"Recognitions," by Marilynne Robinson, appears in PEN America 2: Home and Away. This talk was originally presented at a Twentieth-Century Masters Tribute to Marcel Proust, sponsored by the PEN American Center, Lincoln Center, the PEN Forums Committee, and Lipper Publications.
When I was in college, it was my good fortune to be a student of John Hawkes. Momentously for me, he once put a blessing on a paragraph of mine. He called it Proustian. He did this to shelter it from the criticisms of my fellow students, who were aflame then with a stern undergraduate passion for truth-telling, for tearing away veils and dispelling illusions. I was as impressed by this project as anyone, and I made certain poor attempts at it, which the formidable Mr. Hawkes discouraged by invoking this great name to approve one straying memory of my primordial Idaho.
I had read no Proust at the time. I was much struck by the freedom from constraint and expectation I suddenly enjoyed. Thereafter, I could complicate my sentences and elaborate my metaphors and explore my memory without prosecutorial intent, and still be respected by my peers. I learned a true thing then, that no one is ever in advance of Proust. The most radical aesthetic will always accept him as an honored contemporary and collaborator. So I associated Proust with the blessing and freeing of language and memory and of the testimony of the individual spirit, even before I discovered by reading him that he should indeed be associated with just these things.
Given the vagaries of historical reputation, it is startling to find anyone whose influence is what it ought to be. Why is this so singularly true of Proust? It is as if the great purity of Proust’s motive in writing—I take this to be a profoundly courteous desire to give us back to ourselves—has made the whole phenomenon of his work proof against an alteration. He restores us to our purest innocence as readers. His young narrator, Marcel, tells us how it was, and is, to pass a summer morning engrossed in a book:
This dim coolness of my room was to the broad daylight of the street what the shadow is to the sunbeam, that is to say equally luminous, and presented to my imagination the entire panorama of summer, which my senses, if I had been out walking, could have tasted and enjoyed only piecemeal; and so it was quite in harmony with my state of repose which (thanks to the enlivening adventures related in my books) sustained, like a hand reposing motionless in a stream of running water, the shock and animation of a torrent of activity.
For the reader of Proust the animation and the shock come simultaneously with the recognition of the perfect aptness of his description, and also of the brilliance of an experience we are delighted to recognize as our own. Reminded what it is to read, those of us who write are reminded why we write.
He tells us that the very limitations of the art—its very departures from strict truth—have an intrinsic moral, that is, compassionate, value. He says, “A real person, profoundly as we may sympathize with him, is in great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion. Indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea that he has of himself, that he is capable of feeling any emotion either.” The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections impenetrable to the human soul their equivalent in immaterial sections. Things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate.
Proust asserts and proves the primacy of aesthetics. The mysteries of apprehension and comprehension, destiny and will are all negotiated by him in aesthetic terms. By this he means to restore us to a kind of experiential innocence, as if we could be recalled to a time when language and memory, when our mind and our senses, astonished us, as indeed they should never cease to do. His metaphor for this is the memory of the impassioned perceptions of childhood, but the state he describes is an atemporal one, in which the senses are awakened as they are only sometimes by art or when we are dreaming. And as they do in dreams, frustration, anxiety, the fear of loss or shame give the beauty of things and people and the weather of our minds an ineluctable too-present strangeness, a beauty too pure to be merely beautiful. Marcel, old and nostalgic, visits the autumnal Bois de Boulogne and sees there, farther off, at a place where the trees were still all green, one alone, small, stunted, lopped, but stubborn in its resistance, tossing in the breeze an ugly mane of red.
Reading Proust, we are always recalled to a sense of the elegance of our most ordinary perceptions, and how richly they are changed by habit, by accidental associations, by regret and yearning, by misapprehension and disenchantment, and by time. I will not say, by love, since love, if it exists, is merely the great sum of all these things. Just so does truth, if it exists, impartially include in its great sum, and among its marvels, the shabbiest and the most opulent of veils and illusions.