The Awakening of the Poet
So much has happened this past week since I last updated this blog it almost seems impertinent that I should have nothing to comment on those culturally, socially, politically, and even historically significant events. But that is also one of my agonies of being, that unlike some people who have inspired many by their will power and persistence in one cause, in my case I so often find myself at once distracted by so many amusements and concerns, that in the end I come to realize, painful as it is, that I will never be able to achieve anything.
And on this first day of the Chinese New Year holidays, I settled myself reading, this mesmerizing last book of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where the narrator rediscovers the reason to write, which would eventually become this masterpiece of the twentieth century. I was immensely moved by that particular passage, when the narrator awakens from that melancholic notion that he would never accomplish the work that he had wanted to begin since he was young due to a lack of talent, to the sudden realization that all is not lost, that the materials have always been in store for him, ready to be weaved into that magnificient retrospect on Time. Especially, when I came upon this sentence:
‘Seize hold of me as I pass, if you are strong-minded enough, and try to solve the riddle of happiness I am offering you.’
It almost looked like a sign for me, that all is not lost, that I still can, if I want to.
The train, I remember, had come to a halt in open countryside. The sun’s rays illuminated the upper half of the trunks of a line of trees that followed the railway. ‘Trees, I thought, you have nothing to say to me any longer, my heart has grown cold and no longer responds to you. Here I am, after all, in the middle of nature, my eyes noting the line which separates the your glowing foliage from your shaded trunks, and I feel only coolness and boredom. If ever I could have thought of myself as a poet, I now know that I am not. Perhaps in this new era of my life which, however desiccated, is now opening, human beings may be able to inspire in me what nature no longer says to me. But the days when I might perhaps have been capable of singing its song will never come back.’ Yet by consoling myself with the thought that social observation might come to take the place of vanished inspiration, I knew that I was just trying to find some consolation, and that I knew myself to be worthless. If I truly had the soul of an artist, what pleasure should I not experience at the sight of this screen of trees lit by the setting sun, these little flowers on the embankment that reached almost up to the carriage step, whose petals I could count, and whose colours I was careful not to describe, as so many good men of letters would, for could one hope to transmit to the reader a pleasure one has not felt oneself?
I got out from the cab again shortly after arriving at the Princesse de Guermantes’s house and began to think once more about the lassitude and boredom with which, the previous evening, I had tried to note the line, in one of the most reputedly beautiful parts of the French countryside, that separated shadow from light on the trees. Certainly, the intellectual conclusions I had drawn from it did not affect my sensibility so cruelly today. They were still the same. But as happened each time I was wrenched out of my habits, going out at a different time, or to a new place, I felt acute pleasure. The pleasure today seemed to me to be a purely frivolous one, that of going to an afternoon party at the house of the Princesse de Guermantes. But since I knew now that I could never attain to anything more than frivolous pleasures, what point would there be in refusing it? I told myself again that I had not experienced, when I attempted that description, anything of the enthusiasm which, if not the only one, is one of the main criteria of talent. I tried now to extract from my memory other ‘snapshots’, particularly the snapshots it had taken in Venice, but the very word made it as boring as a photograph exhibition, and I felt that I had no more taste, or talent, for describing now what I had seen earlier, than yesterday for describing what I was observing, at that very moment, with a doleful and meticulous eye. Any moment now, hosts of friends whom I had not seen for such a long time would doubtless be asking me to give up this isolation and to devote my days to them. I had no reason to refuse them since I now had proof that I was no longer good for anything, that literature could no longer bring me any joy, whether through my own fault, because I was not talented enough, or through the fault of literature, if it was indeed less pregnant with reality than I had thought.
But sometimes it is just when everything seems to be lost that we experience a presentiment that may save us; one has knocked on all the doors which led nowhere, and then, unwittingly, one pushes against the only one through which one may enter and for which one would have searched in vain for a hundred years, and it opens.
Turning over the dismal thoughts which I have just set down, I had entered the Guermantes’ courtyard and in my distraction had failed to see an approaching car; at the chauffeur’s shout I had time only to step smartly aside, and as I retreated I could not help tripping up against the unevenly laid paving-stones, behind which was a coach-house. But at the moment when, regaining my balance, I set my foot down on a stone which was slightly lower than the one next to it, all my discouragement vanished in the face of the same happiness that, at different points in my life, had given me the sight of trees I had thought I recognized when I was taking a drive round Balbec, the sight of the steeples of Martinville, the taste of a madeleine dipped in herb tea, and all the other sensations I have spoken about, and which the last works of Vinteuil had seemed to me to synthesize. Just at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all uneasiness about the future and all intellectual doubt were gone. Those that had assailed me a moment earlier about the reality of my intellectual talent, even the reality of literature, were lifted as if by enchantment.
Without my having started a new line of thought, or discovered a decisive argument, the difficulties which just now were insoluble had lost all their importance. This time, though, I had decided not to resign myself to not knowing the reason for it, as I had done on the day I tasted the madeleine dipped in herb tea. The happiness that I had just experienced was indeed just like that I had felt when eating the madeleine, and the cause of which I had at that time put off seeking. The difference, purely material, was in the images each evoked; a deep azure intoxicated my eyes, impressions of coolness and dazzling light swirled around me and, in my desire to grasp them, without daring to move any more than when I had tasted the madeleine and I was trying to bring back to my memory what it reminded me of, I continued, even at the risk of making myself the laughing-stock of the huge crowd of chauffeurs, to stagger, as I had done a moment before, one foot on the raised paving-stone, the other foot on the lower one. Each time I simply repeated the outward form of this movement, nothing helpful occurred; but if I succeeded, forgetting about the Guermantes’ party, in recapturing the feeling I had experienced when I put my feet down in that way, then the dazzling and indistinct vision brushed against my consciousness, as if it were saying, ‘Seize hold of me as I pass, if you are strong-minded enough, and try to solve the riddle of happiness I am offering you.’ And almost at once I realized that it was Venice, all my efforts to describe which, and all the so-called snapshots taken by my memory, had never communicated anything to me, but which the sensation I had once felt on the two uneven flagstones in the baptistery of St Mark’s had now at last expressed for me, along with all the other sensations associated with that sensation on that day, which had been waiting in their place, from which a sudden chance had imperiously made them emerge, in the sequence of forgotten days. In the same way, the taste of the little madeleine had reminded me of Combray. But why had the images of Combray and Venice given me at these two separate moments a joy akin to certainty and sufficient, without any other proofs, to make death a matter of indifference to me?
—- Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time VII: Finding Time Again