In Proust, love, art and suffering are inextricably connected. Love inevitably leads to suffering, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because suffering leads to art. For Proust, there is no art without suffering. The pain of grief, over a lost grandmother for example, may provide some impetus to art. But there is no comparison to the suffering caused by love for inspiring true art.
Love is not a happy thing in Proust. Of all the many, many relationships portrayed, I can only think of one that could possibly be described as “happy” (the artist Elstir and his wife). And Proust spends very little time discussing that relationship, so I’m sure with a little more attention he would have found the misery there as well. Although they’re not exactly relationships, probably the least miserable are the lesbians – they have ongoing sexual friendships that seem to be mostly free of the many downfalls of the other relationships portrayed in Proust.
The common pattern for “love” in Proust is that one partner is madly, passionately and jealously in love and the other partner is, in one way or another, using him or her. This pattern applies for both heterosexual and homosexual (male) relationships. The pattern is set at the beginning in Swann’s Way with the depiction of Swann’s disastrous relationship with Odette. Every other love affair echoes this one. Marriage is it’s own hell in Proust. Love is not even expected and infidelity is the rule. Of course, there’s no denying the appeal of that initial, passionate love that we often feel at the beginning of a love affair. The uncertainty of it all, the all-consuming need to be with the loved one, and yes, even the jealousy. But how sad that, to Proust, that is all that love is. It seems so immature in a way. Where is the enduring love? The mutual love built on honesty and respect? When reading about In Search of Lost Time before and while reading it, I frequently saw commentators describe Marcel’s relationship with Albertine as his “great love.” But even that love affair follows the typical pattern. In the end I felt sorry for Proust that he never experienced a deep and fulfilling love, but only these superficial passions based on mutual distrust. I suppose we can hope that in his personal life Proust did experience more, but that he just didn’t feel a happy love made for very good reading. And he wanted to make his point about the value of suffering.
To Proust, suffering, especially suffering caused by unrequited or lost love, opens the soul. It makes one feel all of the things that one otherwise would not. There is pain, of course, but there is also a certain amount of enlightenment that comes along with this type of suffering. It reminds me of the Paul Simon song: “Losing love is like a window in your heart, everybody sees you’re blown apart…” In this emotional state, the soul is bared for others to see, and also for you to see yourself more clearly. Or so it would seem. But to be honest, the suffering lover in Proust is usually mildly to completely delusional. Swann makes every excuse for Odette to avoid having to face her duplicity. He ruins his life in order to be with her and she doesn’t even love him. By the end, he doesn’t even love her. That doesn’t sound like enlightenment to me. But I suppose an artist doesn’t have to understand his own life, as long as he can create beauty.
Is Proust right about art and suffering? He’s certainly not the only one to feel that way. History is replete with suffering artists. But there’s the other side of the coin as well – those who access their creative side in times of elevated mood. Or as my mother-in-law calls it, exuberance. She’s literally writing the book on exuberance, so she knows what she’s talking about. So artists can be depressed or they can be manic. Can an artist just be content? Maybe not. I certainly know from my own point of view that I’m much more likely to pursue creative writing (as opposed to this kind of writing) when in a state of depression or at least melancholy. You might imagine that Dan Brown pumps out his thrillers in a state of relative contentment, but I think we can all agree that’s not really “art”. Art should make us feel connected in an intimate way to the artist, so we need the artist to at least appear to open up. Which brings us back the open soul of the suffering artist.
Although suffering is necessary for art, one can suffer without getting around to actually creating any art. In the book, Marcel spends almost his entire life planning to begin work on writing his novel. Yet he doesn’t actually begin until the end, as an old man. Every day he tells himself that he will begin tomorrow. How many of us have experienced the same thing? Whether it’s to begin writing or to learn knitting or to make healthy eating and lifestyle changes. We’re always so sure that tomorrow we will find the time or the motivation to do the thing we know we want to do. And what is it that we do instead? We spend too much time on facebook or other internet time wasters. I’m not prone to spending excessive time in front of the T.V., but I know that’s a big one for many people. I’ve actually found that now that I get to spend so little time on myself (thanks to my baby girl), I spend it more fruitfully. Maybe too much leisure time is what stops us from doing what would bring us more real satisfaction. Certainly Marcel suffered from an excess of leisure. With all the time in the world, he could never find the time to do the one thing he kept telling himself he would do – pursue art. And when he finally did get around to creating his art, he was long past the stage of suffering over love. But he was still suffering – he had finally discovered lost time, only to realize that he was at the end and would not be able to regain time forever. Maybe mortality is truly the ultimate inspiration for great art.