Proust’s Invitation to Folly
This is part of the ongoing comedy of the book, which is often overlooked. Proust is very shrewd about the ways we never really learn from experience — or rather, like the generals who are always fighting the previous war, we learn from our last experience but fail to apply its lessons to what faces us today.
This comedy of error isn’t limited to the characters or narrator, however. Proust builds off of recurring motifs—the constant talk of “musical phrases” in Swann’s Way is hinting toward a method of reading the work. But these are repetitions with variations, sometimes subtle, sometimes more drastic. As they build, however, our sense that we know them—that we can anticipate them—also grows. And sometimes, we’re just as delightfully, magnificently wrong as Swann or Marcel.
Reversing the reader’s anticipations isn’t unique to Proust, of course. What Proust does marvelously is to display this process within the novel, demonstrating it to the reader as its own recurring motif—and to simultaneously pull the reader into a similar pattern.
Proust’s patterned memories and recurrences are patterned in retrospect—in this, it is a novel about memory, perhaps even involuntary memory. Willing or not, these memories are highly patterned. Whether Marcel intends to remember with his madeleine and tea is quite beside the point—once he begins to remember, he begins to analyze as he remembers. We see the patterns because he sees the patterns; we know whether someone anticipates wrongly because of the direction of our gaze.
In the present-tense, however, these “little phrases” are anticipated as well as comprehended. Looking backward, patterns and their variations can be noted, delineated, and examined. Looking forward, they can only be predicted, awaited, and expected. Seeking out the motifs that allow Marcel (and the reader) to make a study of his past is, perhaps, just an invitation to the very folly of anticipation he highlights.