- The Anonymous Flesh of Time:Merleau-Ponty and Blanchot on Proust
Imagine, Dear Reader, Yesterday I was dunking a cookie in my tea when it occurred to me that as a child I spent some time in the country." This, as abridged by the German artist Max Unold,1 is in fact the event around which À la recherche du temps perdu, in all its density, revolves: the literal and overlapping coexistence of past and present, at the prompt of an involuntary memory.
For its narrator, the experience has two related effects. One is to diminish his fear of death: "Il m'avait aussitôt rendu les vicissitudes de la vie indifférentes, ses désastres inoffensifs, sa brièveté illusoire […] J'avais cessé de me sentir médiocre, contingent, mortel."2 Similarly at the end of Le Temps retrouvé, as he trips on the pavement stones and Venice rushes to meet him, he wonders: "pourquoi les images de Combray et de Venise m'avaient-elles […] donné une joie pareille à une certitude et suffisante sans autres preuves à me rendre la mort indifférente?"3 The other effect is to assure him of his vocation as a writer. In the Guermantes courtyard, all his doubts about the reality of literature and his capacity for it disappear (4:445). Amid an ongoing blitz of memory where, in everything—spoons, napkins, the water in the pipes—the past lies in wait, he feels ready to undertake the work of art for which his whole life has been a preparation. Even in his encounter with the madeleine, when he has not yet fully grasped its significance, he presents the recovery of memory as a form of writerly creation: "Chercher? Pas seulement: créer. Il est en face de quelque chose qui n'est pas encore et que seul il peut réaliser, puis faire entrer dans sa lumière" (1:45).
Both his new confidence in himself as a writer and his initial indifference to mortality arise from a new understanding of himself, at least of a part of himself: when past and present intertwine, it is an extra-temporal event, an event during which a new kind of being surfaces, one that can understand and gain access to the essence of things. Consequently, this new being is "insoucieux des vicissitudes de l'avenir" (4:450); it is he to whom the young Marcel directs all his desire to uncover the meaning enclosed in hawthorns, steeples, rooftops, the light in the trees. What is hidden there is the "pure matière" of things that will be the raw material of his book to come. The perception of this pure matter is what will allow him to understand his life in its [End Page 33] quintessence, the act of understanding that makes literature possible. If he as a writer can work out what really happens in him at the moment that something makes an impression on him, he can write the "livre essentiel, le seul livre vrai" (4:469), the writing of which is actually a tour de force of translation, for the true book is latent in everyone, but not everyone can understand its language. It is in his ability to translate that Marcel has regained confidence.
It is the revelation of his vocation, however, that leads him back to a heightened awareness of his impending death. His recognition of the extra-temporal being within him, over and over again as it occurs in the last part of Le Temps retrouvé, sets time into relief as entropy and disintegration experienced through his body. To have a body, he writes, is "la grande menace pour l'esprit" (4:612). His mind may have been exalted by his vocation, but now his body is all the more a fragile barrier between his mind and destructive time: "Le corps enferme l'esprit dans une forteresse; bientôt la forteresse est assiégée de toutes parts et il faut à la fin que l'esprit se rende" (4:613). He is aware that time is already working on his memory; the time-riddled body, as an always-before, as a final reality beyond the reach of all...