Proust on Sleep

(a University of Chicago First Friday lecture – December 1, 2006)

In 1913, in response to Marcel Proust's submission to the Ollendorf publishing company of Swann's Way - the first volume of what would become his seven-part novel, In Search of Lost Time - it's reported that Alfred Humbolt, the head of company, rejected it, observing:

I may be as thick as two planks but I can't understand how a gentleman can take thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in his bed before going off to sleep.
More than ninety years later, many of Proust's would-be readers find themselves similarly befuddled.

And yet, if one has what Humbolt didn't have – the opportunity to experience Proust's novel as a whole and as a part of modern fiction - the meaning and significance of what admittedly may appear odd at the outset can begin to become clear.

For in those first pages – aptly described as the works "overture" – one can discern the essence of a project to describe and try to comprehend various features of human consciousness, as well as one of the main vehicles that will serve that end.

Today, I want to indicate something of what I understand about what Proust is doing in his magnum opus from the point of view of sleep and a few related experiences. My observations will necessarily be essentially preliminary, but I hope that they will nevertheless illuminate something of the distinctive richness of the work in this particular respect.

For a long time I went to bed early.

In this, the first sentence of In Search of Lost Time, we are presented with an unnamed narrator – just a person who says "I" who we will come gradually to realize is a middle-aged male – whose perceptions we will experience for awhile without any reference to his background or even to when or from where he is speaking.

We are told only something about a typical feature of this person's experience of sleep - "going to bed" - and we are given this phenomenon nestled, as it were, in the midst of three kinds of time: duration, tense, and periodicity.

Duration refers to the temporal property of length, to something's enduring or continuing in time. In this case, we are told about something that went on "for a long" time."

Tense, in language, is how we grammatically express when something happens; it's how we point toward the presence of something in the past, present, or future. Here, we are focusing on something that happened in the past, when the narrator "went" to bed.

And finally, periodicity refers to temporal repetition whereby one can indicate that something usually happens toward the beginning or toward the end of a period of time. To say that one went to bed "early," is to say that one typically did so before one – or most people – do.

So, right at the outset of In Search of Lost Time, we are presented with sleep in a personally vague as well as temporally complex context which – if we are inclined to give importance to first sentences – might lead us to possibly expect a similar perspective in what is to follow.

Moreover, there's another element in the first sentence which at least bears noticing.

In English, as well as French, "to go to bed" – se coucher, in French – has a sexual as well as a domestic meaning. I'm not suggesting – let me be clear – that the narrator is, in fact, referring to his sex life in the first sentence; but in a work of art one should always be sensitive to connotation, and this can at least suggest another perspective on sleep that will possibly be considered.

Humbolt, however, apparently didn't have the benefit of an education devoted to close reading of the text, so we can't really blame him for being bewildered as to what might follow.

Moreover, and more importantly, as Leighton Hodson has pointed out in the Introduction to his collection of early critical responses to Proust's work:

Changes in intellectual and artistic climate partly explain what readers are now able to perceive. Proust's genius was ahead of his readers' artistic understanding. The determination which he exercised when he obsessively had to get Swann published even when it could not make full sense, is the power behind a vision which we can only now fully appreciate as modern.
The first part of Swann's Way is not simply an informative introduction but a prelude that conditions the mood of our response and summons up the whole time quest from the ill-defined shadowy areas of fluctuating memory and the unconscious.

Thus, we might say, In Search of Lost Time, one whose great themes is time, is itself a product of time, and benefits greatly, in its modernity, from both the devotion of time and the passage of time for its understanding.

I want now to spend some time on this task, using the opening section of the work as a kind of template in order to think about Proust on sleep.


In the Overture to Swann's Way, we are presented with a man suffering from insomnia. He tosses and turns in his bed, going over various impressions that come to him often in a state of partial wakefulness; and eventually, various bedrooms that he has slept in throughout his life pass swiftly through his consciousness.

Finally, he focuses on his memory of the difficulties he had in falling asleep as a little boy, in his room in the family's country house at Combray, and especially on his recollection of one night when his mother was unable to come upstairs and kiss him good night.

This is his only clear remembrance of that period in his life until, in middle-age, a chance occurrence, his tasting a small cake, a madeleine, involuntarily brings back a flood of additional memories.

Let's now look at this opening portion in more detail, with the benefit of the hindsight provided by later reading.


At the beginning of Swann's Way, we find our narrator describing how often he would nod off while reading in bed; and he relates that sometimes he would slip into a semi-conscious state in which he would virtually merge with his book;

I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, he says:

... about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts took 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; and this didn't offend my reason, but lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering that the candle was no longer burning.

A perhaps attenuated version of this impression of the merging of oneself with what one is reading is an experience that often we all might be said to have when we are reading when fully awake. Do we not, as it were, somehow "become" Ahab or Starbuck when we are immersed in a different, an American masterpiece?

But here, in the context of a half-sleep, the conjunction is more pronounced and it's ephemeral, soon becoming unintelligible, as the narrator's semi-conscious awareness of self merged with book moves into a kind of oblivion. It is, he says, like:

... the thoughts of a previous existence must, after reincarnation.
Such a separation between who we are – our way of experiencing as a particular "self" - when asleep and when awake, and indeed its metaphorical description, will remain central to Proust, as in the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, when his narrator refers to:
... all those mysteries which we imagine ourselves not to know and into which we are in reality initiated almost every night, as into the other great mystery of extinction and resurrection.
Here, as sometimes elsewhere in the work, awakening will be seen as analogous to a return from a kind of death, a perspective familiar perhaps to many of us who were brought up with the implications of the childhood prayer, "Now I lay me down to sleep ..." and its focus on "... if I should die before I wake ..."

But in the Overture, the narrator will not immediately become fully awake.

The subject of my book, he says:

... would separate itself from me, leaving me to apply myself to it or not, while at the same time, my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in darkness...
This darkness was "pleasant and restful enough for my eyes," he observes, but it was still bewildering. Not having yet fully become awake, the experience:
... appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, something dark indeed
And in trying to get his bearings, he does what most of us might well do when awakening unexpectedly, while reminding the reader perhaps, of the "nestled relationship" between sleep and time that I mentioned earlier regarding the novel's first sentence:
I asked myself what time it could be, the narrator says. And he goes on to tell us:

I could hear the whistling of trains; and this punctuated the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, showing me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveler is hurrying towards the nearby station; the path he is taking will be engraved in his memory by the excitement induced by the strange surroundings, by the farewells exchanged that still echo in his ears amid the silence of the night, and by the happy prospect of being home again.

The whistling sounds that he hears might be seen as if they are a harbinger of the "being at home" that one can feel when awakening. And now, in that more comfortable setting, he can relate to the external temporality of his environment.

I would look at my watch, he relates. It was "nearly midnight."

But what is midnight if one is an insomniac? What is it experientially?

It's the hour, the narrator says,

... when an invalid, who has been obliged to start on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakens by a sudden spasm, and sees with glad relief a streak of daylight showing under his bedroom door. Thank God, it's morning! The servants will be about in a minute: he can ring, and some one will come to look after him. This thought gives him strength to endure his pain. He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer but then they die away. The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight; some one has turned out the gas; the last servant has gone to bed; and he must lie all night suffering without remedy.
Insomnia will figure prominently in In Search of Lost Time at various points. And typically, it will be seen as something like a debility to which one may be prone, and which – like the invalid in the hotel - one is usually unable to allay simply by one's own efforts.

When the narrator was a little boy, it was his mother's goodnight kiss which allowed him to fall asleep.

At Combray, he tells us:

... as every afternoon ended, long before I should have to go to bed, my bedroom became the fixed point on which my melancholy and anxious thoughts were centered. And the concession which my mother made to my wretchedness was to come up to my room to give me the kiss of peace.
It's only when his mother comes up to kiss him goodnight that his anxiety is relieved and he can find repose. Without this kiss, he says, he would suffer "hours of anguish without being able to go to sleep."

And when the narrator reflects on one occasion that sticks in his memory, a time when he was unable to receive the "kiss of peace" from his mother - because the family was entertaining a particular guest – he speaks of the absence of "viaticum," which is to say the Eucharist before he, in a sense, will die.

And this will turn out to be a formative experience in his relations with other objects of love, especially later, when he has grown up. At one point in The Captive, for example, he tells us that when he caressed his lover, Albertine:

I kissed [her] as purely as if I'd been kissing my mother to charm away a ... grief which as a child I didn't believe I'd ever be able to eradicate.
The maternal solace that made sleep possible for the child is replicated in the caresses of the adult.


But insomnia can be understood as having significance not only emotionally, but also intellectually. Later in the overall novel, for example, the narrator will reflect:

A man who, night after night, falls like a lump of lead upon his bed, and ceases to live until the moment when he wakes and rises, will such a man ever be inclined to make minute observations upon sleep?
He barely knows that he does sleep.

A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing a ray of light upon that darkness.

It's similar, he says, to how one who was incapable of forgetfulness would not have much incentive for studying the phenomena of memory.

The narrator, in the Overture, however, is certainly no stranger to insomnia; and, although after awhile, he tells us, he would usually fall asleep again, he would typically reawaken, for at least brief periods.

And during these interludes between wakefulness, often he would dream.

Sometimes, he tells us, while sleeping, he would drift "to an earlier stage" in his life, despite that stage having been "forever outgrown;" and then occasionally he would "come under the thrall of one of his childish terrors," such as his great-uncle pulling his curls.

"I'd forgotten that event during my sleep," he observes, "but I remembered it again immediately when I succeeded in waking myself to escape my great-uncles fingers"
Here the narrator is using a dream of childhood to depict the disjunction between our experience of who we are when asleep and who we are when awake.

In sleep, he will later contend, one is a different self, so one can experiences things as he did "at an earlier stage" in his life when he was that self.

This conception will serve as the basis for his understanding of other involuntary experiences, such as the famous one with the madeleine, as well as, more generally, the different ways we are at different times when we are awake.

But the self one is while asleep need not be separated from the wakeful self by years. For sometimes, he tells us:

... as Eve was created from a rib of Adam, a woman would be born during my sleep from some misplacing of my thigh. Conceived from the pleasure I was on the point of enjoying, she it was, I imagined who offered me that pleasure. My body, conscious that its own warmth was permeating hers, would strive to become one with her, and I would awake. The rest of humanity seemed very remote in comparison with this woman; I would abandon myself altogether to find her again; but gradually, the memory of her would fade away. I had forgotten the girl of my dream. In the last part of my comments today, I'll return to Proust's views on, and presentation of, dreams elsewhere in the work; but at this point we can note the narrator's observation on the possible effect of the body on one's experience in sleep, including the representation of bodily-induced pleasure into one's dream-imagery.
Similar experiences appear elsewhere in the text, including, poignantly, at the beginning of Time Regained, the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, where we one can hear an echo, as it were, of this phenomenon.

There, the narrator reflects on a visit he made to the estate of a friend many years after his lover, Albertine, had died. One night, he tells us, he called out for her in his sleep because his flesh still remembered her, even though, consciously, he has long since stopped thinking about her.

The love of Albertine had disappeared from my memory, he says.

But there exists an involuntary memory of the limbs, one which is a pale and sterile imitation of the other but is longer-lived.

Our legs and our arms are full of torpid memories.

Once, while visiting [a friend] in the country, I woke up in the middle of the night and called out: "Albertine!" A memory in my arm had made me fumble behind my back for the bell, as though I had been in my bedroom at Paris. And not finding it, I had called out: "Albertine!" thinking that my dead mistress was lying by my side, and might pull the bell which I couldn't find.

This, as it turns out, will be his last felt experience of this lost love.

Moreover, in the Overture, the narrator will not only depict the interaction of body and mind in sleep, but he will also reflect more generally on the possible experience of a disconnection between these two with respect one's sense of self.

Here, one's awareness of oneself as a being in time, i.e., as a person who exists as someone at a particular time, is seen as essentially connected with one's perception of the place of one's body in the external world.

And therefore, if one becomes disoriented as to where one is, one can become perplexed even about who one is.

When a person is asleep, he says:

... he has in a circle around him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, and the order of the heavenly bodies. Instinctively, he consults them when he awakes but this ordered procession is apt to grow confused.

For me, it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was so heavy as to completely relax my consciousness; for then, I lost all sense of place and when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, I couldn't be sure at first who I was.

Thus, the narrator observes, when his sleep causes him to awaken and experience physical displacement - temporarily not knowing where he is--this is felt as a displacement of his very sense of self.

Place - "where I am" - is linked with identity - "who I am".

And when this link became broken, he says:

I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence ... an animal's consciousness.
If our experience when asleep is, in certain respects, so radically different from that of waking life that it's as if we exist there as essentially a different person, we can see why the narrator was inclined to think of awakening as like a "reincarnation" or a "resurrection."

And in Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time, he will elaborate on this idea, noting, at the outset, that:

We may of course insist that there is but one time for the futile reason that it is by looking at the clock that we have discovered that what, in our sleep, we had supposed a day, was merely a quarter of an hour, but at other times is far longer: we think we have taken only a short nap, when we have slept through the day.

Here we have a good example of Proust's special interest in duration with respect to time and the contrast with how temporal continuity is typically experienced in sleep as opposed to when we are awake.

Some critics have seen this as an illustration of Henri Bergson's idea that real time is not something which is imposed upon us by space but is what which lives within us, so that any slight shift of our spatial surroundings frees us from space and lets us experience duration.

But whatever the source of this idea, the narrator goes on to note that it's certainly true that however we experience how long something has gone on when we are asleep, upon awakening, we can always get our bearings by consulting what he called in the Overture, "the chain of hours."

But, at the moment we do this, he points out:

... we are a someone who is awake, and, plunged in the time of the waking, we have deserted the other time.
Moreover, he suggests, echoing his earlier observation of the "Eve" that was sometimes born from the shift in his thigh, and bringing the disjunction of the self in sleep to the foreground:

Perhaps, indeed, it is more than another time that we desert when we awaken: it is another life.

For we do not include the pleasures that we enjoy in sleep in the list of the pleasures that we have felt in the course of our existence.

To allude to sensual pleasure, which of us, on waking, has not felt a certain irritation at having experienced in sleep a pleasure which, he is not, once he is awake, at liberty to repeat indefinitely during the day.

It seems a positive waste. We have had pleasure, in another life, which is not ours.

Sufferings and pleasures of the dream-world (which generally vanish soon enough after our waking), if we make them figure in a budget, it is not in the current account of our life.

And this can lead to some large questions:

How then, searching for one's thoughts, one's personality, as one searches for a lost object, why does one recover one's own self, rather than any other, when one awakens?

What is it that guides us, when our unconsciousness has been complete or our dreams entirely different from ourselves?

Indeed, why is it not a personality other than the previous one - the one that we had before we fell asleep - that becomes incarnate?

This is very much like the question that is implicit in where we left the insomniac in the Overture: if we are devoid of our ordinary way of experiencing when we awaken in the middle of the night – if then we have virtually the consciousness of an animal – what brings us out of that state?

The answer that the narrator provides from his experience of sleep in the Overture, along with that which he has later when he tastes the madeleine, will provide the theoretical basis of the whole work.

For he holds that it is memory that allows us to recover the self that we were at another time, including the one we were before we went to sleep.

When he awakened in the middle of the night, the narrator relates, he was "more destitute of human qualities than a cave-dweller." What disturbed him at this moment was the apprehension of an apparent discontinuity in the place where he expected a familiar sense of continuity.

And his disturbing awareness of the death of a continuing self is allayed only when he is able to consciously bring back the familiar places of his waking, everyday life. As he relates:

... memory—not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived and might now very possibly be—would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped myself: and in a flash I would traverse centuries, and out of a blurred glimpse of oil lamps I would gradually piece together the original components of my ego.
And he goes on to consider:
Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by the immobility of our conception of them. For when I awoke and my mind struggled to discover where I was, everything revolved around me through the darkness: things, places, and years.
This causes a response from his body, which
... too heavy with sleep to move, would endeavor to construe the position of its limbs, and to deduce from that the direction of the wall and thereby piece together and give a name to the house in which it lay.

Its memory offered it a series of rooms in which it had at one time or another slept, while the unseen walls, adapting themselves to each room that it remembered, whirled round it in the dark.

And before my brain had reassembled the circumstances sufficiently to identify the room, my body would recall from each room, such things as the style of the bed, what I'd had in my mind when I went to sleep there, and what I found there when I awoke.

There were a number of different possibilities.

The stiffened side on which I lay, for instance, would imagine itself to be lying in a big bed with a canopy; and at once I would say to myself, "Why I must have fallen asleep before Mamma came to say goodnight," for I was in the country at my grandfather's, who died years ago; and my body, faithful guardian of the past, brought back before my eyes my bedroom at Combray, in my grandparent's house and those far distant days which at this moment I imagined to be in the present.

Then the memory of a new position would spring up and I was in my room, much later, at my friends house in the country; good heavens they will have finished dinner! I must have overslept in the little nap I always take when I come in from my walk.

These shifting and confused gusts of memory never lasted more than a few seconds as first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life appeared; and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, rooms in summer, the Louis XVI room, the little room with the high ceiling ...

Until the narrator can achieve a settled awareness of his surroundings, his consciousness of himself as a single individual – as a particular "self" - is subsumed in a multitude of mental objects – his perceptions of past bedrooms.

And the narrator only fully awakens as himself when his awareness of the remembered bedrooms gives way to consciousness of a single bedroom, i.e., after he chooses a particular memory to represent where, when, and who he is now and where he was when he fell asleep

We can note, in passing, that here the narrator provides the reader with little if any context for the bedrooms to which he refers; they will be sprinkled throughout the overall work – and we will not actually encounter one of them until some 2,000 pages later!

Perhaps this should be taken as an example of what Hodson called the determination which Proust exercised

... when he obsessively had to get Swann published even when it could not make full sense... as well as the artist's confidence in posterity's ultimate willingness to engage in just that exercise.
But be that as it may, the narrator goes on to say, following his whirling trip through time:
I was now well awake; my body had veered round for the last time and the good angel of certainty had made all the surrounding objects stand still, and had set me down in my bedroom.
And even though he is certain now of where and who he is, he says, his "memory had been set in motion," and as a rule he didn't attempt to go to sleep again at once, but:
used to spend the greater part of the night recalling life in the old days, remembering all the places and people I had known, what I had actually seen of them, and what others had told me.
Thus, his sense of his past having been re-experienced, even after he has chosen which memory represents where, when, and who he now is, he spends the rest of the night consciously exploring memories of his past, and especially those that are associated with bedrooms other than the one in which he is then sleeping.

This, in effect, will provide the portal to the rest of In Search of Lost Time, which, of course, is the role of any good "overture."


But Proust's Overture, like any other, is not a complete indication of what will follow, and within the overall work there are many interesting ideas about sleep and related phenomena.

Mundanely, for example, the narrator offers observations about the effect on one's memory of soporifics, what we now call "sleeping pills"

If I am awakened and go out after an artificial slumber, he says:

... it isn't the system of the philosopher, Plotinus, which I can discuss as fluently as at any other time, that I lose, but the answer that I have promised to give to an invitation, the "memory" of which has been replaced by a pure blank.

The lofty thought remains in its place; what the soporific has put out of action is the power to act in little things, in everything that demands exertion in order to recapture, at the right moment, some memory of everyday life.

Each alteration of the brain, he says, is a partial death. We possess all our memories, but not the faculty of recalling them.

Moreover, he will make observations about various distinctive features of the sleep experience

For example, he will note that our sleep has its special sounds:

Slumber is like a second room, he says:

... into which, leaving our own room, we go when we want to sleep. This room has noises of its own and we are sometimes violently awakened by the sound of a bell, perfectly heard by our ears, although nobody has rung.

It has its ghostly guides:
... its special visitors who call to take us out, so that we are ready to get up when we are compelled to realize, by our almost immediate transmigration into the other room, the room of overnight, that it is empty, that nobody has called.
And those who we meet there have an amorphous identity:
The race that inhabits sleep is, like that of our first human ancestors, androgynous. A man in it appears a moment later in the form of a woman. Things in it show a tendency to turn into men, and friends into enemies.
Such observations naturally play the biggest part in how dreams are approached in In Search of Lost Time, and I want to spend the balance of my time looking at this facet of Proust's consideration of sleep.

One can't, however, reasonably speak about dreams without at least a nod in the direction of that other fellow who was interested in them at around the same time. I mean, of course, the doctor in Vienna.

In a psychoanalytic study of Proust, entitled Nostalgia, Milton L. Miller comments that although there appear to be no direct links between the work of Proust and that of Freud, "Marcel Proust's intellectual struggles had many parallels with those of Sigmund Freud, " and "Proust eventually had a good deal of acquaintance with psychiatry, probably Freudian."

Miller is one of several critics to have noticed parallels between certain elements in Proust's work and Freud's essay "Mourning and Melancholia," which was published when Proust was writing and revising the later volumes of In Search of Lost Time.

Proust's observations, he notes, were not dissimilar to Freud's regarding the process of mourning, and especially on the gradual evolution of relative indifference that develops through the eradication of the beloved's image from within oneself, especially as expressed in dreams and memories.

On the other hand, writing six years after Proust's death, Pierre F. Quesnoy observes that:

In discussing Proust, it has often been a question of Bergson and Freud. But, actually, the influence of these two is less than was generally thought. It is rather a case of ideas "in the air" at that time. And in actual fact, what is common to all these minds and comes out notably in Proust, is a preoccupation with rediscovering the initial reality of man beneath the artificial contribution of civilization, beneath the repressed feelings brought on by our restrictive society.
In any case, in work titled, Proust's Nocturnal Muse, William Stewart Bell notes the significant presence of dreams in the text, observing:
A careful count of the dreams yields thirty-five examples, including a few doubtful instances. They vary enormously in length and importance, some being presented with a wealth of detail and others occurring as the briefest of mentions. Certain of them cannot be ascribed to any specific character in the novel, being cited merely as examples. Still others cannot be situated with any certainty within the chronology of the narrative and seem to play little part in the progress of the novel, though they are introduced into the work for the purpose of illustrating psychological observations. But most of the dreams occupy a specific point in time and many of them further the course of the narrative.
Here I'd like to look at two of these dreams, one of which is reported very briefly, while the other is depicted in some detail. Both deal with the loss of a love object; and along with their contribution to our grasp of Proust's theoretical understanding, they provide a glimpse of his artistic use of sleep in what, after all, is a work of art.

The first dream appears in the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (also known in English as Within a Budding Grove).

At this point in the novel, the narrator has been reflecting on the mixed feelings that he had, when he was an adolescent, about a girl by the name of Gilberte. Gilberte's parents – and especially her mother - have become very supportive of his relationship, but apparently – and, indeed, not surprisingly - for this very reason the girl has become tired of him.

So the young man decides to try to mitigate the expression of his love for Gilberte, in the hope that eventually she will become more attracted to him if he is seen as more inaccessible. But then, one day after he makes a visit to her house and finds her not at home, he sees her out walking with a young man, with a familiarity that makes him feel that his love for her is probably hopeless.

But still, he notes, he might have continued to visit Gilberte's home, at least talk with her mother:

... but for a dream that came to me, in which one of my friends, who was not, however, one that I could identify, behaved with the utmost treachery towards me and appeared to believe that I had been treacherous to him.
This is essentially the complete report that the narrator gives of this dream, which awakened him abruptly, and which he immediately tried to interpret, as he says:
... finding that it persisted after I was awake, I racked my brains to discover who could have been the friend whom I had seen in my sleep, the sound of whose name ... was no longer distinct.
And this effort is directed by his view that we can easily misunderstand who the people in our dreams are, that parts of different bodies can be interchanged in our dreams like those of incompetently restored artifacts:

It's a mistake, he says:

... to pay too much attention to the appearance of the people one saw in one's dream, who may perhaps have been disguised or have exchanged faces, like those mutilated saints in cathedrals which ignorant archaeologists have restored, fitting the body of one to the head of another and jumbling all their attributes and names.
In Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps owing to a focus of that volume on certain forms of sexuality, the narrator had explicitly noticed the possible androgynous character of the people in one's dreams. But not having direct access to such an analytic tool at this point in the work, his interpretation is founded on a different, an emotional basis. He observes:
The appearance that people bear in a dream are apt to mislead us, and the person whom we love can be recognized only by the intensity of the pain that we suffer.
And he therefore concludes:
From my dream I learned that, transformed while I was asleep into a young man, the person whose recent betrayal still hurt me was Gilberte.
Moreover, as soon as the young man has determined the person his dream, his memory confirms the truth of its meaning by furnishing examples of Gilberte's negative actions toward him in waking life.

He remembers her refusal to believe in his intentions toward her and her mischievous laugh when she had returned a letter he had written to her father explaining his feelings.

And through an association of ideas, he recalls their playful, but sexually arousing, wrestling on the Champs-Elysées, behind a clump of laurel bushes, while imagining her doing the same with the young man who had accompanied her on the boulevard.

In Nostalgia, Miller observes that with such dreams Proust is revealing:

... the part of the mind which controls sleep to be the repository of truth, and the dream to be the vehicle for introducing truth into the conscious mind. It is, furthermore, a product of day- time concerns and provides the answers to a question asked by the dreamer. The materials out of which it is constructed, however distorted they may be, are those of waking existence.
And in the novel, we can observe, the young man's reflections, brought to the fore by his odd dream, make it possible for him to finally give up seeing, and even thinking about, Gilberte.


The other dream that I want to look at today also involves the recognition of the loss of a loved one. It takes place in the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time, in a section which is titled "The Intermittences of the Heart."

Proust had considered using this as the general title of his magnum opus, and in essay in a recent edition of the journal, American Scholar, Peter Gay observes that he might well have done this:

... because the expression ... epitomizes one of his most disheartening, and most irresistible, conclusions about the vicissitudes of existence: the human heart fails when its endurance and judgment are most needed. Life is many things ... but most conspicuously it adds up to a vast array of mistakes, of mismatches, of sentiments out of phase with realities, of experiences not reflected in feelings.
We get things wrong; everyone gets things wrong.

Proust gives rich illustrations of what he insists is only too common: we love too early and too late, and too often the wrong person; what we learn about those we come to know intimately almost never matches our first, or even our second, impressions. Love turns into hate or indifference or reverses its course, but not for logical reasons; the heart fails. It has, in short, its intermittences [and]

therefore, is continually revising or correcting what we think we know. There are only a few, a very few and very precious exceptions to this rule, like a mother's or grandmother's pure love for her offspring.
In The Intermittences of the Heart section, Proust explores his narrator's awareness of just such an exception, and he does this first though an experience of involuntary memory, and then through a dream.

A little more than a year before, the narrator's beloved grandmother had died, but that loss, though he experienced it as one usually does, has not really ever hit home.

The state of forgetfulness of my grandmother in which I had been living until then, he says:

... was nothing but a negation, a weakening of the mind incapable of recreating a real moment of life and obliged to substitute for it conventional and neutral images.
Now, he is at Balbec, in search of attractive women, at the Norman resort which had visited some years earlier with his grandmother.

And on his first night there, he says:

... as I was suffering from cardiac fatigue, I bent down slowly and cautiously to take off my boots, trying to master my pain. But scarcely had I touched the topmost button than my chest swelled, filled with an unknown, a divine presence, and I was shaken with sobs...
He has – involuntarily through the touch of the boots - been struck by a memory, the memory of his grandmother who had performed this same service for him years before. And this experience has been recaptured in a spontaneous recollection which is much, much more powerful than his casual thoughts of her during the months since her death.

It was he says, an "upheaval of being;" for just when his need for her had been reawakened,

I knew that I might wait hour after hour, and that she would never again be by my side. I had only just discovered this because I had only just, on feeling her for the first time alive, real, making my heart swell to breaking-point, on finding her at last, I learned that I had lost her for ever.
And this poignant realization will subsequently be experienced again as a dream.

In ordinary waking life, he observes:

Perhaps an instinct of preservation, the ingenuity of the mind in safeguarding us from grief, had allowed me to relish too keenly the delight of recalling this or that opinion held by my dear one, recalling them as though she had been able to hold them still, as though she existed, as though I continued to exist for her.

But as soon as I'd succeeded in falling asleep, at that more truthful hour when my eyes closed to the things of the outer world, the world of sleep could no longer rescue me from the cruelty of my real impressions.

For as soon as, to traverse the arteries of the subterranean city, we have embarked upon the dark current of our own blood as upon an inward, meandering Lethe, huge solemn forms appear to us, approach and glide away, leaving us in tears.

And I sought in vain for my grandmother's form when I had stepped ashore beneath the somber portals.

Here's his dream.
The darkness was increasing, and the wind; my father, who was to take me where she was, did not appear.

Suddenly my breath failed me, I felt my heart turn to stone; I had just remembered that for week after week I had forgotten to write to my grandmother. What must she be thinking of me?

"Great God!" I said to myself, "how wretched she must be in that little room which they have taken for her, no bigger than what one would take for an old servant, where she is all alone with the nurse they have put there to look after her, from which she cannot stir, for she is still slightly paralyzed and has always refused to rise from her bed.

She must be thinking that I have forgotten her now that she is dead; how lonely she must be feeling, how deserted! Oh, I must run to see her, I mustn't lose a minute -- but where is it, how can I have forgotten the address, will she know me again, I wonder? How can I have forgotten her all these months?"

It is so dark, I shall not find her; the wind is keeping me back; but look; there's my father walking ahead of me; I call out to him: "Where is grandmother? Tell me her address. Is she all right? Are you quite sure she has everything she wants?"

"Why," says my father, "you needn't alarm yourself. Her nurse is well trained. We send her a trifle, from time to time, so that she can get your grandmother anything she may need. She asks, sometimes, how you are getting on. She was told that you were going to write a book. She seemed pleased. She wiped away a tear."

And then I fancied I could remember that, a little time after her death, my grandmother had said to me, crying, with a humble expression, like an old servant who has been given notice to leave, like a stranger, in fact: "You will let me see something of you occasionally, won't you; don't let too many years go by without visiting me. Remember that you were my grandson, once, and that grandmothers never forget."

And seeing again her face, so submissive, so sad, so tender, I wanted to run to her at once and say, as I ought to have said to her then: "Why, grandmother, you can see me as often as you like, I have only you in the world, I shall never leave you any more."

What tears my silence must have made her shed through all those months in which I've never been to the place where she lies, what can she have been saying to herself about me?

In a voice choked with tears, I shout to my father: "Quick, quick, her address, take me to her."

But he says: "Well ... I don't know whether you will be able to see her. She's very frail now, very frail, she's not at all herself, I'm afraid you'd find it rather painful. And I can't be quite certain of the number of the avenue."

"But tell me, you who know, it is not true that the dead have ceased to exist. It can't possibly be true, in spite of what they say, because grandmother does exist still."

My father smiled a mournful smile: "Oh, hardly at all, you know, hardly at all. I think that it would be better if you didn't go. She has everything that she wants. They come and keep the place tidy for her."

"But she is often left alone?"

"Yes, but that's better for her. It's better for her not to think, which could only be bad for her. It often hurts her, when she tries to think. Besides, you know, she's quite lifeless now. I'll leave a note of the exact address, so that you can go to her; but I don't see what good you can do there, and I don't suppose the nurse will allow you to see her anyway."

"You know quite well I shall always stay beside her ..."

But already, the narrator concludes:
I had retraced the dark meanderings of the stream, had ascended to the surface where the world of living people opens.

I had forgotten to close the shutters, and so probably the daylight had awakened me.

The heart is intermittent. Our feelings wax and wane, move in one direction and then another, and follow no logic other than their own. Few feelings, Proust seems to suggest, if any, are more intermittent than those of love; and there is no better indication of how we feel – which is to say – who we are with respect to others – than our dreams.

And soon the narrator will observe:

If only from my dreams, I might have learned that my grief for my grandmother's death was diminishing, for she appeared in them less crushed by the idea that I had formed of her non-existence.

I saw her as an invalid still, but on the road to recovery, I found her in better health. And if she made any allusion to what she had suffered, I stopped her mouth with my kisses and assured her that she was now permanently cured.

I'd have liked to call the skeptics to witness that death is indeed a malady from which one recovers.

Only, I no longer found in my grandmother the rich spontaneity of old times. Her words were no more than a feeble, docile response, almost a mere echo of mine.

Alas, indeed, she'd become nothing more than the reflection of my own thoughts.

Here, indeed, whatever the intellectual source of the idea, is a powerful artistic representation of:
the process [in] mourning ... of the gradual evolution of relative indifference that develops through the eradication of the beloved's image from within oneself ... as expressed in dreams ...

About the middle of In Search of Lost Time, the narrator says:

... one cannot properly describe human life unless one bathes it in the sleep into which it plunges night after night and which sweeps round it as a promontory is encircled by the sea ...
For Proust, sleep provides an entrée to understanding about what is to be human as a being with consciousness in the context of time.

And toward the end of the work, the narrator states that he only wants his observations to be judged by readers through their own self-awareness, by their considering, he says:

... whether "it really is like that," whether the words they read within themselves are the same as those which [have been] written ... I leave you with the possibility of such introspection ... perhaps tonight.
Thank you very much.



copyright © 2005-2008 Joel Rich. All rights reserved.