- Time and Sense: Proust and the Experience of Literature
“Do you seek tales of passion? Of money? Of war? Of life and death? Proust’s text has enough to vie with anything in the annals of recorded history” (171). This sentence may serve to illustrate the large compass of Kristeva’s exploration of Proust’s novel, her unqualified admiration for his work, and her enthusiasm in assuming the role of guide. It is an illuminating journey that the general reader, whom she rarely loses along the way, will be happy to have undertaken.
Eloquent and thought-provoking, Kristeva brings to her endeavor a wealth of knowledge in many fields: psychoanalysis, literature, philosophy, history, and religion. Psychoanalyst and critic, Kristeva has devised her own critical method, semanalysis, in which she blends semiotics with psychoanalysis. Fortunately for the reader, she, unlike many semioticians, is a gifted writer and thinker who communicates her thoughts and observations in lucid, delightful prose.
By examining Proust’s transpositions of the experiences of time and sensation, feeling and language, she defines the Proustian experience of literature as manifested in his pioneering modern novel. Going back to Proust’s earliest drafts, she traces the interconnected themes of the madeleine, mamma, and incest through the various Proustian layers, from the early influence of George Sand’s novel François le champi, which Proust’s mother read to him and whose main character was named Madeleine, to his own early short story, “L’Indifférent,” whose heroine he named Madeleine. Kristeva reveals the relationships between the famous little cake and the women called Madeleine, and the consequences of Proust’s excessive love for his mother, both in life and as his alter ego, the narrator of his novel. She also examines the influence on the text of what she perceives to be the narrator’s disguised Jewishness and homosexuality and demonstrates how “Proust’s novel integrates biographical information (most notably, Proust’s ambivalent attitude toward Jewishness) and aesthetic debates within the cryptogram of each character” (41).
Kristeva’s skills as a psychoanalyst enrich her readings of A la Recherche, especially in examining jealousy and desire: “Jealousy is a hate-induced reorientation of desire. Yet it does not present itself as such, for it preserves the envious side of desire and the depressive side of hatred” (27). By converting his life’s experience into a novel, Proust found therapeutic relief from the chaotic disturbances of life’s traumas: “What might be called the Proustian effect is defined not only by this remarkably close relationship among the sensory violence of the [End Page 211] mother-child relationship, an asthmatic symptom, voyeurism, and sadomasochism but by the passage from an experience to its expression” (240).
She sees Proust’s originality and his hold on the “modern imaginary,” which is that of the novel, as consisting primarily of the following: “Proust inaugurated a new conception of temporality and thus created the modern aesthetic. This new temporality summarized and elaborated on the ambitions of all prior novelistic creations by crafting a sort of bildungsroman—a round-trip journey from past to present and back” (168). She also credits Proust with having crafted “one of the first modern visions of the society of the spectacle” (223).
Here is a statement that summarizes Kristeva’s examination of Proust’s novel: “Proust is different from the mystic (for whom experience is real), the scholar (who is unaware of experience or who brushes it aside), and the philosopher (who attempts to explain experience away or to tower over it). Even though he occasionally adopts each of these three roles, it is as a writer that Proust shows that the experience of the imaginary is none other than the experience of time regained. This strange and new experience of time regained resides in the dynamic of subject and meaning. It also causes signs, which exist within time, to be ordered into syntax as well as to unfold the music of metaphors into sensation, which are on the edge of time and which extend beyond...