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New Literary History 32.1 (2001) 91-132

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"Les Moi en Moi":
The Proustian Self in Philosophical Perspective

Joshua Landy *

In his monumental novel, Marcel Proust sets himself an equally monumental task: to extract unity from a Self which is not just multiple but, so to speak, doubly multiple. 1 Bringing together two strands of philosophical-psychological inquiry, Proust suggests that each individual is fractured both synchronically, into a set of faculties or drives, and diachronically, into a series of distinct organizations and orientations of those faculties or drives, varying according to the phase of life (or even the time of day). He thus places his narrator, and indeed his reader, in a dual predicament. 2 Not only do we change over time, he implies, so that it is difficult to pinpoint a common factor which would grant us the "personal identity" we seek (a term made popular by Locke, Hume, and their followers), but we cannot achieve unanimity within ourselves at any given moment. In fact, the synchronic multiplicity is even greater than Proust's sources (from Plato and Augustine to the French moralistes) acknowledge, since on his model the diachronic becomes synchronic: our various incarnations do not simply replace one another but remain with us forever, in the background of our consciousness, forming a complex geological structure of several superposed strata.

It would be a prodigious feat of escapology if Proust's narrator, traditionally dubbed "Marcel," were to emerge from the above constraints clutching intact a convincing version of selfhood. Like any such version, his has to satisfy two conditions, namely coherence (identity with oneself) and uniqueness (distinction from other individuals). Marcel, in other words, has to find an element which sets him apart from other human beings, but which, unlike for example his love for Gilberte, is permanent; or, conversely, an element which guarantees a continuity across time and which, unlike for example his need to breathe, is peculiar to him. For a very long time he despairs of ever satisfying the twofold requirement: "my life appeared to me," he laments, "as something [End Page 91] utterly devoid of the support of an individual, identical and permanent self" (F 802-3, my emphasis). He is, however, ultimately successful, and the burden of the present paper will be to explain how exactly he accomplishes his great escape, first by means of a hidden faculty (the perspective, or "tempérament") which he discovers and then, elegantly enough, by using one multiplicity to cure the other: using the synchronic division to impose order on a diachronically fractured Self. Marcel's solution, it turns out, is an existence cast in literary terms, a life in literature (a genre I shall term the aesthetic biography). As for Proust's solution, there are indications that it does not stop here but concerns, instead, a life lived as literature (or bio-aesthetic), one in which experience is continually spun into art even as it unwinds.

Much, of course, has been made in critical circles of the Proustian Self and its vicissitudes, whether from a Freudian (Bersani), a Humean (Dancy), or even a Sartrean (Muller) angle. 3 Almost all the analyses, however, seem to simplify matters by selecting one or other of the problems Proust wishes to deal with simultaneously, focusing either on the diachronic division to the near-exclusion of the synchronic (Bersani, Genette, Picon, Poulet, Dancy, May) or on the synchronic to the detriment of the diachronic (Bowie, Shattuck). 4 In addition, as is understandable given the almost irreducible complexity of the novel, the analyses often stop short of Proust's full account, resorting at one extreme to an uncritical acceptance of involuntary memory as panacea (Rorty) 5 or, at the other extreme, dismissing it out of hand and blithely revelling in what are taken to be insoluble conflicts (Deleuze, Bowie, Terdiman). 6 As for the few analytical philosophers who have commented extensively on Proust--Alexander Nehamas being, as always, the exception--they tend, again for obvious (and sometimes sound) reasons, to view Proust less as a philosopher in his own right...


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