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Proust and Nietzsche
Nietzsche and Proust: A Comparative Study, by Duncan Large; 298 pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, $75.00.
PROUST AND NIETZSCHE form a curious case of accidental kinship, one so striking as to warrant an extension of the traditional cliché: great minds think alike, we should say, even when they themselves don't believe it. Proust himself had no idea that his views were so Nietzschean. In fact, he considered himself an opponent of Nietzsche, whom—based on the review article or articles which constituted the full extent of his acquaintance—he mistakenly labeled an ascetic intellectualist with an exaggerated estimation of friendship. He seems never to have realized, even as Nietzsche's stock in France gradually rose during the first decades of the twentieth century, what an ally he could have had.
Far from being a dry intellectualist, the real Nietzsche—just like Proust—deemed intellectual positions to be mere epiphenomena of more fundamental (and unconscious) drives, so that genuine communication takes place as it were in spite of the speaker, via the conduit of style. Far from being an ascetic, Nietzsche—again like Proust—treated the unconditional will to truth as a neurotic compulsion, potentially detrimental to the health. And far from overvaluing friendship, Nietzsche practiced and preached a fiercely autonomous individualism, while nonetheless cherishing one or two close friendships. Proust did exactly the same. [End Page 450]
Nor do the resemblances stop there. Both writers maintain a rigorous skepticism about knowledge of other minds and, more generally, about objective knowledge of the outside world, agreeing that each individual has a unique perspective which affects the way in which she parses (and in particular evaluates) what she sees. Both, furthermore, have equally strong doubts about unified selfhood, recognizing that we are subject to divisions both synchronic (mixed feelings) and diachronic (changing our mind). And both propose a similar solution to this predicament, namely what Alexander Nehamas has called "life as literature," or the imposition on one's existence of a retrospective aesthetic unity. Finally, both concur on the means to such an end (self-reinterpretation, in the future-perfect tense) and also on its payoff: nothing less than the redemption of everything we have done and experienced.
Given such overwhelming unanimity, it is indeed surprising that Proust overlooked the connection, but it is all the more surprising that his readers, who had the benefit of greater access to Nietzsche's corpus, managed to keep it hidden for so long. Until now, the most we have caught has been a tantalizingly brief glimpse or two (thus Nehamas uses Proust as illustration in his Nietzsche book, but only over the span of a few pages). For the rest, we have tended to hear that Proust is a Bergsonian, or (worse) a Platonist, or (worse yet) a devotee of Schopenhauer. Now Proust, whose novel admittedly incorporates a number of pessimistic statements, is about as much a Schopenhauerian as Richard Rorty, who talks an awful lot about solidarity, is a Communist. Pessimistic statements do not a Schopenhauerian make, especially when the statements are uttered by a literary character, not to mention disowned by that same character at the end of the book. As Duncan Large observes, "the kind of 'redemption' which the narrator achieves in Le temps retrouvé—salvation in affirmative self-reinterpretation—" is "a peculiarly Nietzschean 'pessimism of strength', a strength which the narrator, like Nietzsche, derives by overcoming his earlier, more Schopenhauerian position." The foundation of Large's argument, which seems irrefutable, is that Proust reaches his uncannily Nietzschean conclusions by rejecting Schopenhauer, and by rejecting Schopenhauer in precisely the same way that Nietzsche did a generation or so previously.
The detail of Large's discussions, particularly in the central chapters three and four, will make his book an indispensable reference for anyone who wants to investigate the relationship between German and French perspectivism. His erudition, both in relation to Nietzsche's [End Page 451] manuscripts (published and unpublished) and Proust's various interpreters—forming two stacks of...