Proust on Twitter

November 12, 2013 | By Davis Schneiderman
© Andi Olsen

Davis Schneiderman is Associate Dean of the Faculty and Director of the Center for Chicago Programs at Lake Forest College. His latest work is the plagiarized [SIC].


The long strings of dark flapping dots—birds migrating over my Newark, Delaware home—would darken the sky twice each year in wavy strips of interference.

The sun would shine with its peculiar yellow like the skin of an emaciated onion from either side of their migrating band, while the birds, elongated into asemic portents and travelling by thousands on the wing, proved as impossible for me to ignore, at 6, as the “girl in the wood door.” The apparition of the girl—single, never migrating—haunted the hallway outside my bedroom with all the grained fripperies of the Belle Époque.

Her form was visible in the grain as a glass bead before a candle, yet as delicate in outline as the snapshot of a fire. She appeared from the peculiar cast of the nightlight as seen from the distance of my bed. This magic lantern showed only one picture—the girl in the wood door, bloodied with walnut stain—and she taught but one lesson: restiveness, of the same kind embedded in Proust’s magic lantern.

The first note of constructed art, or artifice, in Swann’s Way is the boy Marcel’s magic lantern. The device projects the story of Genevieve de Brabant and her nemesis Golo across the wall, and it presents, for the eponymous Marcel, “an intrusion of mystery and beauty into a room which I had succeeded in filling with my own personality until I thought no more of the room than of myself…I would begin to think and feel very melancholy things.”

In the folds of curtains under majordomo Golo’s, as in the folds of the girl in the wood door’s dressing gown, I too would set my mind toward the melancholy. The contours of my small world appeared as ragged and ill defined as the space between dream and deeper dream, between sleep and what passes at that age for the non-sleep state of ever-deepening awareness.

When my mother would kiss me good night, a feat much easier for me to achieve that for the narrator of Swann’s Way, I felt the security of her kiss to be terrifyingly temporary. I felt aloneness, not from family or home, but from everything that extended beyond the edges of my body.

I mention this now not for the sake of nostalgia, which I disdain with increasing intensity as I age, but for the impression the figure made upon me then—the un-articulable isolation of the human body as expressed through its projected art. My first reading of Proust 15 years later in graduate school at Binghamton University (where my instructor Marilyn Gaddis-Rose advanced at such as pace that I read the Moncrieff for 45 consecutive days, at a minimum of two-hours per day), bore this same marker: I was often physically overtaken by the experience. I would yawn, fall asleep, re-emerge, only to find that long splashes of text, characterized as a quarter moon may be by the impression that much remains hidden, inaccessible, and looming.

Still, I persevered, and I moved through Proust as one might move through a party at the Verdurins. The air is fine, the refreshments delicate, and the entertainment better than one might expect, and yet the odd order of the company—familiar to a fault and therefore devoid of interest—would appear gnarled and decrepit when viewed in the uncertain light of my rapidly scanning eyes.

To read Proust again in my 30s was to experience not merely a glimmer of foreknowledge, of “knowing” the text, but was rather marked by the sublime excrescence of the work. The Recherche is so long as to be smothering, a strange cousin to Raymond Queneau’s One hundred million million poems. And as with the flip-book game of Queneau, one may not be said to know the Recherche as one might be said to know The Great Gatsby.

The inconsistencies of Proust’s drafting, and the gaps in publication (thank WWI) along with the sheer effort necessary to read the text to completion offer—as when Marcel discovers the paving stones in the final book—the most delightful stumbling blocks.

Proust is something never to master, and never to know, but to experience in the moment of reading. What I remember the first time I do not recall the second, and what I passed over at 21, is the fact that Proust is collage, and Proust is Twitter. The vignettes, rather than collapsing to 140 characters, may take dozens of pages to unfold, yet the ethic is the same.

I had this ethic in mind, quite strongly, when writing my most recent novel [SIC], a completely appropriated work, readymade for a world populated and reduplicated by copies. [SIC], taking its title from the Latin abbreviation for “as written,” includes public domain works, like “Cademon’s Hymn,” Sherlock Holmes, and the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, and features Wikipedia pages, intellectual property law, genetic codes, and other untoward appropriations. The text also pivots on Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” taking its publication history through a replicated series of Google auto-translations. Daniel Levin Becker of the Oulipo generously penned the introduction. Andi Olsen took photos of me in a white suit around Paris. I am a bacillus, infecting the plagiarized texts.

I had this ethic mind when I asked Aleksandar Hemon if he thought Proust was collage and he responded, in part: “Again, what is great about Proust is that his work allows approaches from many positions and sensibilities and vantage points, while those are in no way mutually exclusive. Proust, if you wish, demands creative exegesis.”

I had this ethic in mind when I asked David Shields the same question, and he answered: “The miracle of Proust for me is that he will tell, say, an 80-page story and you will realize at the end of it that it has no narrative value -- the narrative decomposes before your very eyes; it has value only in the larger architecture of what he's doing: it has vector/grid value.”

Proust has more in common with Pascal’s Pensées or Nietzsche’s final aphoristic works than it even will with Thomas Mann. Where Modernism bloats itself to the death of the fork of over-rendered form, the Recherche refuses to let us ever absorb its shape.

We never eat it all, and so we never really fully digest. We are still hungry.

This is a virtue, for the most interesting books are those that refuse to be understood. Somewhere in Proust—am I imagining it?— exists a line like this: “A work of art creates the condition of its own reception.”

The mash-up world we live in creates only one condition: cutting.

For the best guidance on how one’s life may be nothing more than a series of always re-assembling slices, there may not exist, beyond Proust, a pair of sharper scissors.

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