le 27 janvier 2013
The first thing I have to say is that this English original version of this text is a relief from stress and anxiety because the French translation of it published by Editions de Minuit in Paris, and sole French translation available, is extremely poor and the two main mistakes I had sensed when reading it are confirmed as gross mistakes. Page 31 we find the “dungeon” in which involuntary memory casts and hides all real events that occurred to a person and that remain secret, unconscious till one day voluntary memory and habit, the two tyrants that impose onto anyone’s life a day-to-day normalized behaviour and an official socially acceptable fake history of oneself, are suspended for a short moment by some exceptional event that could be anything finding an echo in one of these deep involuntary memory records, or a bout of fever or unconsciousness that could bring the unconscious back up. This dungeon is translated by “donjon” which is a castle tower in the Middle Ages. A typical and primitive mistake that yet does not prevent the translator to make the “diver” (p. 32) be “un plongeur” diving down into the involuntary memory that resides in this castle tower. The proper translation should have been “oubliette” or “chamber de torture.” Just before the translator had meddled with a common phrase in English and completely messed up the meaning. Beckett writes: “Curiosity is the safeguard, not the death, of the cat, whether in skirts or on all fours.” And that becomes: “La curiosité entraine la sauvegarde et non la mort de la chatte, qu’elle soit en jupons ou à quatre pattes.” Thus the cat becomes a pussy cat and she mixes up with another phrase: “curiosity kills the pussy (cat)” which is deeply erotic if not obscene which by the way makes the narrator be a woman. She had completely misinterpreted the skirts of the cat curiosity kills. I would have suggested a translation that uses the corresponding French expression that has nothing to do with cats or pussy cats, something like that: “La curiosité est un bien vilain défaut, mais tellement utile parfois, qu’elle chasse le jupon ou qu’elle coure à quatre pattes.” And sure enough then curiosity is not turned into a female, though she is feminine by grammatical gender, the narrator is not turned into a female neither but the object of this curiosity is either a woman or the other choice is that curiosity is on all fours like a hunting dog or a police dog looking for some corpse or body. That kind of innuendo is in perfect agreement with the English text in which the sexual element is absolutely marginal though of course Beckett thought of it but he managed to keep it marginal.
Thus henceforth and thence I do not recommend the only French translation of this text on the French market and what’s more it was done and published for the first time after Samuel Beckett’s death, otherwise it would have been checked by the boss and we know he was a very good bilingual writer.
But this book has a lot more interest.
The first thing is that, though it was ordered as an academic study of Proust, though Samuel Beckett was in direct touch with the top French university institution at the time of this order, the Ecole Normale Supérieure de la rue d’Ulm, this is not, and by far, an academic study of Proust. It is a brilliant piece of pure literature whose object and subject at the same time is Proust’s works.
The second remark is that Beckett is trying to be Joycean I guess and his sentences are never ending, his paragraphs cover pages upon pages. This style is of course very difficult to follow on an academic document, but it is very good style for literature. Some pages contain what will make Beckett famous, the style of his dramatic trilogy that was to come at the time more than twenty years later. Page 56 the sentence starting “Thus these rare moments . . .” and ending “. . . the corrosion of his heart.” Is an intricate succession of parallel double elements. I count six, hence twelve elements, with one triplet included in the last but one element (the eleventh element): “. . . of his love or hate or jealousy (interchangeable terms) . . .” This is good style and this style is always present and makes the reading difficult because such stylish elements are metaphorical or ,parabolic, and in this present case we have a full Catholic parable in the twelve (the apostles) elements, the six (Solomon’s wisdom number) pairs and of course the nearly closing trinity (God himself). We could probably easily identify sub groups with a quartet for the crucifixion and an octet for the second coming and resurrection.
The main idea Beckett states is that we live and experience all kinds of events, and all of them will be stored in our involuntary memory’s dungeon. On the other hand, in order to be able to live in society we have to stick to what our (but is it ours since it corresponds to “the Old Testament of the individual,” p. 32) voluntary memory and a set of habits that keep us in time with social life. And the basic point is that this time is not time, is not the time of the deeper memory, of the dungeon, the real time of the real self of a person. This public time that follows the hands of the clock is artificial and prevents us from living in the real primeval duration of the world because that’s the only natural dimension of the passing of an existence. And the official time means death since it also means birth, and that is so biblical, the alpha and the omega, the stepping out of time when getting into eternal life that has to be timeless, according to Saint Augustine. And when you understand that duration you can understand that one small event, like a Madeleine or a spoon clicking on a plate or glass, will suspend this time and throw the individual into the deeper layers of involuntary memory, in the dungeon of his life and he will recover some past event in an instantaneous, timeless and spaceless epiphany. It is spaceless because social space is nothing but distance, be this distance social, spatial, intellectual, or whatever which hierarchy. The epiphany we are speaking of here destroys distance and destroys space. At this epiphanic moment we are both here and now in immediate contact with the event that the diver has recuperated in our dungeon.
Then you understand Beckett declaring that “If this mystical experience communicates an extratemporel essence, it follows that the communicant is for the moment and extratemporal being. Consequently the Proustian solution consists . . . in the negation of Time and Death, the negation of Death because the negation of Time. Death is dead because Time is dead . . . Time is not recovered, it is obliterated.” (p. 75)
In fact the essay is centred on this time dimension. But Beckett might be misled too. When he quotes Proust saying: “I understood the meaning of death, of love and vocation, of the joys of the spirit and the utility of pain,” He makes an important mistake to take the narrator of the books as being Proust. He does not identify who spoke and he does not wonder what the autonomy of the character (even if it is the first person narrator of the book, even if he were to be called Marcel Proust in that novel) from the author. Even, when an author writes his memoirs, his confessions, his direct intellectual speculations we are dealing with what the author through the character he creates for the occasion who can be a doppelganger of the author, is saying, and not the author. It could be as if God and his creature were the same thing and Adam would represent if not be God in his full nature.
That leads him into sliding into an easy exercise, to my mind a useless exercise: to compare Proust’s style with various 19th century schools of writing in France with an additional mention of and reference to Dante and the name attributed to his character Des Esseintes, “Alfred Lord Baudelaire” (p. 80). This mixture of Alfred de Musset, Lord Byron and Baudelaire is a personification of the “’ineluctable gangrene of Romanticism.” (p. 80, reference not provided by Beckett) that he attributes to Proust himself.
It is far more important to study the real style of Proust than to try to put a label on him by comparing him to others. I guess it is Beckett’s naivety of his youth. Proust is unique, like Beckett. But labelling can be very useful to create a smoke screen hiding what the author does not want the audience to see. That’s exactly what happened with Beckett’s dramatic trilogy. The smoke screen of “Theatre of the Absurd” has so far prevented professional critics and academics from digging into the text and finding out the real meaning IN THE TEXT AND THE TEXT ONLY. I should publish a study on that subject in the journal Théâtres du Monde in Avignon, France within twelve months. Keep tuned.
The very end of this text dealing with music is interesting but Proust’s ideas expressed by his characters – so is it Proust’s vision? – are surprising. Music is seen as “the Idea itself, unaware of the world of phenomena.” (p. 92) This is true provided you disembody music from all instruments. But this also produces the rejection of opera because the voice cannot be disembodied and “by definition, opera is a hideous corruption of this most immaterial of all the arts: the words of a libretto are to the musical phrase that they particularize what the Vendôme Column, for example, is to the ideal perpendicular.” (p. 92) The least we can say is that this is slightly schematic and a comparison, or a metaphor, does not prove anything. Since the example is from Paris it would have been a lot more symbolic to use the Eiffel Tower. Since we are in a Biblical context it would have been a lot more interesting to compare the vertical line to the main vertical beam of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. That would have sounded, both suggestions, more real than the artificial militaristic column quoted here erected more to the glory of a man than to celebrate the vertical line. And anyway in the dungeon of involuntary memory where no time and no space exist, is there still the notion of verticality? Isn’t also Beckett projecting his a-temporal and a-spatial vision he will construct in his dramatic trilogy into Proust?
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU