In Search of Lost Time

Finishing off Proust.

Proust explored society and love and many other things all with a wider project in mind. This project was the exploration of the nature of time. Philosophically understanding time and space is understanding everything, really. It wouldn't be if you think of them in the usual ways, like shoebox containers that everything sits inside. But that's another topic.

For Proust each 'sign' in a life is trying to teach somebody something about time. A sign of love or jealousy, of society (the salon life he described so vividly) etc. The signs of love and jealousy are essentially about lost time, they force us to think about and experience time passing - loss and decay. To lose one's love or to fear that loss, in jealousy, is to experience loss, real or imagined. And loss is integral to the passing of time, all things pass and are gone. Our feelings of loss and jealousy in love are at root mostly our feelings about loss and time passing. We will better understand love when we know this, it will moderate our desperate desire to try and fix our love in time, unchanging.

Another interesting type of sign which also teaches of loss are those embodying wasted time. There are many varieties of these, such as the young person who finishes their education and goes through a period of not really committing to anything, except maybe holidays. Or a writer with writers' block, who feels they are spending day after day wasting their time. Proust, as a writer who spent a lot of time in bed and no doubt faced accusations from family and others that he was wasting time, saw that there was a truth to be had about these experiences, something important that they have to teach us. He realised that often we need to go through such periods in life while our entire being takes stock of our situation, and decides what we should do next (rarely consciously). We emerge from those periods with a greater sense of purpose and clarity. We need to experience loss sometimes to move forward (there is an interesting question about whether loss is really loss, or rather simply the formation of a new type of order. I wrote about that here.)

Ultimately Proust saw a life best lived when it understood the lessons of time that the 'signs' in each of our experiences is trying to give us. Which meant a mastery and understanding of time. Proust thought art was so important for example because it allows us to deliberately recover time, to produce signs of time regained. Art produces full sensory, eternal (as long as the material lasts) beings of light and colour and sound and texture. The Mona Lisa's smile just keeps on smiling. We love art and 'culture' because it allows us to conquer time and to survey our entire lives from the viewpoint of time neither lost nor regained, but from a viewpoint where we can understand loss and creation as part of the same overall movement, without being captured by either.


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