An Old Essay Fragment

In searching for suitable work in progress for the IPRH seminar, I came across this beginning to a meditative essay that I composed nearly eight years ago. I thought I would include it here as an example of the kind of writing I intend to do in correlation to this digital humanities project. The visualization and mapping tools could be used to enhance some of the issues that come up regarding the frequency of certain themes with particular places or place names.

In the final pages of In Search of Lost Time the narrator says of his intended book that he would “build it up like a church” (VI.507). He would also stitch it simply like a dress, regroup his forces like a general conducting an offensive, endure it like a medical regime (VI.507-9). But the book that he has written over the six volumes leading to this point features the church motif more prominently than the others mentioned in these self reflexive pages. In fact, the connection between self reflection and churches is prefigured on page one, where the narrator begins the story by explaining his nightly shift between waking and sleep.

And half an hour later the thought that it was time to look for sleep would awaken me; I would make as if to put away the book which I imagined was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. (I.1)

The apparent blending of subject and object “did not offend [his] reason” (I.1) and, we later learn, became the major motivation for his search of lost time. One critical aspect of this passage is that it establishes the conflict between [illusory?] perception and imperceptible reality, of which the narrator’s other conflicts are types (for example the questions of Albertine’s sexuality and fidelity). The church and quartet are significant here in that they embody and document time itself. Time and harmonics are the essential elements of the art of music, the bringing to life of a continual emotional present that can be re-performed but never duplicated. An old church brings to life the presence of the past and is a supreme exemplar of the general in the particular. It also features many arts—architecture, sculpture, stained glass, painting, tapestry, music, narrative, fashion, even food and drink—that bring together their special effects to express the whole of human experience. It is therefore not surprising that the narrator concludes that books of the magnitude he will undertake are never complete: “How many great cathedrals remain unfinished!” (VI.508).

Defined briefly, a motif is a recurring thematic or structural element in any art, but especially in music, architecture, painting, and literature. In addition to manifestation through plot and character, motifs can be embodied in place or time. Churches in In Search of Lost Time comprise one motif among many. The recurring elements that unify Proust’s novel—the Madeleine, the Japanese paper game, the little phrase, the parish church at Combray, to name a few—allow for the modulation of themes and function like motifs in a piece of music, but also like the synaesthetic motifs of a church. Churches fulfill several functions in the novel ranging from an element of setting to the object of discourse. Churches are therefore highly appropriate as a motif because they embody both place and time. Considering the narrator’s comparison of his book to a great unfinished cathedral, the notion of a church motif, and possibly the motif itself, might be incomplete.

This paper will perform a meditation on the church motif of In Search of Lost Time, focusing on significant as well as seemingly insignificant moments. The goal is to define the import and function of the church motif, volume by volume, as a mean to developing a theory of narrative and further to illuminate Proust’s work. Questions raised along the way will be varied and speculative because this piece will attempt to discover the ground upon which a more formal study will be based. For that reason, the paper might seem in places to be disjointed, incomplete, incoherent, or sketchy. Since my orals lists will focus on modernism, realism/naturalism, and narrative theory, I will also attempt to begin fleshing out questions and issues to address while reading for the exam. This paper will also make use of and address issues pertaining to the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive, a beta version of which is at


Volume I features a lengthy meditation on the parish church of Combray along with numerous references to it and other churches. The meditation on Saint-Hilaire constitutes twelve pages of exquisite description of the parts of the church, its content, and what it meant to the narrator as a young boy. Saint-Hilaire is a shaping influence on Combray and its citizens’ activities. It is also an icon that represents their place, their essence. For the narrator, it is a point of origin and guidance in his geographical, temporal, and biological (biographical?) movement as well as in his vocation; it is later in this volume the setting for several formative events, notably his first observation of the Duchesse de Guermantes at the wedding of Dr. Percepied’s daughter. Other churches, visited or imagined, figure prominently in his walks along the Méséglise and Guermantes ways, which form the “deepest layer of [his] mental soil” (I.260). And Saint-Hilaire always manages to show itself from afar as he returns to Combray.

The passage quoted in the initial paragraph of this essay (I/I.1) underscores the extent to which the narrator is as much a reader as the writer of his book—both the book held in childhood and the one we ourselves read—as much its subject as all the other themes. Likewise, its readers will be furnished with “the means of reading what lay inside themselves” (VI.508). One question raised here pertains to realism—whether reality lies in things themselves or in the experience or memory of them. The passage could possibly be linked to memory, for the narrator claims later that memories reside not in the mind but in things. However, since memory is not reality but a reproduction of it, the novel probably has more of a non-realist aesthetic despite the meticulous realism of external description. How can we relate these issues to modernist aesthetics such as surrealism? Whatever is happening aesthetically, Proust seems to be questioning traditional epistemologies based on the subject/object dichotomy, especially when the subject becomes its own object of inquiry. How does this fit with modernist trends? What are the relationships of reality and epistemology in (non-)realist aesthetics?

Epistemic and aesthetic issues also appear in the next church passage, which deals with layers of representation and authenticity. Similar to the first passage’s blending of reading and dreaming, this one occurs during bedtime reading, when the narrator’s grandmother gives him photographs of paintings to calm his nerves.

She attempted by a subterfuge, if not to eliminate altogether this commercial banality, at least to minimise it, to supplant it to a certain extent with what was still art, to introduce, as it were, several “thicknesses” of art: instead of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, of the Fountains of Saint-Cloud, or of Vesuvius, she would inquire of Swann whether some great painter had not depicted them, and preferred to give me photographs of “Chartres Cathedral” after Corot, of the “Fountains of Saint-Cloud” after Hubert Robert, and of “Vesuvius” after Turner, which were a stage higher in the scale of art. (I.I/53-4)

The narrator’s sardonic tone highlights the...

realism, different valuations of art object, layer of closeness not necessarily relevant to that of representation (photograph or painting of the original vs. photograph of a painting of the original). Proust archive images—digital simulacra of simulacra; what matter the color + lighting differences? For example the Corot Chartres Cathedral painting images: one is significantly darker than the other.

Does the file manipulator/editor’s hand or intent matter? Relationship of narrator to grandmother—irony is she wants to give him something of a higher or better aesthetic value, whereas photographs themselves can be valuable aesthetic objects (not to mention the aesthetic value of the cathedral itself, which is the ultimate referent here). To her mind painting is the higher art, though is mediating the boy further from the original beauty of the cathedral. However, if you consider the painting itself is beautiful and an art object, you are still only a step away from the painting, which puts you two steps away from the original. It all depends on where you wish to stop/stand, which is part of the point of the novel. The narrator later comes to realize that mediation is all there is and that the truth, or reality, is always in it (page ref?). This scene also prefigures the repeating mediation of experience and memory through memories of both, with the church figuring as the point of origin. Church is appropriate because it surrounds entirely when you’re in it, and is always present outside the self when in its area/town. Church is itself a memory vault, the memory of history, providing experience of external and internal memories in all their dimensions. Photographs of paintings of churches help to convey/expose this epistemic structure/cycle and prefigure what narrator’s primary mission will be throughout the novel.