10 Life Lessons of Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time

10 Life Lessons of Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time

Marcel Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time is considered the best novel of the 20th century, if not all time. It has the most profound scene in literature, the madeleine dipped in tea, that has given us the Proustian moment when a sensory trigger (involuntary memory) transports Marcel into his forgotten childhood to capture and defeat time. 


Proust’s law, You always get what you want when you no longer want it may sound pessimistic. But in France Proust was criticized by many intellectuals for being too optimistic. In search of Lost Time has the most wonderfully profound happy endings you will ever find in literature. 


Marcel manages to finish his novel to preserve his memory and reduce the destructive power of time with art. Virginia Woolf said, What’s left to be written after Proust? But we can learn a lot from Proust. In this post, I will tell 10 Life Lessons of Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time you can learn from Proust and his masterpiece in search of lost time. For a summary of his novel, please read my other post. 

10 Life Lessons of Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time
10 Life Lessons of Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time


Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time Lesson 1

Lesson 1: Authenticity (how to find your true self) “We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.” Inauthenticity is to be fake, to please others, out of fear, rejection, convenience, laziness, or politeness. 

10 Life Lessons of Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time

Politicians, salespeople, celebrities often fake it to please a large number of people. Proust spent years among the Parisian aristocrats and snobs, only to discover how shallow and pretentious that world was, empty of any substance. The disappointment of his social world had a profound effect on Proust. 


He turned to the childhood memories as fertile ground for his artistic imagination, digging deeper like an archaeologist to find a common thread among all humans because to be a true artist is to forget yourself. With that, he understood the devastating effect of time on humans and how memory in return fights back against time. 


He discovered art as the ultimate weapon against time and mortality. Heidegger says authenticity is to make something of your own. Proust made the art of writing his own. Proust spent years copying Balzac and Flaubert. His first book Pleasures and Days in 1896is a bit of everything, from poetry, essay, anecdotes, short stories, you name it. 


It was very mixed up and confused. His first novel, Jean Santeuil in 1900, which he didn't publish was a very poor attempt or a false start but a precursor and foundation for his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. He says: “Do voluntary pastiches, in order to become original again afterward, and not produce involuntary pastiches the rest of one's life.” So knowingly copy those who you admire, so they don't creep in your work without you knowing it. 

10 Life Lessons of Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time

Writing 30 pages about a man trying to fall asleep sounds unnecessary but that’s what distinguishes Proust from other writers. In pleasing his inner child, nurturing his passion for art, Proust emerged. Nietzsche says authenticity is an inner passion with a disciplined artistic expression. 

Proust echoes this: Quote: “Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves.” End quote. 

Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time Lesson 2

Lesson 2: Suffering (how to turn it into art)“Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.” In Europe art became independent from the Church during the renaissance when science questioned the existence of God. God alone couldn't provide the security blanket it had done for centuries before. 


Nietzsche said that art is the truest Simone can have in the absence of god. Proust agreed. Proust was a sickly child, suffered from asthma attacks and sensitivity to noise that he had sound-proofed his apartment in Paris. He suffered throughout his life due to poor health and he spent the last few years of his life confined to his room and died at the age of 51. 


He saw art as an antidote to suffering, an escape into beauty while Suffering necessary for art. Habit dulls the senses, so breaking habit causes suffering, so to be an artist one has to suffer. A quote: “I saw this beautiful sick man, whom sickness made yet more beautiful, this poet, in whose proximity suffering became poetry as iron melts and flows in the furnace...” According to Proust, art contains the suffering of the artists who created it. 


No matter how old a piece of art is, it speaks to us because it has risen from a depth of human suffering. He says “Lowest dept of misery was to be separated from Mama.” But he triumphed by capturing it in his novel. He says, “It’s through art we can truly find the lost time.” Proust believed we are healed of suffering when we experience it to the full. 


How? By molding it into a beautiful piece of art. Writing a great novel is like molding a diamond or incubating a pearl, takes years of dedication, which is suffering in itself. Quote: “The deeper the suffering the higher they rise.” So nothing comes easy. 

Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time Lesson 3

Lesson 3: Time (how to tame the beast)“An hour is not merely an hour; it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates.” Proust begins his novel with Time, and 1.2million words later end it with time. The villain of In Search of Lost Time is not a person. It is Time. Marcel, the hero’s ultimate goal is to defeat time. 


The smell and taste of a madeleine dipped in tea allows Marcel‘s memories of past lives to flood in to overwhelm him as if time has stood still and his past selves are still alive inside him. Inside us, exists a fire or a bell that with a small trigger allows us to recapture our lost time, our lost selves to transcend time. Don't race against time. 


Proust slowed down to discover a unique insight into the internal human experience, the nature of involuntary memory, his childhood, and most crucially the outline of his novel. Once Proust had found his novel, he was a fast writer, about two years of intense writing to write the most profound and longest novel of the 20th century. 


It’s a paradox to talk about efficiency with Proust, but that is what he did. Slow discovery but fast writing. He says “From the sound of pattering raindrops I recaptured the scent of the lilacs at Combray; from the shifting of the sun's rays on the balcony, the pigeons in the Champs-Elys√©es; from the muffling of sounds in the heat of the morning hours, the cool taste of cherries…” Make the most of your time is not the same as rushing. 


Proust says Time is elastic, our passions expand it, inspiration contracts, and habit fills up the rest. Life neither is short or long. It’s not the length but the quality of it. Enjoy your tea like in the Japanese tea ceremony. Grab with both hands, appreciate the cup, its design, texture, before you sip. 


Focus on the sensations in your mouth. Break time into moments. “I was not unhappy, except one day at a time.” Don't count time by the hours like in capitalism, but by the quality of that hour. Proust had the madeleine in his mouth, perhaps no more than five seconds, but it gave humanity the greatest novel ever. 

Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time Lesson 4

Lesson 4: Work (how to work as an artist)“Excuses have absolutely no place in art, mere intentions do not count for anything, the artist has to listen to his instinct all the time…” If Here and now is when we live, the job at hand is what’s the most important. For Proust small can turn into big and big can turn into small. He says “…the duty to write my book took precedence over that of being polite or even good-natured.” 


We have to take the meeting ourselves as much or even more seriously than with other people. The act of writing a book is like building a church, following a regime, winning a friendship, feeding a child, creating a world. “The artist who renounces one of work for an hour of chatting with a friend knows that he sacrificed a reality for something that doesn't exist…” For him, the writing wasn’t just to produce novels.


But create art that gave the reader a new experience and a new insight into themselves. He realized money, fame, love, and social success came and went, but true Art the only thing that remained. His vocation wasn't to earn money but understand the world. He says, “We enjoy lovely music, beautiful paintings, a thousand intellectual delicacies, but we have no idea of their cost, to those who invented them, in sleepless nights, tears, spasmodic laughter, rashes, asthmas, epilepsies, and the fear of death, which is worse than all the rest.” 


An artist spends hours on the canvas and then stands back to see things from afar and then goes closer again. This back and forth allowed Proust to understand minute human emotions and sensations, which we now experience on the page when we read his novel, In search of lost time. That commitment to the cause and focus on the smaller things paid off. 

Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time Lesson 5

Lesson 5: Change (How to see you're being is a process) “We do not succeed in changing things in accordance with our desires, but gradually our desires change.” In Search of Lost Time, Marcel is dismayed that he cannot remain the same. He often finds his past selves seen from some distance unrecognizable. 


He says, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” But a different self or series of selves. But these changes are so incremental that we don't notice. Proust was less focused on the physical change of getting old, acquiring wrinkles, painful knees, but more on how we change inside, like tastes, love, passions. 


We are in the process of becoming rather than being. Proust wrote his novel like a painter or sculptor, adding additional text around it, layers upon layers, like a tree trunk. He was aware of how changeable he was that he wrote so fast as though panic-stricken that his future self might not like to write it. 


He had initially intended to write a two-volume novel, but after writing the first volume he realized this could go on. He didn't stop until the 7th volume. Even about his own writing about his past says. Quote: “I felt still reliving a past which was no longer anything more than the history of another person.” 


Proust fought against a habit or inner comfort. “A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, our social life, and our vices.” He wrote a thousand pages and then abandoned it. Proust was happy to give up when it didn't work. So don't feel bad if you didn't finish InSearch of Lost Time. Embrace change and think of yourself as a process. Nietzsche famously said, we are not human beings, but becoming. Proust agreed. 

Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time Lesson 6

Lesson 6: Books (How to nourish your imagination)“It is our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person.” Reading is fodder for the imagination. Quote: “Reading teaches us to place a higher value on life, a value which we did not know how to appreciate, and the true extent of which we come to realize only through the book.” 


Good fiction comes from a deeper recess of a common human subconscious. For Proust, a book is like a window into our inner thoughts and feelings. In reading books we read ourselves. Watching, on the other hand, dulls imagination. Proust says, as soon as you see something you can no longer imagine it. 


Proust thinks when you read a book your mind tries to associate events, characters, stories with those of your life. Our imagination is transformative in essence. Change in our perception first takes place in our imagination. Proust was aware that by writing his story, he was inviting his readers to read themselves and his novel being a magnifying glass through which they can enter our inner self, imagine things, connect things, composite people, ideas. 


At one point while reading, Marcel feels anger but doesn't know why. He then realizes that the book he was reading had brought up his childhood and he was angry at his childhood through the lens of a book. “Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. 


The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book's truth.” So reading is a form of a trigger that awakes our imaginations, inspires us to be creative ourselves. Reading is an active endeavor, while watching is passive. Except for this video of course. 

Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time Lesson 7

Lesson 7: Creativity (how to have new eyes)“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Proust’s style of writing is evolutionary realism. He combines Darwinian evolutionary biology with Nietzschean philosophy of art to literature to create something original. 


Scientists explain time in spatial terms, for example, the revolution of the earth around the sun that gives us 24 hours and or distance. Henri Bergson introduced the notion of time as an internal human experience. Ruskin saw past disappearing, but art remained. These ideas fused together in Proust to make him an archaeologist or geologist rather than a novelist. 


In search of lost time is littered with talk about human anatomy’s influence on love and how our sensory experiences shape us. For example, on aging, Proust says:“ … human being could go through metamorphoses as total as those of insects… ” Or on the body, he says, “It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.” 


Proust’s novel is a time-lapse of people growing old, like a flower growing, blossoming, then wilting and dying. Creativity cannot be forced, it only strikes you unexpectedly. Proust drank a cup of tea and the rest is history. When an inanimate object in the shape of a soaked madeleine and our senses come collide, it creates its own truth, something unique that transforms us. 


Proust's evolutionary literary style combined the essay with the novel. So creativity is a simple act of putting two things or two and two together. Quote: “I slowly become aware that the essential book, the only true book, was not something the writer needs to invent, in the usual sense of the word, so much as to translate, because it already exists within each of us. The writer’s task and duty are those of a translator.” 

Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time Lesson 8

Lesson 8: Fear (how future doesn't exist)“To be an artist is to fail.” Proust wanted to be a writer from a very young age. In Search of Lost Time is full of passages in which he writes of his fear of being mediocre. He thought he wasn't good enough for a vocation in which he was desperately trying to succeed.


“I wished someday to become a writer... But as soon as I … tried to discover some subject to which I could impart a philosophical significance of infinite value, my mind would stop like a clock, my consciousness would be faced with a blank, I would feel either that I was wholly devoid of talent or perhaps that some malady of the brain was hindering its development.” 


Proust spent years not writing, paralyzed by his own grand plan. He delayed until he no longer could. Finally, he found the discipline to sit down, but most crucially write about his inner honest passion. He says: “Our worst fears, like our greatest hopes, are not outside our powers, and we can come in the end to triumph over the former and to achieve the latter.” 


When I decided to make this video, it took me days to settle on these ten lessons. At some point, I was too overwhelmed by my own fear and expectations. Proust says tomorrow could be shorter than you expected. Or tomorrow, you no longer feel the same about it. The expectation of your tomorrow self should is much lower. 


So it’s always better to begin work at once. Tragedies could happen at any moment. While writing he was caught up in the midst of WW1, at some point his lover abandoned him, he was rejected by publishers. He said rejections make the final acceptance that much sweater. 


The future hasn't happened yet, so it is easy to forget. Leave the future worries for your future selves. Your current self should not be burdened with the problems of your future selves. They are different people. Now you have the torch, so focus on carrying it to your future self. Don't burn yourself with the fear of failure. 

Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time Lesson 9

Lesson 9: Possession (How to own nothing)“...my house contains every useless thing in the world. it lacks only the one essential, a piece of the sky like this one...” Loss is at the heart of In search of lost time. Loss of past memories, loss of loved ones, and loss of love but most importantly loss of the selves we once were. 


At some point, we lose everything. We have to learn not to own anything. Love for Proust is almost the same as ownership. He says: “There must be something inaccessible in what we love, something to pursue; we love only what we do not possess…” Another quote: “For the possession of what we love is an even greater joy than love itself.” 


But love wanes and joy turn into jealousy. Everything is fleeting. Being free in a Proustian sense would not love anyone. Bondage, a tug of war, between love and jealousy, between pain and pleasures. “Desire makes everything blossom; possession makes everything withers and fades.” We live in a consumerist nightmare where we can not have enough of everything. 


Perhaps you might think the Buddhist doctrine of attachment is what Proust promotes. In Buddhism, you avoid possessions and attachments in order to ease your suffering. When you have nothing, you can detach yourself easily. I guess for Proust, the less you own the more freedom it gives to observe things. 


It heightens your senses. It’s like devising new tools for yourself is almost impossible if you have all the tools at your disposal. Proust didn't care about success or wealth and this allowed him to get deeper with himself and gave him the opportunity to dive deeper into his inner experiences. In a sense, we are born naked and we die naked. 

Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time Lesson 10

Lesson 10: Meaning (How death life a meaning)“I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say.” Proust thinks while alive, we are a trustee of intellectual secrets and artistic insights that death will take away from us. He considered himself like a precious book or depositary that death would snatch away before he could write it down. 


Quote: “All those people who had revealed the truth to me, and …no longer living, appeared to me to have lived lives which had profited only myself, and to have died for my benefit.” As bombs came down on Paris during WW1, Proust wrote, while there was light. Art is a flame we leave behind. And ultimately death is life celebrated. 


According to Proust, we experience our own deaths many times throughout our lives. Quote: “… dying was not something new but quite the reverse, that since my childhood I had already died a number of times.” His childhood was dead. His adolescence, his teenage self, and many more versions of him. In trying to forget his love for Albertine, he says he has to kill the self that loves her. 


Every forgetfulness is an act of murder, so to speak Proust’s philosophy is that we also live and die in other people. He says: “In dying, Maman took with her little Marcel.” Proust’s ultimate message is that to be a true artist you have become a mirror for others to see themselves. People don't notice the mirror, but themselves. 


“It has indeed been said that the highest praise of God consists in the denial of Him by the atheist, who finds creation so perfect that it can dispense with a creator.” Proust wasn't religious, but his analogy is that by denying the existence of an artist in the work of art, you praise the art tobe perfect. Proust’s novel is the mirror in which Prousthimself disappeared. 


By reading Proust’s novel, Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time, we are reading our own lives, not that of Proust’s. Now that’s true art. A true legacy. A true meaning for his life. Thank you! 

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