Three Essays on Proust

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Three Essays on Proust


In Candace Vogler’s Philosophical Perspectives on the Humanities class last winter, we were asked to write six short essays relating Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way to several cognitive philosophy texts, including Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy and George Berkeley’s Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. Our task was to make the ideas of Proust, Descartes, and Berkeley communicate with one another—to juxtapose and compare their ideas about what constitutes experience, what constitutes divinity, what is knowing, what is being. This is what these three essays attempt to address.

A note on the texts:

Proust’s Swann’s Way is the first volume of his eight-volume continuous narrative Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Times. (In the original French, it is A la recherche du temps perdu.) It is the story of a man’s life, a first-person memoir, a fictional autobiography. Swann’s Way is the story of this character’s love for his mother and for the girl Gilberte and his retelling of his friend Swann’s love for the woman Odette. In class, we called the un-named character/narrator "Marcel"—"old Marcel" when he is the grown-up man recounting the story of his childhood and "young Marcel" when he is the child. Marcel Proust is a distinct entity—of course, the author of the novel. Swann’s Way is written in four books, the Overture, Combray, Swann in Love, and Place-Names: The Name, all of which are mentioned in the essays.

Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy questions and defines knowledge and existence. Descartes too, uses a first-person voice, whom we called "the Meditator." It is the Meditator who goes through the method of progressive doubt and re-founds all knowledge on the basis of "the cogito":

Thus, after everything has been most carefully weighed, it must finally be established that "I am, I exist" is necessarily true every time I put it forward or conceive it in my mind.

Berkeley’s Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous is an argument between the Cartesian thinker Hylas and the Berkelean Philonous. In the first of these dialogues, Berkley argues that the Cartesian notion of substance is incoherent and that the word "matter" as Descartes uses it is meaningless.

Essay One

All these memories, superimposed upon one another, now formed a single mass, but had not so far coalesced

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