- Proust Among the Psychologists
Just how important were the six weeks Marcel Proust spent in a sanatorium? That's the question Edward Bizub poses in his intriguing Proust et le moi divisé, a book that has remained quite controversial since its publication in 2006.1 Not only was Proust fascinated with medicine, religiously keeping up with the latest research (p. 20); not only did he garner (we assume) some tidbits from his father, Adrien Proust, who attended a number of important experiments (p. 41) and who had things of his own to say on the subject of psychological disturbances; not only did he study the "unité et diversité du moi" with Paul Janet, uncle of psychologist Pierre, while at the Sorbonne (p. 50); but from December 1905 to January 1906—shortly after the death of his mother—he underwent a course of psychiatric treatment under the care of Paul Sollier, a man whose therapeutic method centrally included the inducing of blocked memories.2 Did Proust, then, borrow some of his ideas from his experience with Sollier, as well as from his readings of and conversations with contemporary theorists?
Thanks to some impressively thorough research into contemporary sources (the writings of Sollier, Théodule Ribot, and Alfred Binet in particular) and into the various drafts for what would become À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Bizub does at least manage to establish, [End Page 375] even more categorically than before, that Proust was by no means the first person to register the phenomenon of involuntary memory.3 On the contrary, late nineteenth-century psychologists tended to feel, with Eugène Azam, that "tout le monde sait cela" (p. 13): everyone knew, that is, that there are all kinds of things we can't recall at will, but that a certain sight, a certain sound, a certain smell can suddenly summon them out of nowhere. Unlike ordinary recollections, such experiences are closer to hallucinatory relivings (p. 200); they cause our current self to vanish temporarily (pp. 201, 205); they require a trigger (p. 46), which may well be a chance encounter with some object (p. 103); and they are more likely in circumstances that cause the conscious mind to be distracted (p. 77).
Similarly, Bizub manages to establish that Proust was not the only person at the turn of the century to believe in the existence of a "second self," an unconscious part of the psyche with its own desires and will (p. 60), manifesting deep internal coherence (pp. 47, 120), producing symptoms in insignificant details (p. 237),4 and varying—at least in the view of Sollier, if not in that of Freud (p. 227)—from one individual to the next. Cases like that of "Félida" (pp. 32-34), a young woman who lived two very different lives in alternation, without either being aware of the other's existence, or like that of "Emile X.," a respectable citizen who committed crimes in his "seconde vie" (pp. 131-32), helped to convince the fledgling psychiatric community that, in some instances at least, it was possible to substantiate quite concretely the division of personality hypothesized by Goethe, Rimbaud, and others. Were such cases what Proust had in mind when he wrote his great novel? Was Proust, in the end, less of a philosopher than a psychologist, indeed a mere popularizer of contemporary discoveries?
In Bizub's mind, the answer is a categorical yes. For him, it's not just some of the ideas that Proust has lifted from the psychologists, but all of them; the stay at Sollier's sanatorium wasn't just one episode among many in Proust's life, but the decisive moment that finally put him on the path to writing; and the psychiatric background constitutes not just one aspect of the Recherche but the very core of the narrative, such that the plot, which is a "demonstration" (p. 22) or even "defense" (p. 187) of Sollier's views, is the story of a cure (p. 147), and...