In Search of Marcel Proust
UT's Dr. Seth Wolitz Discovered Proust in the Usual Way: Through His Nose
Marcel Proust, it would seem, is everywhere these days: Two massive biographies published this year (see review), the release in French of an expanded edition of Remembrance of Things Past (more accurately titled À La Recherche du Temps Perdu/In Search of Lost Time and otherwise known as The Novel), a slew of critical works in its wake, the release this fall of Time Regained, a Raul Ruiz movie adaptation studded with a cast of international superstars, a Proust comic book published in France, a Jean Luc Godard film loosely based on a story by Proust reported to go into production soon, a project involving magnetic resonance imaging used to view neurological activity when a reader encounters a Proustian metaphor, a recently discovered Proustian caption in the Wall Street Journal: "Exhibit Seeks to Recover the Remembrance of Turnpike Odors Past," an Architectural Digest photo essay of the restored house in Illiers that inspired many of the events of The Novel, Proust reading groups sprouting up just about everywhere, and countless writers recently referring to the Proustian description of the reveries stimulated by the aroma of the Madeleine cake as a metaphor for the nature of memory (in a recent New York Times article titled "Emotional Malady Is Linked to Smell," Erica Goode wrote that "the sense of smell, as Marcel Proust and his Madeleine made clear, is intimately tied to feeling and memory. So it is perhaps not surprising that in schizophrenia, an illness that plays havoc with the emotional capacities of those who suffer from it, the sense of smell is impaired"). With his Questionnaire used on the back page of Vanity Fair, he could even be described as a contributing editor to that magazine.
It would seem apropos in such a situation to seek out those individuals who have mastered the art of Proust so that they can explain it to those of us who are less well-informed. A call to the French department at the University of Texas put me in contact with Dr. Seth Wolitz. One of the most striking things about Dr. Wolitz is his voice, the kind of voice rarely heard in these parts, and one not easily forgotten: a voice that is cultivated, eloquent, mellifluous, and definitively upper-crust. A voice that could also be described as, well, Proustian. In addition to being associated with the French, Italian, and Slavic Languages departments, Dr. Wolitz is currently the Gale Professor of Jewish Studies (he was formerly head of that department). Additionally, he is a full-fledged member of the Comparative Literature program and is a member of the Middle Eastern Center, among other things. He has penned a critical work on Proust, The Proustian Community (New York University Press, 1971), which describes in great detail the social milieu of The Novel, and teaches a class on The Novel every three years. Dr. Wolitz is currently on sabbatical in New York where he is editing a book with an essay by himself on Isaac Bashevis Singer for UT Press, and is researching the origins of modern Jewish theatre in New York and London. He graciously received me in his home with a "Proustian tea" for this interview before he went on sabbatical.
Austin Chronicle: How did you come to write about Proust?
Dr. Seth Wolitz: I was involved in the same incident as Joseph Lieberman. We both went to Yale at the same time and I was a member of the group called SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). I was in the first sit-ins in the South and I was at the march in Washington with Martin Luther King. Lieberman was the editor of the Yale Daily and I was two years older than he was but I participated in those very same activities. And it was coming back from having been beaten up on the eastern shore of Maryland by some crabbers who cut off this finger and which was resewn. The famous Chesapeake Bay crabbers were violently racist. And we dressed up very elegantly and there was no protection from the police in those days. And [I was] on the way back to Yale after having my finger sewn up having just read Proust. Proust, too, had suddenly been forced to become aware of his time and condition because of the Dreyfus Affair and he was very active in that.
AC: And so you are saying that the shock of having your finger cut off by the crabbers led you to make the decision to study Proust.
SW: Now this is what happened -- some crabber came at me running out of the diner. We were all elegantly dressed, that was one of the central concerns. So here we were, high jackets and I had my pocket handkerchief. And they throw some boiling coffee right in my face from a coffeepot. And as I was doing this I saw a man come at me with his knife. And he went like this to me and cut off this finger and it penetrated but I had my wallet in the inside of my pocket and so it cut into the wallet, otherwise it would have penetrated. And my face was killing me because of the coffee and I suddenly saw the head of John the Baptist on a platter with Salome holding it. In the midst of all this pandemonium and madness I look down and see my finger is hanging off and I see the white bone inside and I said, My God, it's white as a lamb chop! And so I took the handkerchief and wrapped it like this to keep the finger together. At which point I heard a whistle at which point meant to form yourself into a phalanx and huddle together and move away. And in the meantime I think about my finger and it didn't hurt -- you don't feel pain in those instances. I saw the vision of the head of John the Baptist on a platter with Salome dancing. I remember that it was driving me crazy. We got into the car and the police came in because it was getting too wild for them. And they let us get out and we drove like crazy up to Baltimore. A good hour and 15 minutes and that's when we stopped at the hospital when they repaired my finger -- took about three hours. I suddenly asked myself, What is this? What is this? What is this? Why John the Baptist? I'm just a Jewish boy from New York. What the hell did John the Baptist have to do with all of it?
And then it hit me. I had been to the opera two weeks ago at the Met in New York and the Met was hot and sweaty and I had cologne on. I had wiped my forehead and cheeks and picked up the cologne and the coffee had released the essence of the cologne. And my nose -- you know our noses are the most powerful link to memory that exist. Our noses are the royal road to our past -- more efficient than any other method. My nose was ahead of my mind and had brought up a scene when I wiped my forehead while watching Salome dancing with the head of John the Baptist. And I said, This is a Proustian scene. It was an involuntary memory in the purest sense of the term. And as Proust dipped the Madeleine cake into the tea and brought it to his mouth to taste it and suddenly feels so happy and asks himself, What is the reason for this? I had to write about Proust and the social realities of his world and that's how I came to work on Proust.
AC: There was a movie that came out in 1981 about Proust's maid Céleste.
SW: I met her near the end of her life in 1962. She could easily turn on the lachrymose glands and out came the tears as she said, "Monsieur Proust" or "Monsieur Marcel." It was very interesting to have the chance to meet her and to know that she was a direct link. From my own personal experiences in researching the Proust world -- every one of the stores, restaurants, boutiques, and all of the places he mentioned, I tried to go to all of them in Paris -- I found that as late as 1960 that 75% of them were still intact. But by 1980 there were less than 20% of them left. So I literally did get to see his Paris. And you could walk into a place like Fauchon for their fine syrups, their fine coffees and their fine teas and their fine cheeses, and their very exquisitely formed cakes. And the most exquisite lobsters beautifully placed in aspic. Or I even went to Potel et Chabot which to this day still exists in Paris and who supplies the great caterers that were around during the Belle Epoque. The majority of the places that Proust described were still in existence up until the late Sixties and then France rapidly changed to become the new France of today and the Belle Epoque moved along very quickly.
AC: In that movie about Céleste, I seem to recall a scene in which she gave Proust a sponge bath. Is that something that could have actually happened?
SW: Yes. She became, in fact, a surrogate mother. The maids in his life were very, very important. His mother was a devoted mother but I don't have the impression that she was a particularly mothering type. But certainly she was there, she paid him attention. But my impression is that the maids portrayed in The Novel, such as François, play such a central role because it's François, essentially, who gives the key to what The Novel is all about. That's the whole stylistic. The clarity of his style and what he wants to do in a sentence is to do what she can do when she makes an aspic. It is to boil down all of the meat and the vegetables and the spices and to bring them to essence so that they are pure, colorless, refined jelly that still has the flavor, the essence, the quintessence, and so that when you look into it you can see everything and anything that you put into it.
His style contained the absolute quintessence of all that is going on and could be reduced to the perfect sentence. And that's why his sentences are so long, because they contain a whole world of complexity and yet the clarity of the structure of a Proustian sentence is also a wonderment and that was always what he was looking on and refining when he wrote and wrote everything that he had written. And that's why when he came to the discovery of the first-person narrative -- because you see he had already had written Jean Santeuil which was another novel that was already 800 pages but it was in the third person and he decided it was not what he wanted -- still was not getting to the essence of the self and to the defining of the self. He slowly began to realize that the first person is not just a single self but a multiple of single selves under a first person. So when he is saying "I" in a sentence, there is the "I" of the mature narrator, there is the "I" of the young boy Marcel, etc., and you have to try to make sure from the perspective which "I" he is alluding to. There's never a single "I." It is the "I" of an individual talking but it's capturing another "I." And that's what makes this novel so texturally rich. The Novel ends on the word "time" -- man is limited in space but endless in time -- and begins with the phrase, "For a long time," so that it becomes a circle so that you find out by the end of the 3,000 pages, he is now ready to start writing a novel without any assurance that he will write it or not. And that is The Novel: how he plans to write a novel. So it is a brilliantly conceived, all-encompassing world in which art entraps art and the reader becomes the prisoner inside the glass wall of his style, which is crystalline.