Posts Tagged ‘Proust’

Memories of Mary Jane

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

In my thirties, I smoked marijuana, occasionally or regularly, depending on life’s circumstances. I know people who never liked it or never got much of an effect from it, but I liked getting stoned. It’s been decades since the last time I even saw any grass (as we called it back in my day—that and “dope”). I can’t even remember when that would have been.

I voted for the recent ballot question legalizing “recreational” marijuana use in Massachusetts, based on my belief that the drug is less dangerous than alcohol and that people should be free to choose how they want to enjoy life, even when there are risks involved, assuming the risks are not too great and can be evaluated.

I might say more about that question some other time, but here I want to write about two singular events—mental or spiritual events—that I experienced when stoned on marijuana. I am not selecting two out of many. There were only two in all the time I smoked grass (how quaint that word seems now). They were different from each other, but both were very powerful, unforgettable, and came out of the blue. I have no idea how unusual my experience is, but I know I am blessedly susceptible to epiphanies. There is really no way to convey the power of such an experience, but I’ll try to make clear what was revealed to me in each instance.

The first experience was something akin to a Proustian onrush of memory. Proust (or rather, Marcel, the first-person narrator of his long work) famously described how his tasting the crumbs of a petite madeleine cake in a spoonful of warm tea triggered a mental event which suddenly took him back to a time and place from his childhood, not merely reminding him of it, but mentally immersing him in it, as though he had traveled in time. Marcel recounts a few other such events, which seemed to nullify the passage of time and which inspired him to write the book in which he is the narrator.

All of Marcel’s “involuntary memories” came about because of a fortuitous similarity that his immediate physical circumstances, as mediated through his body and its senses, had to some others in his past, which circumstances had been stored away in his memory, awaiting just the right correspondence to the present ones to suddenly evoke the past, not just as a remembrance of similarity, but as a vivid experience of the earlier time and place. Well, you’ll have to read Proust to see what I’m floundering around to convey.

The point I want to make is that Proust discovered that the mind, the brain, whatever you want to call it, holds the past in a detailed and holistic way that we couldn’t expect it to, since we cannot voluntarily, intentionally retrieve our earlier selves stored there.

My Proustian-like experience while stoned was triggered by nothing at all that I can recall. It just came. I don’t even remember where I was (vaguely seems to be Berkeley) or whom, if anyone, I was with. I’m almost sure I didn’t tell anyone about it at the time it happened. In any case it was years after my maternal grandparents had died. I have told at least one person about the experience, but it had happened years before I met her.

The time of my memory is when I had only one younger sister, and we were the only grandchildren my mother’s parents had. They lived out in the country in Northeast Texas. My family usually went there for Christmas. In the summer, my mother, sister, and I would spend weeks at a time there. Children, if they are lucky, as we were, can take the love of parents and grandparents for granted. It is only when we grow to adulthood, becoming ourselves a part of the older generation, that we can really understand, internally, the love that a parent has for a child, a grandparent for a grandchild. I know that my sister and I went through a period as older children where we could be quite disrespectful to my grandmother. Even now, I wish I could take that back, but, of course, I can’t.

The scene from my past into which I was thrust out of the blue takes place in the driveway under the bois d’arc tree (board arc, in the local vernacular) in front of my grandparents’ house. My sister and I, both quite young, are in the back seat of our family’s Ford. We are about to depart, about to be driven back by our father to our home 300 miles away, to be gone from here until the next time we visit, months in the future. My sister and I are not alone. Sitting between us is our grandmother. It is her presence that struck me so forcefully. I had totally forgotten how she would get into the back seat of the car and sit with my sister and me until the very last minute before our departure, just to be close to us for that much longer. Love so strong and deep, love that suffered so from parting, oh so many years ago! What a wonderful gift it was to have recovered that memory! To have received once again that love from her at an age at which I could appreciate it! As I still can. That is something precious I received in a state induced by marijuana, and I have no reason to think it would have happened otherwise.

The other experience is of a different sort. It is more like a revelation, though the truth that was revealed was something I knew already, in theory. What happened was a sudden insight, a stripping away of an old unconscious way of thinking to, in effect, show a miracle taking place. I do remember where this happened. It was in Cambridge in a Peabody Terrace apartment. One of the benefits of being stoned, to those of us that marijuana works on, is an enhancement of aesthetic pleasure. At this particular time, my attention was caught by the gorgeous geraniums we had growing in pots. I looked at them intently. The green stems and leaves. The red flowers. Not roses. Not carnations. Geraniums. Beaming beauty into the room. Growing out of the nondescript dark brown soil. Suddenly—for the first time in my life—I realized what was happening. The dirt was being turned into flowers! It was a stunning, joyful recognition. I had somehow managed to live my whole life still thinking as a child thinks, that the dirt was basically just holding the flowers. They needed to be stuck in something that would hold water, and dirt was what they needed to be stuck in. Of course, I knew about “nutrients” in the soil, about soil becoming exhausted, about the need to fertilize soil, etc., but the wonderful transformation that was actually occurring had somehow not made it into my consciousness with its full significance. It was like discovering God! Actually, it was discovering God, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Could I have had that insight without the aid of marijuana? I suppose so. But the fact is that the marijuana was instrumental in the event.

I’m writing about these experiences just as I’ve written about other intense experiences, both good and bad, just because I feel like sharing them for the first time, as my time becomes shorter, I guess. I’m not advocating anyone try marijuana in the hope of having a similar experience. After all, I have only two to report, and it’s not like there’s no such thing as a “bad trip” on marijuana. Also, the marijuana around these days is reportedly a lot stronger than it was back when I smoked it, and I really don’t know whether that makes good or bad experiences more likely. I should distinguish these experiences from the sort which I gather (only from reading, not personal experience) are induced by hallucinogens. Yes, I was stoned, but I was still myself, and I just happened to get lucky, or maybe I should say I received undeserved blessings, which is pretty much the story of our lives, isn’t it?

Reading Proust for the Last Time

Friday, September 19th, 2008

A few weeks ago, I sat down in my customary reading chair, leaned forward to pick up from their customary nearby place on the floor the last volume of my Pleiade edition of A la recherche du temps perdu and my Concise Oxford French Dictionary, which I need to refer to frequently enough to warrant keeping it in my lap while I read Proust (Petit Robert on the shelf close by should the Oxford not suffice), as I had done so many times in the months since I impulsively started my third trip (second time in French) through Proust’s roughly three-thousand-page masterpiece, then posed the small Oxford volume on my lap and opened the Pleiade Proust to the page marked by the one of its two yellow ribbon bookmarks placed most deeply into the book. It was only then that I realized that I had merely been unconsciously following the path of habit, for I had finished the final volume the night before. I suppose that’s when it really sank in that the long journey had been completed and that, considering my other interests and duties, the number of years that had elapsed between my last two readings of Proust, as well as my undeniable sharing of at least one essential characteristic with Socrates, I had very likely read Proust through for the last time.

Since I’ve already talked about Proust’s importance to me (Ronnie Knox, Marcel Proust, and I), it seems fitting that I look back briefly on that last reading and pass along a few somewhat idle thoughts. Some of what I’m going to say will refer to incidents or characters in the book, which may not mean much to anyone that hasn’t read Proust, but no one need need worry about a so-called “spoiler” appearing, as it is not the nature of Proust’s work to be spoilable.

The first part of the work, which deals with the narrator’s childhood and especially the vacations he spent away from Paris with his family at his Aunt Léonie’s house in Combray, the small town of his family’s roots, is the part that I have always found the most magical. Though my circumstances were very different from those of Proust (and the narrator in his work), I spent a lot of time in my childhood in the country, staying with my grandparents; and the scenes and people Proust depicts resonated strongly with my own memories, so much so that even on first reading, I felt the narrator’s childhood memories to be coming from within myself and not just from the book I was reading. Of course, this was exactly Proust’s intent, expounded in the final volume, Le temps retrouvé, where the narrator finally discovers the secret of art that thrusts him into almost literally full-time writing after decades-long writer’s block.

Reading Proust once more this last time, I already had within me the memory of my previous reading, itself ready to be awakened by Proust’s evocative phrases and images (like so many  crumbs of Petites Madeleines dropped into the full, waiting teacup of my mind), so that the feeling of having actually lived the narrator’s childhood was even stronger in the retelling (Yes, I remember exactly the sound the bell of the garden gate made when Swann rang to announce his arrival in the evening!).

I believe I enjoyed even more than before (though I can’t be sure after more than twenty years) all of the work that comes before the time the narrator takes Albertine to live with him in Paris. It’s sometimes very funny, sometimes very moving, and always insightful and illuminating about human nature (including in particular that of the portion of humanity he refers to as residents of Sodome et Gommorhe), society, social class, personality, sleep, dreams, habit, memory, desire, jealousy, vanity, adolescence, anticipation, disillusionment, obsession, sloth, illness, nature, political passions, death, writing, music, art, and the artist: to mention only a few, as they say. And let’s not forget Time and those pages of deep poetry, such as the closing ones of Du côté de chez Swann.

Although Proust completed his long work, he did not truly finish it; the last part is more like a late draft. He reconciled himself to the fact that he would not live long enough to polish it all, got it into publishable form, and was able to publish the better part of it in several volumes during his lifetime, famously paying for the printing of the first great volume himself. I think I was more aware of the ragged edges, multiple sketches for the same scene, and outright contradictions in the later volumes this time than in my previous readings, but perhaps those fade from memory, as they are not what makes Proust Proust. I found overly long and repetitious the narrator’s analysis of his obsessive jealousy of Albertine, the mistress he had turned into a virtual prisoner in luxury. The analysis of his obsession became itself obsessive.

Despite his dispassionate voice, or perhaps because of it, I couldn’t help feeling sorry at times for Proust the person, since his writing makes it clear (even explicitly at times, and the reader knows it is Proust speaking then, not a fictional character) that he knew, being one himself, that there were people who never inspired love in anyone else. I gather he was always in the position of having to buy a semblance of it. He talks of shared love at one point as something attainable by others, which seems contrary to his usual view of love as an unfortunate affliction, inevitably one-sided, based on jealousy and the fear of loss and the destruction of habit. I think he may have been missing something inside himself; but, in any case, there is no more detached and acute scientific observer of human nature and psychology, including his own, than Proust the writer. We can say about Proust that, having produced such a work as A la recherche du temps perdu, his suffering was not in vain; and there’s every reason to believe he felt the same way. For Proust, it was mainly through suffering that we are forced to transcend our ordinary, largely mechanical, lives in which habit dominates, and go deeply into our true selves; and Proust took advantage of those times to a rare degree.

It’s impossible to know what difference it would have made for Proust to have presented the feminine Gilbertes and Albertines of his book as the masculine Gilberts and Alberts they must have been in his life, but there is something unconvincing about his relations with them as painted in his book. And I have never been able to decide if one should interpret Albertine’s sexual attraction to women, and the narrator’s obsession with making sure she had no chance of acting on it, as a substitute for Proust’s own fear that his male paramours might actually prefer women to him or what. If the depiction were successful it wouldn’t matter, but it seems false somehow, which makes me look for some explanation outside of the realm of art.

In any case, I have to say that Albertine, despite the number of times her name appears in the work and her supposed great importance to the narrator, is not for me in the least a memorable character (one can hardly call her a character at all), in a work containing many that were very memorable. Consider Françoise, Charlus, or the narrator’s grandmother, for example. Perhaps this is because Albertine was based on a composite of more numerous real-life persons; or perhaps it reflects the distorting influence of money in Proust’s real-life liaisons, and the lack of trust inseparable from such relations, which must have made it impossible to know for sure what the “prisoner” was actually thinking. Or maybe the gender switch was just too difficult to pull off. It should be noted that Proust had no patience with the biographical sort of literary criticism, and I agree that these speculations have no bearing on the merit of his work.

No doubt because I am now of an age that can only be described as old, if not yet very old, I found the descriptions of the characters the narrator was seeing at a social gathering after an absence of something like fifteen years, to be rather dispiriting. During the narrator’s absence, time has been devastatingly cruel to most of the characters, and some are mocked openly by younger newcomers to the society scene. I might mention that Proust, who died in 1922, seems to have projected the last actions of his book well beyond his lifetime, based on the amount of aging of characters he describes, including that of Gilberte’s daughter, who couldn’t have been born before 1913, but is said to be about sixteen. This obvious fact has no doubt been noted before, and I only mention it because I had already felt that the passage of time seemed unrealistic, without having done any calculation. It is also in this last section that we encounter numerous contradictions in the text, including totally contradictory descriptions of how a character has aged.

Lest my words on the last volume make it seem that it wasn’t worthy of Proust, it should be noted that it is there that the narrator makes his inspired connection between the timeless realm into which the sudden onrush of intense memories triggered by unexpected accident takes one and the state of aesthetic contemplation into which it is the goal of art to bring one. In his flash of insight, the narrator recognizes that his experiences of powerful involuntary memories have revealed to him the way that literature might accomplish the aim of art: sweep us away from the habits of daily existence to plunge us deeply into our true selves. For whatever reason, it was only on my third reading of Proust that I felt I had fully gotten what he meant; and I was strongly impressed by how clearly the narrator (and obviously Proust) had come to see the urgent task of the rest of his life and at the same time the justification for his previous life.

Near the end of the book there also occurs one of the most striking images in the whole work (for me at least): that of Gilberte’s daughter, whom the narrator sees for the first time at about age sixteen, as his own youth personified and incarnate. I’ve experienced something similar in my own life, though without the transcendent vision. It’s one thing to see someone from our past for the first time in many years and note how he or she has grown older, as so have we; but the sight of that person’s child (before only a baby or even nonexistent) standing before us as a grown person presents us with an undeniably material measure of elapsed time, yet glowing with the mystery of existence.

Finishing a trivial book, or even a good one, is not an event to necessarily make one think of one’s mortality. Finishing a very long and very deep book of the very rare kind that alters one’s view of the world and life is like finishing a stage in one’s life, which feels like a farewell, and so makes one especially conscious of the finiteness of one’s time. Obviously, Proust’s book is such a one for me.

Have I read Proust for the last time? I can’t know that, and I don’t want to put the thought of a jinx in mind by any sort of prediction; but, just as the narrator of Le temps retrouvé had to consider that, even as he realized he had a great work before him, he also had a limited amount of time of unknown duration in which to accomplish it, since events both internal (organ failure) and external (accidents) beyond his control might prevent its completion, I too have to recognize the possibility of such unforeseeable events. Of course we are every one of us in that position, for whatever modest plans we might have, but as our years mount, we have to face the increasing likelihood that our projects for the future may be left unfinished. Blogs are good from that standpoint. One post per week is all I aim for.

Ronnie Knox, Marcel Proust, and I

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

Marcel Proust was not a household name in the household I grew up in; I don’t know about yours. Can you remember the first time you ever heard Marcel Proust’s name? Unless the preceding sentence was it, probably not I’d guess. I can remember perfectly, and with the help of the amazing power of the worldwide web and Google, I can put an approximate date on it. This was actually an important event in my life. But first a little background.

Back in the 1950s there was a young football player in California, an outstanding passer who could also run and punt, named Ronnie Knox. Ronnie was California high school athlete-of-the-year for 1952-53, and had become one of the most sought-after players by college recruiters in the whole country. Ronnie was also good-looking, and was nicknamed “Golden Boy.” His overbearing stepfather, Harvey Knox, had moved him from high school to high school searching for the right coach to best showcase Ronnie’s talents. Then Harvey, acting in effect as Ronnie’s agent, had basically sold his services to the highest bidder, the University of California at Berkeley. The problem turned out to be that Cal already had one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and he had another year of eligibility.

Unwilling to see his son playing second string to anybody, even for a year, Harvey Knox pulled Ronnie out of Cal and took him south to UCLA, even though it meant losing a year of college playing eligibility. Harvey also got Cal in trouble with the NCAA by revealing some of the incentives that had been promised Ronnie in violation of the rules. It was at this time that I first heard about Ronnie because the story made it into national magazines.

California glowed with Hollywood glamour compared to my home state of Texas, and I took an interest in this West Coast story. I was twelve at the time and very open to finding new sports heroes. Mickey Mantle was my number one hero, and he would never be equaled by anyone else in my eyes, but I didn’t have a college football hero, so I think I mentally filed Ronnie away as a candidate for that position. In any case, Ronnie’s name stuck in my memory; but, as he had a year without playing, and I was in Texas and not going to get out-of-state football news unless it made it into a national magazine, I pretty much forgot about him, although his name would pop up every now and then. Ronnie took over the starting tailback job in the first game of the 1955 season for the UCLA team, which completed the season ranked fourth in the country. He played well in his team’s last-seconds loss in the Rose Bowl on January 2, 1956, which I may have seen on television, though I don’t remember it.

In an unusual move for the time, Ronnie decided to turn pro without playing his senior year at UCLA. He signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League and played the 1956 season with them. He was drafted in the third round for the next year by the Chicago Bears, but only appeared in one game for them, whether due to an injury, or just being in a backup role, I don’t know. In any case, he went back to Canada to play for the Toronto Argonauts the following season. It was after that return to Canada that I became aware of Marcel Proust through the unlikely medium of a pro football quarterback’s words.

In the online archives of Sports Illustrated, one finds that the November 3, 1958 issue had as the second entry in its They Said It feature the following:

Quarterback Ronnie Knox of the Toronto Argonauts, an I-like-football-but man: “If I had to make the choice between a month of playing football and a month of reading Marcel Proust, I’d take Proust.”

I’m almost sure I saw the quote in some other magazine as well, with a phrase that described Proust in some inadequate way (but definitely mentioning he was French and probably that he had written a long work called Remembrance of Things Past) for those sports fans like me, who didn’t have a clue who Proust was.

To me, it was an altogether extraordinary statement. First of all, how could a gifted football player rather do anything more than play football? As a non-athletic teenaged sports fan who could only dream of being that skilled and successful at a sport, I tried to imagine what an exquisite pleasure the reading of this unknown-to-me Marcel Proust must be, at the same time thinking what a remarkable person Ronnie Knox must be to have the sensibility to appreciate this rare talent to such a degree. Now sixteen, alienated from fifties Texas culture and society, a reader myself, and vaguely attracted by the beatniks, I found Ronnie Knox, already a somewhat legendary figure, and Marcel Proust, this new intriguing writer, each causing the other to seem more exceptional in my mind.

Though I have no reason to doubt him—and it’s really just the difficulty I have in imagining any other pro quarterbacks I can think of as being that devoted to Proust that makes me say this—I don’t know for a fact that Ronnie actually ever read Proust. It could have just been an impressive name he’d picked up somewhere in college, but that thought never arose in my mind at the time, even to be rejected. All I had to go on were the words on a page. He’d rather read Proust than play football! Someday I too would read Proust, I thought, and then I will become one of the initiates and understand. I had no idea what Proust had written about, which was probably just as well. I very likely pronounced Proust as Prowst in my mind.

From that day on the mystique of the name Proust never faded for me, but I didn’t actually read any Proust until I was a junior at the University of Texas in a European Novel course. The sheer length of Proust’s one work of lasting importance was intimidating, and I thought I should read it straight through. I’d heard a professor recommend it as a summer project. When Ronnie talked about a month of reading Proust he wasn’t talking about rereading the same pages over and over. I may also have wondered if I would pass the Ronnie Knox test of Proust appreciation.

My English professor took an unusual approach. Proust’s long work had been published in separate volumes over time, so there was some slight justification for viewing it as a collection of several novels instead of one long one. The professor had us start toward the end with the sixth book in the series, called ridiculously in the translation we were reading The Sweet Cheat Gone (French title: Albertine Disparue). His reasoning was that the first volume (Swann’s Way), was not typical of the rest of the book, (presumably because the narrator was largely recalling scenes from his early years and because a good chunk of the volume—the Swann in Love section—was told in the third person, unlike the rest of the work) so that to really get to know what Proust was about we should read a later volume.

In practice this decision meant that we were thrown into the middle of a strange situation with numerous unknown characters whose personalities, sexual tastes, and foibles had been revealed and developed over the course of the earlier volumes; not to mention the narrator’s frequent references to earlier events, thoughts, and experiences from those volumes. I can’t remember exactly what I thought of the experience, and about all I can recall from class discussions of the book was the professor’s point that the narrator’s female love interests (e.g., Gilberte and Albertine) had all been given names which were the feminine forms of masculine ones, since Proust’s actual experience was with men. I emerged from this first sampling of Proust as committed to reading the whole work as ever, and with a better idea about what that meant.

It was not, however, until some eight or nine years later that I recommenced reading Proust. It was in Berkeley at a turning point in my life, marriage ending, when I felt the need to renew my acquaintance with great literature, which I sensed I had nearly lost touch with, having spent so much time on physics graduate studies and research and on political meetings and demonstrations. This Proust was still in English translation. I can’t remember if I skipped the previously read volume or reread it, but I did finish all of Remembrance of Things Past, which is what the translator Scott Moncrieff chose to call Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I not only enjoyed the reading but had my approach to the world changed by it. I may want to talk about Proust more some other time, but that’s not my purpose now.

My aim had always been to read Proust eventually in the original French, and I had started learning French during my last year at the University of Texas, but hadn’t advanced very far until I started studying it in earnest about the same time that I took up Proust in translation again. A few years later, back in Austin, I felt ready to attempt A la recherche du temps perdu in Proust’s own language. Of course it was slow at first, but in time I found that I could read pages-long sentences without getting lost, which is a testament to Proust’s writing, of course, and also to its ability to train the reader’s mind to start thinking like Proust (or to have that wonderful illusion). After I don’t know how many months, I finished the full journey en français. A couple of years later I bought a beautiful three-volume French Pleiade edition as a treasure to keep and as a promise to myself to read Proust again someday.

One day not long ago, well over twenty years after that book purchase, and with no particular thought at all, I picked up the first volume of the Pleiade edition, started reading “Longtemps je me suis coucher de bonne heure,” and was swept into Proust’s river again. I’m a little over halfway through the second volume now, and, if anything, enjoying it more than during the earlier readings. But that is impossible to judge with the greatest writers, the unique power of their art being impossible to remember fully when it’s not being actually experienced. This is something Proust himself notes, as I recall.

Only in the course of writing this have I come to realize how obviously, thoroughly, and appropriately “Proustian” this whole experience of mine with the name Marcel Proust was. For the narrator in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu recounts numerous examples of words and names that took on enormous importance and aesthetic meaning for him just from his having heard or read them in some prestigious or romantic context—La duchesse de Guermantes and Balbec, for example—names that he had endowed in his mind with incomparable and exquisite qualities before having made a real acquaintance with the persons or places they denoted.

Just to finish with Ronnie Knox—he decided to quit football for good during his second season of playing for Toronto. The Time magazine online archive for September 26, 1959 records the following.

Badgered by a bad back, and no longer able to throw the long ball, cleft-chinned, curly-haired Quarterback Ronnie (“Golden Boy”) Knox, 24, quit the Toronto Argonauts in Canada’s rugged Big Four, thereby put an end to one of football’s most unfulfilled and peripatetic careers (three high schools, two colleges, four pro teams), which had largely been botched by the boisterous stage-mothering of stepfather Harvey Knox. “Football is a game for animals,” said Ronnie. “I like to think I’m above that.” Dreaming of higher things, Ronnie allowed he might toss off a novel or some poetry, already had some lines at hand that lurched with the proper beatnik beat:

Beauty is a thing of Ragmud But the maid left late. So don’t look under the apple tree Let’s rebel, man.

Who knows what kind of personal conflicts and disappointments may have lain behind that severe rejection of his profession? Or maybe the physical cost was just too great. I vaguely remember hearing that he tried acting for a while, which some web site listings confirm, but I never saw him in anything that I can remember. All I could find on the web were appearances in a handful of episodes of weekly tv dramas (e.g. an episode of Perry Mason), all from the 1958-1963 period. An astrology web site had his (to them) essential data plus a tiny picture of him taken some time after his playing days, in which he did not look happy. I’m not surprised he didn’t make it as a poet, but I don’t know what became of him. There’s also a movie/tv technician of the same name that shows up in online searches. Could it be the same person? If anyone knows, drop me an email.

So would I have read Proust at all without Ronnie Knox? Well, I read James Joyce (haven’t gotten all the way through Finnegan’s Wake, I confess), to mention someone comparable in some ways—writer of genius from roughly the same time period, but not exactly popular—so I can conjecture that I probably would have, but I can’t be sure. Perhaps literature, despite my having enjoyed reading as far back as I can remember, would not have secured such an important place in my mind without that adolescent connection between Proust and an unconventional star athlete.

Ronnie, old man, a lot of years have passed, and I hope the time has been good to you and that you have had a chance to read Proust as much as you wanted to. If you should somehow stumble across this, please know that I am grateful to you.