At the conclusion of an article on John Ruskin published one week after the letter's death in January of 1900, Proust provided us with a melancholy definition of literary criticism in which the themes of distance and death predominate: "It is when Ruskin is far from us that we translate his books and try to focus into a recognizable image the traits of his thought. Thus you [readers of this essay] cannot know the fervor of our faith or our love, and it is only our piety that you perceive here and there, cold and furtive, devoted, like the Theban virgin, to the restoration of a tomb." Proust, like Antigone, can do no more than bury his brother Ruskin/Polynices; his critical prose can describe at a far remove but not bring back to life the lessons of his spiritual master.
A closer analysis of the paragraph leading up to these concluding remarks would show that Proust is equating literary criticism with what he will later call mémoire volontaire, whereas he will reserve for the novel and novelistic discourse the vivifying powers of mémoire involontaire. Implicitly, this would mean that Proust's "fervor" for Ruskin would emerge only within the Recherche, in his re-writing of his mentor, whereas criticism as such is condemned to remain "cold" and "furtive" in its rational, analytic mode.
In his Proust: Philosophy of the Novel, Vincent Descombes sets out to demonstrate that Proust falls victim, within his own novel, to the reductiveness of theoretical propositions—propositions on Time and Memory and Art that are too often taken at face value by Proust critics who themselves fall prey to a certain rhetoric of Romanticism when they are seduced by Marcel's moments of epiphany. For Descombes, Proust's overt theorizing or philosophizing (those pages about Bergotte, Elstir, Vinteuil, and Art in general that have made Proust's reputation as a "philosopher of the novel") are precisely the weakest moments in the novel: the theoretical propositions on which Proust's aesthetics are based are, in Descombes' somewhat harsh formulation, "scarcely intelligible." On the other hand, however, Descombes advances the thesis that the labor of the novel—that is, the "intellectual and moral work" that goes into the creation of characters, the concatenation of scenes and the formation of a novelistic world—contains a philosophy of the novel. Proust is like a philosopher, his work resembles that of philosophers, insofar as his enterprise is "to clarify what has remained obscure (fleeting thoughts, confused emotions, paralyzing situations").
Professor Descombes' book is at its strongest and most persuasive when he dismantles Proust's "pseudo-philosophical" arguments (two examples: [End Page 413] the logical incoherence of Proust's equating of subjectivity and perspective or perspectivism; and Proust's oscillation between two concepts of the self—the self as part of the world and the self as condition of the world). In passages such as these, Descombes applies his impressive philosophical training to the Proustian text, and the result is always elucidating. At the same time, Descombes has considerable respect for Proust as novelist, and his efforts to convey what is proper to the novel as form, as discourse, are also admirable. Professor Descombes is especially careful to remind his readers that all the theorizing that occurs in the Recherche takes place within a novelistic context: theory is contained, enveloped within a narrative, and cannot extract itself from this embeddedness.
It must be said, however, that Proust: Philosophy of the Novel is a long and sometimes tedious work in which repetitions abound and in which very little detailed textual interpretation takes place (the one notable exception to this being Chapter Eight, "The Modern Regime in Art," which contains some good detailed readings of specific passages). Some of the chapters end on disappointingly bland notes (in Chapter Eleven, which offers an interesting sociocritical view of Proust, the final sentence is a pale paraphrase of the obvious: "Time spent in society...