Proust as experimental philosophy


Aleksandar Hemon on À la recherche du temps perdu.

When I say that the book knows more than we do, what I mean is that its world is completely imagined – it knows more about its world than we do, even if there are holes. The beautiful thing is that we strive to cover the holes or reconstitute the book so as to ignore them. I think that is how reading operates.

Proust is hugely influential for me directly and indirectly. Directly: if you are in any way dealing with memory in you work, his shadow is largely looming. There was a time after my arrival in the U.S., when I, overwhelmed with loss, experienced intense involuntary memories, whereby the taste of cottage cheese and green onions, for example, conjured summer afternoons in Sarajevo. I could identify and think through such an experience because I had read Proust – I had an interpretative framework.

Indirectly, by way of my (other) favorite writers: there is moment in Lolita when Humbert Humbert imitates Proust — partly to show off his sophistication, but also because he’s operating in the domain of temps perdu. The opening chapter of Danilo Kiš‘s Garden, Ashes is an homage to Proust and little Marcel not being able to fall asleep. Much of Sebald would have been impossible without Proust. There are many examples. Proust essentially invented a way – the way – to deal with time in language. His project was not merely literary – in many ways, it was experimental philosophy.