Kohelet and Proust
About a week ago, Rufus responded to Jason’s comments on Strauss and philosophy-as-drug by saying:
I’m not the first person to say this, but I feel like the best model for doing philosophy in life is the narrator in Proust. And he does sort of make a hash of his own life, but you’ll also notice that he doesn’t actually do a heck of a lot.
Which, I think is an interesting line of thought – because a great deal of my frustration with Proust’s narrator* (I think I’ll follow Shelby Foote’s lead and call him “Our Hero”) stems precisely from the fact that he’s doing philosophy in his own life and making, as Rufus says, a hash of it. A wonderfully written hash of it, but a hash of it nonetheless. I would, at times, rather the poor soul just go out and live for a day rather than analyzing it in real-time. (This begs the question, I suppose: is he analyzing it in real-time, or only as he remembers it? He does appear to remember analyzing as things happened, but memories—especially literary memories—are devious things.
I finally realized what Our Hero was doing after a session of reading Kohelet/Ecclesiastes with several friends. The group’s session ended with a friend complaining about Kohelet’s attempt—doomed from the start—to live toward living-in-philosophy. From this futility stems his insistence that all is vapid and fleeting and, ultimately, recurring. He’s lived, he’s been a great, wealthy, wise king in Jerusalem—but he’s been living the life of someone watching himself live his life all along.
This, at its worst, is what Our Hero does to himself; it is, in fact the danger of philosophy-in-life generally. Kohelet’s flaw is that he has lived a horribly abstracted life and doesn’t seem to have realized it until his deathbed; Our Hero, on the other hand, seems more self-aware. He ties himself to reality—even if it sometimes seems like he does this for the sake of studying it. He’s perplexed by his reactions to Albertine and love, but the emotions of the affair tie him too much to life. If nothing else, he manages to feel pain—and, at times, overwhelmingly. He’s perplexed, it seems, by the way in which those love-spawned emotions interfere with his ability to effectively do philosophy-in-life. This, of course, leads to various rounds of thinking about the effects of jealousy and love and grief, but it does seem to indicate that, while his narrative floats off into abstraction, the life he is narrating is far more … well, lived, for lack of a better term, than it may first appear. Our Hero is, ultimately, less abstracted than Kohelet—and, I’d say, a far more interesting figure because of this.
*Full disclosure: my Proust-to-anything-else ratio is roughly 30 minutes to several hours of sports coverage—which is why it has disappeared entirely since the NCAA tournament started.