Friday, November 03, 2017

A Translation of "Zugang zu Marcel Proust" by Jean Améry

A Window on Marcel Proust
On the Occasion of the Hundredth Anniversary of the Writer’s Birthday (July 10, 1871)
That he is mandatory reading is something everybody knows.  But many people postpone reading him indefinitely; reading him is an intellectual activity that requires no small amount of effort.  But assuming some reader or other, having avoided Proust up until now, has at last resolved to step into the world of this work, a few pointers on how to read Proust might just be of some use to him at a pinch.  Everyone must establish a rapport with this author in his own way.  Accordingly, the suggestions tendered here are by no means intended to be universally binding; rather, they are aimed at those Proust debutantes who are of approximately the same literary temperament as the author of this essay; these readers will discover themselves to be his kindred spirits.  It is equally certain that others will realize that my advice is not worth a fig to them and will seek their bliss on their own power.
Suggestions for the Beginning Proust Reader

I would like to begin this discussion by recommending to everybody who can do so to read Proust in the original.  This is not to say that the German translation is an unsuccessful one.  To the contrary: the version of the Recherche published by Suhrkamp is probably optimal.  To be sure, here one cannot help wondering whether even the best translation can ever be good enough.  Let us just take for example the title of the second volume, which is called A l’ombre des juenes filles en fleurs in the original.  Once upon a time Walter Benjamin and Franz Hessel rendered this as Im Schatten der jungen Mädchen [In the Shadow of Young Girls].  They left out “en fleurs” because its inclusion would have resulted in a decidedly preposterous German title.  But was the abbreviation Im Schatten der jungen Mädchen preferable?  I am none too sure that it was; I can still very clearly recall the time when I was trying to approach the work via the then-available German version, and that title really put me off.  After all, in German isn’t it better to say just plain “Mädchen” in place of the “jeune fille” that one has to say in French?  And isn’t the Suhrkmap edition’s rendering of the same title as Im Schatten jungen Mädchenblüte even more problematic?

But these are details.  My essential point is that the question of translatability—of prose, that is; for paraphrases of poetry are invariably the most neck-breaking of all literary undertakings—becomes quite especially sharply defined in Proust’s case.  This is because, regardless of what anyone may say to the contrary, Marcel Proust is a social novelist; in his work we encounter scarcely a single page in which the words are bereft of their quite specific socially oriented meanings.  Aller dans le monde, for example, is incredibly difficult to translate, because the social function of elegant sallying-forth in Paris at the turn of the century was a different one—emphatically so even in cultural and literary terms—than in Vienna, Berlin, or London during the same period.  The narrator’s relationship with the aristocracy becomes truly comprehensible only once one has acquired a solid working knowledge of the French haute bourgeoisie and of an aristocracy that while rooted in the Ancien Régime was still a towering presence in the age of the Third Republic and was living its life as though the great revolution had never taken place.  But if one wishes to exhaust all the possibilities of profiting as a reader of Proust, one must not limit one’s acquaintance with his nexus of relationships to the social and historical facts: these are themselves inextricably bound up with the language in which they are realized, so that for example in Time Regained, Morel, a quondam lowlife who had been kept by no less than three homosexual patrons, begins to figure as an homme considérable whom one would never be able to take the full measure of if one tried to represent him in German as an “angesehenen  [respectable or distinguished] Mann.”

There would be little point in my trying to involve myself here in the boundless problem of linguistic transmissibility in the light of further examples.  The old French saying that translations are like women—if they’re beautiful, they aren’t faithful, and if they’re faithful they aren’t beautiful—is especially valid in our case.  Let it be stated that anyone who feels reasonably comfortable with French should read Proust—whose sentences are certainly long and complicated, but whose vocabulary is comparatively simple—in the original.  Anyone who is incapable of doing this should reach for the German version anyway, because a life without Proust is a life of privation; even the risk of misunderstanding something here, of failing to understand anything at all there, on account of the translation, is of no consequence when weighed against complete ignorance of this work, the epic peak of our century.

A number of preliminaries must be recommended.  The first is long practice at being patient and sacrificing time, a great deal of time, because the Recherche, which takes time itself as its central theme, will brook no haste.  Anyone who thinks he will be able to breeze through Proust might as well not read him at all.  We must approach his characters with dogged tenaciousness; we must get to know them intimately, in the way we get to know friends and enemies.  His landscapes must be seen and foreseen, researched, precisely because all of them have something peculiarly spectral and optically elusive about them.  Our hearing must become keener.  How does the Baron de Charlus talk, and how does the Duchesse de Guermantes?  What comically imagery-oozing, classical allusion-ridden turns of phrase are employed by the narrator’s comrade, the ambitious young Bloch?  When he swears by the gods of ancient Greece, do we not hear resonances of his father’s Jewish singsong?  Only if we don’t suppose that we could have him, Bloch, or Saint-Loup or Swann or Mme. Verdurin, speak to us today and perhaps some character from a modern novel speak to us tomorrow, will we perceive the overtones on which everything depends.  In other words: Proust peremptorily demands that we surrender and sacrifice all our reading-time to him.  The ideal reader of Proust is a man who has retired for weeks into a none too well-lighted room, who never goes outside, who receives no visitors, talks to nobody on the telephone.  This kind of thing is difficult to pull off, I know: that’s why I called the reader who can do it an ideal one.  But the prohibition against interleaving one’s reading of Proust with other books is absolute: there is no primrose path leading from this cosmos into any other, and anyone who abandons Proust to concentrate on reading other things, be it only for a few days, will find his way back to him none too easily.
Is it advisable to read about Proust before one has approached him directly oneself?  Not necessarily, for hardly any other author has ever exposed himself—with all the well-contrived encodings that are nevertheless constantly in evidence on the surface—so unabashedly as this one.  The colossal secondary literature—and above all George D. Painter’s monumental biography of Proust-cum-interpretation of his work—is principally the preserve of seasoned “Proustians” and takes far too much for granted to be of much use before one has read the work.  But here and there there is a book that may afford enough of a window on Proust to make him slightly more accessible—in French André Maurois’s A la recherche de Marcel Proust and in the German bookstores Claude Mauriac’s Rowohlt paperback monograph.  Materially speaking these sorts of books are of no assistance.  What one needs in order to acclimatize oneself to Marcel Proust’s world is not a scholarly background in literary history but rather mental composure, calmness, determination, and courage in the face of those difficult passages that may initially seem “tedious.”  One needs more than a bit of what Sartre recently called “empathy” in connection with Flaubert—and as I said before, one also needs time, time, time.
The Man behind the Legend

It is remarkable that the literary swotters in France, and increasingly in Germany as well, invariably know a fair amount about the personal life of this novelist before they have read so much as a single line of his work.  Proust the homosexual, the egocentric, the snob, the hypochondriac; Proust, the sufferer of asthma and the Oedipus complex, the spendthrift, the elegant man of the world who eventually turned into a hermit—we have all read about this person in countless arts-section articles.  This pseudo-lore about Proust the man—let’s not talk about Proust the author at all for now—is so extensive that there is a distinct danger that the multitudinous fragments of the Proust legend will overgrow the reality of Proust.  Let us make some very brief observations on what seem to us the elements of this writer’s personal life that need to be known, that are worth knowing, in relation to his exemplarily autobiographical work.  My selective method is not unimpeachable; I shall carry on here in blithe disregard of objections from the partisans of Romanticism, equipped with a crystal-clear conscience and a body of knowledge that, if certainly not crystal-clear, is at any rate not insubstantial.
So according to my lights, such as they are, it was of decisive significance for Marcel Proust’s experience of life and life-trajectory that he was born and raised as a christened Jew, a Christian-Jewish mongrel.  His father, Adrien Proust, a doctor, university professor, and distinguished personality in French scientific and public life, hailed from a provincial bourgeois family.  He was a solid citizen, a man content to live peacefully with himself in his native country, among his own people, and as part of the haute-bourgeois class he had grown into.  From him his son Marcel inherited—what?  Alas, neither his endomorphic physique nor his earnest lifestyle!  But perhaps he did owe to his father his down-homeness and down-to-earthness, both of which can be summarized in the concept of Combray (Illiers in the Département of Eure-et-Loire): a strong attachment to one’s native landscape, a respect for the rank and class-governed society of the Third Republic—an attitude that Proust never shed even after becoming a social critic; a secure intuitive understanding and appreciation of the proprieties, of good manners, of discretion; but also a feeling of sympathy with the little people and a deferential regard for the verifiably high economic productivity of the bourgeoisie, a regard that was ultimately one of the things that enabled the former young rascal and worshiper of aristocrats to bid defiance to some very severe health problems and bring to completion a work that may conventionally be called “titanic” but would perhaps more justly be termed simply difficult and great.

And did he also inherit this from his mommy?  Why, by no means: Madame Adrien Proust, far from being of a cheerful disposition, was a serious, even tragic woman.  She, who bestowed a substantial dowry on her husband so that her son could lead what we would describe today as a playboy’s existence for several years, was thrifty, apprehensive about the future of her favorite son Marcel to the very end, and yet so strict in mollycoddling her child that he refused to grow up properly as long as she was still alive.  Mme. Proust was a highly educated and somewhat phlegmatic Jewess brimming over with pride and sorrow, and she bequeathed to her son a few of the stereotype-contradicting and yet characteristic traits of the Jewish race: intellectuality in peculiar association with social ambitiousness, excellences that can in fact cohabit quite comfortably with selfishness, but above all, her nervousness (admittedly in her case it was kept under control through strict discipline), which nobody was willing to nip in the bud.  As a young girl she was beautiful; as a woman rather too bulky, and as the years passed her tribal affiliation became ever-more strongly evident in her face and figure.
Marcel Proust’s Jewish mother was quite thoroughly assimilated to French culture.  But she never ceased to be conscious of her Jewishness; without actually wanting to she instilled this consciousness in her son, so that the boy who regularly attended Catholic church services in Illiers, the youth who curried favor with the Faubourg St. Honoré, the aristocratic quarter of Paris, the writer who described the Gothic cathedrals of northern France with tender affection, nevertheless strikes us as being a Jewish individual in the most emphatic sense.  By this I do not only mean that during the Dreyfus Affair Marcel Proust was a committed “Dreyfusard” in contrast to his aristocratic friends, not only that in including in the Recherche the character of Bloch he has furnished us with one of the most hilarious and realistic Jewish personages in world literature, not even that in a letter to his mother he quite surprisingly writes, “il y a beaucoup de ‘unsere Leute’ [‘our people’] ici.’”  I mean something rather difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to define; perhaps the off-putting mixture of arrogance and diffidence, of elegant security in one’s living circumstances and deep-seated anxiety about one’s life as a whole, perhaps merely the downright grotesquely overweening desire to assimilate to of all classes the ruling class of yesteryear, to the nobility—but in the end probably something quite different: namely, nothing more and nothing less than what Thomas Mann in his Joseph tetralogy calls “divine worry” [“Gottessorge”], and which in this child of the bourgeois nineteenth century is manifested as a simultaneously metaphysical and physical restlessness.

Moreover, in studying Proust’s biography and pursuing its mother-son-relationship, I can never shake the feeling that the connection between the genteel and culturally refined Mme. Jeanne Proust and her handsome melancholy son was fundamentally that of a Jewish “mamme” and her clever and gifted, slightly sickly and slightly lazy “jungl.”  Admittedly the problematic nature of this connection extends far beyond that between a spoiled brat and his doting mother.  Here—and everyone who thinks even vaguely in terms of psychoanalytic categories will agree with me—we are dealing with a classic example of an ungratified Oedipus complex.  The writer’s odyssey, from the appallingly egocentric and ruthless letters of little Marcel to the homoerotic torments of the great Proust, is an Oedipal drama in the grandest and most tragic vein.  His mother—who in the Recherche is split between the characters of the mother and grandmother— was up until her death (she died when Proust was 35 and had not yet published anything apart from a couple of inconsequential trifles and could have been regarded by any standard as a raté, a failure)—his mother was literally the most important human reference point of his existence.  To say in the hackneyed idiom that he “loved her to the point of idolatry” would be downright grotesque.  For was this still love, this deeply annoying preoccupation with the deficiency of his own physiology in his correspondence with her, these often irritatingly importunate demands for money from a person who had absolutely no clue about how to handle it, the cold, restrained reproaches occasioned by the inadequate provision of conveniences for his day-to-day comfort, his perpetual well-nigh peremptory commands to express-deliver a letter to such-and-such a place, to establish social ties with such-and-such people, to host a dinner for some of his friends, to fetch him some medicine?  Madame Proust was of course the mother without whose good-night kiss the little boy at the beginning of the Recherche could not get to sleep, but she was also the grandmother whose death agonies the narrator hardly noticed owing to his preoccupation with own his amorous woes and social obligations.
This mother also ultimately also figures, albeit metamorphosed, at the center of one of the most horrifying and excruciating scenes in the entire work: Mlle. Vinteuil, the daughter of Vinteuil the composer, is pleasuring and being pleasured by her lesbian lover.  On her bedside table stands a picture of her father, whom she loves tenderly and selflessly.  She orders the girlfriend in whose arms she is now lying to heap profanities on this portrait of her father.  The girlfriend does just that.  The narrator, if we are to believe him, is appalled.  But the reader is more deeply appalled, because he by no means believes in the reality of the narrator’s indignation at this scandalous incident.  With the benefit of hindsight afforded by our knowledge of the nature of Proust’s attachment to his mother, this episode becomes much more than Oedipal, and also much more than a humdrum case of ambivalence.  Here something profoundly uncanny is exposed: an abyss far more perilous in prospect than that of Monsieur de Charlus’s sadomasochistic orgies in the volume entitled Sodom and Gomorrah.  Even today, when every single last detail of the writer’s life and work has been sleuthed out by the secondary literature, the topic of “Proust and his mother” is unexhausted and inexhaustible.[1]   

What else of a biographical nature might serve us as a starting point leading to a window on Proust?  Whenever I browse the secondary literature amassed around me, I am overwhelmed by apprehension and ultimately by despondency.  After all, what hasn’t already been written about, either more or less intelligently, more or less searchingly?  Marcel Proust and asthma, Marcel Proust and music, Proust and time, Proust’s moral philosophy, Bergson and Proust, Proust and painting, Proust’s roman à clef, Proust’s idealism, Proust’s landscape.  I give up on it; I am now inclined, rather, and however unpromising such an undertaking may appear at first blush, to continue pursuing my own arduous way to the end.  If I am not mistaken, in addition to the above-adumbrated circumstances—his half-Jewish lineage, his pathological attachment to his mother, his erotic inversion—the absolutely decisive factor in Proust’s existence as a human being and as a writer was his troubled relationship with money and property, a relationship that in his case is in turn traceable to a foundational problem of the bourgeois-capitalist world order of his time.

I have already said that when Proust’s mother finally closed her eyes after having endured great distress with veritably Roman stoicism, he must have struck her as a failure, as a proper good-for-nothing.  It was only after his mother’s death, when he was a grown man of 35, that this creator of what I am convinced is the greatest novel of our century started working in earnest on a serious project, one that he admittedly could not have so much as dreamed would ever pay his bills.  He spent his adolescence—for in point of fact he was an “adolescent” until the age of 35—as a social parasite bumming around the fringes of the aristocracy.  He squandered money that he never earned himself—for his brief stint of employment at the Bibliothèque Mazarine remunerated him as meagerly as the brief and genuinely insignificant texts whose publication he secured only thanks to the most intricate social intrigues imaginable; ultimately, indeed, as meagerly as his composition of the posthumously published unfinished novel Jean Santeuil; as I was saying: he squandered money that he was never forced to earn and that he never worked for, not even during the composition if his magnum opus, in a fantastically extravagant fashion.  In his work money is discussed as rarely as any sort of professional activity, for his protagonists are persons of independent means, and it is their elegant prerogative to subsist as idlers, aesthetes, eroticists of the world, which is theirs in two senses, because they both live in it and possess it.  And yet his own life, the life of a wealthy man, was constantly beset by financial problems.  As a boy, a youth, and a young gentleman, he was obliged to inveigle both small and fairly large sums from his parents’ pockets.  As a grown man he incessantly felt threatened by ruin, complained about it unrestrainedly, and never had an inkling about the extent of his considerable financial means.  

Because it is also bourgeois, his uneasy aristocratic and bohemian relationship with money and property is only partially interpretable as an expression of his general neurotic constitution; or to put it another way, his illness is the social illness of a bourgeoisie that was already on the verge of assuming the social position of the nobility but had not yet acquired the aristocracy’s clueless and ruthless tendency to regard doing nothing as the most obvious thing to do.  They were wealthy, but not by the grace of God; they felt entitled to enjoy their wealth only when they were taking care of the business of exploiting the working classes, who in turn were working in the sweat of the money-grubbing bourgeois countenance.  Marcel Proust, the well-to-do doctor’s son, had no prospect of doing anything but what he probably would have regarded with a guilty idler’s conscience as menial labor, just like other young men of the haute bourgeoisie.  As for his efforts to fraternize with the nobility—with all those Bibescos, Montesquieus, de Greffulhes, Fénelons—I am inclined to believe that they were the efforts of a typical forward and upward-flying bourgeois, but also to believe that as such a bourgeois—meaning one half burdened with the guilty idler’s conscience and half in thrall to the ideology of the work ethic-orientated tributary of the bourgeoisie—he suffered from his languid refinement more than he cultivated it.

Amid incessant tearful asseverations of his (genuine) physical misery, the young snob took up rebellious arms against his bourgeois parental home and sidled in spirit (and ultimately quite successfully, and effectively in body) from the unpretentious family house in Illiers-Combray to the Chateau Réveillon-Tansonville.  Once his parents were dead, his boyish defiance ceased to meet with any resistance, and his bourgeois work ethic got started composing the Recherche.  Thus did individual psychological conditions and objective social conditions interpenetrate one another: Proust’s elitist consciousness, one of whose numerous aspects was egoism, could discover no substratum and was obliged to abandon all hope in itself, because as a ruling class the bourgeoisie never constituted themselves along ideological lines; rather, in representing their particular essence as a universal one, they regarded themselves as “the world” and the bourgeois individual as “everyman.”  Proust’s reflexively bourgeois understanding of the world, in stumbling against both its twofold experience and the vulgarity of bourgeois life as well as its oppressive function, also stumbled against the society to which it was obligated, so that his refusal, his great refusal, or, if you like, his neurosis together with the sexual peculiarity associated with it, was the only exit that remained open to him.

Life—A Dream?

Whence, after having tided ourselves over with a couple of adumbratory hints about Marcel Proust the man, we have finally arrived at the decisive question: wherein lies the completely singular, as-yet-unmatched and possibly even unmatchable essence of his novelistic opus In Search of Lost Time?  Even within this interpretative purview I shall hardly manage to come up with more than a clue here and there, for I can hardly engage in the sort of pseudoscientific enterprise that smugly spouts quotations from the innumerable available investigations; for in this setting I have as low a regard for stylistic analyses, either of the classical or of the modern structuralist stripe, as for the orthodox decryptive methodologies that Proust’s principal biographer George D. Painter takes such a keen interest in.

The explanations tendered in the old days by readers weaned on solidly plotted novels, including those professional lecturers inclined to give the cold shoulder to Proust’s work from the outset, were as good as useless—exercises in futility.  A little boy can’t get to sleep because his mother won’t come to his bed to give him his goodnight kiss.  A little boy falls in love with a little girl and waits in vain for a letter from her.  A youth strolls the streets of Paris with the aim of crossing paths with a duchess whose attention he wishes to attract, perhaps because he desires her as a woman, and undoubtedly just because she is a duchess.  A man sequesters his sweetheart to keep tabs on her, and after her death he suffers every imaginable torment of jealousy because he learns that she was cheating on him with a lesbian girlfriend.  Another man—Swann—spends night after night standing in front of the darkened window of his mistress’s house, behind whose façade she is being unfaithful to him.  He doesn’t barge in; things never come to a boil; he will never know the truth because he doesn’t want to know it.  An old woman in the provinces performs for her family the meticulously scripted and rehearsed comedy of her illness, which nevertheless happens to be a real one, and which eventually kills her off.  Someone fails to receive an invitation to someplace and feels miserable as a result.  Someplace someone refuses to send an invitation to somebody in order to make him feel miserable.  A masochistic, homosexual nobleman has himself whipped by some poor devil of a male hustler.  A duke with one foot in the grave persecutes his aging sweetheart, whose fading feminine charms have ceased to interest any rivals, with the perfervid jealousy of a youth.  A diplomat delivers interminable subtle and inane speeches.  In an art gallery a famous writer dies of uremia.

“What good can all this stuff and these games do us?” we ask, echoing Hofmannsthal.  Well, what is the point of it?  It is as much and as little as life itself, which only occasionally stitches the episodes of its plot seamlessly together, which hardly ever supplies us with “personalities” (in Mynheer Peeperkorn’s sense of “personalities”), which is vanishing before our eyes, disintegrating in an inarticulate babble, in a welter of cinematic dissolve-cuts, life itself in its dazzling glory and in its wretchedness, its terrifying disorder, against which the counterpoising of a “higher order” is nothing other than a game, with its coming, going, passing away; so that at the end, in the concluding volume, Time Regained, contrary to the author’s own intention and hope, the past as an actuality, which memory believes it is managing to get hold of, might as well never have been at all.

The greatness of the Recherche does not consist in a typically literary compression of reality, but rather in a dissolution thereof.  The dreamlike character of existence—which is a dream in virtue of its fugacity and not of being either some condensed Kafkaesque nightmare, or the structured visionary dream of a Joyce—is Marcel Proust’s discovery.  But let there be no misunderstandings between us: if I have spoken of a dream here, this does not mean that in this colossal work the novelist has ever lost sight, even for an instant, of that daylight reality that is our intersubjectively mediate certainty of everything.  No deliberate transformations of reality within language occur.  The dream is not a linguistic dream in any sense.  Nor is the dream composed of dreamy characters, for its personages crawl and fly like insects; they are little people and the littlest of little people; even if they bear the noblest of noble titles, they are mean, petty figures who outstrip their physical wretchedness as negligibly as they do their irritating peccadilloes and chicly calculating intentions.  But the dream is not Proust’s dream; rather, it is the reflection of our self-dreaming reality in all its misery.

I will try not to stray into the wilds of imprecision; as I am writing this I sense that I am already in danger of such straying; I am pulling back, throwing in the towel on the whole dream hypothesis; I shall focus on particularity and avoid propping myself up on general concepts; I will attempt to describe what was termed “dreamlike” in this attempt at an approach.  Instead of speaking about the dream, I would have done better to speak about the unreality of reality, if this weren’t itself just another throwaway expression, or about an impossibility exemplified by Proust, the impossibility of saying anything binding about reality in a novel.  Let us take a look at Proust’s characters so that we can get to know them from the inside.

In Proust’s work people are not described.  Here and there we get a hint at a gaze, a turn of phrase, a dress, a person’s way of carrying himself, his way of walking, but an extensive delineation of characters such as we are familiar with from classic novels is never supplied.  As a first-rate epicist, Proust recognized that it was impermissible to treat his point of view (and a specific corner of space and a certain moment in time within that point of view) as the quintessential point of view.  What could possibly have been the point of sketching a portrait of the elegant Swann, given that in the course of the narrative it becomes quite clear that not only is this Swann person regarded in various mutually distinct ways by various fellow-characters, but above and beyond this, with the passage of time these same people come to perceive their friend Swann from perspectives that likewise diverge from one another?  One of them says, “Well, I admit he isn’t exactly pretty, but he’s got that shock of hair, and that monocle…”  And another says, “I admit he isn’t positively hideous, but he’s ridiculous—just take a look at that shock of hair, and that monocle…”  After this, it is unnecessary, nay, impermissible, for the narrator to depict and aesthetically appraise the shock of hair and the monocle, for the narrator is nothing but himself and not “the eyes of the world,” which don’t exist, for the world is composed of all too many, and all too diverse, pairs of observing eyes.
What holds true with respect to optical perception and judgment is binding to a much greater degree with respect to the social categorization of the characters.  For simplicity’s sake we will continue to use Swann as an example.  He is a fashionably cultivated member of the Jockey Club who breakfasts with the Prince of Wales and whose company is sought after by duchesses and royal highnesses, but he is also a complete oddball who at certain regularly appointed times of day betakes himself to a patisserie because a certain girl he fancies works there as a waitress.  Amid the fluctuation of perspectives, the uncanny and completely unfathomable fact of time plays its destructive role as an agent of becoming and expiring.  Swann—for we must firmly stand by him—visited the Duchesse de Guermantes almost daily during his glory days as a social presence.  Only a few years after his death Swann’s daughter Gilberte, who was not accepted during his lifetime, because her mother was not socially respectable, is introduced to the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes under her new surname of de Forcheville.  The young girl mentions Swann, her father, and reminds the ducal couple that they knew him.  Knew him?  Of course.  But time has passed.  And the duke and duchess now detachedly call their erstwhile intimate friend an “excellent man,” as if they were recommending him “for employment as a gardener.”

I said that the greatness of the Recherche consists not in its compression but in its utter dissolution of reality.  One can also ring changes on this formulation.  This author’s achievement consists in the visualization of unrecognizability.  Nobody before him and hardly anybody after him expended as much effort not to suggest but to discern reality by literary means.  And in no other writer’s work were the ultimate failures of the intended undertaking transformed into a comparable artistic triumph.  Proust believed that in memory he could successfully constitute and stabilize a reality that as a presence had invariably eluded him.  But in the concluding volume, Time Regained, memory itself—and in particular immediately, spontaneously experienced memory, le souvenir—turns out to be an intellectual error and aberration.  Had the people the narrator knew ever been reality?  The reader sleuthing his general impression of the work after finishing the last page of its last volume has his doubts.  Who was Odette?  The lady in pink, a small-time cocotte with a grand future?  Swann’s spouse, a woman conquering her place in the bourgeois world?  The Countess de Forcheville, the by-now totally senile and pathologically jealous Duc de Guermantes’s mistress, whose marriage has made her a naturalized member of the upper aristocracy?  Each of them.  All of them together.  None of them.  There was no such person as Odette, as Bloch, as Mme. Verdurin.  Time, le Temps, which Proust occasionally writes in capital letters in order to give the word weight and magnificence, has toyed with them, it has transformed them, concealed them, exposed them and veiled them afresh; so that neither memory nor habit—l’Habitude, which likewise happens to be capitalized every now and then—is any match for it, for this Time.

What has been termed the Proustian space-time continuum—reality in the recollection of what has been—is in truth a temporo-spatial discontinuum, a hopeless chaos that cannot be organized into a cosmos without doing violence to it through defamiliarization.  Proust’s greatness becomes discernable in his vanquishment by the work he undertook to produce.  He himself, an I that was nothing more than the Machian “bundle of sensations,” had progressed too far into the cognizance of the uncognizable to be able to find his way back to the naivety of the “here and now,” of the “This is how it was”; he had penetrated too deeply into reality to retain the ability to sculpt reality.

Let us just for a moment take a look out from Proust’s presence into the epoch that was his distant future and is our present; then we shall realize that he was the one who called into question the omnipotence and omniscience of the narrator, that he was the first merely to form tentative conjectures about his characters, that with him began the uncertainty of narration that is the technical stock-in-trade of today’s novelists.  To be sure, though, in Proust’s case what would later be the effect of construction and experimentation was pure and unmodified experience.  He told his story and in telling it made the discovery of just how difficult this is.  Nevertheless, he never made the difficulty of telling the truth into a methodological aesthetic: this distinguishes him from his descendants, meaning all those writers who systematically first only form conjectures about what is to be recounted, and then call into question the raw material of the narrative, language itself, as a medium for im-parting information, and finally—because for them language is just language and nothing else—they deploy it as an autonomous power, and in losing themselves in the structures of describing, renounce all interest in what is described.

Thus Proust’s helplessness in the face of reality was not a method but rather a lived mode of existence.  This helplessness had certain purely individual psychological roots, for this storyteller who was so zealously preoccupied with reality confronted the world skinlessly, so to speak; a superlatively vulnerable mental apparatus of unprecedented sensitivity, an apparatus incapable of taking shelter in a compact, perfectly self-assured ego, was defenselessly addicted to all the stimuli with which the world attacked it.   The clinical allergic asthmatic that he actually was, if the professional medical testimonials are to be credited, was at the same time psychically allergic to reality: the mere existence of the external world caused him intellectual breathlessness just as the scent of a flower, the dust in his room, caused him physical asthma attacks.  He was not merely “at the mercy of the elements in the mountains of the heart,” as Rilke had put it once upon a time, but at the mercy of a highly sensitive nervous system.  This was—and here again individual psychological dispositions are intertwined with the objective social one—the nervous constitution of the bourgeois who transcends his condition, who forfeits the traditional, achievement and financial accumulation-based norms of bourgeois existence.  This loss of norms was simultaneously a loss of ego—whence the narrator’s hypersensitivity, which is perfectly captured in the French metaphor avoir les nerfs á fleur de peau, to have one’s nerves on the flower, on the surface, of one’s skin.
Comparisons with characters in German literature spring to mind, and I am particularly keenly reminded of Hanno Buddenbrook and Tonio Kröger.  But the man who says I in the Recherche does not hail from the Free Hanseatic City of Lübeck, from the well-tempered little capital of German commercial assiduity, but rather from the metropolis of Paris, where endeavors and their attendant perils attain the utmost degree of intensity; furthermore, although Hanno Buddenbrook and Tonio Kröger were decidedly homeless in the bourgeois world, they undertook the comparatively modest endeavor of attempting to trade in a traditional bourgeois life for the life of an artist, whereas Proust’s narrator hybridically propelled himself up into the world of the nobility, where things can always take a painfully lethal turn, from the brusquely insulting tirades in which a M. de Charlus rails against his social inferiors, to the duels that one has no choice but to go through with in certain emergencies.  Hanno’s and Tonio’s frailty was therefore (and irrespective of individual conditions) gently elegiac in character, whereas the frailty of Proust’s narrator strikes us being capricious, petulant, incurable by any remedy, not even excepting a flight into discipline and “comportment.”  Something that must also ultimately be remembered here is an objective social moment, one that separates the diverse qualities of the abovementioned contemporaneous French and German decadents from each other.  Hanno and Tonio were Nordo-Latin half-breeds who found themselves in a bourgeois social position that, although not always comfortable, was on the whole fairly bearable.  On the other hand, Proust, whose features we recognize in his narrator, was half-Jewish during the epoch of the Dreyfus Affair, and beyond this, unlike Tonio or the hero of Death in Venice, he was not merely beset by sublimated homosexual tendencies but a practicing homosexual in the most unambiguous sense of the term.

To be sure, Proust’s vulnerability and defenselessness have contributed to the notion that he—to carry the comparison even further but also finish it off—in contrast to the creator of Hanno and Tonio, was a social novelist—albeit perhaps a more significant one than those who—like Martin du Gard, for instance—are officially subsumed under this heading by literary historians.   Not that his work could have served as vehicle of social pathos, social protest: to the contrary, the author very much comes across as a man who lives on perfectly good terms with the social structure; when his discourses skirt the edges of class problems as the need arises, they are edifying rather than muckraking, just as he holds forth in camouflage on the homosexual question in a worthily moralizing vein.  His work is social—not in its intentions but rather in its existence.  Proust is no social critic; he speaks from the platform of a fundamentally critical mindset.  He is nothing but the faithful recorder of what is playing out in society, but this fidelity to facts ends up being more accusatory than plangent protests ever could be.  
One thinks in this connection of Françoise the housekeeper’s identification with her authority, which is a good example of the alienation of the servant class, and from this example it is perhaps an astonishingly short albeit airy transition to the crimes that Genet’s “Bonnes” commit against their employers.   Or one recalls the rent boys in Jupien’s house—was the depersonalization of the proletariat ever more horrifyingly exhibited anywhere else?  Proust limns the psychological vulgarity of the bourgeoisie—represented by Dr. Cottard and his wife inter alia—with the same, almost natural-scientific objectivity that he brings to bear on the naïve arrogance of the aristocracy or the loneliness of a waiter taking refuge in polite coldness.  Even though it is nowhere explicitly described as such, in the narrator’s possessive jealousy one can readily discern an essential feature of the possessive bourgeois mentality.  Moreover—if we may turn our attention away from the work and towards the biography for a moment—was Proust’s habit of giving downright laughably enormous tips to hotel porters and footboys, a habit that was mostly seen as a mere personal peculiarity, not an expression of the guilty feelings of a bourgeois who admittedly unconsciously called into question the modi vivendi of his class but adopted them as nothing more than self-evident choices?

In his life as in his work Proust was the most impressive example of how social and individual-phenomenological problems, not directly to mention personal-metaphysical ones, interpenetrate one another.  To be sure, he confined his conscious shaping to the personal level, which he may have regarded as an “eternal constant” and that may actually possess some supratemporal worth.  The relationship of the human individual to time, which transforms him inwardly and leads him to death, a relationship that is polyphonically summarized in the last volume of the Recherche, is possibly quite literally trans-social: the description of, for example, the aged faces of former friends whom the narrator recognizes and yet no longer recognizes at the Princesse de Guermantes’s reception, strikes me as a depiction of lived experience that transcends all social contingencies, that apprehends the fundamental condition of human existence.  I see something comparable in his futile efforts to visualize the church tower of Martinville (Caen) behind his closed eyelids, to describe and shed light on the feeling of happiness that an optical experience prepared for him, an essential problem in the adaptation of reality that leads us straight to the boundless complexity of a metaphysics of the senses.  His peculiar lack of confidence in the world, a lack that inheres in these kinds of experiences, can legitimately be interpreted both in terms of this poetic soul’s neurotic constitution and in terms of the social condition of a cultural haute bourgeoisie stretched to the psychological breaking point by its internal contradictions.  But when considering such scenes (scenes such as the experience of recollection triggered by the taste of the madeleine biscuit, the access of emotion over the beauty of the church tower, the estrangement and defamiliarization of people through the mere passage of time) it is possible—and this may ultimately be the true essence of Proust’s greatness—to set aside the social as well as individual psychological facts and find oneself faced with a number of questions whose answers are to be found only in the field of speculative metaphysics because they are metaphysical questions posed to us.

Or am I deluding myself?  Am I, too, succumbing to the temptation to take the bourgeois particular for a universal and to speak of those “eternal human problems” that do not exist as far as any thinker of a strictly social-philosophical orientation is concerned?  I do not believe I am, but I have long since lost the courage—ultimately no thanks to Proust’s teachings—to pass off what I believe or do not believe as a science.  And of course in this age of ours, whose accelerativeness has exorcised all our illusions about the everlasting significance of artistic and intellectual values, there is ultimately no need for us to shiver in recognition of the “Eternally Human Truths” in Proust’s magnum opus.  The only thing we can be sure of is this: as long as we are stuck here in and with this epoch, which is every bit as much a late-bourgeois epoch as in Proust’s day, we cannot get by without him.  He is of concern to us, and we have a right to acknowledge that we are of concern to him, even if we aren’t dukes, princesses, or members of the upper bourgeoisie.

Proust worked on his masterpiece for about seventeen years, from 1905 until just before his death in 1922.  An invalid, he withdrew from the world—which he had conquered on a social level by dint of the utmost exertion of his powers—into a hermetically sealed room in which he superficially went to seed in the midst of manuscript pages; surrounded by medicinal drugs (sleeping aids that he gourmandized; stimulant-pills that jerked him out of his semi-slumber); engulfed in the fumes of cups of boiling-hot coffee gulped down almost uninterruptedly in huge quantities; repined at no longer by his mother, but merely by his housekeeper Céleste; already estranged from his friends: he no longer sought them out as living presences but merely as memory-traces that seemed to him to possess a higher degree of reality.

Yes, he spent many years searching for lost time, stalking expired years.  He wrote Time Regained.  But can one regain something that one has never possessed?  Time Not Graspable and Therefore Not Regained—this may very well have been the most appropriate title for the monumental epic he left behind.  He finished a work that defined a century, and it left him dying but empty-handed.  Our hands are likewise empty once we have turned over the last pages of the Recherche, for by then we have learned nothing less than that the world always eludes us, both as a presence and as a memory.  But in this emptiness we possess something precious.  Anybody who is unacquainted with it knows nothing of a world that is Will and Representation, a world that pieces together our ego, which we can no more lay claim to than Proust’s narrator can lay claim to the Martinville church tower or Vinteuil’s little melody.

[1] Postwar France even saw the publication of a book (Briand: Le secret de Marcel Proust) propounding the thesis that the description of this relationship as “bordering on incestuous” was inadequate because the incest had actually been consummated.  The assertion was poorly supported and untenable, and so the study quickly went out of print.  I mention it here only to give you an idea of the sort of quagmire of stale and fresh errors, confusions, and torments we get bogged down in whenever we set out to sort out the nature of Proust’s relationship with his mother.


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2017 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Jean Améry, Zugang zu Marcel Proust. Zum 100. Geburtstag des Dichters (10. Juli 1871) (Werke, ed. Heidelberger-Leonhardt , 1st edn, 9 vols (Stuttgart: Klett Cotta, 2002-2008), v, p. 86-115). Améry’s essay was originally published in No. 279 of the magazine Merkur in July 1971.

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Translation of "Das Schreibende Ich," a Lecture on the First-Person Narrator by Ingeborg Bachmann

The Writing I

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to speak about the I, about its residence in literature, hence about matters of interest to the human individual, provided that he proceeds with an I or his I or hides behind the I.  And a few of these individuals may well be thinking, How could anyone hide behind the I, given that it—I—is as little hidden as anything can be and completely unambiguous? Obviously we could manage this all on our own; we can talk about ourselves straightforwardly, without any pretentious twaddle.

“I am speaking to you”: when I say this to an individual, it seems to be pretty clear which I is doing the talking here and what is meant by the sentence in which this I figures—in other words, pretty clear who is saying what here.  But once you are standing alone up here and saying “I am speaking to you” to a crowd of people down there, the “I” suddenly changes; it slips away from the speaker; it becomes formal and rhetorical.  The person who is uttering it is no longer at all certain that he can lay claim to the binding character of the “I” that he has taken into his mouth, no longer at all certain that he can vouch for it.  For how is he supposed to offer proof of “I” when his mouth is still moving and producing sounds but his supremely banal identity is no longer guaranteed by anyone; when down there nothing is heard but an “I” being read aloud, its reception is already starting to get fuzzy.  When, in other words, you down there, a couple of hundred people—individuals, to be sure, in other settings, but right now very much a crowd—are intercepting an “I” that comes from some sky-high distance—and ten meters are already far enough away to count as sky-high, and the distance is even more sky high-esque when the speaker has vanished or become invisible, when, for example, he is speaking on the radio via a microphone.  In such a case, nothing is left but a sentence that is being carried to you over a loudspeaker or on a piece of paper, a book, or a stage, a sentence issuing from an I with no warranty.

An I with no warranty!  For what is this I; what could it be? A star whose position and course have never been quite worked out and whose nucleus in its precise structure has not been discerned.  It could be that: the I is composed of myriads of particles, and at the same time it seems as though I were a Nothing, the hypostasis of a pure form, something like a dreamed-up substance, something that designates a dreamed-up identity, a cipher for something that is harder to decipher than the most top-secret command.  But of course there are such people as researchers and poets, who are indefatigable, who try to search out this I, to search into it, to found it and fathom it, and who are constantly driving it out of its mind.  They have made the I their experimental bailiwick or made themselves into an experimental bailiwick for this I, and have reflected on all those Is of the living and the dead, on the I of their next-door neighbors and on the I of Caesar and on the I of Hamlet, and all of this amounts to nothing whatsoever, because it is not yet of universal import.  Hence one must further reflect on the I of the psychologists, of the analysts, on the I of the philosophers, the I as a monad or in some relational context, as an empirical control center or as a metaphysical quantity.  All these experts secure their possession of their I; they shine their torch into all its corners, they palpate it, mutilate it and smash it to bits, appraise it, classify it, cordon it off.

I once saw a small child who was being urged by his mother to admit that he had done something; at first he was uncooperative and perhaps not even aware of what he was expected to do.  “Say you did it,” his mother kept ordering him.  “Say ‘I did it!’” And suddenly, as if a light had just turned on in his head or he were getting tired of resisting, the child said, “I did it,” and immediately thereafter positively reveled in the sentence or rather its decisive word, “I did it, I, I, I!”  He simply didn’t want to stop saying it and screamed it and shrieked it over and over again until, overcome with laughter, he reeled into the woman’s arms like an epileptic.  “I, I, did it, I!”  This scene was a peculiar one because in it an I, its significance and non-significance, was discovered and at the same time exposed, and the child’s demented delight in the mere discovery of this I was enough to drive him mad, as one is never driven mad by I when one is forced to say it later in life, when the word has long since become a self-evident fact and a threadbare one to boot, a utility word that degrades everything that it is supposed to designate as the necessity arises.

But when one fine day we again find ourselves saying I in an unusual situation, we are more powerfully seized by trepidation, astonishment, horror, doubt, and insecurity than in the earlier setting.

I don’t know whether there are inquiries concerning the I and the many Is in literature; I am not aware of any, and although I don’t feel capable of conducting a proper or even exhaustive inquiry myself, I believe that there are many Is and that there is no consensus about I—as if there should be no consensus about human beings but merely one new blueprint after another.  The I is an early riser and has been growing ever-more madcap, more fascinating, in the literature of recent decades.  It is as if the I has been vouchsafed an official carnival season wherein this I, this nobody and somebody, can show its true colors and play its confidence tricks and metamorphose and expose itself in its motley jester’s costume.

The I is unproblematic for us when a historical figure, a politician, for example, or a statesman or a military officer, turns up with his I in his memoirs.  When Churchill or de Gaulle briefs us on something or shares his opinion with us, we demand that he should present us with this I, and we demand that this I should be identical with the author; moreover, this I interests us only in relation to this Winston Churchill who served as prime minister from whenever to whenever.  The role of Churchill’s I in his books is that of Churchill the statesman.

The I-role as I have attempted to describe it here is effectual in all literary works of this genre from antiquity to the present, from the noblest and highest-ranking of them down to the lowest-ranking and sleaziest.  The critical and discriminating reader accepts this self-assured, continuous I in canonically illustrious memoirs with the same unreservedness with which today’s stultified, disoriented reading public devours sub-pulp memoirs by the hundred and allows itself to be duped by the Is of SS generals, gangsters, and spies.  For the I playing the very simplest stock part in the dramatis personae (i.e., that of the participant in history or current affairs) is the most persuasive, the most approachable of Is and has nothing left to prove; it is listened to and believed because the deeds or misdeeds of the author had social consequences.

But this simplest of stock parts cannot be played by the majority of writers, and of course I would like to speak mainly about them, about their I, which seems to us like an unquestionable, self-identical I only when we are very young.  At the age of seventeen did we not all encounter in a book or poem an I who was purportedly the author himself and who was virtually identical to ourselves?—for back then I was You and this You was I, for all borders were then blurred beyond visibility by our primal credulity and bewitchment; it never amounted to anything like a reversal of roles because we were unaware of any roles.  “I” was simply standing there, and it seemed quite simple.  This I presumably hungered, read, thought, felt, and we ourselves did all that as well; it was strong or weak, majestic or pathetic or everything mixed together; and we also managed to be this composite of everything for a couple of hours or a month; and then other books came along and brought other Is with them, and these Is did the same thing: they occupied our own I over and over again.  But these invasions did not prevent us from becoming completely different Is and presently taking up arms against the foreign Is of books, regarding them more harshly, distancing ourselves from them.  And after the dissolution of this union with the I we experienced something new; we noticed the interferences between author and I, and finally we were aware of every possible I in literature, of the fictitious, disguised I, of the reduced I, the absolute lyrical I, the I as a figure of thought, a figure of plots, of an I that was either immaterial or woven into the material.

Despite this I would like to begin with the simplest and for that very reason also the most striking I, even though in the light of what I have just said it hardly seems possible for an author (insofar as he is not a historical phenomenon) to introduce us to his I when it is fitted out with his own name and all his chronological milestones.  As though he were intrinsically credible, as though his unembellished existence would be of interest to us, as though he could carry his own person, his own life, untranslated into a book.  We can awestrickenly gape at such an I—i.e., such a rabid, neck-breaking attempt to spare oneself the entire concept of the I—in the books of Henry Miller.  And better still in the work of the maverick of French literature, Louis Ferdinand Céline.  It is irrelevant, and also tenaciously indeterminable, whether or not Henry Miller’s and Céline’s books are purely autobiographical.  The only thing that interests us is their attempt to forgo the invention of this I.  It is an attempt that at first blush seems dilettantish, that would positively spell disaster in the case of any less gifted writer, and here and there it proves disastrous even to Céline and Miller, especially Miller.

In Céline’s novel Journey to the End of the Night, certain events, occurrences, and experiences are represented as elements of the author’s life.  The writer and slum-doctor Céline describes himself as a slum-doctor, calls himself Ferdinand, has served at the front during the First World War, spent some time in the colonies and in New York, and established a medical practice in a suburban Paris slum.  His hero, his I, has the same name and has done all the same things.  Céline insists on the factuality of his book and refuses to allow us to draw any distinction between its author and its I.  Because Céline the author is identical to Céline the hero of his novel (just as Miller the author is identical to the hero of his own novels), his I is uncontrollable, his material is uncontrollable.  The entire plot of the book is haphazard to the point of excess, for however interesting and rich and even significant the life of an individual may sometimes seem to that individual himself or to others, when no selection has been made, when every attempt at organizing the raw material of this “life” has been forgone, it is completely devoid of significance.  It strikes the reader as so much empty filler.  The only thing that holds Miller’s and Céline’s Is together is their shared possession of a language, an idiom, that tumidly replicates the chaos that it is registering; they talk and talk and talk until their lives are utterly absorbed into language.  And Céline kicks up a fuss and polemizes and rages in his slangy idiolect until this torrent of language transforms these sob-stories of his that are otherwise of no concern to anyone into representations of the misery of all impoverished wretches everywhere.

Of course I, too, thought about my future there, but in a sort of delirium, because the whole time I was secretly afraid of being killed in the war and also of snuffing it from hunger in peacetime.  I had been given a reprieve by death and was in the mood for love.  It was only a nightmare.  Not far from us, less than a hundred kilometers away, millions of men, brave, well-armed, and well-trained, were waiting to settle my hash, and the French were also waiting to make short work of my skin if I wasn’t willing to have it torn to bleeding shreds by the guys across the way.

For the poor man there are two royal roads to snuffing it in this world—either via the absolute indifference of your fellow-men during periods of peace or via the homicidal passion of those same fellow-men whenever war has broken out.  No sooner have these other people started thinking of you for a change than they’re dreaming of torturing you, and of nothing but that.  They’re only interested in us when we’re bleeding—the lousy bastards!

And in another passage:

The things you did to come out on top, things like that, without even realizing they weren’t off-limits!  So it wasn’t a mistake!  It was one of those things you can do without letting yourself in for a good tongue-lashing.  It was even celebrated, doubtlessly encouraged by serious people like such things as playing the lottery, getting engaged to be married, and game-hunting!…nothing to be done about it.  In one fell swoop I had just discovered the secret of the entire war.  I had been deflowered…what wouldn’t I have given then to be in prison instead of being here, cretin that I was!  For example, to have stolen something somewhere, with an eye to the future, while there had still been time to do so. You don’t think about anything!  You get out of a prison alive, but you don’t out of the war.  All the rest is words.

The book turns into a cry of privation, and privation impels him to write, in the colonies, in America, in the Parisian suburb.  Destitution is his watchword, over and over again.

My listlessness was aggravated by the sight of these great lengths of building-facades, this swollen monotony of cobblestones, bricks, and endless bridge-trusses and of shop after shop, this syphilitic ulcer on the world bursting with promissory and pustulous advertisements.

Miller is in a more difficult position with regard to his protagonist, the writer Miller, and always especially and precisely when the author goes out of his way to expose himself as nothing but a nice, muddleheaded autodidact and shares with us his enthusiasm for Benn, Dostoyevsky, or Spengler for pages on end, as he does in his novel Plexus, for example.  He enables us to take an interest in his most banal everyday experiences, but he cannot interest us in his intellectual development, in his course of reading, for while it is sometimes permissible to recount superfluous incidents in a book, it is never permissible to express superfluous ideas in one.

Ideas jotted down in a diary are acceptable, but not when a character in a novel is pointlessly saddled with them.  For the I of the diarist, of a writer, has a different capacity for bearing burdens and encumbrances.  It is an I that, for example in André Gide’s diary, can get away with recording that it was a nuisance to pay somebody a visit, that a trip to some place is in the offing, which books have been read and which books still need to be read.  It talks about passing thoughts, headaches, the weather, and at the drop of a hat it can express an idea on the political or literary situation.  Even though the I of a diary seems to proceed in an undiscriminating manner, it is by its very nature discriminating.  For this I does not figure as, for example, André Gide in his entirety; rather—and I do not mean this in a pejorative sense—it poses as Gide the writer.

The diarist’s I is also peculiar in that this I figure is as little in need of being created from scratch as the letter-writer’s I.  After all, it can’t do anything whatsoever but take up residence in the text as I.  Moreover, it need not dislodge anything from its place; no interconnections are imposed on it as givens; it moves step by step or by leaps and bounds; it can break off, touch everything and leave everything just as it found it.  For this I does not take up residence in the text as a life; it does not settle down there as a three-dimensional entity.  This sounds like a contradiction in terms, because the diary is effectively the most subjective, the most immediate, of all literary genres.  And yet, despite all its subjectivity, despite all its intimate expressing and confiding, the diarist’s I conceals the person.  It calls itself “I,” and nothing but “I,” in every diary, and yet in some inexplicable fashion the author has been spirited away and has found shelter behind the mode, the I-mode, that is required by the genre.

The diary is perforce in I-mode.  The novel and the poem are not, and because the novel and the poem have the choice not to be in I-mode, because they have other possibilities, they have many I-possibilities, many I-problems, at their disposal.  And it is also only in these two genres that there arises a desire for the destruction or displacement of the I, or for its reconceptualization.  I would almost go so far as to maintain that there is no such thing as an I in a novel, an I in a poem, that does not live according to the following dictum: I speak, therefore I am.  This dictum is meant to put paid to the question that is so often posed to writers when their text is not in I-mode: Who is actually speaking here?  Who knows this and that about the characters; who is in charge of them; who is making them come and go and by what authority, and who is deciding what is to be recounted?  An understandable question, a question from which, having been driven into a corner, the thoroughgoing naturalism of a half-century ago exacted even greater, meticulous objectivity, and today a handful of young novelists in France write in a behaviorist prose style, a style that exhausts itself in the description of actions and objects lest it incur the faintest trace of suspicion.
But back to the I.  There is a fairly old book that begins with a scene involving some travelers in a train compartment; it is described by an I about whom we learn nothing further—we don’t know whether this I is the author himself or an author-installed I.  So this I recounts a conversation on the subject of marriage that these travelers are having, a conversation that suddenly degenerates into a downright indecorous row—thanks to the intervention of a fairly old, gray-haired gentleman.    
“I see you have found out who I am!” said the gray-haired man softly, and with apparent calm.
“No, I have not that pleasure.”
“It is no great pleasure.  I am that Pozdnyshev in whose life that critical episode occurred to which you alluded; the episode when he killed his wife,” he said, rapidly glancing at each of us.  [From Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation of “The ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata”]
And two pages later, when the narrator is alone with the gray-haired man, he continues:
“Well then, I’ll tell you.  But do you really want to hear it?”
I repeated that I wished it very much.  He paused, rubbed his face with his hands, and began:
The confession that now follows is known to us under the title of “The ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata” by Leo Tolstoy.
I wanted to present the opening of this story to you because it constitutes what has become a classic template for a modern I-narrated tale, namely a twofold I-narrated tale: in the framing episode an I is trotted out to listen to another I-figure, the main one, so that he can make us privy to this main I-figure’s confession.
There is an even more interesting variation on the I-narrated tale: one wherein an I who is an editor is trotted out in order to disguise or distance the decisive I in the book.  Dostoyevsky made use of this variation out of fear of the censors.  He figures as an I twice in Notes from the House of the Dead.  In the character of an editor he pretends he made the acquaintance of a certain Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, who spent ten years as an inmate in a Siberian prison for having killed his wife.  He says that after Goryanchikov’s death he found a book containing a description of the inmate’s life in the prison—but of course we know that Dostoyevsky is writing in disguise here, that he himself served a sentence in a Siberian prison, and for different reasons.
As the editor he circumspectly writes in the preface:

It was the narrative—incoherent and fragmentary--of the ten years Alexander Petrovitch had passed in hard labour. This narrative was interrupted, here and there, either by anecdotes, or by strange, terrible recollections thrown in convulsively as if torn from the writer. I read some of these fragments again and
again, and I began to doubt whether they had not been written in moments
of madness; but these memories of the convict prison--"Recollections of
the Dead-House," as he himself called them somewhere in his
manuscript--seemed to me not without interest. They revealed quite a new
world unknown till then; and in the strangeness of his facts, together
with his singular remarks on this fallen people, there was enough to
tempt me to go on. I may perhaps be wrong, but I will publish some
chapters from this narrative, and the public shall judge for itself.  [From Marie V. Thilo's Translation]
This maneuver that Dostoyevsky was forced to employ has given birth to a stratagem that remains interesting even if the occasion for it has long since been forgotten.  This overt stage-managing, this “I may perhaps be wrong” and “I will publish some
chapters from this narrative”—how often we encounter it in novels down to the present day!  It never fails to exert its effect on us, it makes us curious; we enjoy the roaming puzzle of playing hide-and-seek with this I that must remain hidden so that it can better divulge itself.
Italo Svevo’s modus operandi in his novel Zeno Cosini is not very different.  A doctor, a psychoanalyst, spitefully publishes the notes of his patient, Zeno Cosini, a businessman from Trieste.  The notes exist because the patient, who doesn’t take psychoanalysis seriously and has no inclination to lie on the analyst’s couch, was trying to investigate his own life on his own.  But with Italo Svevo we are back in the twentieth century and therefore dealing with an I who doesn’t simply narrate in the hope of attaining catharsis through his narration (as in the Russian storytellers’ earlier confessions) and who actually no longer feels at all comfortable with his I.  The book’s Italian title is after all La Conscienza di Zeno—Zeno’s Conscience [the usual title of the novel in English (DR)].  And the dominant question of this is nothing more or other than “Who am I?” To be sure, we apparently pursue nothing but the life-history of a banal individual from his childhood onwards; we learn of his first secret attempts at smoking, of his lackadaisical student days culminating in the death of his father, of his unfortunate love for Ada and his grotesque engagement to her hideous sister, of his infidelity to this woman, which fails to occasion so much as a ripple of disruption to his bourgeois family life, of the founding of a business, of the outbreak of the First World War, which finally gives the weak-willed vegetator Zeno Cosini an opportunity to “do something,” to profiteer.  This nullity of an existence, which bears certain Chaplinesque features, the fantastically comic quality of all these inconsequential, undramatic incidents, owes its greatness to the illumination afforded by this I.  This hypochondriacal Cosini, who is searching for his illness and failing to find it, who can recount the story of his life in the way he happens to be recounting it, but also in an entirely different way, exclaims:

A confession in writing is always a lie. With our every Tuscan word, we lie! If he [i.e., the psychoanalyst] knew how, by predilection, we recount all the things for which we have the words at hand, and how we avoid those things that would oblige us to tum to the dictionary! This is exactly how we choose, from our life, the episodes to underline. Obviously our life would have an entirely different aspect if it were told in our [i.e., the Triestine] dialect.”  [From William Weaver's Translation]
What Italo Svevo’s I discloses, what it touches upon in the realm of the possible, has hitherto scarcely even been conceived.  It is an I that has scarcely yet been exploited, an I that walks around in the motley outfit of a Triestine loafer, fecklessly, mendaciously, questing for the truth, extremely forthright, and in the next instant laughing at us because what we take for his face is an idealized face at one time, at another a mask, and then suddenly a genuine face once again.  This I is always completely agnostic about its own specific gravity, its own qualities, and of course it is not much later that another writer comes along and explicitly establishes his “man without qualities.”  And because Svevo’s tragicomic hero runs from doctor to doctor, swotting his way through one cure after another, and is driven from psychoanalysis, in which he hoodwinks his analyst, into the adventure of reminiscence only to survive it in his own utterly peculiar manner, Svevo’s already famous admirer James Joyce could write that what he found especially interesting about his novel was its way of dealing with time.  And Italo Svevo’s I really does make possible a way of dealing with time that ranks among this century’s pioneering literary achievements.  As Svevo himself writes:

The present conducts the past in the way that a conductor conducts an orchestra.  It wants these particular sounds, or those—and no others.  That explains why the past may at times seem very long and at times very short.  It thunders forth or murmurs pianissimo.  The only part of it that is highlighted is the part that has been summoned up to illuminate, and to distract us from, the present.   [from “Corto viaggio sentimentale” (“Short Sentimental Journey”), as translated by Beryl de Zoete and L. Collison-Morley (Bachmann attributes this passage to an afterword to Zeno’s Conscience)]

For this reason, I also believe that between the I of the nineteenth century (or even the I of Goethe’s Werther, which of course is one of the most prominent-ever examples of an I, of an I as a single authoritative presence that illuminates everything that happens in a text), in other words between the old I and the I of a book like Zeno’s Conscience, gape great abysses, and that there are even further abysses separating this I from the I of Samuel Beckett, of whom I shall presently have occasion to speak.  The first transformation that the I has experienced consists in the fact that it no longer resides in the story; that rather, latterly, the story resides in the I.  In other words: as long as the I remained unquestioned, it could be trusted to know how to go about telling its story; moreover, that story was guaranteed by it and it itself as a person was guaranteed by the story.  Since the dissolution of the I, there has no longer been any such thing as an I and its story, an I and its narrative.  Neither the reader nor the author Italo Svevo was prepared to stick his hand into the fire for this Zeno Cosini’s I’s sake.  And yet this very loss of security proved to be a sudden windfall to the I.  The new way of dealing with time, and accordingly the new way of dealing with the “material,” already made possible by Svevo’s I, is merely a prototypical example of the exploitation of this windfall.  Its full utilization had to wait for Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time.  When Proust puts his I on the starting mark and sends this rather un-novelistic I off on its search, and in so doing compels it to carry on its shoulders a novel of gargantuan dimensions, he is entrusting to it the principal role not out of a regard for it as a person or even as a stage-manager, but rather [on account of] this I’s aptitude for reminiscence—on account of this single quality and no others.  This I, which attains exemplarity only in its capacity as a witness, is not interrogated, made to speak, in the old way; it is not prevailed upon to deliver a confession; it must speak, rather, because it was present at all the crime-scenes—in Combray, in Balbec, in Paris, and in the Duchess de Guermantes’s house, in the theater, at all the places where everything happened and nothing happened—because, I say, it was present at all the crime scenes and is being compelled by the murderer Time to move forward and to forget, and Time can do nothing but nullify when a smell, a taste, a word, a sound brings back the past—places and people—when it brings back the very thing that was seen, the very thing that was experienced, and the things that the I has been told about.  It is a peculiarity of this novel of Proust’s that its I vanishes for long stretches.  The entirety of Swann in Love and a few other parts read like freestanding third-person narratives.  And yet it is this I that gets things started, that starts the journey into time and conquers hitherto unsounded depths of memory.  At the end of the first part of the first volume, the first-person narrator lays the foundations of the ensuing Swann in Love with these words:

It was in such a state that I often remained until morning, dreaming of my Combray period, of my sad, sleepless evenings, and also of a great many days whose image had recently been recalled to me by the taste—what Combrayans would have called the “perfume”—of a cup of tea and, by the association of memories, recalling something that, many years after leaving that little town, I had learned about a love affair that Swann had been involved in before I was born, and recalling it with all the detailed precision that is sometimes easier to obtain about the lives of people who have been dead for centuries than about those of our closest friends, and which seems as impossible as it once seemed impossible to talk to somebody in another city—as long as we are unaware of the distorting means by which this impossibility has been effected.  All these strung-together memories now amounted to nothing but a single mass, but it was still not at all difficult to discern among them—between the oldest and the most recent ones, the offspring of a single perfume, and then those that were merely the memories of another person from whom I had acquired them—if not fissures, genuine faults, then at least striations, those variegations in color which, in certain rocks, in certain pieces of marble, reveal differences in origin, in age, in “formation.”
But when this I, this Marcel, comes closest to what we think of as the typical I of a novel, for example in the fifth volume, The Prisoner, which recounts the narrator’s liaison with Albertine, we are never fascinated by his confidentiality, by his confessionalism–for this I is a kind of specialist in transmitting each of his experiences into a collective body of experience and illuminating it with a remarkably steady and equable lamp of insight.  Characteristic of this Proustian transmission of an I-pertaining datum, of this dissolution of the subjective in the objective, are such sentences as the following, which concerns the narrator’s infatuation with the Duchess de Guermantes:

And I fell in love with her on the spot, for if we sometimes fall in love with a woman simply because she regards us with contempt (as I had believed that Mlle. Swann regarded me) and we believe that she will never be ours, we sometimes also fall in love with one simply because she casts a generous eye on us, as Mme de Guermantes was then doing, and because we believe that she may indeed someday be ours.

So this “I fell in love with her on the spot” is immediately intercepted in the ensuing we-clauses, in clauses that furnish insight.  I am sure you realize that I intend only to give general pointers on I here, but also that there is so much to say about a unique I like Proust’s that it is a shame to have to leave it behind so quickly, to drop this I with its peculiar manner of perceiving things as they really are, as we manage to do in our own everyday experience only very occasionally.  Ernst Robert Curtius has written the following about it:

It [i.e., Proust’s manner of perceiving things as they really are] is sited on that border zone where normal waking consciousness passes over into other conscious states.  It is congruent with what the psychology of mysticism very circumscriptively terms ‘contemplation’—an attitude that establishes a real and binding connection between the seer and the seen. [From Französischer Geist im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert (The French Intellect in the Twentieth Century)]

Proust’s I is every possible thing, but at all events even this I, as an instrument, is no enigma.  It carries itself calmly, confident of its own powers of comprehension.  In its search for lost time it assumes the role of an imparter of an insight that unfailingly proves not to be some parochial finding but rather the restitution of our collective experience and consequently amounts to a “summa.”

An enigmatic I, one that does not lead into depths of time, but rather into the labyrinth of existence, into the monstrosities of the soul, has been created in a German novel, River without Banks, by Hans Henny Jahnn.  The book’s hero, Gustav Anias Horn, writes solely for himself after having attained the age of 49, never addressing anybody else, suspiciously eyeing this writing I at his fingertips, incessantly despairing of ever being able to track down the truth about his past, about an unexplained crime for which he himself is responsible.  What is significant about the work is not its profusion and indeed surplus of plot-elements but rather the situation of its narrator, who is telling his story to nobody apart from himself, all the while shunning both lies and adherence to social convention and making himself into his own judge.  But because for Hans Henny Jahnn the I is not a known quantity, because it is an enigma, because it is constantly changing and one can no longer determine what it used to be like and who it used to be, the difficulties faced by this I—an I that is always flowing, always evanescently renewing itself in choppy seas—appear insurmountable.  A constant standard by which it might be blamed and judged cannot be found.  Its mania for precision is its sole conspicuous trait; this mania becomes so intense that the I ends up getting in touch with people just because they can help it clarify certain moments in its past.  This causes the past to spill over into the present, and Horn will seek out and become involved with people who will murder him.  Horn is obsessed with this idea: “I am standing in the middle of a courtroom trial; each thing that happens is some legal measure taken by the court, and the object of its enquiry and of the sentence it will pass is my life.  There is no escape.”
And the yearning of his I is expressed as follows: “In this undependable world there ought to be something I can depend on—the image of our destiny and behavior ought to be impervious to distortion.”

This I suffers from the fact that it no longer possesses any determinate personality; it is cut off from every binding connection, every binding relation whereby it could be determined as such an entity.  It has discovered itself to be merely an instrument of blind happenstance.

I am standing on the weak spot occupied by an individual, a renegade, who is trying to think—who is aware of his independence from the movements and measures of his age, an individual in whose ears resound the words that are being spoken, taught, proclaimed, the words that guide everyone’s conduct, and within which everyone dies—and he no longer believes in them.  He no longer believes in power stations, coalmines, oil wells, ore-shafts, blast furnaces, rolling-mills, tar-based products, cinema, and telegraphs—he suspects it is all a mistake.
This I seeks, finds, and is guided by pure Nothing; it no longer understands its tragedy in terms of “fate”.  But it is still aware of something that Jahnn calls “destiny.” Nothing of that sort matters any longer for the last I about which I would like to speak, the I of Samuel Beckett.  In his recent novel The Unnamable, it carries on a beginningless, endless monologue in despairing search of itself.  This I, Mahood, no longer experiences anything, no longer remembers any stories; it is an entity that now consists of nothing but a head, a torso, an arm, and a leg, that lives in flower-tub; it is trying to concentrate itself, to think, to do nothing but think from now on in order to ask something—but what? That in itself is a question and indeed the question—in other words, to stay alive by interrogating itself.  Not only have its personality and even its identity, its constants and standards, its history, environment, and past slipped away from it, but also its desire to fall silent threatens to extinguish it, to annihilate it completely.
Its confidence in language is so completely shattered that the usual interrogations of the I and the world are useless.  A bit earlier I said that the I initially resided in its surrounding story; later on, in Svevo, in Proust, the stories reside in the I; so at some point there was a change of residence.  In Beckett one reaches a point where the contents of the I are completely liquidated.
And man, the lectures they gave me on men, before they even began trying to assimilate me to him!  What I speak of, what I speak with, all comes from them.  It’s all the same to me, but it’s no good, there’s no end to it.  It’s of me now I must speak, even if I have to do it with their language, it will be a start, a step towards silence and the end of madness, the madness of having to speak and not being able to, except of things that don’t concern me, that don’t count, that I don’t believe, that they have crammed me full of to prevent me from saying who I am, where I am, and from doing what I have to do in the only way that can put an end to it, from doing what I have to do.  How they must hate me!  Ah a nice state they have me in, but still I’m not their creature, not quite, not yet.  To testify to them, until I die, as if there was any dying with that tomfoolery, that’s what they’ve sworn they’ll bring me to.  Not to be able to open my mouth without proclaiming them, and our fellowship, that’s what they imagine they’ll have me reduced to.  It’s a poor trick that consists in ramming a set of words down your gullet on the principle that you can’t bring them up without being branded as belonging to their breed.  But I’ll fix their gibberish for them.  I never understand a word of it in any case, not a word of the stories it spews, like gobbets in a vomit.  My inability to absorb, my genius for forgetting, are more than they reckoned with.  Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself, in the end.  And I’ll be myself at last, as a starveling belches his odourless wind, before the bliss of coma.
Beckett’s I loses itself in mutterings, and yet it is suspicious of its mutterings; nevertheless the needfulness of talking is still present—resignation, impossible.  Even if it has withdrawn from the world because it was violated, debased, and robbed of all its contents by that world, it cannot withdraw from itself, and in its meagerness and beggarliness it is still always a hero, the hero I with its immemorial heroism, that fortitude that remains invisible on its surface and is its greatest attribute.  [Mahood’s last words are:]

…I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on [, I can’t go on (the passage as quoted in German translation by Bachmann omits these words [DR])], I’ll go on.

As far as we know, these are the final depressing pronouncements of the I in literature, even as each and every day we mulishly and with utter conviction say I, sneered at all the while by “it” and “one,” by the anonymous entities that fail to hear our I as if its words were being uttered by Nobody.  But despite its indeterminable magnitude, its indeterminable position, will not the I be called forth by literature time and again in a manner commensurate with a new position, with a hold on a new word?  For there are no final pronouncements.  It is the miracle of the I that whenever it speaks it lives; it cannot die—not even if it is defeated or in doubt, bereft of credibility and mutilated—this I with no warranty!  And if nobody believes it, and if it does not believe itself, one must believe it, it must believe itself, as soon as it gets started, as soon as it begins to speak, breaks away from the uniform choir, from the closemouthed congregation, whoever it may be, whatever it may be.  And it will enjoy its triumph, today as ever before and henceforth—as a placeholder of the human voice.


Translation Copyright © 2017 by Douglas Robertson, who thanks flowerville for introducing him to Bachmann’s wonderful lectures.

Source: Ingeborg Bachmann, Frankfurter Vorlesungen.  Probleme zeitgenössischer Dichtung [Frankfurt Lectures. Problems in Contemporary Literature], Munich and Berlin: Piper, 2016.  Bachmann delivered this lecture as part of a five-lecture series at Goethe University Frankfurt during the 1959-1960 winter semester and recorded it for Bavarian Radio in April 1960.