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The Stirrings Of My Felt Body

Siri Hustvedt is the author of a book of poetry Reading to You, five novels, The Blindfold, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, What I Loved, The Sorrows of an American and The Summer Without Men. She has also published three books of essays: A Plea for Eros and Mysteries of the Rectangle: Essays on Painting, and Living, Thinking, Looking, as well as the non-fiction book The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves. Her sixth novel, The Blazing World, will be published by Simon and Schuster in March of 2014. Two of her novels were shortlisted for The Prix Femina Etranger in France. She received the International Gabarron Award for thought and humanities in 2012. Her work has been translated into over thirty languages. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

To read Proust is to feel the fluctuations of a consciousness in all its mingled modes—sensory, cognitive, emotional. But for me the enchantment of his immense novel lies in the fact that the narrator is agonizingly aware of the chasm between experience and language. The stirrings of my felt body: the thing seen in the world that creates another thing seen in my head, the stale odor that evokes a vague memory of a place I cannot quite recall, which then vanishes before I can name it, and the language I use to try to represent these fleeting realities are incompatible.

Proust: “The words in each case were a long way removed from the impressions.”

It is the attempt to articulate what so often goes unarticulated which makes Proust a great phenomenologist. He is bound in my mind to William James, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Susanne Langer, all philosophers—to James’s conscious flux and “fringe,” to Husserl’s motion of time consciousness that retains what has just past and projects what is to come, to Merleau-Ponty’s binding of the natural and the spoken, and to Langer’s muscular rhythms of art experience.

Proust: “In reality, every reader is, while reading, the reader of his own self.”

Every book is animated by its reader.

Proust: “The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable to him to discern, what without this book he perhaps never perceived in himself.”

I have often said, and have written in one form or another, that a great work of literature creates self-recognition in the reader, not the kind of banal sociological recognition that has infected so much fiction and runs on received knowledge and platitudes of the moment, a kind of inflated journalism that comforts the reader with what she already thinks she knows about herself. Great books push the reader into recognition of precisely what she couldn’t have seen, felt, or understood without the book she holds in her hands. You will notice that I have just articulated in a somewhat different way what Proust wrote above. Did I steal the insight from him, albeit unconsciously? Did I first recognize this little truth of mine in Proust? It seems likely. But that only serves to underscore my tribute.


Air France is a proud sponsor of 2013: A Year with Proust, a year long festival organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.