages of “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu“, I have decided to read the seven volumes of this monumental work. To keep me motivated, I’ve decided that blog about it, too. If my plan works out, I’ll be reading a 1930s English translation, and blogging about everything from the difficulty or ease of the reading, to rememberanced from my own past.

I do have to admit that I’d like to read it in French. Sadly, my 40 year old high school and college French is so bad that, if I tried, this would be the “Proust PARALLAX Project” instead of “The Proust Parallels Project”. None of us want to see me make that much of a fool of myself. That said, because translation is an art that extends far beyond words into the realm of interpretation and structure, I will no doubt dig into the French edition where my admittedly-weak skills allow.

For now, I’ll hold off on any commentary about the books. I’m about 50 pages into “Swann’s Way” and I already have several posts brewing. Initially I’ll be cross posting these to both my main blog (almostrational.wordpress.com) and to a brand new blog (proustparallels.wordpress.com). The New Blog will just be a duplicate of the Proust posts, intended to catch some extra readers with a specific interest in Proust, so you don’t need to subscribe just to that. You can just stay subscribed to this blog and you’ll get to see all the posts.

Welcome to “The Proust Parallels Project“!