How Proust Can Change Your Life

by Alain de Botton

I’ve not read any Proust at all…this book makes me want to. Proust certainly seems to agree with many of my sensibilities, chief among them the dictum ‘eat, drink, and be merry’:

“The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”

Art, not unexpectedly, plays a leading role:

“Why does Proust privilege the connection between ourselves and works of art, as much in his novel as in his museum habits?

One answer is because it is the only way in which art can properly affect rather than simply distract us from life, and that there are a stream of extraordinary benefits attached to what might be termed the Marquis de Lau phenomenon (MLP), attached to the possibility of recognizing Kate in a portrait of Albertine, Philip in a description of Saniette, and more generally, ourselves in badly printed volumes purchased in train stations.”


“Hence Proust’s assertion that the greatness of works of art has nothing to do with the apparent quality of their subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter. And hence his associated claim that everything is potentially a fertile subject for art and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap as in Pascal’s Pensées.”

And de Botton’s take on what Proust felt was the reason we read:

“…he argued that we should be reading for a particular reason: not to pass the time, not out of detached curiosity, not out of a dispassionate wish to find out what [the author] felt, but because, to repeat with italics, ‘there is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master must have felt.’ We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel; it is our own thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer’s thoughts that help us do so.”

And so, de Botton explains after a description of the many who make a pilgrimage to Proust’s hometown, “it should not be Illiers-Combray that we visit: a genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not to look at his world through our eyes.”

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