Proust on cars

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is a work of self through memory. The search is conducted through memory with the aid and hindrance of phenomena and habit, but done for the authentically expressing self. Or at least so I read it from my vantage point, a few hundred pages into The Captive.

One of the more interesting moves Proust makes in this great search of recollection is that time is not neutral: the wager of the search is that time can be lost and regained. In the course of his search the author comes face to face with the different natures of time, and how each of these differently impacts our self, world, and memory.

Part of the reason for this is that Proust is figuring out how to be an authentic self in a world in which time (and our entire being) has been so uprooted from the natural and tradition-based rhythms in the world around us. In a similar vein as Heidegger, Proust observes that modern technology confronts our world in “the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging forth.” And because this setting upon “expedites in that it unlocks and exposes…driving on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense,” our time and the world’s time changes, taking on different modes depending on which techniques of revealing and bringing forth are at work.

Proust plays with the different natures of time throughout his narrative in a variety of subtle ways, focussing in particular on how significance in the world (existentially determined or imposed on us from the phenomena) and especially love will cause time to lengthen and contract, sometimes even to stop, depending on our situation vis-à-vis the significant phenomena.

But every now and then Proust is more direct, working an analysis on such time-changing technologies as they begin to emerge in his world. I find his reflection on the automobile most interesting. Here’s one passage on cars and another on their precursor: trains. Both are from Sodom and Gomorrah. Enjoy!

“On this first occasion I was unable to go to La Raspeliere alone as I did on other days, while Albertine painted; she wanted to come there with me. Although she realised that it would be possible to stop here and there on our way, she could not believe that that we could start by going to Saint-Jean-de-la-Haise, that is to say in another direction, and then make an excursion which seemed to be reserved for a different day. She learned on the contrary from the driver that nothing could be easier than to go to Saint-Jean, which he could do in twenty minutes, and that we might stay there if we chose for hours, or go on much further, for from Quetteholme to La Raspeliere would not take more than thirty-five minutes. We realised this as soon as the vehicle, starting off, covered in one bound twenty paces of an excellent horse. Distances are only the relation of space to time and vary with it. We express the difficulty that we have in getting to a place in a system of miles or kilometres which becomes false as soon as that difficulty decreases. Art is modified by it also, since a village which seemed to be in a different world from some other village becomes its neighbour in a landscape whose dimensions are altered.”

“Our organs become atrophied or grow stronger or more subtle according as our need of them increases or diminishes. Since railways came into existence, the necessity of not missing trains has taught us to take account of minutes, whereas among the ancient Romans, who not only had a more cursory acquaintance with astronomy but led less hurried lives, the notion not only of minutes but even of fixed hours barely existed.”

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