Marcel Proust, “Sur la lecture”

Passionate readers fascinate me to no end, and I was lucky enough to meet such a reader recently when by chance I stumbled upon a tiny volume with the title “On Reading” by a Frenchman named Marcel Proust.

I found out later that Monsieur Proust wrote “Sur la lecture” (1905) as a preface to his translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies. The first part is devoted to Proust’s childhood days, his room, a stroll in the park, and the pleasure and intimacy of reading. Young Marcel read voraciously, and old Marcel painfully remembers the interruptions he had to endure as a kid while reading his beloved novels, be that a playmate who was looking for him, a buzzing bee or the glistening sunrays, or his father’s “fatal call” for breakfast — “la parole fatale: ‘Allons, ferme ton livre, on va déjeuner.” Many readers, Proust fans especially I’d imagine, will cherish these passages, and the beauty and profound thought of descriptions such as this:

… la pendule et le feu qui parlent sans demander qu’on leur réponde et dont les doux propos vides de sense ne viennent pas, comme les paroles des hommes, en substituter un différent à celui des mots que vous lisez. (10)

But theory-minded me was more interested in the second part, in which Proust talks about Ruskin and reading in general. Unfortunately, my French wasn’t quite up to the task of deciphering the nuances of Proust’s thoughts on the matter, but there was one bit that caught my attention nevertheless. Commenting on the role of reading in our spiritual life, Proust writes that to the reader the book, once read, ought not to be a “conclusion”, but an “incitation”:

Nous sentons très bien que notre sagesse commence où celle de l’auteur finit, et nous voudrions qu’il nous donnât des réponses, quand tout ce qu’il peut faire est de nous donner des désirs. Et ces désirs, il ne peut les éveiller en nous qu’en nous faisant contempler la beauté suprême à laquelle le dernier effort de son art lui a permis d’atteindre. Mais par une loi singulière et d’ailleurs prodiventielle de l’optique des esprits (loi qui signifie peut-être que nous ne pouvons recevoir la vérité de personne, et que nous devons la créer nous-même), ce qui est le terme de leur sagesse ne nous apparaît que comme le commencement de la nôtre, de sorte que c’est au moment où ils nous ont dit tout ce qu’ils pouvaient nous dire qu’ils font naître en nous le sentiment qu’ils ne nous ont encore rien dit. (32)

In other words, books cannot give us wisdom, they cannot give us answers, but they can inspire us and waken our desire to become wise, to find answers for ourselves. “Reading is the beginning of our spiritual life; it introduces us to it: it does not constitute it” —  “La lecture est au seuil de la vie spirituelle; elle peut nous y introduire: elle ne la constitute pas.” (34)

Proust does not elaborate on the notion of the “spiritual life”, but we gain an inkling of what he means from the role he attributes to art and the artist:

Le suprême effort de l’écrivain comme de l’artiste n’aboutit qu’à soulever partiellement pour nous le voile de laideur et d’insignifiance qui nous laisse incurieux devant l’univers. (34)

Reading as a means to throw off a “veil of disgust and insignificance that leaves us incurious about the universe”? Seen like this, Proust’s fond memory of childhood days makes perfect sense. The child, after all, is a symbol of uninhibited curiosity, always on a quest for beauty and poetry for their own sake, even though, on second glance, a child’s curiosity is superficial, a mere game where answers matter little.

Nonetheless, it is true that our youthful curiosity and our enthusiasm for questions tends to fade. Sometimes, we no longer have time to get at the bottom of things, or we get complacent. We might even stop asking questions altogether because we think we have all the answers, or because every time we dare ask a profound question, we are confronted with the hard truth that good answers aren’t easy to come by, and that to satisfy true curiosity takes hard work and endurance. Or perhaps we despair when we come to know that we don’t know.

For despite Proust’s suggestion to the contrary, a book can only do so much to rouse your interest and incite your curiosity. In the end, it is you, the reader, who has to ask the questions, probe the book’s answers, and let your mind be animated once the book returns to the bookshelf. Active reading must be done by the reader; the book cannot do it for you. And thus there lurks the danger that lazy readers will try to seek both answers and their questions from books, effectively reducing reading to consumption — a danger Proust was well aware of:

Tant que la lecture est pour nous l’initriatrice dont les clefs magiques nous ouvrent au fond de nous-mêmes la porte des demeures où nous n’aurions pas su pénétrer, son rôle dans notre vie est salutaire. Il devient dangereux au contraire quand, au lieu de nous éveiller à la vie personelle de l’esprit, la lecture tend à se substituter à elle, quand la vérité ne nous apparaît plus comme un idéal que nous ne pouvons réaliser que par le progrès intime de notre pensée et par l’effort de notre coeur, mais comme une chose matérielle, déposée entre les feuillets des livres comme un miel tout préparé par les autres et que nous n’avons qu’à prendre la peine d’atteindre sur les rayons des bibliothèques et de déguster ensuite passivement dans un parfait repos de corps et d’esprit. (37-38)

But what’s the cure for readers longing merely to escape, to divert themselves, or for readers without questions? How to help the bookfool, who lusts after books and pages, who might seek beauty and wisdom and poetry, but is distracted by the gentle caress of the binding? Is he condemned to read “How to read”-books forever? Or is there hope, in books and love, that for each fool there’s the one out there who can truly get at him, who transcends appearance and penetrates his inner-most self, a book that is able to lift the fool’s cap, the veil of material reading to open the gate to “la lecture spirituelle”? As Cicero said: Dum spiro, spero.

Proust, Marcel. Sur la lecture. Arles: Actes Sud, 1988.


1 Response to “Marcel Proust, “Sur la lecture””

  1. December 3, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    I’m taken with the thought that at the end of a book we feel like the author has told us nothing. No doubt that is the sign that we have read the right book–we assimilate its contents without effort and are burning to know the answers to the questions it raises within us. I like the idea of books awakening our sense of curiosity, which may be languishing under the difficulties and confusion of life. How tragic it must be to live without questions.

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