One of the things I’m enjoying in my Proust reading is the way he captures the waywardness of the mind and emotions, the manner in which a person can feel one thing in one moment and then the opposite in the next. He describes the contrariness of emotion and desire so excruciatingly well; I recognize my own shifts and variations and inconsistencies in Proust’s characters.
Towards the beginning of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the narrator talks a lot about his desire to be a writer and his confidence, or lack of confidence, in his ability to write. And his feelings change constantly. When the narrator’s father says about the narrator’s desire to write that “The main thing is to enjoy what one does in life. He’s not a child anymore, he knows what he likes, he’s probably not going to change, he’s old enough to know what’ll make him happy in life,” he has a strange response. He knows he should be happy because his father had wanted him to be a diplomat, and now, instead, he’s getting permission from his father to do what he’s dreamed of — be a writer. But instead:
On this occasion, much as an author, to whom his own conceptions seem to have little value because he cannot think of them as separate from himself, may be alarmed at seeing his publishers putting themselves to the trouble of selecting an appropriate paper for them and setting them in a typeface that he may think too fine, I began to doubt whether my desire to write was a thing of sufficient importance for my father to lavish such kindness upon it.
Now that his father is taking his desire to be a writer seriously, he’s not so sure that he’s worthy of it. And this proclamation from his father makes him nervous for other reasons; his father’s statement that he’s old enough to know what he likes and that he won’t change has made him realize that his life has truly begun. He is no longer on the threshold of life, full of possibility, but instead is already living, and, what’s worse, his life may not change all that much. Isn’t it often true that when we finally get the thing we’ve been longing for, we realize it’s a disappointment, or that we didn’t really want it, or that getting what we want just creates a whole new set of problems?
Near the above passage, Proust offers another example of the inconsistency of our minds and emotions:
Think of the travelers who are uplifted by the general beauty of a journey they have just completed, although during it their main impression, day after day, was that it was a chore.
He talks about the “promiscuity of the ideas that lurk within us.” Isn’t that a great way to describe what living in one’s mind is like? It’s true for me, certainly. That example of the traveler works particularly well for me, because I’m reminded of my backpacking trips, which I have fond memories of, many great memories, and yet when I try hard to remember what each moment actually felt like when I was backpacking, I have to admit that it was a lot of pain, misery, boredom, and unhappiness.
So which is it? Are my backpacking trips wonderful or terrible? Does the narrator want to be a writer or not? The answer depends on the moment you are asking the question.