The Truth of the Novel -Part 1
Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu
by Charles Embry
Charles Embry is Professor Emeritus of Political Philosophy at Texas A&M-Commerce. The essay is taken from a new collection of essays he has edited entitled Voegelinian Readings of Modern Literature (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011). This essay is presented in three parts and appears with permission.
Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature. Life in this sense dwells within all ordinary people as much as in the artist.
—Marcel Proust, Finding Time Again
The Approach to Proust
I approach the great novel, as I approach all great novels, simply as a lover of literature and a philosopher, that is, as a lover of wisdom. I lay great stress upon the word “lover,” and I pretend neither to finality nor comprehensiveness in what I have to say about any novel, but especially about À la recherché du temps perdu, (In Search of Lost Time).1
I assume this stance intentionally from the conviction that all great literature can be read, understood, and enjoyed by ordinary human beings who love stories because the stories that have been vouchsafed us by the great writers arise from that “place” and timelessly dwell in that “place” where we all live: the embodied consciousness of a human being.
In a letter to Robert B. Heilman, Eric Voegelin, identifying the reason why we read and study great works of literature as well as the basis for historical interpretation, said:
The occupation with works of art, poetry, philosophy, mythical imagination, and so forth, makes sense only if it is conducted as an inquiry into the nature of man. That sentence, while it excludes historicism, does not exclude history, for it is peculiar to the nature of man that it unfolds its potentialities historically.
Not that historically anything ‘new’ comes up–human nature is always wholly present–but there are modes of clarity and degrees of comprehensiveness in man’s understanding of his self and his position in the world . . . .
History [then] is the unfolding of the human Psyche; historiography is the reconstruction of the unfolding through the psyche of the historian. The basis of historical interpretation is the identity of substance (the psyche) in the object and the subject of interpretation; and its purpose is participation in the great dialogue that goes through the centuries among men about their nature and destiny.2
If we reread that passage and substitute “Literature” for “History,” “literary criticism” for “historiography,” and “reader” for “historian,” we will begin to understand an approach to literature from within a Voegelinian philosophical framework.