Marcel Proust on Self-Sabotaging Discipline

Someways into the Frenchman’s third volume, his masterful forays into the life of the mind […]

Will McDavid / 8.28.14

Someways into the Frenchman’s third volume, his masterful forays into the life of the mind sound a distinctly practical, as well as Lutheran, note. The sentence structure takes some getting used to (occurrence of the word ‘which’ in English language, a probably corollary of overwrought syntax, has almost halved since the time of Moncrieff’s translation, though not without a promising recent resurgence), but the sentiment is timeless. The narrator recalls trying to write more and for other good habits, but his desired behavior eluded him still-more when he tried to exercise self-control:

IMG_20140827_174736830_HDRIf only I had been able to start writing! But whatever the conditions in which I approached the task (as, too, alas, the undertakings not to touch alcohol, to go to bed early, to sleep, to keep fit), whether it were with enthusiasm, with method, with pleasure, in depriving myself of a walk, or postponing my walk and keeping it in reserve as a reward of industry, taking advantage of an hour of good health, utilising the inactivity forced on me by a day of illness, what always emerged in the end from all my effort was a virgin page, undefiled by any writing, ineluctable as that forced card which in certain tricks one invariably is made to draw, however carefully one may have first shuffled the pack. I was merely the instrument of habits of not working, of not going to bed, of not sleeping, which must find expression somehow, cost what it might; if I offered them no resistance, if I contented myself with the pretext they seized from the first opportunity that the day afforded them by acting as they chose, I escaped without serious injury, I slept for a few hours after all, towards morning, I read a little, I did not over-exert myself; but if i attempted to thwart them, if I pretended to go to bed early, to drink only water, to work, they grew restive, they adopted stronger measures, they made me really ill, I was obliged to double my dose of alcohol, did not lie down in bed for two days and nights on end, could not even read, and I vowed that another time I would be more reasonable, that is to say less wise, like the victim of an assault who allows himself to be robbed for fear, should he offer resistance, of being murdered.”

What a sentiment! / Take that, Lewis! No one who studied the inner life of humans as acutely as Proust could fail to find a degree of bondage, even resistance, somewhere therein. Of course, the counterintuitive wisdom of being “more reasonable” but “less wise”, regardless of the truth it holds, doesn’t quite appeal to me as someone with a high stake in management of my own habits and behavior. It’s almost unthinkable, highly risky, to view myself as just an “instrument” or vessel – because what if it’s a “vessel” (Romans here) for the wrong thing? Time to pull out the cards and re-shuffle.

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2 responses to “Marcel Proust on Self-Sabotaging Discipline”

  1. Mike Stroud says:

    “Take that, Lewis!”

    If that means what I think it does, Mr. McDavid, I am glad that SOMEONE in the high-end evangelical literati is willing to take the first shot at smashing the idol that C. S. Lewis has become. I have never bought into his legend or his teachings; he proves to my mind, bigoted as this may sound, the inferiority of English-speaking Protestant theology (if you can call his writings that) to its German cousins. His popularity in our time is due entirely to his seeming catering to American Protestant moralism. He gives, if you will, a literary gloss upon self-righteousness masquerading as piety. He and his forebears never got a true Reformation grounding, in my estimation–I marvel at the uphill battle the Zahls have engaged in Episcopalian circles, contending for a lost cause among hyper-liberal agnostics on the left and “wanna-be” Pharisees on the right who plead for sound doctrine but wind up being obsessed about personal morality. That’s why the senior Zahl’s attempt to steer Trinity Seminary in Pennsylvania into a more traditional mode of evangelicalism ran aground–Americans, and especially affluent ones, could not care less. As for me, I am shaking the dust off my feet. Keep up the good work, sir.

  2. Rob says:

    Well, whilst there is a touch of moralism in some of his writing (though probably not as much as, say, Jesus or Paul — ooh!) the bulk of his work is not concerned with pressing that button. His late work, Til We Have Faces, is a subtle meditation on self-righteousness and God’s patient dismantling of it in the individual.

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