I have recently come across a beautiful passage from Proust on the relationship of art and life. It is a passage on Vinteuil’s sonata, the famous sonata from which comes the “little phrase” that was so important to Swann as he fell in love with Odette. Now it’s the narrator who is thinking about its significance.
This is what he thinks: upon encountering a new work of art — “new” meaning something recent that departs from established methods and schools — we can’t understand it immediately. We don’t have the background to make sense of it; it seems foreign and chaotic, and maybe ugly. We can’t analyze it — break it into parts — because we can’t get a grasp of the entire thing in order to understand its structure. When we do begin to appreciate the new work of art, we don’t appreciate the right things:
Not only does one not immediately discern a work of rare quality; but even within such a work, as happened to me with the Vinteuil sonata, it is always the least precious parts that one notices first.
When we finally understand the work more fully, those things we valued at the beginning of the process, we have now forgotten. And here is his conclusion:
Because it was only in successive stages that I could love what the sonata brought to me, I was never able to possess it in its entirely — it was an image of life.
If we were to possess life entirely, it would have to be from the perspective of death, wouldn’t it? Otherwise, we are always changing and so can’t possess a thing in flux. But because we are changing constantly, our understanding of art is constantly changing, so we can’t possess the work of art either. Art isn’t so much a way of getting life to stand still as it is a way of charting its movement.
But the great works of art are also less of a disappointment than life, in that their best parts do not come first. In the Vinteuil sonata, the beauties one discovers soonest are also those which pall soonest, a double effect with a single cause: they are the parts that most resemble other works, with which one is already familiar. But when those parts have receded, we can still be captivated by another phrase, which, because its shape was too novel to let our mind see anything there but confusion, had been made undetectable and kept intact; and the phrase we passed by every day unawares, the phrase which had withheld itself, which by the sheet power of its own beauty had become invisible and remained unknown to us, is the one that comes to us last of all. But it will also be the last one we leave. We shall love it longer than the others, because we took longer to love it.
I like what this says about art; I’m not sure I like what it says about life. About art, this tells me that some of the greatest pleasures to be had are those I have to wait and work for. It tells me, as I think about my post from a couple days ago, that pleasure and effort and patience are not opposed. If I stick with a difficult and bewildering work of art, it will begin to reveal beauties to me.
About life, Proust implies that the best parts come first, that we have the greatest access to beauty when we are young. I’m not sure I like this because I find it depressing, and also because I’m not sure it’s true. Perhaps we have more intense experiences of life when we are young — perhaps — but surely the nature of one’s experiences become deeper and more complex. Surely there is beauty in life that witholds itself until we have been patient long enough to see it revealed.