The Wisdom of Marcel Proust

atkins bookshelf quotationsMarcel Proust (born Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust, 1871; died in 1922) was a French novelist considered by many literary critics as one of the greatest authors of all time. Proust is best known for his brilliant and imaginative magnum opus,  À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Thing Past) published between 1913 to 1927. But don’t expect to find In Search of Lost Time on many campus syllabi — the novel spanning 7 volumes  3,031 pages, containing more than 1,267,069 words, and more than 2,000 characters — is a daunting read; not surprisingly, it is one of the longest novels of all time. At best, during a semester, a college course can focus on a particular book or excerpts from the seven books.

The semi-autobiographical novel explores the narrator’s life (M, a young man who wants to be a writer) through very nuanced (and often melancholic) memories and reflections, that are often triggered by a sensory experiences (eg., eating a madeleine). In short, the novel is like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle that gradually comes together, piece by piece. If you could summarize the book in one sentence, this quote from the book comes close: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Here are some of the most beautifully-written, insightful reflections from Proust’s literary works.

“Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.”

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book.”

“Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.”

“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a paterfamilias or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by evil or commonplace that prevailed round them. They represent a struggle and a victory.”

At times the reading of a novel that was at all sad carried me suddenly back, for certain novels are like great but temporary bereavements, abolishing habit, bringing us once more into contact with the reality of life, but for a few hours only, like a nightmare, since the force of habit, the oblivion it creates, the gaiety it restores to us because of the powerlessness of the brain to fight against it and to re-create the truth, infinitely outweigh the almost hypnotic suggestion of a good book which, like all such influences, has very transient effects.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

“My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.”

“Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance.”

“There is no one, no matter how wise he is, who has not in his youth said things or done things that are so unpleasant to recall in later life that he would expunge them entirely from his memory if that were possible.”

“It is often hard to bear the tears that we ourselves have caused.”

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

“Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.”

“We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”

“Love is a striking example of how little reality means to us.”

“Desire makes everything blossom; possession makes everything wither and fade.”

“Love is not vain because it is frustrated, but because it is fulfilled. The people we love turn to ashes when we posess them.”

“The true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.”

“People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.”

“Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have of them.”

“The thirst for something other than what we have… to bring something new, even if it is worse, some emotion, some sorrow; when our sensibility, which happiness has silenced like an idle harp, wants to resonate under some hand, even a rough one, and even if it might be broken by it.”


Read related posts: The Wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

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