My husband, Brad, and I have been reading Proust’s The Search aloud for three years. We drive to a beautiful spot and read about ten pages (which actually takes awhile). Saturday, parked high above the Golden Gate Bridge, we have just finished volume three, The Guermantes Way. The main characters in this volume are the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes, who are aristocrats in Parisian society of the late 1800’s.
Proust is known as one of the greatest Western novelists, and, indeed, he has great descriptive power. He can write ten pages on the beauty of a Hawthorne bush. But, he can also be really, really tedious, especially when he describes a Parisian salon or dinner party, as he does here, at the home of the Guermantes. Near the end of volume there is a long dialogue – forty or so pages – between the Guemantes about their aristocratic and noble families. An excerpt:
In the past we were Ducs d’Aumale, a duchy that has passed as regularly to the House of France as Joinville and Chevreuse have to the House of Albert. For instance, my sister-in-law’s son bears the title of Prince d’Agriente…
These descriptions became so boring and oppressive that I wanted to skip them. But Proust always has a “method to his madness.” Near the end of this long dialogue, an old friend, Swann, is ushered in by the footman. The Guermantes are on the way to a dinner and ball. Their discussion about their aristocratic heritage continues as they are about to enter their carriage. When the Duchess blithely asks Swann if he will accompany them to Venice, Swann says he cannot go because he is terminally ill. The duchesse dismisses this as impossible. She is poised with one foot inside her carriage when Swann asserts that he is, in fact, going to die within three months. She hesitates.
Will she stop, turn to her friend, and speak earnestly of his illness, or continue to enter her carriage, denying any possibility of her friend’s death? She enters her carriage. She is completely caught in the habit energy of her life. She can speak for hours on the most trivial of subjects, but she cannot pause for her friend. She gets into her carriage, missing any opportunity for meeting the actual truth of her life – that she and everyone she loves will one day die.
And the genius of Proust is that this applies to us all. I often feel the rushing of my mind and life energy. I often feel as if I have an appointment, but this is absurd, since I am retired and rarely have appointments. I am especially aware of this crazy energy when I sit zazen. It can be very difficult to be quiet, to step out of the river of my rushing habit energy.
But sometimes I can sit straight, and my mind is still, and this feels like the most important thing I can do for myself and for those I love.