Tis a season for rejoicing. I finally finished Swann's Way. It was not that it is a particularly difficult read but most of my more literary friends have begun and not finished it. In fact the local bookseller had a standing $25 gift certificate for anyone who could prove they read it. The book certainly lends itself to being dropped. It is not a page turner and it does not have what I would call 'flow'. The movement rather is like a type of emerging or organic still frame. The image developing in your mind becomes more nuanced, more unpredictable. And in the end the book is simply beautiful.
The book is an exercise of and a commentary on memory. In returning to a place that held rich and meaningful memories the young boy, nearing the end of the story, becomes disorientated by the present reality.
And seeing all these new elements of the spectacle, I had no longer the faith which, applied to them, would have given them consistency, unity, life; they passed in a scattered sequence before me, at random, without reality, containing in themselves no beauty that my eyes might have endeavoured, as in the old days, to extract from them and to compose in a picture. They were just women, in whose elegance I had no belief, and whose clothes seemed to me unimportant. But when a belief vanishes, there survives it - more and more ardently, so as to cloak the absence of power, now lost to us, of imparting reality to new phenomenon - an idolatrous attachment to the old things which our belief in them did once animate, as if it was in that belief and not in ourselves that the divine spark resided, and as if our present incredulity had a contingent cause - the death of the gods.
This appears at least on the surface to indicate a loss of youthful imagination in the possibilities of reality. What it offers more profoundly is a commentary in the work it takes to experience reality. Reality is not a given in its basic thereness. Rather the present reality must be joined with belief and belief is the medium for the imagination required. And if we loose that belief we will suffer the increasing idolatrous attachment to the past which we will attribute divine presence (rather than our present bodies). The book concludes with the young boy's reflection on memory.
How paradoxical it is to seek in reality the pictures that are stored in one's memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses. The reality that I had known no longer existed. . . . The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are fugitive, alas, as the years.
The book ends, in my mind, in a type of liminal space where belief is the hardest and most necessary of tasks. Belief of the past can be recalled in memory but cannot engage the present. And without belief reality moves about pixalated without any form emerging and in this account the emergence of form signals the emergence of meaning.