Sunday, October 28, 2007

Landy on Proust

I’ve been going through Joshua Landy’s Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust [2004]. He’s a good reader, and has more interesting things to say about the Proustian sentence than anyone else I have read (impressive). He also takes seriously the simple fact that books have readers, and that it is in the reading, not the writing, that meaning is created. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that the whole project is misguided. I’ll summarize (with prejudice):

If we read Proust really carefully, and with great charity, then we discover that he puts forward a serious philosophy. He was a perspectivalist quite a bit like Nietzsche, but without any of the distasteful parts. His novel is supposed to make you a better person, or anyway a person more aware and therefore “ultimately able to pull off the act of deliberate and lucid self-delusion required to see our inner volume as a coherent whole” (143). That is, better at being a self.

There are plenty of little quibbles one can have, but mostly I just don’t agree with the project. Many critics, it is true, simply dismiss the possibility of ‘philosophical’ coherence in Proust. Landy says, more or less, that they should read and think harder. Fair enough. But Landy’s method reminds me of an old scholastic adage: when you encounter a difficulty, make a distinction (actually, some of it is very reminiscent of Iserian phenomenology of reading). He proceeds to ‘make sense’ out of Proust by making a series of distinctions (the five narrative voices, for instance), which aren’t on their own terms meaningless, but then at the end he more or less declares unilaterally that the distinctions themselves are the ‘point’ of the novel.

He certainly makes some very good critical points in the process of doing this. I’m just unconvinced that it’s the kind of exercise I am interested in. Unsurprisingly, I want him to be more historical about the philosophy Proust is putting forward. Landy takes Proust’s word that Bergson wasn’t the whole point (and we must, I think, agree), but surely there’s more interesting things to do with the connection? He asserts that Proust didn’t know Nietzsche at all—I suppose this must be the case, I’ll have to look up what Tadié says about it. If so, it’s surprising, because Proust was close, I think, to Daniel Halévy who certainly did know Nietzsche and, anyway, the syphilitic genius was hardly unknown in the decade before WWI. Landy mentions Kant a few times—his discussion would be more interesting if it wasn’t of Kant so much as of the neo-Kantianism Proust would have learned in school—ditto with Leibniz, who I think is probably more poetically than philosophically interesting for Proust. That, of course, would have been a different book.

The coda on sentences and style could usefully be put on a syllabus. I haven't read Pippin's chapter on Proust yet, but the two are in conversation, and I think could usefully be juxtaposed.

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