Saturday, December 04, 2010

Proust on Death

People don't die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life ... through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It's as though they were travelling abroad. (The Fugitive)

In the final volume of Proust's In Search of Lost Time the narrator comments on suffering and death:

And once one understands that suffering is the best thing that one can hope to encounter in life, one thinks without terror, and almost as of a deliverance, of death. (Time Regained, p 319)

With this view of death as deliverance reached after almost three thousand pages of narrative it was instructive to listen to the thoughts of Joel Rich, Instructor in The Basic Program of Liberal Education, the University of Chicago.  His lecture yesterday was entitled "Proust on Death" and in it he surveyed the treatment of death, its significance for both plot and philosophical development by Proust, by discussing the deaths of some of the major characters in the novel.  Beginning with the death of the narrator's grandmother he commented on Proust's reference to the effect on the narrator of strange bedrooms and the feeling of disconnection or separation that can prefigure death.  Later in the novel Proust compares death to travelling abroad.  It is described as "a vague absence" as one is reminded of the "existential significance" of death.  One by one the characters are felled:  Swann, Bergotte, Albertine, and even the narrator's close friend, Robert Saint-Loup.  Joel referenced the comment in Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych when Ivan's friend said he was glad it was he and not I who was dead.  The details of death may be varied but the cumulative effect on the narrator seemed to be consistent with the feeling that time was slowly eroding his life away.  It was suggested that death is the "final expression of reality".  I was reminded of the name given death by Rainier Maria Rilke in his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: "The Terrible Rival".

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