Proust on the Surprising Threat to Real Self

The joy of reading Proust, for me, consists in his masterful combining of beautiful prose with astute, often humorous observations of why people are so ridiculous and self-contradicting. In The Guermantes Way, the third volume of Proust’s masterwork In Search of Lost Time, the unnamed narrator is on the cusp of breaking into society life. In a scene where he faces a crushing disappointment, his friend Robert de Saint-Loup unexpectedly appears to comfort him. For me as the reader, Saint-Loup’s entrance felt like a balm, until I was accosted by this line from the narrator: “What I think about friendship: namely, that it adds up to so little”

Proust’s protagonist is explicit about the sham of friendship in the ensuing paragraph. At one point he describes friendship as “totally bent on making us sacrifice the only part of ourselves that is real and incommunicable to a superficial self that, unlike the other, finds no joy on its own.” That is, he posits a “real” self that is intrinsically private, and from his logic here we can deduce that this real self is in fact capable of “joy on its own” and so must not have any need of friendship. Therefore, to get to friendship, one must construct a superficial self that is capable of relating, because it feels a need. Unfortunately, because of this need, that superficial self becomes “hospitalized in the individuality of another person.” It is weak, and entrapped.

What a dreary, desperately sad image! The natural outcome is that the narrator declares wonder that anyone could find “any sort of sense in an act like putting one’s work aside to go and see a friend.” This in some way must be the outworking of the insistence that one’s real self is isolated and immaterial.

I felt embarrassed to see so much of myself in it, in fact. I have struggled throughout my life in Christ to turn towards others as opposed to being caught up in my own projects and work. My theology would never embrace such a low view of friendship, but my life patterns betray me; it is those closest to me that have felt my assumed belief in Proust’s real, private, self-contained self the most.

In reading Janet Martin Soskice’s excellent The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language, I found that this feeling in myself is not only a personal failing but a warped feature of my Christian inheritance. The early Fathers were wooed by the Stoics, who sounds very Proustian in declaring that “one should have no goal outside oneself, and then, being dependent on no one else for happiness, one cannot be made unhappy.”

This belief like a yeast has worked itself through the dough of lived Christianity, such that there is “a spiritual ideal in which the demands of others, even of one’s own babies and children, are not merely indifferent to the task of gazing on God, but in competition with it.”

If the real self is immaterial, and it is crucial to connect one’s real self to God, then of course spiritual acts framed in this template will have difficulty accommodating the material.

In demonstration, Soskice reflects on the fact that mothers can understand their work as a good fulfillment of God-honoring work, but not experience it as spiritual in itself, which I sadly relate to. Where are we being taught otherwise? How do we not continue on a path which “privileges the detached life over that of human affection and its attendant disruption”? Won’t this force us to destroy the Biblical vision of Christ as head of a family, of us as brothers and sisters in messy household life together, even as we supposedly press towards a pietistic vision of real spirituality?

This assertion of the private, sealed off, individual thought-life as truly real is as old as time. It is found in the most venerated of intellectual heritages. But it is profoundly un-Christlike.

As Soskice reminds us, “All life, even protozoic or plant life, is such as to be affected by the world it inhabits.” To pretend to be sealed off is folly. All life forms attend to those around them, to the world about them. Therefore, “Attention is rewarded with reality. This is the principle of growth.”

We see this most strikingly in Jesus Christ himself. Though all things were created through him and for him, he submitted to become a baby in a particular time and place, to a particular family. He grew, and participated in community, he was known. Though never married and thus childless, he created the possibility of rebirth and the creation of a new forever family; when his soul made an offering for guilt, he saw his offspring, as Isaiah 53 says. He is still growing this family, reproducing it, a vine with a million branches as humans are continually brought in and transformed through relationship with their God and with his people.

Proust’s narrator’s vision of friendship as a painful distraction from reality is sterility boasting of fecundity. He wants to be left to his world of ideas, thinking that sitting alone he will birth into the world an endless flow of ideas and productivity, whereas time with his friend is wasted on posturing and pretending.  But his productive reflections are chiefly about others, gained through time spent with people and indebted to the material world he lived in. Perhaps this makes him as ridiculous and self-contradicting as his characters.