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Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 29, Number 2, October 2005
pp. 498-500 | 10.1353/phl.2005.0026

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Philosophy and Literature 29.2 (2005) 498-500

Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust by Joshua Landy; x & 255 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, $49.95 paper.

Landy's book delivers what has gone long and scandalously missing: a philosophical analysis of Proust's incomparable book that is muscular, concise, philosophically informed and sophisticated; logically rigorous, explanatorily fruitful, and meticulously answerable to its data, namely the text. The philosophy here is not, as often the case in writing about Proust, mere rhetoric or window-dressing, but substantive and literally believable. The book should for a long time be inescapable for anyone writing philosophically about Proust, and perhaps for anyone writing philosophically about imaginative literature, full stop. It is that good, its themes that wide.

Proust's takes what Landy calls an axiological "Copernican Turn" (p. 52). Marcel is an inveterate fetishist, an idolatrist: in people, families and places the young Marcel thinks he perceives an intrinsic and wholly incommensurable meaning or value. Later, he learns that the experience of meaning and value is really a matter of the individual's "perspective," primarily the subjective associations in which an experience is embedded; these are determined by the individual's contingent needs and drives, which may or may not be shared (p. 75). He learns also that even where seemingly important facts about another person's empirical psychology are there to be known, his efforts to discover them are frequently "slipshod" or half-hearted (pp. 94–98). When he is presented with a chance to examine Albertine's letters, for example, he shies from doing so. Why? The reason is that Marcel implicitly, and later explicitly, realizes that what we seek in external objects including people, what we need in our own lives, and what we can actually possess in our lives and in those of others, are not further facts. What we need, if not precisely illusions as Landy puts it, is to weave elements of reality into the kind of tapestry that appeals to us.

The danger—and some commentators have accused Proust of having fallen into it—is that meaning will turn out to be merely imaginary (in the pejorative sense), and other people will be nothing more to us than material media for the free use of our imagination. Proust avoids this by means of a theory of the personality that is at once a theory of art (thereby revealing the nature of the complementary mistakes made by Ruskin—art-idolater—and St. Beuve, committer of the biographical fallacy). Landy describes the Proustian task of making meaning out of life, or of finding meaning in it, as that of discovering something permanent—meaning that something remains strictly identical throughout a sequence of mental states—and unique, in the sense of possessing a genuine qualitative essence (p. 102). The Proustian theory of self that satisfies these requirements is dynamic—thus accounting for the variability that impressed Hume and worries Marcel—and complex—thus allowing for the possibility of permanence beneath those surface variations. The real Proustian self is a higher-order structure, a multi-dimensional structure of sub-selves, with one of those dimensions being temporal. At the lowest level, momentary selves are defined by constellations of attitudes—"Is jealous-of-this-version-of-Albertine," "Is-fascinated-by-this-version-of-Balbec," etc. The defining attitudes are distinguished by their quality—jealousy, desire, belief—and their content, which is demarcated not merely extensionally but intensionally: the relevant mental representations might be such things as "Albertine-at-the-beach-before-I-had-met-her," "Albertine-in-bed-in-my-room," etc. (pp. 108, 109). These are all retained in memory, however deeply overlaid. In thought we tend to abstract from their fine detail, and amalgamate or compound them, yielding higher-level, more complex yet less experientially immediate selves. At the highest level there is the life as a whole. Its principle of unity is nothing but the subject's own habits of connecting things; the agent of this connection is the true Proustian self. (Landy is not quite apposite in characterizing these sub-selves in terms of order, whereby second-order selves are made...

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