- Sartre on Proust:Involuntary Memoirs
The Problem of subjectivity has provoked complex and fascinating readings of À la recherche du temps perdu throughout the history of its reception. Sartre is situated squarely within the critical tradition that understands Proust principally as a theorist of subjective mental experience and its corollaries, such as consciousness and identity. Scattered in isolated passages throughout nearly all of his major works, Sartre's interpretations and interpolations of Proust are acutely critical. If the search for the essence of literature lies at the heart of the Recherche, the effective outcome of finding essences lies in awakening Marcel's moi profond, in transparent opposition to the fundamental postulate of Sartrean existentialism, which tells us existence precedes essence. For Proust, the truth that reveals itself in art will arrive, after an infinitely prolonged delay, through the rediscovery of the past, or more precisely through the essence that links the past with the present. The essence extracts itself from temporal continuity by rescuing the subjective past and preserving it in the mode of the eternal. The Proustian essence is thus intimately connected to the deeper truth of subjectivity, and in Sartre's reading this makes Proust guilty of inverting the proper temporal order of essence and existence. Proust's essentialism antedates the contents of consciousness by ascribing their deeper meaning to an intangible past accessible only through memory. The fact that Proustian memory is reawakened involuntarily is a further, unpardonable violation of another premise of Sartre's phenomenology, the transparency of the mind to itself.
The abstract problem of subjectivity rather easily slides, in Sartre's discourse on Proust, as in Proustian criticism as a whole, into a consideration of more concrete themes of identity. The centrality or marginality of homo-sexuality in Proust's work, along with questions aroused by Proust's portrayal of 'Jewishness' and antisemitism, are inextricably bound together with the ur-question of Proustian criticism, formulated in Proust's seminal essay on Saint-Beuve: the relationship (or lack thereof) between an author's work and his life. The Sartrean resolution of these issues is mediated not only by a highly selective reading of Proust that places literary theory in the service of phenomenological psychology, but also, as we shall see, by the figure of Jean Genet. Like Proust, Genet serves Sartre as an author whose work embodies his life, and whose literary themes of predilection are therefore interpreted as [End Page 56] figurations of the unsurpassable origin of his artistic genius, or what Sartre calls la crise originelle. It should come as no small irony, then, that in his readings of Proust and Genet, and perhaps most emblematically where these readings touch on identities he could not share (and which therefore should presumably offer a vantage-point of impartial neutrality), Sartre so thoroughly displaces his own concerns into his subject-matter that the result resembles a case-study in how overweening confidence in the transparency of consciousness leads to unconscious errors. For in the end, Sartre's musings on Proust read like nothing so much as displaced self-criticism in which the 'bourgeois' Marcel Proust is a stand-in for the guiltily 'bourgeois' Jean-Paul Sartre.
The many passages in which Sartre refers to Proust invariably serve to advance a view of the French literary canon in which Proust is the representative of self-indulgent bourgeois retreat into the self, while Sartre is the champion of a steely-eyed and self-effacing engagement with the real world; in this Sartrean allegory, psychologism and essentialism are defeated by Husserlian intentionality and existential contingency. Throughout Sartre's work, Proust's name appears in the course of arguments designed to rid literature, and the world, of a certain type of intellectual and esthetic failure. What makes this characterization particularly striking is that it serves structurally homologous roles in Qu'est-ce que la littérature?, Saint Genet, and Réflexions sur la question juive. Negatively-charged references to Proust illustrate essentialist thinking, the inefficacy of the bourgeois writer, and what it means to be 'homosexual' or 'Jewish'. The latter have alternately positive and negative values at different points in the logical, thematic, and terminological structures of Sartre...