I can easily spend an entire day in front of a computer reading articles and writing emails, and by the end of the day I won’t be able to recall half of what crossed my eyes. It may feel industrious to spend so much time ingesting information and ostensibly learning, but the human brain has its limits. With the mind zipping back and forth between the task at hand, the next task to come, the needs of your peers, the way to phrase a request, the bills that you can’t forget to pay, your posture, are your zippers and buttons closed, the errand you need to run on the way home, the messages you need to pass along, the last thing you said to the person you’re trying to impress whose validation you need, the emails you owe people, the wording of your next clever tweet, the next thought comes and goes before the last has had time to settle comfortably in your accessible memory.
I’m trying to simplify my routine and cut out the extraneous. If I only allow myself half a mind’s worth of attention and a minimum of time on a task like reading, then it’s worth no time at all; I won’t remember the details anyway, I won’t experience the gist, and it takes time away from being fully engaged in something else, something more meaningful. It means acknowledging that I will miss out on interesting research, funny stories, insightful commentary, but half-engaged, I would be effectively missing out anyway. So I’m aiming to spend time more fully engaged in fewer activities. It requires training, though; the mind does not easily focus on one thing for long.
And why should it? If early humans fell frequently and naturally into states of singular focus, they would have been ill-suited to deflect the myriad dangers present in open nature. This is the evolutionary psychological justification for the capriciousness of our consciousness. To reject this default requires training; mindfulness meditation of the secular Buddhist variety is one form of training that particularly interests me, partly because so many of its central teachings are consistent with modern psychology. Yet, I haven’t progressed much with mindfulness practice, so I’m trying alternative means to the same end as easier first steps.
I spent some time with my host family after leaving my last job; more sympathetic and less judgmental than my real family, I have nothing but positive associations with their home and their company. In conversation, they mentioned the Duane Moore series by Larry McMurtry. I gathered that these were sort of a Proustian telling of a life lived in Texas. In fact, in the book Duane’s Depressed, the eponymous character is assigned by his therapist to read the first book of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past—more recently translated as In Search of Lost Time—and is given one year to do so. Fiction as therapy. In Search of Lost Time is a 4,000-page series of seven books that is infamous for its serpentine prose and extended phrasing. But many point to Proust’s uniquely intricate and evocative manner of capturing the thoughts, experiences, and observations of a life lived from boyhood through old age. He reminds us of the details in the everyday that makes life so fascinating and ennobles us to find deeper meaning in our own existences. In my unemployment and goal of further self-discovery, I decided to follow Duane’s lead and read Swann’s Way.
Proust’s style does indeed test one’s limits of concentration. By the time you’re out of the third nested appositive, you’ve usually forgotten the start of the sentence. A month later, I’m 80 pages in, but I’m motivated to keep at it. After some warm-up, I can sometimes get into a flow where I can read a few pages before my mind wanders and I have to go back and re-read a bit. With some training, I hope to get into this flow more easily—an alternative to meditation. I’ve taken to heading to the park to read; it’s away from the distractions of home—music, endless tidying up, emails—and unlike a coffee shop, I can take as much time as I like without feeling bad for taking up space. It’s a lovely park that’s always full of crowds in the summer except at its quiet, shaded peripheries, and just a quick stroll from home. I didn’t discover it until several months after moving into the neighborhood; it was in the opposite direction as work. The way we explore a new city is funny; familiar routes feel shorter, rectilinear streets are more welcoming, and the journey home is always faster. Once my brain accepted this park, it was easy for me to immediately treat as ordinary the great central fountain and the immense, gleaming, white arch at its side. We notice, we accept, and we move on.
The other day, I made it a point to take a leisurely stroll around the park to take in the environs as if for the first time before settling into a quiet, shady spot to dig into my book. I noticed. A conversation in Russian, a couple in the grass whose posture in dalliance must have taxed the young man’s strength, a leisurely group of police officers, several tables of chess players including one with a young, clean-cut boy trying to impress an older, disheveled man, a kind-looking, attractive young woman walks my way—but I shouldn’t make eye contact unless I were intent on engaging, and how would you do that mid-stride in a park, anyway?—and walks by followed by an older woman with a small dog who smiles at me, I forgot that there are public restrooms in this park, a squirrel takes a glance at me then decides to keep digging for whatever it thought it smelled, some flowers catch my eye; I wonder how much maintenance they require, a group of college students pass by, all smiles and banter, ice cream sandwiches for $4, I wonder if that price is strategic since many would drop a five and leave the change, a man with a mask hovers over a boy on the ground while a woman films from above, student film, probably. And then I found my spot. It was shady, and from my guess of where the shadows would travel, would remain shady. A peek upwards noticed no avian nuisances to drop an interruption to my reading. Sitting down, I took a moment to take in the cool breeze—most welcome when so much of the summer has been sticky and oppressive. When I see others wrapped in light cardigans and sweaters, I know I’ll be a little more comfortable in my single layer. And thus I began.
The narrator recounting his boyhood described the apparent reality of the fictional worlds contained in the books he read—even more viscerally real than the landscape beyond the book in front of his eyes. And then passed the old woman with the dog again—I wonder why she smiles at me. Back to fiction. No, the thoughts that exist only in my mind are all fiction. Unless I asked, I wouldn’t know whether that woman was actually smiling at me or to herself. Even then, I wouldn’t know for sure, so I’m free to make up whatever accounting pleases me most. We all do this all the time; our thoughts and beliefs aren’t reality—only a personal fiction that, hopefully, does not depart too much from the personal fictions of others. So, specifically, back to my reading. After a bit, the narrator—or more accurately, Proust—went on to describe the advantage of fiction:
The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections [of another person], impenetrable by the human spirit, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which the spirit can assimilate to itself. After which it matters not that the …
And then I was distracted by excited shouts; not angry, more celebratory, as you would hear at a parade or around a talented street performer. A double decker tour bus seemed to be stuck in an intersection not far ahead of me, and a second followed close behind.
After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since …
More shouts, and above the rhythms and the jazz from the local buskers, I heard the strain of a soprano singing what might have been opera. I tried to place the direction, but soon lost the voice entirely.
… the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is …
The two buses decided to park just in front of me, and a picture-taking crowd gathered. Signs informed that it’s Body Painting Day, and the upper deck of both buses were filled with topless, painted people. That explains the revelry. But no, they weren’t merely topless, they were all completely nude and painted head to toe. The city provides some odd experiences, to be sure, and I was tempted to snap a picture as others were doing (“pics or it didn’t happen”), but decency in my mind prevailed and I decided to afford the liberated crowd a bit of privacy. I quickly realized how silly that was. Obviously these people were perfectly happy, proud even, to be in public essentially nude and attracting a lot of attention, so why would they be ashamed to be in a photograph? That reasoning was confirmed when they got off the buses for a photo op in the park. I decided I respected the confidence many of these people—whom popular fashion would tell to be ashamed of their bodies—must have to expose themselves so publicly in so celebratory a fashion. That confidence must be rooted in a firm, unyielding self-love; something I’ve only recently realized I’m missing and I need. But the happy shouts and gathering crowd were interrupting my reading, so I got up and found another spot.
The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections [of another person], impenetrable by the human spirit, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which the spirit can assimilate to itself. After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, while we turn over, feverishly, the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist has brought us to that state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid, and of a more lasting impression than those which come to us in sleep; why, then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which, only, we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the keenest, the most intense of which would never have been revealed to us because the slow course of their development stops our perception of them.
This passage struck me as one of those keen expositions of a fact most of us take for granted for which we continue, a hundred years on, to read, admire, and gain wisdom from Proust. From fiction, we may receive a distillation of the human condition that expands the range of emotional experiences to include ones we may never otherwise know. It may be this fact that explains the societal impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The disturbance or joy we feel from novels like 1984 or Pride and Prejudice owes itself to the same. Have you ever fallen in love with a fictional character—not a real, attached sort of love, but from the descriptions of another character’s love, a parallel, vicarious one? I know a few people who only read non-fiction claiming the rest is a frivolous waste of time; they either lack Proust’s insight, or they don’t value emotional enrichment. Life as a human consists of competing emotional currents, and the better we understand them, the better we understand ourselves and others. Emotional enrichment is not only beneficial, but essential to a mature and responsible world-view. And as Proust eloquently explains, the novel is a particularly powerful vehicle of that enrichment.
The passage also provides a motivational seed—two percent of the way through this magnus opus—a metaphorical carrot on a stick, tempting the reader to make the effort to continue through the rest. This is, after all, a novel. It is a demanding one, but it has already provided such vivid tableaux with the sympathetic expression of an intense emotion which, indeed, I have never known—or perhaps that I forgot ever having. A friend who has read Swann’s Way remarked that it had some really beautiful moments. Maybe I do want to be more ambitious and read the entire work. Maybe my life really will be richer for it.
I only got a couple pages further before I decided to walk home. I had enough to think about, and before getting lost in Proust’s world, before receiving another flood of ideas, before losing my train of thought completely, I wanted to share.