Sunday, November 11, 2007

Proust, Prayer and Memory

In his classic work on Prayer Evagrius of Pontus writes,

"When you are praying the memory brings before you either fantasies of objects from the past, or recent concerns, or the face of one who has caused you hurt."

It is well known (or at least popular history) that the final years of Proust's life were spent largely in a sound proof room in Paris where he wrote at night and slept during the day. Here he completed his metanarrative À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). I am in the final stages of reading the first of the seven volume literary cosmos Swann's Way.
Swann's Way is a meditation on memory and the sublime. Under Proust's pen every instant (every memory) is infinite. In his secluded final years memory dominated him as he wrestled with the faces of love and hurt in his monastic cell. And it was two faces that emerged; one was a young boy's mother in first half of the book and other being M. Swann's lover Odette in the second half.

I read both relationships as exploring the basic human sense of insufficiency. Being alone with your self stands as a terrifying prospect for most individuals. I am not referring to being by yourself but being alone with yourself; to travel inward and commune with what you encounter. This was Proust's journey and as Evagrius points out when you travel inward (typical language for the movement of prayer) you will encounter memory and you will encounter the wound that drives our compulsions. The beauty of Proust's life and work (as I limitedly understand it) is that this movement and intentional uncovering was his healing as his life reflects a solitary communion with self. What Proust offers us is a vision of how attentiveness in life (again typical language of contemplative prayer) opens the gratuitous (infinite?) reality of life. This did not come from fleeing his wound but allowing it to be a generative place in his thought.

Proust entertains only a sort of contemplative memory. As he begins to enter his childhood experience he realizes that he could indeed recall more factual memories of his life in Combray but these came through "an exercise of the will", his "intellectual memory". Here again we hear mystic imagery. St. John of the Cross distinguishes sharply between meditation and contemplation. We can do meditation but not so with contemplation. Contemplation is a state of reception. Proust speaks of 'willful' memory in this way.

"The pictures which that kind of memory shows us of the past preserve nothing of the past itself, I should never have had any wish to ponder over this residue of Combray. To me it was in reality all dead. Permanently dead? Very possibly."

Proust is interested in living memory. This is not the end of a posture of contemplative prayer but it is the path. I will post shortly exploring Proust's most famous passage on 'living memory'.

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