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Modernism/Modernity 8.1 (2001) 99-126

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The Aesthetics of the Windshield: Proust and the Modernist Rhetoric of Speed

Sara Danius


J. M. W. Turner once depicted a harbor seen against the light. 1 He showed the drawing to a naval officer, who remarked that the ships had no portholes. "No, certainly not," Turner replied and told the naval officer that if he would look at the ships against the sunset, he would find he could not see the portholes. The naval officer retorted that the artist surely must have known they were there. "Yes," said Turner, "I know that well enough; but my business is to draw what I see, and not what I know is there." Where the painter's eye perceives sun-drenched vessels, the naval officer perceives armed warships. Aesthetic experience and practical reason do not inhabit the same world. To observe an object from a user's point of view, the anecdote implies, is to engage in a perceptual activity radically different from the point of view of a spectator who has no interest in the object perceived other than to, say, paint it.

An influential champion of Turner's late manner, John Ruskin quoted this anecdote in his treatise on the relations between art and the natural sciences. 2 For him, the story epitomized an aesthetic program, whose ultimate task was to correct the detrimental effects of industrial society on human experience. Ruskin resented many things modern: railway travel, for example, fatigued the human sensorium; photography risked making the eye too fastidious; and viewing instruments such as the Claude glass perverted artistic seeing.

The anecdote, which Marcel Proust related in the preface to his translation of Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens, points to one of many links between the British art critic and the French author. 3 A sincere admirer of Ruskin's philosophy of art, Proust [End Page 99] made the spirit of the anecdote into his own. As Jean Autret has emphasized, it provides a key to the artistic sensibility for which Remembrance of Things Past becomes a vehicle and that the portrait of the painter Elstir in particular serves to articulate. 4 Fresh sense perception versus confining intellectual notions: this distinction is fundamental to Proust's visual aesthetics. Teaching the virtues of the cultivation of sensory experience, Remembrance of Things Past articulates a didactics of disinterested perception--of seeing for seeing's sake, of listening for the pleasure of sounds, and so on. The task of the artist is to be alert to the immediacy of sensory experience and, as Proust's narrator underscores in the Elstir episode, to restore it by inventing the appropriate metaphor.

Given Proust's reverence for Ruskin, and given his adoption of the master's belief in the innocence and purity of the painterly eye, one would expect the author of Remembrance of Things Past to reject mechanical means of visual representation. After all, Proust's novel is concerned, among many other things, with the discovery by the narrator of an aesthetic program that rests upon the Ruskinian distinction between numbing habit and unmediated sensory experience, between agreed-upon intellectual notions and unbiased forms of comprehension. And true enough, as the narrator warms to the didactic tasks he has set himself, particularly in the last volume, Time Regained, he repeatedly criticizes photography and cinematography, declaring them inferior to the human eye, the art of writing, and last but not least, the workings of memory.

But Proust would not be Proust if it were that simple. There is a tremendously complex and productive relationship between the ideal of unmediated vision articulated by Remembrance of Things Past and the author's deployment of photographic and cinematographic techniques of representing visual experience. For not only does Proust appropriate such modes of representation; he puts them to use at precisely those moments where he attempts to elaborate what one may call a phenomenology of perception, that is, when he seeks to render perceptual activities that are uninhibited by intellectual preconceptions. Indeed, some of Proust's boldest...


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