Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
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Proust’s Near-Death Experiment and its Application 

(From The Nicotine Cat and Other People, 2009)


Marcel Proust’s servant Celeste, who was his main human contact in the last ten years when he was literally giving his life to complete A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, tells of three days, in 1919, when he did not ring his bell. On the third day she broke the house rule and entered his cork-lined bedroom without being called, and found him half-conscious. Later that evening the bell rang and their complementary life resumed as though nothing had happened. Celeste reconstructed the episode, divining enough from circumstantial details and some ambiguous remarks he made, not to explain himself but to put the matter to rest.

He was working on the death of Bergotte for La Prisonnière at the time. The successful novelist, based on Anatole France, had patronised ‘Petit Marcel’ with the famous remark, ‘Well, at least you’ll always have a life of the mind’. Once Proust dropped out of the social round to dedicate himself to regaining lost time, he did not keep in touch with his mentor. But he wanted to be present at his death. Not literally, but for the purpose of the work. Proust was a veritable Martingale of information about medicines, having being his own subject of research during a lifelong neurasthenia, within a family of doctors. He had reached a point with drugs that William Burroughs would have envied, able not only to chose what would make him sleep but when it would wake him.

Up to this point in A La Recherche  memory of things past was evoked through a ‘mirage of an analogy to escape the present’. Now Proust wanted to look to the future, and experience the actual moment when the present and the past come together on the precipice between life and death. He dosed himself with a bouquet of hypnotics which would lead him to the edge. If all went well, he would return to write it up.

Fortunately, the experiment proved more a Houdini stunt than the resurrection of Lazarus. He escaped just in time with a hangover that made him smile to Celeste, ‘I wish I was dead’. The only inscape we have into what happened, or didn’t, other than Celeste’s observations, is in La Prisonnière, published posthumously in 1923, in which he details the circumstances of Bergotte’s death. Clearly there was no ‘flash at the point of’ or ‘out of body experience’ to report from his séance, merely the deepening stages of vertigo as you lose consciousness. It is possible that his death watch was interrupted by Celeste’s appearance at the door on the third day. When he came to, Proust indicated to her with a little tut-tutting coucou that he had sensed her presence in the room. His engagement with the beyond was curtailed, or rather postponed (the night three years later when he died from lung congestion complicated by heart failure, he was still reworking the Bergotte passages).                                                                                          

In framing Bergotte’s last minutes he used a recent episode in his own life. An exhibition of Dutch painting from The Hague came to Paris in 1921, and it included Vermeer’s View of Delft, a favourite painting of Marcel’s and indeed Swann (Proust’s alter ego, who lived the life he might have had). So he dragged himself out to see it and was never quite the same afterwards. Celeste said it was the beginning of his death.

The passage describing Bergotte’s death changes the emphasis of A La Recherche from memory of times past towards what is about to happen, preparing the way for Sodome et Gomorrhe, La Fugative and Le Temps Retrouvé, the demise of the beau monde of his ‘lilac days’ before the Great War. But, above all, it served as an opportunity for a moral justification: putting in permanent form in a work of art a world which future generations would find as bizarre, and indeed reprehensible, as that of the Mayas, was also guaranteeing him redemption. The passage - a theo-philosophic counterblast against extinction - is the most thoughtful and moving example of special pleading in modern literature, an intimate moment that mattered more to Proust than his health, or even times past. The darkness is whistling in him as he works his way downhill to the grave. Fittingly, it was the last writing that he touched: I translate freely

A critic (Swann?) had brought to the attention of Bergotte un petit pan de mur jaune, a little patch of yellow wall, in the Vermeer, a painting in itself so perfectly beautiful it could be a priceless specimen of Chinese Art. Though his doctors had ordered rest for a minor urinary defect, he ate some potatoes and went to see it. Climbing the steps of the gallery he felt dizzy but shook it off, distracting himself with the paintings he passed as he mounted the stairs to the exhibition. How desiccated and meaningless, he thought, false art like this is. Give me the sunlight on a windswept Venetian palazzo, anytime, or even a simple house by the sea... The Vermeer seemed to him less vivid than before. But thanks to the critic he noticed for the first time some small blue people in the forground, that the sand was pink and the precious yellow substance on the wall. His dizziness increased and he fixed his gaze, like a child would on a butterfly he wanted to catch, on the sacred patch. ‘That’s how I ought to have written’, he said. ‘My last books are too dry. I should have gone over them with a few dabs of colour, made my words matter as much as the yellow patch.’ He felt worse. Celestial scales appeared before him and he weighted his life against the patch of wall so immaculately painted yellow, and found it wanting. He had sacrificed the perfection of his art for worldly success…

He murmured ‘little yellow patch, little yellow patch of wall, with a sloping roof’ and sank on to a round settee, telling himself, ‘It’s nothing. Those potatoes were undercooked’. But he was overtaken by another attack and rolled off the settee onto the floor. This brought visitors and attendants running. Bergotte was dead.

Dead forever! Who can say? Spiritualism proves nothing more than does religious dogma on the survival of the soul. All we know is everything in this life is so arranged that it’s as though a previous existence preordained that we take on ourselves a burden of obligations. There is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that obliges us to do good, to be considerate to others, even to be polite, any more than an atheist painter is obliged to work over twenty times a little thing the admiration of which will hardly concern his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall exquisitely achieved by a painter whose destiny is to remain unknown except for a barely identified name, Vermeer. All these obligations, self-imposed as they are not obligatory in the present, seem to belong to another world, a world based on goodness, attentiveness, sacrifice, a world so different from this one and which we leave to be born on to this earth, before perhaps being returned there by death to live again under the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing who put them there - those laws to which every serious work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only - if then! - to fools. So that the idea that Bergotte was not completely dead is by no means improbable.

On the night that he was waked, Marcel could see from his apartment the lighted widow of a bookshop in which Bergotte’s books were arranged three by three, keeping vigil ‘like angels with outspread wings and, it seemed for him, who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.            

Celeste saw a similar array of Proust's books in the same bookshop the night he was buried.  Everybody yearns to find the personal self’s ‘phrase of music’, or panegyric of colour, the inscription to give expression to its timeless joy and pain in a world that it is leaving behind. It is what strains our hearing, opens our eyes and closes them. Its apparition will weather into our gravestones.