Tag: Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust: Imminent Death Reminds us that Life is Beautiful

In his book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton brings to light a fascinating answer by Marcel Proust to a Parisian newspaper on what we should do in the face of a near-certain death.

Someone looking for a paper to read in Paris in the 1920s might have picked up a title called L’Intransigeant. It had a reputation for investigative news, metropolitan gossip, comprehensive classifieds and incisive editorials. It also had the habit of dreaming up big questions and asking French celebrities to send in their replies. “What do you think would be the ideal education to give your daughter?” was one. “Do you have any recommendations for improving traffic congestion in Paris?” was another.

In the heat of the 1922 summer, the paper offered a particularly elaborate question.

An American scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed, and in such a sudden way, that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people. If this prediction were confirmed, what do you think would be its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm? Finally, as far as you’re concerned, what would you do in the last hours.

The last person the paper consulted on the question was the reclusive novelist Marcel Proust. Since its 1913 publication, In Search of Lost Time, was considered a masterpiece. A good sport, Proust sent the following reply of timeless advice and piercing wisdom to the paper.

I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future delays them occasionally.

But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.

de Botton furthers Proust’s response and touches on re-evaluating our priorities in the face of certain mortality, asking the important question of what, exactly, does a whole life consist of? How, should a reminder of our mortality change our lives?

Feeling suddenly attached to life when we realize the imminence of death suggests that it was perhaps not life itself which we had lost the taste for – so long as there was no end in sight, but our quotidian version of it, that our dissatisfactions were more the result of a certain way of living than anything irrevocably morose about human experience. Having surrendered the customary belief in our own immortality, we would then be reminded of a host of untried possibilities lurking beneath the surface of an apparently undesirable, apparently eternal existence.

However, if due acknowledgment of our mortality encourages us to reevaluate our priorities, we may well ask what these priorities should be. We might only have been living a half-life before we faced up to the implications of death, but what exactly does a whole life consist of? Simple recognition of our inevitable demise does not guarantee that we will latch on to any sensible answers when it comes to filling in what remains of the diary. Panicked by the ticking of the clock, we may even resort to some spectacular follies. The suggestions sent by the Parisian celebrities to L’lntransigeant were contradictory enough: admiration of alpine scenery, contemplation of the extraterrestrial future, tennis, golf. But were any of these fruitful ways to pass the time before the continent disintegrated.

Luckily for us, Proust worked on a book that “set out to answer, albeit in a rather extended and narratively complex form,” a similar question to the one asked by the Parisian newspaper. The title of the book, In Search of Lost time, hints at as much.

The question of what makes a good life is one for the ages, it’s also a personal one. What makes a difference to me might not make a difference to you. Proust, however, has much to contribute to the tapestry we’re weaving daily. He understood a lesson we all too often forget in the the pursuit of goals and ambitions: the value of life is the sum of its everyday moments. Life is fragile.

How Proust Can Change Your Life goes on to explore the Proustian guidebook and gives us hope that we can learn to adjust our priorities before it’s too late, touching on, among other things, Proust’s thoughts on enjoying your vacation, reviving a relationship, achieving original and unclichéd articulation, being a good host, recognizing love, and understanding why you should never sleep with someone on a first date.

Daily Routines of Famous Creatives: Artists, Writers, Composers

daily rituals by mason currey

What can we learn from the working habits of famous writers, artists, and composers? And how did they find time each day to do their work?

After reading Mason Currey’s fantastic book, Daily Rituals, the answer is lots.

But if you’re looking for some insight into what makes an ideal daily routine, you’re out of luck. One big insight to the book is that there is no one way to do things. What works for one, won’t work for another.

However, whether you’re looking to be more productive or find better distractions, the book is full of useful advice.

Stuck in a creative rut? Try these tips.

Know when to stop.
Kingsley Amis recommends you stop writing when you know what comes next. This, he argues, makes it easier to begin the next day. His son, Martin Amis, recommends you only work for two hours, commenting “I think most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work.

Meditation, Chocolate, and Coffee
David Lynch recommends meditation. “I have never missed a meditation in thirty-three years,” he wrote in his 2006 book, Catching the Big Fish. Lynch told a reporter in 1990 that he also loves chocolate and coffee.

For seven years I ate at Bob’s Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee—with lots of sugar. And there’s lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It’s a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. It was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob’s.

Write. Stop. Copy.
In Daily Rituals, Currey writes on Morton Feldman:

When he did find the time to compose, Feldman employed a strategy that John Cage taught him—it was “the most important advice anybody ever gave me,” Feldman told a lecture audience in 1984. “He said that it’s a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.”

Try a dirty hotel.
Maya Angelou likes to work in dirty hotel rooms. “I try to keep home very pretty and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.”

Exercise.
“(J.M.) Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week.

Lie down.
Truman Capote liked to lie down. He told the Paris Review in 1957

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

He isn’t the only one.

Marcel Proust, Currey writes …

wrote exclusively in bed, lying with his body almost completely horizontal and his head propped up by his two pillows. … If he felt too tired to concentrate, Proust would take a caffeine tablet, and when he was finally ready to sleep, he would counteract the caffeine with Veronal, a barbital sedative.” One of his friends, warned him “You’re putting your foot on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time.

Turn off the TV
Television drove Joseph Heller back to writing. “I couldn’t,” he says, “imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.”

Err, if you’re really stuck
Thomas Wolfe, Mason writes, “had been unconsciously fondling his genitals, a habit from childhood that, while not exactly sexual … fostered “such a good male feeling” that it had stoked his creative energies. From then on, Wolfe regularly used this method to inspire his writing sessions, dreamingly exploring his “male configurations” until the “sensuous elements in every domain of life became more immediate, real, and beautiful.”

Take a rest
Carl Jung, says “I’ve realized that somebody who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same is a fool.”

Use a routine.
Haruki Murakami, speaks to the value of routine in this 2004 Paris Review interview:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami updated us on his routine.

early mornings spent writing, afternoons running increasingly long distances and doing housework, admin and spending time with family

Leo Tolstoy was a firm believer in routine as well. “I must write each day without fail,” he wrote, “not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”

Change the routine.
Nicholson Baker, “What I’ve found with daily routines, is that the useful thing is to have one that feels new. It can almost be arbitrary. You know, you could say to yourself, ‘from now on, i’m only going to write on the back porch in flip flops starting at four o’clock in the afternoon.’ And if it feels novel and fresh, it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work. Maybe that’s not completely true. But there’s something to just the excitement of coming up with a slightly different routine.”

Avoid email.
John Adams, on concentration (from Daily Rituals)

Often after an hour of working I’ll yield to the temptation to read my email or things like that. The problem is that you do get run out of concentration energy and sometimes you just want to take a mental break. But if you get tangled up into some complicated communication with somebody, the next thing you know you look up and you’ve lost forty-five minutes of time.

I think René Descartes might have the best advice. Currey writes he believed that “idleness was essential to good mental work, and he made sure not to overexert himself. After an early lunch, he would take a walk or meet friends for conversation; after supper, he dealt with his correspondence.”

So, to recap some of the ideas to stimulate your creative juices: turn off email and the TV; go for a long walk in the woods; grab a coffee; read a book; don’t overexert yourself. Oh, and, subscribe to Brain Food.