I am a bit worried about what I am writing at the moment. People see me spend long stretches working, and ask me in a roundabout way actually I am working on, and I don’t really want to say. There are two reasons for my uncool evasiveness. Firstly I only have a few central ideas and a new raw stylistic idea for what I am working on, and the newness of these ideas are a little scary. So my evasiveness is borne of insecurity.
Secondly the actual plot of what I am working on is something of a moving target these days. this also is new. Generally, I am the type of guy who sits down, makes a plan, then executes it. I mean its not that I usually know every plot move, but I generally know. So I am doubly insecure, in as much as I am not sure where I am going or how long it will take.
This leads me to the third question I get asked:
‘When are you going to be finished?’
‘How long is a piece of string?’ I say, meaning I don’t know and I worry when actually I will be done.
My novel started out as a nice respectable middle aged crisis type book with a few literary and thriller elements attached. Now, three major drafts later and three years later, it has become a monster. Now its got more to do with horror and thriller elements than the tame reflective rather self absorbed piece I started out working on. And as I go through drafts and as it subtly changes me, I become more and more uncomfortable with how raw and visceral the book is becoming.
It also makes me think about the art and craft of writing. Where am I going with all this work, all this drafting and redrafting and rewriting? Is there a point when one runs out of ideas, a limit to the amount of books your produce before you begin to be a cliché? Someone who produces a slim tome every eighteen months to keep up with contract requirements? What’s the point of writing?
I don’t have and don’t really want an answer to that question. But I do think once you learn about writing, the craft, how to plot, how to pace, the elements of story, using different types of styles for differing elements of a text, you find that having the craft is not enough. One wants to go deeper, certainly I do. One throws away language games and well worn plot clichés to get at the core of things.
I think that writing is an act that leads one to shed elements of a false self and it leads you to ones core, that’s if you want to go there. J D Salinger famously stopped publishing because he wanted his writing to be as free of the demands of others as possible. The thread or piece of string one leaves down as one journeys through the labyrinth of words is just long enough to get to the centre. That’s how long the string is.
I hate sharing personal information. I feel deeply uncomfortable doing so. But it is important. So here goes. I happen to be a writer. This is not by choice. I tried everything not to be a writer. In my early youth I tried a career in religion, which gives one access to lots and lots of books, which is very cool. It also gives one a room of one’s own, also cool (ask Virginia Woolf), an opportunity to meditate (which I like a lot), a very comfortable middle class existence (I’m from the middle classes), as well as a comprehensive training and educational background (I took full advantage of all available libraries). I was not good at attending college, but I did okay with exams. I was expected to be an academic. But I wanted to write, which is not the same thing. I found it difficult to fit into any one academic discipline. I would also like to lightly mention in passing that my brand of religiosity included my joining a monastery, running retreats and giving sermons and being generally incredibly busy with people, which was very difficult for me. I was an odd monk, I must confess. I didn’t like the costume (originally what is now a monks robe was originally the normal clothing of peasants – the hood being a sack for your stuff). I thought it rather elitist and divisive. Also on a general level both back then and now, one would never think it, but I wasn’t comfortable around people. I also found I could be too blunt for people. I offended folks by my excessive straightforwardness, which was taken the wrong way quite a lot. The other thing was I could not stop writing. Poems, articles, stories, essays – I couldn’t stop. Then after a few years I stopped believing in God, which was a devastating and deeply depressing experience. Christianity, at a certain point made no sense. It had its origins in older religions, which in turn had its origins in older myths. It was all clearly made up. I found my true calling was to atheism and publishing poor quality youthful short stories and poems. I quit being a monk. I tried academia but disliked both it and academics. I married, and then, to support my new marriage, I tried being a respectable civil servant with a good job and a house and a pension and serious prospects in the field of computer programming. Though I had hardly seen a computer before becoming a civil servant, I found I had a talent for programming them. I loved taking them apart and reassembling them. I had fun with technology. I used trawl thru computer junk, build a PC, and give them as gifts to friends and people who needed them or didn’t have a personal computer of their own. I also took full advantage of the company library and I learned a few programming languages and made a bit of money. The thing was I still longed to write. Actually at the time I was writing, particularly Sci-Fi, but it wasn’t enough. It was hunger inside me to do more and be more, and though I was naturally good with languages, though I could put ideas, even coded ideas, together easily and quickly, I simply could not take the soul crushing drudgery of working in a corporate setting. The dishonesty, the politics, the lack of challenge, and most of all having to deal with people on a day to day basis, which is by no means my strong suit, I began to drink heavily, and it was a miracle I wasn’t fired for being repeatedly drunk on the job. I remember coding multi-million pound systems while being drunk. I remember compiling reports for accountants, or even writing reports, again while being ‘compromised’, a euphemism one hears in US cop dramas for being under the influence. I was becoming addicted. I found a few brandies relaxed me sufficiently to focus on the task at hand without being unduly anxious while in the company of others, which I disliked. I was earing a lot of money, more than my boss at the time. A therapist I had at the time challenged me. She said if I continued drinking and coding, alcohol would destroy my mind. Those were her words. I realized my misery, my depression and hopelessness I was dulling with drink. I was also becoming very unhappy in my marriage. So I quit. I sold my house and made some money, bought another house, became a landlord, and, with no prospects I started writing novels. My wife at the time started publishing my own work and those of other writers. For the most part my books did modestly well. I had found who I was. I was a member of the tribe of writers. I think this is a crucial thing. Every person needs to find who they truly are, especially as an artist. And we are all artists, everyone. Its not a New Age blanket terms like, for instance, us all being ‘beautiful and unique snowflakes’ or ‘find the genius inside you’. No. We are all creative beings, potentially. Again my trouble being around people reared its head. I was swamped with people. Readings, writings, publications, trips to other countries doing launches and so on, began to take their toll on me. My marriage began to really crater. My wife at the time had her own troubles, deep troubles, and I found no matter what I did I could neither help her or myself. I suffered a major depressive episode and after three years and several disastrous misdiagnoses and horrible medications on the part of therapists and psychologists, I left my wife. Then she took her life just under a year after I left. The horror. As I said in her obituary, this is the single greatest loss of talent and potential the Irish publishing scene has suffered in a generation. It came as a devastating shock to me and to those who loved her, a sorrow of immeasurable proportions. I did not understand her condition. In the aftermath it has been explained to me. Now I understand. I have moved on. But I have not forgotten. Now I continue to write, because I am a writer. This is my story. Tell someone yours today, or even write it down. I find it horribly difficult, but its liberating.
Facebook is like the Hotel California. You can never leave. Rather than leaving or deleting, a number of events made me ‘discontinue’ my Facebook account.
1. The politicization of Facebook.
Facebook was originally designed as a social media platform, somewhere folks of all stripes can connect. Mark Zukerberg also saw huge potential down the line for selling advertising as soon as people adapted to Facebook and saw it as an extension of their friendship circle. Sadly those innocent days of mere data analytics and targeted advertising are gone. Aside from every intelligence agency and advertising company and multinational corporation being all over Facebook friendsphere, the amount of political rants from varying sources, from all sides of the political divide has made even the most dispassionate and objective bystander hard pressed to maintain their objectivity and enjoy surfing and commenting on Facebook. The era of Trumpism, with its extreme divisiveness, misogynism, racism and xenophobia, and its consequent political fallout has made it impossible to enjoy any kind of social media, except if one enjoys rants and calls for political change and bitter disputes. If one adds this to the ongoing data harvesting, the analytics and psychological profiling, Facebook has become an arena for at times extreme social experimentation, targeted advertising, and monitoring of users. Nowadays elections are staged on Facebook (recently a US congressional hearing heard how approx. 10 million people in the U.S. saw at least one of the 3,000 political ads bought by accounts linked to the Russian government)
*For more information check out the Steele Dossier
Facebook allows for 5000 ‘friends’ – which is an absurd number that serves Facebooks advertising and analytics more than the user. At the point of exiting Facebook I had about 4700, and I was beginning to think it was a bit nuts. Studies show that anything more than 150 friends and your brain can’t take it – 150 being the number beyond which groups begin to have real difficulties in social cohesion Robert Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, noticed a correlation between brain size and a persons capacity to sustain friendships. See this pic:
This friendship capacity is directly related to the size of ones neo cortex, depending on the primate. There are four main circles of intimacy, the largest number of deep intimates we can handle being about five. Dunbar goes on to speculate that the evolution of language comes directly from the notion that the alternate to language is social grooming, meaning time spent stroking and engaging in physical rituals. Someone told me recently we share 97% of our DNA with our chimps. Amazing how similar the pic below is with a few guys down the pub after a couple of pints. I can’t show a pic of humans because well, it might cause offense. But google a few pics under the search protocol ‘pals having pints down the pub’ and see what I mean.
Talking generally and humour especially, enables one to reach more people more efficiently, otherwise we would be half our times grooming and stroking others. So having a thousand or two thousand ‘friends’ is an illusion. All one is doing is giving Facebook more data, and indeed any company using Facebooks phenomenal freely acquired data horde. What keeps friendship alive is not online interaction, it’s human interaction.
In 2016 Mark Zukerberg reported a profit margin (net) of $1.6 billion, and mentioned in passing that the average user time spent daily on Facebook was 50 minutes. In 2014 it was 40 minutes. We spend about three hours watching TV and movies, and about 19 minutes reading books. Looking elsewhere, according to comscore more than 14% of our total time spent online is spent of Facebook with an overall score of 1650 million users – per month. This is followed by 55 million monthly users (Instagram) followed by Twitter and Snapchat. Moreover, in an age of increasing atomization and isolation, Facebook gives one the illusion of intimacy. The most powerful virtual tool right now is the Facebook ‘Like’ button. One ‘ Like’ and you get a little endorphin kick. Its a form of stroking, as Dunbar describes it. A dose of Oxytocin (aka the ‘hug drug’). Facebook gives all the appearance of being addictive. See also Some Notes on Facebook
4. We are being watched.
Xkeyscore is an interesting program. It was developed by the NSA, is a meta search program, and has over 700 servers in over 150 sites across the planet. It is largely a passive search engine but has associated programs such as QUANTUMINSERT, QUANTUMHAND, QUANTUMTHEORY and others that allow for both active intervention and a deep dive data harvesting. Anything you do on Facebook, Google, and other social media platforms comes under the purview of these powerful and evolving programs.
“Beyond emails, the XKeyscore system allows analysts to monitor a virtually unlimited array of other internet activities, including those within social media.
An NSA tool called DNI Presenter, used to read the content of stored emails, also enables an analyst using XKeyscore to read the content of Facebook chats or private messages.”
Aside from being a huge fan of the Alien franchise, over the last months I have started stargazing. Despite the endless rain we have in Kerry in South of Ireland, the night sky down here is mainly free of light pollution, that is when those clouds finally clear. Given a fairly clear night, an hour or two without rain, a warm coat, some gloves and a bit of hot whiskey, fun can be had (sadly Im on a diet – so no whiskey). Also, and most happily, my landlord has a pretty cool telescope. We spend hours looking at the moon and Saturn and occasionally a tiny Mars appears. There are countless stars out there and just staring into a telescope gives one and incredible rush of transcendence. There before one’s eyes are actual proof of other galaxies and other planets and other constellations. Call it a Galileo (remember what happened to him?) moment but we humans sometimes forget how small we are and how vast it all is out there. I find I love to look out through a telescope as opposed to looking into a computer screen. I find it wonderful to sit out on a clear night and allow my eyes to become accustomed to the dark after countless hours of artificial light. After a while the clouds disappear and I look up.
So many stars. Satellites come out at night. It’s fantastic. It’s literally a trip. Try it. Bring the kids. Bring your friends. Go up a hill at night and look at the sky. If you have a telescope all the better. But even with the naked eye looking at huge boiling stars lighting up the night sky millions or billions of light years away, is the most fun you can ever have without spending a cent. For me it’s a consciousness expanding exercise. One theory postulates that we occupy only one of multiple universes, how many we just don’t know. In this particular universe some say there are a hundred billion galaxies. Others say its two hundred billion. Others again say there are five hundred billion galaxies. (I got these figures from a google search, so many results emerging I don’t see how I can provide links to same). When you take the difference between one and five billion, it becomes clear just how much about the universe we just dont know. Also, I think that even if we don’t agree on the number of galaxies in the known universe we can say this. There are almost an uncountable number of them and as such there must therefore be an uncountable number of stars in the each of those galaxies. Right now its an unknown, but a immense number.
If there are a vast number of stars, then there has to be even more planets. Planets form usually from the leftover parts of stars (how planets form), so for every star, there are usually a number of planets rotating around them. Then notion then that we are alone in this incredibly vast, impossibly complex universe, that humanity and the dolphins and the great apes and so on are the only sentient creatures, well anywhere, is so vastly improbable as to be at this stage funny. Its an extension of the junk science isolationism and anthropocentrism we see pervading our culture at present, to think this universe is especially for us and we are alone in it. Though without an ET we got no proof, its also equally true its a mighty vast universe with just one planet that supports life. To me the geeks and conspiracy theorists will be proven right in time, the tinfoil hat wearing brigade talking about other worlds and alien visitations, however hilarious and at times, and, well a bit deranged, have a valid point. Its most theories that fit way outside the accepted agreed pool of belief systems are treated as a bit crazy, but the more one looks out on a vast canopy of stars the more one sees, well more stars. How is it possible we are alone in all of this? Furthermore if we are alone (unlikely), why are we killing each other for real estate or belief systems? We have unlimited places out there to make a home and live in peace. If anything the wisest course of action is to recognize how limited resources are here, treat this beautiful planet with love, and set about recognizing the dangers of overpopulation, and finding new homes elsewhere rather than killing other people simply because they dont have the same god or their ideology doesn’t match yours. The truth is maybe out there?
Being a rather impressionable little boy, that is, when I was a little boy, I recall one of the most terrifying creatures of my childhood was Frankenstein, not Victor Frankenstein mind, but the Monster, or The Creature, also known as Adam, something I was reminded of by a friend. For now I am not talking about the book, but the movies. This huge bolt necked square headed silent killer that walked slowly and never stopped until you were dead was a prototype Terminator that was out to get me. Scary. Frankenstein haunted my dreams and my waking life. I had no doubt this creature existed. That scientists were building him somewhere, and that Victor Frankensteins Monster was a truly malevolent force. I became profoundly conservative in my thinking. I needed things to be safe and ordered and filled with ritual and nice middle class motifs. This was because my mind was frightening me. It was because he, the Frankenstein Thing was evil. Science was a doorway to a terrifying unknown. We should not mess with the natrual order of things.
This is of course was long before I actually sat down and read Mary Shelleys remarkable book and saw that this was not what the book was about and that the Creature was a fascinating damaged and complex being.
I mentioned earlier I was an impressionable little boy. I guess I am being a tad disengenuous. I was a scaredy cat. I was filled with phobias and terrors and oversensitivites. I had too many ideas and dreams, and I couldn’t control them or cope with them. Also I had no one to talk to about them. I had an incredibly vivid imagination and ghost stories and such like really gripped me. Frankenstein was real to me and something had to be done about it. I had to understand the monster. Getting to sleep at night became a real challenge. I tried strategies. I listened to the radio. I played music. I left the light on. I read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. And eventually, I dropped off asleep only to see ghosts and monsters of the Frankensteninian ilk lurch out of the shadows and come ambling for me with arms outstretched and a dull empty gaze that spoke of murder. I would wake with a start and go downstairs and drink a glass of milk or something and try to settle myself. I didnt know what to do with all these ideas and dreams. It seemed to me that the world of science, of creativity was filled with possibilities for good or ill, but it seemed also that no matter what we did, how many countless brilliant advances we made, we were always left with the fruits of our creation, our monsters, our Frankensteins. In the future there would be the mass production and corporatization of pharmacology that we have now, along with drone warfare, robot troops and police, mass surveillance, and Donald Trump. Back then in the sixties and the seventies there were science fiction novels and small indications of the future one would occassionally see on Television and the Movies. The problem was that all the top minds in the world of the arts predicted a bad end to our journey into scientific progress, despite the fact that millions of lives were being saved by science and that statistically the numbers of people being killed in wars and other conflicts were dropping precipitiously. It all made no sense, that is until I realized what they were talking about was not what science cured, but that our potential for self annihilation was now absolute. That was the real monster. Not the Creature.
One of the things that cured my terrors was the experience of enlightenment. I actually picked up Shelley’s novel and read it. Victor Frankenstein was not the mad gothic genius with a cliche eastern european scientific sidekick working in some fire and brimstone lightning filled huge secret laboratory. He worked alone. Mainly in dissection rooms. His goal was to create the perfect human, a creature free of human foibles and defects. And by all accounts he succeeded. Except like all very intelligent sensitive beings, the Creature, as it was called, longed for human companionship, for love and meaning and because it, the Creature, was isolated and shunned, loneliness and rejection drove it insane and led to its downfall, not least because Victor Frankenstein destroyed the Creatures potential mate and condenmned it to a life of isolation an desperate meaninglessness. The Creature was eloquent, poetic, thoughtful, sensitive, and given to long philosophical soliliques. Victor Frankenstein was a classic romantic character. In him we have what is now a veritable movie and fiction trope of the lonely genius labouring to create a better world using the gifts of intellect and skill, trying to replace blind assumptons with knowledge, undermining groundless fears with the power of insight. Instead of doing that, Victor created a being that had no place in the world, a being that went mad and had to be destroyed, a lonely desperate highly gifted creature who because he was a new type of transhuman, he had no peer, no companion, no home.
I am no longer afraid of the Creature. I feel a great sadness now about his fate. His creator, Victor Frankenstein killed his bride and left him to go mad and become a psychotic killer. Deep down The Creature dreamed of going to South America, far from everybody, and living quietly with his mate, a female Creature, someone who would understand him, share his life as an equal, drive away the sense of his unbridgeable distance from others, a distance he neither wanted nor created for himself in the first place. The truth was that Frankensteins Creation had no place in ths world. If he and his bride could take a rocket ship to the stars, perhaps he might still be out there, but alas he was a being ahead of his time, so the tragedy of Frankenstein is the tragedy of his creation. Each destroyed the other. As the meme generators on the internet so like to remind us, Frankenstein was the name of the doctor, not the so called monster.
There are few extraordinarily gifted people people out there who can also be described as really good people. They exist of course, but Marcel Proust, a true artistic genius, was one of them. Kind, sensitive, thoughtful to a fault, a good and faithful friend and an extraordinarily generous man with his time and money, Marcel Proust deserves the title of being ‘extremely cool’. And his books have few peers in sheer scale of writing and breath of vision. They are extremely long, indeed an enormous committment, but the rewards far out weigh the effort in time and patience spent in reading these wonderful books. Forgive me if I sound as if an assumption is made here about prospective readers of Proust. As so much of contemporary culture is about instant rather than long term reward, I am advocating something somewhat counter cultural here. hence my caveat.
Marcel and Marcel – A life poured into a Novel
Marcel Proust poured his life into his novel Remembrance of Things Past, or, as in the original French, A La Recherché du Temps Perdu. From his life he composed so many unforgettable characters, living breathing people filled with ambivalent, sometimes clashing ambitions and sexualities, contradictory longings and sometimes devastating losses. These lives lurk within those famous long lyrical beautiful tortured sentences. There is the erudite eccentric homosexual Baron De Charlus, quoter of Balzac with a fixation for sado masochistic practices in male brothels. De Charlus pursues the gifted musician Morel, who eventually betrays him. Then there is Baron de Charlus’ nephew, Robert de saint Loup who though homosexual, courts and eventually marries Gilberte. Gilberte, with whom Marcel himself was once in love, is daughter to the coquette Odette. Odette is wife of the aesthete socialite, the fascinating and tragic Charles Swann, who risked exclusion from society for Odette, the woman he loved. Marcel, the “I” of the novel, the complex neurotic gifted sickly self-doubting central fictional narrator, has his own share of tragic love affairs. He falls passionately for the bisexual Albertine, whom Marcel jealously tries to control and possess completely. Albertine flees her captivity and dies tragically, something Marcel could never get past. There are other people too: the Guermantes family, the Verduins, Marcels parents, and the brilliant artist Elestir, among many others.
These characters are composites from Marcel Proust’s own life. In detailing their lives, Proust draws from the content of his consciousness, mixes compassion with irony, beauty with pathos, wit with savagery. This style and vision makes his novel addictive reading. It is surprising that there haven’t been more movies about the novel as Proust writes cinematographically. I know of two myself: Jeremy Irons in Swann in Love, and Time Regained with Emmanuele Beart, Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich and Vincent Perez. Both are fine movies.
Reading Marcel Proust’s Novel
Reading Proust is looking into the mind of a writer/narrator with a fetish for exactitude, an eye for emotional and physical detail that borders on obsessive compulsive. And this is why any at attempt at summarising A la Recherché du Temps Perdu is to subtract story from style, which is to miss out on one of the most unforgettable reading experiences one could have, no small loss in any lifetime. For Proust style is integral to substance, and the substance of the story is time, each moment of consciousness and identity being abolished by the next, time as death and rebirth captured and recalled and reborn in the truth of art. His work is filled with hilariously comic scenes of French society at the turn of the twentieth century. It is peppered with devastating ironies, depicting moments of extraordinary beauty and pathos and savagery. It has all the grasp of humanity, all the clarity and vision and beauty that only a mature artist can bring to a work at the height of their powers. It’s also in seven parts, and is three thousand pages long.
Marcel Proust (1871-1922) came to write A la Recherché only after an equally long journey of self-discovery. It is this journey which is the novels subject. Marcel Proust was the son of Adrien Proust, an eminent physician of provincial catholic descent, and Jeanne Weil, of a wealthy Alsatian Jewish family, born in Auteil, in France. He attended the Lycee Concordet (1882-89), which happily afforded a more relaxed regime than some of the scholarly Schools of the Quartier Latin, which served this sensitive person well. His school reports and essays and letters all speak of someone who loved reading and conversation, who avoided discord at all costs, who sought the companionship of his schoolmates and wrote for class magazines. His early childhood memories were recreated in A La Recherché in parallel with an intricate portrait of society life. One of his earliest memories forms the opening sequence of the novel, that of falling asleep at night. He speaks of dreaming, shifting consciousness, like a teleportation device taking one to other times and places. And yet he longs for the comfort of his mother’s goodnight kiss, his shield against night terrors. In parallel to his own private world, he draws in society too in the person of a family friend, Charles Swann, and later on in life hearing of Swann’s desperate pursuit filled courtship and eventual unhappy marriage to the unfaithful courtesan Odette de Creacy. Swann had met Odette years before at the Verduin salon, filled as it was with countless tiny torturous rubrics and rituals of propriety and nasty controlling gossip. Swann was based on the real life Charles Haas. He, Haas, was born approx. 1833 and was also a habitué of literary salons and artists’ studios. Haas, like Swann, was a Jewish dilettante who was well received in French high society. But Swann, unlike Haas risked his status and reputation for Odette de Creacy. Unfortunately the marriage was not a happy one. Proust did not intend to use Haas at all in the novel and actually gave Swann a very different personality than that of Haas. He said he found that Haas “was present at the conception of my Swann” (Corr vol XII p.387)
People like Haas, whom Proust met superficially or intimately, attached themselves to his memory and imagination, clinging like marker buoys to deeply submerged fragments of memory of his past life. These fictional people play out the tragicomedy of their lives as Marcel strives to find himself within this world of French high society.
What actually happens – the story of the novel
The subject of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu is Marcel’s own evolution from sickly little boy to the artist who succeeds in his ambition to write a great work. The moment which gave the narrator Marcel the inspiration to begin the work is depicted at the end of the book. Here Marcel, now approaching middle age, is late for a musical soiree and is asked to wait in the library of the fictional Princess de Guermantes. The butler brings tea and cake. Marcel has at this stage in his life achieved the highest social acceptance. As he sits waiting, dipping his madeleine cake in tea, he unexpectedly has a climatic moment of realisation. He has a moment of involuntary memory. Memories of childhood wash over him. Suddenly he realises what he must do. He has found the great work he must write. The work is himself, his own journey. Edmund White in his fine book on Proust comments that perhaps “the strangest drama in Proust’s life is the transformation of little Marcel – the dandy and partygoer, the time waster who at thirty- four had managed to do little more than write a slim volume of short stories and two translation of Ruskin – into the great Proust, who wrote one of the longest and most remarkable novels of all time.” (Proust p.82) And now because of his crippling health problems, his ambition to succeed is also a race to against time to write, a race against death.
It is this ironic circular movement, this beginning and end, whereby Marcel in discovering his calling as an artist has to leave society, that make A La Recherché du Temps Perdu so memorable. He has to leave his life, or what he thought to be his life, and recreate the true life. He has to rejuvenate impressions suppressed by time, to recompose life and bring him back to his self, his boyhood and the love and companionship as he originally knew them. For Proust one creates fiction to recreate the truth, to resurrect it from the tomb of time where all things die. The work of the artist is the discovery of life hidden beneath self-love and intellect and habit, the underworld of life unseen because of the mundane and the ritualised. Ironically enough, the Guermantes salon where Marcel has his library insight is initially shown as a place of intelligence and poetry and high art. It is the initially the perfect circle for the fictional Marcel to revolve within. Moreover Marcel falls in love with the Duchess de Guermantes, but gets over it when he meets her in society after a trip to meet Saint Loup in his garrison town. Gradually Marcel’s disillusionment at the hollowness and vanity of Guermantes’ society surfaces. This fictional experience parallels Prousts deepening adult disenchantment with society, something that grew as became ever more upwardly mobile in society. As a boy he had suffered his first asthma bouts, a condition that was to debilitate him for the rest of his life. His childhood holidays (1880-89) were spent at Illiers and Auteuil or at seaside Normandy resorts with his grandmother. These childhood holiday scenes later became the Combray holiday scenes of the novel. During this time, as he played along the Champs-Elysees, he meets and falls in love with a little girl named Marie de Benardaky, just as in the novel the fictional Marcel meets and falls in love with Gilberte Swann, daughter of Charles and Odette. It is through Marie and other such children whose parents were society hostesses that Proust became as he grew older a habitué of some of the most exclusive drawing rooms of French society. Despite his chronic and recurrent ill health, Proust spent a year in the army (1889 to 1890), studied and took licences in law in 1893, and literature in 1895 at the School of Political Sciences. In 1896 he published Les Plaisirs at les Jours (Pleasures and Days), a selection of poignant stories already published in such magazines as Le Banquet and La Revue Blanche. Already he had begun to write the somewhat disjointed but brilliant novel Jean Santeuil (published eventually in 1955), which coincided with his increasing ill health, his gradual withdrawal from a society he could not tolerate.
The Dreyfus Affair and Withdrawal from the World
This world weariness reached a high point with his involvement in the Alfred Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jewish army officer unjustly imprisoned in Devil’s Island for spying. The affair was highly controversial, and spilt France into two highly contentious factions. It also alienated Proust from his father. Proust assisted Dreyfus’ lawyer and organized petitions on his behalf. Again his sensitivity to rejection and abandonment, which probably lent itself to his extraordinary graciousness and wit and skills at mimicry, came to the fore. Though Proust was not blackballed in society because of the Dreyfus affair, he did lose friends and was subjected to snide remarks because of being half Jewish, though he protested himself to be catholic. In reality he was agnostic. More than anything it was the bigotry and anti-Semitism of French society which led to his final withdrawal from it. This need to find oneself in the world of society, to find acceptance in it, and consequent failure and retreat and disillusionment, rises and disappears in cycles throughout A La Recherché. Indeed Proust, now that he had no salon world to comfortably retreat into (aside from the very occasional sortie), truly feared his own destiny as a writer. He feared rightly that in beginning the great work he so longed to write it might take everything he had in life. Consequently it would have been easier to dither. Then he might at least continue to live, be among the beautiful creatures of desire that populated high society, write brilliant pastiches of Balzac and Falubert, translate the art critic Ruskin’s works as he had in younger days, and have something akin to a life. But he didn’t. He took the plunge and wrote on. The first volume, Swann’s Way was rejected by the highbrow publishing house, Nouvelle Revue Française on the recommendation of Andre Gide, who thought that a snob like Proust could contribute little worthwhile to literature. Proust’s housekeeper, Celeste Albaret, thought that the manuscript had not even been unwrapped, let alone read. Gide was later to apologise, and radically changed his views after actually reading the manuscript. After the initial rejection by the NRF, the courageous publisher Grasset published Swann’s Way in 1913. Further negotiations between Grasset, Proust and the NRF led to a simultaneous volume being brought out, Within a Budding Grove, for which Proust won the Prix Goncourt in December 1919. Three more volumes came out during Prousts lifetime: Le côté de Guermantes I (October 1920), Le Côté De Guermantes II – Sodome et Gomorrhe I (May 1921), Sodome et Gomorrhe II (April 1922). The NRF in collaboration with Robert Proust, Marcels younger brother, published the final volumes – La Prisonnière (1923), Albertine Disparue (1925) and Le Temps Retrouvé (1927).
Througout A La Recherché the narrator Marcel continually has the ambition to write a great work ever drawing him on. This desire remains despite his misgivings over his talent, and even though ironically his ambitions in society if not in love, are continually satisfied. In real time, for Proust it was the death of his parents, his father in 1903 and his mother in 1905 that ironically set him free both emotionally and financially to write. Proust lived within a cycle of dependency, especially with his mother. Just after his mothers death Proust wrote to the Comte de Montesquiou (the basis for Proust’s Baron De Charlus character) saying that with his mother’s death “My life has now forever lost its only purpose, it’s only sweetness, it’s only consolation. I have lost her whose unceasing vigilance brought me in peace and tenderness the only honey of my life” (Selected Letters 2:208). He sought that peace and tenderness in many forms, in the character of Albertine, the thinly disguised feminisation of Albert Agnoscelli, Prousts secretary and great passionate unfulfilled love. Albertine is first depicted as the leader of a group of girls running on the beach led by Albertine. Like Albertine in the novel, Agnostelli was held captive by Proust, fled from his possessive love and dies tragically. Albert Agnostelli died in a plane crash in 1914 during a time when Marcel saw that millions were about “to be massacred in a war of the worlds comparable to that of Wells” (Corr. Vol XIII, p 283). The death of Albert occurring at the outset of war, led Proust to the second great shipwreck of his life after the death of his parents. For him this death, like his mother’s death, represented the loss of love, loss of everything. It was a desperate passion, an unspeakable unfulfilled desire that Proust projected onto his secretary. With Albert dead as in the novel, he felt himself to be a spent force. His passion and desire and jealousy of Albert were thwarted, as it was always thwarted in life, this time by death. Beauty is lost as love is lost, and though Proust was at the height of his powers as a writer, he stopped writing for a time to heal from such a devastating shock. Just as it was Prousts discovery of John Ruskin’s art criticism back in 1899 that led him to abandon Jean Santeuil, so too during this terrible crisis, it was the spiritual discovery that there was no region of the soul that could not be penetrated with the clear light of art that led Proust to return to work. Proust depicted these scenes of irrevocable loss in the latter part of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu, echoed as they were by other irrevocable losses through the novel of other characters as part of the inescapable truths of life, the emptiness of love and friendship, the ambivalence of desire and sexual attraction, that snobbery and cruelty are as common as beauty and kindness. The only champion against the ravages of time lie in the memories of loved ones and places and interactions stored in involuntary memory. There, outside time, life remains inviolate, beauty and truth becomes sustainable whereas in time it disintegrates. From the first pages of the novel, where through the eyes of the fictional Marcel one relives his childhood longings for his mothers goodnight kiss which was his shield against the terror of abandonment, we experience a hypersensitivity, a sense of dread and abandonment which never left him. It returned in later life as lovers left him, or friends and relatives died, whether naturally or as part of the thirty six million casualties of the First World War. But one of the novels deepest truths is the emptiness of friendship and love, as Beckett writes “Friendship according to Proust, is the negation of that irredeemable solitude to which every human being is condemned” (Proust p. 63) Ironically though, Proust both in life and in the composite fictional Marcel remained a faithful friend, and betrayed no one.
Towards the end of the novel after Albertine’s flight and death and Marcel having spent some time in a sanatorium, he meets Baron de Charlus, now physically ruined by his sexual inclinations, betrayed by his beloved Morel and by the Verduins, his friends. Charlus begins to enumerate all the dead they both once knew: “Continuing to speak to me about the past, no doubt to prove to me that he had not lost his memory, he evoked it now… by reciting an endless list of all the people belonging to his family or his world who were no longer alive…with satisfaction at having survived them” (A La Recherché Vol. 6 p.211). This incident forms an initial link to a chain of events of memory that makes Marcel realize that the beauty and truth of the past still lives, and he begins the work of writing A La Recherché du Temps Perdu.
The novel has Prousts own homosexuality projected onto it, something that conspired along with his disillusionment and half Jewishness to producing a work written from the perspective of the outsider who ironically, is still fully accepted in society. It is precisely because of Marcel’s sense of otherness that allows him such a lucid deeply sensitised view of the society he grew up in. His fair minded exploration of all aspects of human nature, the beautiful and the bestial, broadened the range of his work, making A La Recherché du Temps Perdu into one of the greatest novels in all aspects of sexual love and of human nature. It is filled with brilliant insights into the nature and vanities of human love and sexuality, and profoundly influenced novelists and artists from Samuel Beckett to Virginia Woolf.
Proust died on Saturday November 18 1922 of complications brought on by bronchial pneumonia. He died feted as a man of letters, still helping his friends and fretting over the as yet unpublished sections of his novel. He died a fulfilled person after years of apparent failure and anonymity. He died with a reputation that was to expand to astral proportions. He had succeeded in his ambition to write a great work, the sheer originality of it, along with his celebration of the extraordinary nature of everydayness, makes A La Recherché du Temps Perdu a true classic, a truly universal novel.
What happens when you are wrongly diagnosed as bipolar or whatever: and what it means, if anything…
Have you ever been the patient of a really bad psychotherapist? Lets be honest, there are more than a few of them out there. I actually seriously toyed with the idea of becoming one at one stage of my life. Except I was somewhat drawn by the writing life, and that was that.
Two things separate the good therapist from the bad one, assuming they have been properly trained and have had sufficient therapy themselves to be relatively free of transference and projection and all the other things we do that affects our relationships. Firstly the capacity to objectively listen with out prejudice and secondly the capacity to apply knowledge coupled with experience to an individual patient. Most if not all of the many bad therapists I have had over the years failed on either or both of those fronts. One stand-out moment which typifies my negative therapeutic experiences happened during a session some years ago and it led me to discontinue the therapy. The therapist turned to me in a moment of obvious frustration, and asked me was I by any chance writing a book about him?
I beg your pardon, I said?
And he repeated the question.
Why, I asked?
Well, the therapist said, rather solemnly, these sessions we were engaging in were more like two therapists discussing the practise of psychotherapy, than a patient going to and talking with a therapist.
I was pretty appalled and very angry.
I said no, I wasn’t writing a book about this. I am in trouble, big trouble. That’s why I am here. I don’t need to do that kind of research to write.
I then went on to say by the way that was a bizarre question. One of the most I have ever been asked in therapy.
I mentioned I had completed a draft novel I wasn’t really happy with. I went on to say that the novel had a therapist as the central character. I offered him a look at a draft of it to satisfy himself I wasn’t using his rather dull unimaginative personality as a blueprint (and no, I wasn’t being unkind, he was a dreadful bore)
The therapist said that wasn’t necessary.
But I pressed the issue. I said that as the issue had been raised, it was hard to see how this could not become a central issue during the therapeutic encounter.
I wasn’t there for copy. I was there because I was in trouble. My marriage was in difficulty at the time. I was very anxious and depressed about family of origin issues. I felt trapped. Hopeless. this was the third therapist I had been to with no help. As I didn’t get the help from either that quack therapist I needed, or from other equally awful therapists, I got more depressed. And things went downhill. Feeling helpless and unsupported has something of a domino effect. Things cratered to such an extent that I had a major depressive episode. After that I went to a psychiatrist and was misdiagnosed as bipolar. I completely accepted the diagnosis. I told friends and colleagues. I did radio interviews about it. This went on for a few years. Then, by sheer luck I met a good therapist who told me I was no more bipolar as I was a professional safe-cracker or an astronaut. Not that her word was enough, by the way. I met a few others who said the same thing. I took the hint and stopped seeing Psychiatrists. It was such a good move.
Along with the indignity of being misdiagnosed as bipolar, I have been put on some of the most awful mind numbing medications. The medication had withdrawal symptomatology far worse than the condition they were supposed to treat. After a couple of attempts I got off the meds. Things have massively improved. Years have passed. No ill effects.
How does this kind of thing happen? How does a depressed writer get diagnosed with a pretty serious condition which he does not have? Well, it’s easy in one way to see how it might happen. I mean when I am working on something I feel fantastic. The ideas come fast and I have a lot of energy. Afterwards I am tired and lethargic. As any writer or indeed anyone creative will tell you, one goes to rather extreme emotionally and spiritually exhausting places to write books. One isn’t in it for the money. Believe me there are easier way to make money. One writes because its what one was born to do. To not do it, to settle for less, is very dangerous thing to do. So this is the creative cycle, not the manic depressive cycle. There is a substantial difference, and a good therapist sees this.
‘The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.’ (wikipedia) – or if you are a writer, you just might get lucky some day…
The Discreet Charm of being Labelled
But it doesn’t work out like that. Labels stick. Like the bad writer stuck in a rut that pays, once you write your best seller or get your government grant or run enough magazines or give courses, you are labelled. And once that happens, everyone expects more of the same. You get comfortable. You feed the crowds. Similarly once you got the label, it stays. After initial diagnosis, there is little re-visitation of ones symptoms. One is labelled and medicated and that’s that. Aftercare was a twilight zone experience for me. Our health system makes you go see a trainee psychiatrist who is under the care of a Chief Psychiatrist. One sees a different one for every appointment, for the most part. They don’t know you, usually never met you before, and usually never will again. They are polite, friendly, witty, personable, professionally distant, and usually very busy. They have a few minutes to read your file, and on this basis, they interview you. This little psychodrama happens once every month or two. The pubescent psychiatrist is usually a doctor on psych rotation, someone who gives you twenty minutes and then ends the session with a prescription. Not ideal, to say the least. I had to aggressively lobby for therapy, and for the most part I got it only by the skin of my teeth. This rather hands-off approach of out patient psychiatry is something that needs urgent attention in my view.
Then there is a deeper issue at work here. It leads me to the notion of how in our cognitive processes, belief tends more often than not to precede evidence. Evidence should always precede belief. Otherwise one is guilty of cognitive bias. I displayed symptoms of bipolarity. But I was not bipolar. I had creative cycles. I was depressed due to life circumstances. I needed help. I needed the good therapy I had been looking for, not a cheap and easy diagnosis. I needed a good therapist. Not years of medication.
Then there are examples and studies. I found a really interesting one in my reading. In the early 1970’s, much to the huge outrage of the psychiatric community a psychiatrist called David Rosenhan conducted a case study which led to some rather fascinating results. He persuaded seven friends, none of whom had any case history of any kind of mental illness, to enter various mental hospitals to see if they could persuade members of the mental health care community that they were mentally ill. This was between 1969 and 1972. What did these sane folks do to convince the doctors they were sick? Well they all claimed to hear the words “thud, and “empty” and “hollow” and they all got admitted. Every one of them. And they were all diagnosed as having some form of mental illness, mostly schizophrenia. They were given a total of 2100 pills (they had been taught to ‘cheek’ their meds before going in), only two of which were ever actually swallowed. Other than lying about their names and lying about hearing the words, they were told to be completely honest. After Rosenthan had gotten his diagnosis, staff began to read into his actions. For instance, his study required him to make notes. This was described as ‘writing behaviour’. One of the other impostor patients was and artist and drew these fantastic line drawings of the hospital they were in, they too were described as indulging in ‘drawing/painting behaviour’. Finally Rosenthan couldn’t get out of the hospital. The only way he could actually get out of the hospital was to tell the doctors that they were completely correct in their views, that he Rosenthan was insane, and that he was getting better bit by bit.
This is not dissimilar to the experience of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who suffered a very real and very debilitating breakdown and was admitted to a mental hospital, a hospital which he simply could not get out of. His method was to tell the doctors that he was feeling better incrementally. He would every day tell staff that things were getting better for him; that he was feeling just a little bit better than yesterday, till they let him go. Check out his second book Lila for a description of this process.
The point of all this is the question of belief. These professionals couldn’t distinguish between sick and well folks. My therapists couldn’t do that either. If you are seen as a patient and not as a person, your views of reality-no matter how valid – are somehow seen as secondary. This is because the belief that the doctor imposes on the patient presupposes disbelief of the patient’s valid world-view. I can even report that this is how exactly I experienced my treatment. I accepted the doctors word for what was ‘wrong’ with me. I accepted it and trusted them, despite the fact that the more I read about my condition, and the more I discussed my condition, the more doubts I had about whether or not I actually had Bipolar Disorder.
No, Really – I Engage in Writing Activity
But back to Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum told the doctors repeatedly that he was actually a professor of psychology. They asked him did he often feel he was a professor of psychology. I told my doctors I was a writer, that I had written novels and plays, poetry and articles. They didn’t believe me. They had to ask asked my wife (now deceased sadly) and my doctor, who assured them that yes I was indeed a writer. It’s what Rosenbaun refers to as the ‘stickiness of psycho diagnostic labels’ – prejudicial thinking, the imposition of an unscientific mindset on presenting symptomatology.
It would be somewhat facile to suggest that there is an easy way through what I see as a complex and rather perennial difficulty. What is sanity? In a world deeply troubled, what is a sane mind? Obviously we are all grasping at an answer to this question. Suffice to say that though there is no absolute answer to this question, we live in a world of consensus based on an ever expanding pool of knowledge and research and clinical experience to draw from. The people who diagnosed me were most definitely trying to help a person who was in a lot of pain. Sadly, though they did help, they left me in something of a mess for quite a while until I figured out what they had gotten wrong, and thanks to the brilliant help of a few really gifted therapists, I did. I wonder if there are more creative people out there who have similar experiences. Those who are of a more creative bent, who pursue the extremities of human experience, are naturally inclined to suffer trauma, and at times to become unwell. Its unfortunate that the labelling of a creative person can also lead to the labelling of their work, indeed the tenor of their entire lives. This reflects badly on our culture and on our society. Though it is true that some creative folk most definitely do suffer throughout their lives from various flavours of psychiatric disorders, many others I am sure, like myself, were subject to misdiagnosis based on a consensus misunderstanding of creativity. I live in the hope that my and many others experience will form a teachable moment and shift our cultural understanding of the needs of the creative person.