Flying from Star to Star

Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is one book that I am always continually rereading.  One of the most famous statements in the whole seven volume saga comes in Chapter 2 of The Captive:

The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is; and this we can contrive with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star.

This quotation pretty much sums up one of the most important themes of the book:  the narrator’s growth in aesthetic sensitivity.  As the novel unfolds we see the narrator responding to art, to music, to literature, with ever increasing intelligence.  Proust gives us portraits of three spiritual masters in his book:  Elstir the painter, Vinteuil the composer, and Bergotte the writer.  The narrator’s encounters with their genius enriches his life and ultimately leads to the triumphant conclusion of the novel, when he realizes that great art can not only allow him to escape the constraints of space and time, but give spiritual meaning to his life. I always learn something new whenever I reread Proust, but for a long time I have struggled with this essential idea, namely seeing the universe through the eyes of another.  We can, of course, look at a painting of a great master, or listen to some magnificent music, but how are we supposed to get inside the mind of the artist or the composer who created it?  You can spend hours listening to Debussy (one of the models for Vinteuil), but how would this give you any kind of insight into his spiritual vision?  There seemed to be some kind of secret to the trick which I wasn’t picking up on.  Critical works on Proust were of little or no help.  I dutifully slogged my way through books like Alain de Botton’s utterly frivolous How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), but was usually left at a loss.

All this changed several weeks ago when I discovered Jan Walsh Hokenson’s Japan, France, and East-West Aesthetics.  French Literature, 1867-2000 (2004).  This book has proved to be the most illuminating work of literary criticism which I have read in many years.  Hokenson examines the liberating effect that Japanese art had on French culture starting in the middle of the 19th century.  We have all heard the story about how the discovery of lost texts and art from classical antiquity stimulated the burst of artistic creativity which we now call the Renaissance.  What is less known is how the the discovery of Japanese ways of interpreting the world provoked an equally profound stimulus to western culture in the late 19th century.  American, British and French artists and writers were all astonished, amazed, and inspired when they discovered Japanese art. Unlike China or India, Japan had been pretty much unknown territory until the middle of the 19th century. While people in the west had long admired Chinese aesthetic techniques, no one had ever had any solid knowledge of Japanese art until their woodblock prints began to make their way to the rest of the world, most especially the prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige.  The effect of these prints was electrifying on the visual artists of the day, suffering as they were under the heavy hand of an exhausted academic tradition.  The prints’ bold ink drawings, flat vibrant colors, lively diagonals, and images of clarity and simplicity, simply knocked everybody’s heads off.

The artists who were most greatly impacted by these prints are now the ones whom we consider to be among the greatest of their time, such as Whistler, Monet, and van Gogh. But French writers were also profoundly stirred by Japanese art.  Hokenson shows how writers like the Goncourt Brothers fashioned whole novels (such as their  Manette Salomon (1886), around Japanese ways of seeing.  Emile Zola was also deeply impressed by this radical new way of interpreting the world.  His La curée (1871) is basically an extended meditation on the need for a new way to see.  The heroine of this book comes to grief partially because she cannot perceive her circumstances with any kind of clarity, the kind to be found when you can look upon the world through the eyes of a Japanese master.  Zola’s later book, L’oeuvre (1886), concerns an artist who is unable to live up to his potential, mainly because he does not learn the lessons that the revolutionary new Japanese aesthetics provide.  Zola understood something which his characters do not:  Japanese aesthetics can provide you with a whole new way of being in the world. Hokenson’s chapter on Proust is the most enlightening in the book.  Indeed, this chapter is probably the single most brilliant piece of Proustian criticism I have ever read.  It finally answered some of my most basic questions about the book’s thematic unity.  Hokenson shows us that Proust had been as powerfully impressed by Japanese aesthetics as had Zola, Monet and Debussy.  Indeed, the famous opening scene of the novel, when the narrator receives a metaphysical earthquake as he sips a very ordinary cup of tea, is framed in terms of a Japanese work of art:

And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

Well, there it is, a Japanese reference which I had never really noticed before, even though I had read this passage many times.  Hokenson goes on to show us how Japanese references, Japanese aesthetics, Japanese ways of seeing are emphasized through the rest of the saga.  The long drawn-out aesthetic apprenticeship of the narrator is at bottom quite simple:  it is a way to attain the “Japanese way of seeing”, which Hokenson summarizes as “(a) a non-European relation to nature, (b) imaginative activity in the mind, and (c) evanescence and fugitive impressions in art.” It is an aesthetics of “simplicity, suggestion, indeterminacy, and impersonality”. Time and again throughout the novel, Hokenson shows us that Japanese aesthetics are emphasized at critical points in the story.  What is interesting is that these aesthetics provide a way out of the emotional pain which the narrator is constantly experiencing.  The novel progresses almost unrelentingly through constant disappointment and unhappiness, not only of the narrator but of the other principal characters, such as Charles Swann.  Unlike Swann, however, the narrator ultimately does find an escape from his distress, thanks to his slowly acquired Japanese way of seeing.  Not just seeing, mind you, but creating (the 3,000 page novel, after all, can be summarized as man drinks tea and writes book).  Artistic creation is ultimately presented as the novel’s greatest value, as it provides the narrator with the greatest joy and happiness he has ever known. Hokenson also states:  “The emphasis [in Japanese art] is no longer on resplendence but on simplicity, purity of line and form, spare vivid contrasting colors, delicacy of method, and suggestion of unstated essence … The artwork therefore entails, radically requires, two moments in time, the moment of creation and the moment of affective recreation.”  This last is also very important.  The greatest value of Japanese art is the way it stimulates the viewer’s imagination:  “the artist’s economy of means and radical simplification operate suggestively to provoke, in the viewer, an affective experience–comparable to the artist’s at the moment of creation–and an imaginative completion (of the image, locus, motion) in the mind.”  This is why Japanese art is so powerful.  You are no longer a passive spectator being bludgeoned by academicians but an active co-creator, along with the artist, of what is being depicted.  When you respond to a work of art like this, you are then able to enter into “a new order of reality.” Hokenson has many other brilliant insights in her book, both about Proust and other French writers, too many of which to be summarized here.  But here I must confess that I found the second half of the book, when she discusses 20th century writers, to be weak.  The first author she talks about after Proust is Paul Claudel, whom I had never read.  I immediately went in search of his more well-known works but found them to be dated, superficial and pretentious (sample sentence:  “London is a city composed of body parts.”)  Hokenson also gives us a detailed account of Roland Barthes’ Oriental peregrinations, but she never quite seems to realize that he is coming across as a ridiculous poseur (probably because he actually was a ridiculous poseur).  Her discussion of the two celebrated Marguerites (Yourcenar and Duras) is more insightful but will be appreciated only by those who like their fiction bland and humorless.  As for me, I gave up on their kind of “literary” fiction a long time ago.

Nevertheless, Hokenson’s insights into Proust have caused a major shift in my own life and have deepened my appreciation of his masterpiece.  If you want to find a whole new way of being in the world, if you really do want to fly from star to star, all you need to do is start practicing the Japanese way of seeing.  Keep your mind receptive and calm.  Strive to maintain your clarity of vision.  Pay careful attention to the natural world, most especially its color and light and space.  When you encounter a work of art, take time not just to perceive it, but to recreate it within your own being.  And–best of all–start studying the old Japanese masters who started the fuss in the first place.  This is easy enough to do these days, thanks to the internet.  Hokusai’s prints can be found here, and Hiroshige’s here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *