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  • Proustian Developments:The World and Object of Photography
  • Rok Benčin (bio)

A peculiar trait unites Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag’s famous accounts of photography: both emphasize the anti-Proustian character of the medium. Two versions of the same assertion are presented in Camera Lucida and On Photography, namely that the nature of photography prevents it from being able to provide the experience needed to regain what was lost in time. Curiously enough, in Raoul Ruiz’s film adaptation, Marcel Proust’s Time Regained (1999), photographs are used by the director to set the world of the novel into motion. Does the opening scene, which shows the writer browsing through photographs of the people he used to know, merely present Proust’s documented habit of collecting photographs of the real-life models for his characters, or did Ruiz try to reproduce the mechanism of reminiscence by looking at photographs?

The ambiguous relation of Proust and his novel to photography is well documented and commented upon.1 Rebecca Comay writes that, by the end of the novel, “the whole world has turned into a kind of photograph” (“Proust’s” 13). Approaching from the other side, Kaja Silverman recently used the phrase “miracle of analogy,” Proust’s description of reminiscence, as a title of her book on redefining the ontological implications of photography. Proust and photography can thus be used as a positive or a negative reference to explain each other.

In what follows, I will outline the aesthetical and ontological conceptual problems that underlie the discussions on Proust and photography, which seem as productive for the theory of photography as they are for contemporary readings of Proust. In aesthetical terms, the problem can be linked to the dialectic between the sensory event and the narrative in literature or, in photography, between the photographic image and the world it was taken in. As I will try to show, there is a fascinating yet disturbing worldlessness to the photographic image, which stands in an ambivalent relationship to the world it alludes to but is at the same time subtracted from. This coincides with the problem of the architecture of Proust’s novel, which develops a narrative from brief epiphanies of reminiscence. The dialectic at work here can even be transposed to the [End Page 16] ontological realm, where it implies the need to account for seemingly worldless objects, on the one hand, and the contingent or fragmentary constitution of the world, on the other.

My endeavor is based on the supposition that these problems are tackled from different perspectives within theoretical writings on photography, accounts of the role of photography in Proust, narratological discussions of Proust’s style, and in some of the key writings on contemporary aesthetics. In the first section, I explore the anti-Proustian character ascribed to photography by Barthes and Sontag. The following section then assesses their claims from the contemporary perspective of Jacques Rancière’s aesthetics. The third section makes a connection between Brassaï’s account of photography as the key inspiration for involuntary memory in Proust and Gérard Genette’s narratological analysis of In Search of Lost Time. This connection is then called into question by Paul de Man’s critique of Genette and Comay’s Lacanian account of the role of photography in Proust. In the concluding section, I connect the loose ends by proposing a reading of the dialectic between what I call the worldless object of photography and the specifically Proustian way of constituting a world. The link between the lost object and the regained world is provided by the Freudian object of melancholy and its relation to the Leibnizian multitude of possible worlds.

“The disorder of objects”

There is “nothing Proustian in a photograph,” claims Barthes, since its effect is not to regain what was lost, “but to attest that what I see has indeed existed” (82). In a similar fashion, Sontag “can’t imagine the Overture to Swann’s Way ending with the narrator’s coming across a snapshot of the parish church at Combray,” for photography, with its pretended “instant access to reality,” bypasses “the Proustian labors” of dealing with distance and mediation (128). Both authors identify photography...


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pp. 16-30
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