Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime

One of my coworkers asked me how I could possibly read Proust, as he’d fallen asleep in the first 30 pages every time he tried. When I first talk about it, I invariably sound like I’m pursuing it “because it’s there”, as if reading these books is the same as climbing a mountain.

And maybe it is. Because what I’m reading for, besides the totality of the experience and the wit, are the intensely beautiful passages, not the vistas I’ve seen from a mile elevation in New Zealand, but the views of the human soul. It’s the feeling not of understanding another person, but of being understood, as Orwell once wrote about Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

That said, here’s that Proust passage I mentioned earlier. Its specifics don’t pertain to my own relationship, since it’s about the narrator’s potential union to a bisexual social climber in fin de siecle Paris, but hey:

“But you yourself, what do you think of her?” I asked my mother.

“Well, I’m not the one who’s going to marry her. You could certainly do a great deal better in terms of marriage. But I feel that your grandmother would not have liked me to influence you. As a matter of fact, I can’t say what I think of Albertine; I don’t think of her. All I can say to you is, like Madame de Sevigne: ‘She has good qualities, or so I believe. But at this first stage I can praise her only by negatives. She is not this: she has not the Rennes accent. In time, I shall perhaps say: she is that.’ And I shall always think well of her if she can make you happy.”

But by these very words which left it to me to decide my own happiness, my mother had plunged me into that state of doubt in which I had been plunged long ago when, my father having allowed me to go to Phédré and, what was more, to take up writing as a career, I had suddenly felt myself burdened with too great a responsibility, the fear of distressing him, and that melancholy which we feel when we cease to obey orders which, from one day to another, keep the future hidden, and realise that we have at last begun to live in real earnest, as a grown-up person, the life, the only life that any of us has at his disposal.

Those of you who’ve known me for a while are familiar with That Damned Hegel Quote. I first read it more than 10 years ago, during a semester-long study on Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right. (I’ve led an exciting life, as you can tell.)

The essence of the passage is that we must make decisions to become real. But Hegel says it better (or at least more completely) than I do:

A will which resolves on nothing is not an actual will; the characterless man can never resolve on anything. The reason for such indecision may also lie in an over-refined sensibility which knows that, in determining something, it enters the realm of finitude, imposing a limit on itself and relinquishing infinity; yet it does not wish to renounce the totality to which it intends. Such a disposition is dead, even if its aspiration is to be beautiful. “Whoever aspires to great things,” says Goethe, “must be able to limit himself.” Only by making resolutions can the human being enter actuality, however painful the process may be; for inertia would rather not emerge from that inward brooding in which it reserves a universal possibility for itself. But possibility is not yet actuality. The will which is sure of itself does not therefore lose itself in what it determines.

Those of you who’ve known me for a while are also familiar with my intense, paralyzing neuroses. My tendencies to hem and haw, to hedge every statement (“Well, almost every statement . . .”), to never quite reveal where I am, had to be as infuriating to my friends and loved ones as it was to me. I’m a lot better about it than I used to be. I was pretty much a cipher, back in the proverbial day.

But “such a disposition is dead, even if its aspiration is to be beautiful,” we read. I know too many people who live that way, avoiding life-decisions as a means of retaining their “freedom.” Most of them are artists. They’re getting old now. We all are, but they seem lonelier than my other friends.

When I first read that passage by Hegel, I felt like an insect, pinned to a collector’s display (or like a patient etherised upon a table, to recall that old influence). Intellectually, I knew that I couldn’t keep living like this, that it isn’t living. But there’s a difference between knowing something and living something. I feel like I’ve bridged that gap in the past two years. You long-time readers have been along for the ride, and that must’ve been entertaining.

Funny thing: all along, I was saving the Hegel passage for “just the right” entry, the unaccomplishable piece of writing that would make it the centerpiece, in which it would be fastened like a jewel. I’ll likely never get around to the great essay on identity and reification. Rather, I’ll likely get around to living it, but not writing it.

So instead you get this. I can’t do justice to that passage, but as William Gaddis once put it, “In the next world you get justice. Here you have the law.”

And that’s the rambling erudition I was talking about, bringing Proust, Hegel, Eliot, Orwell, Miller, Gaddis, et al. into the conversation. In the old days it was as if, by being everywhere, I could keep from being in one place. It’s still a nervous habit, quoting so much, but those writers and thinkers have informed a good part of how I see the world. They keep opening my eyes, making sure I can see life as it contines to unfold.

All of which is to say, we’re in love, and I finally get it:

“[W]e have at last begun to live in real earnest, as a grown-up person, the life, the only life that any of us has at his disposal.”

Now I’m gonna get back to my 15 pages.

3 Replies to “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime”

  1. I just printed up that Hegel quote and put it on the bulletin board above my computer. I’m going to try to read it at least once a week… Happy New Year.

  2. “T’is done!
    “T’s well t’is done
    “Though well done it may not be.
    ” For it must be done to be over.
    ” It must be over for what comes to begin.”

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