“Drawing from the Well II: How Proust’s Humanism Can Change Your Life”

It was Pride Sunday several weeks ago, and the parade was done. I was headed home. I caught MARTA and took it to Lindbergh Station, where I’d parked my car hours earlier. The parking ticket was carefully tucked away in my wallet, for I knew that the parking was free but only if the ticket was validated. Lose it, and there’s a stiff penalty. The sign on the pay station says something like, “Lost ticket pays maximum.” “Maximum” as in $75!

So, your fearless Senior Minister gets to his car, deep in the dark bowels of the Lindbergh parking garage. He is exhausted, but in a wonderful sort of way. What a sweet day. Before he gets rolling, he fishes into his pocket for his wallet. Opens it up and … no ticket. But that’s ok—it’s in his coat pocket, left inside.

No, it’s not.

Suddenly he has a bad feeling about this.

He digs into his right inside coat pocket.

He says a bad word.

How about the other pockets, on the outside of the coat?


Well, then it must have fallen under the passenger side seat.

Not there either.

He says that bad word again, but three times in a row, like a charm.

Then he re-checks his right and left inside coat pockets again, his outside pockets, the passenger seat, underneath the passenger seat—nothing different from before, only more frantically—and the lesson is: charms don’t work.

It’s not to be found.

He drives up to the pay station. There’s that sign about having to pay the max. She grates open her window, reaches her hand out. He tells her he doesn’t have the ticket. He tells her that he’s been at the Pride Parade. He’s hoping she’ll take mercy on this minister that had been sweating for justice all day. He looks at her with minister eyes. She asks him when he got the ticket. She calls her supervisor, and the cars behind him are lining up one after the other because this is taking forever. Finally, the verdict: just pay eight bucks. Thank you Jesus.

He’s out of there. I’m out of there. Home.

But that’s not the end of the story. Next day I’m off to work and I open the driver’s side door and there it is. The ticket. It had fallen into the space between the door and the driver’s seat. It was so easy to find. I had just not imagined, somehow, that my frantic search for the ticket should have extended to my left-hand side. I had focused exclusively to my right, and to my pockets. Don’t ask me to explain.

All I know is that failures of imagination make us pay. When we don’t look at all there is too look at, when we don’t look broadly enough or deeply enough, when we rely on charms to solve the problem for us—we pay.

And here is where where we pick up with today’s topic: the humanistic vision of early 20th century French writer Marcel Proust. Ultimately, it’s a vision of living more gratefully, more richly, more deliberately, by paying attention more fully. Says the great Unitarian forbearer Hendry David Thoreau, “I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Then there’s this from writer Susan Sontag: “Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” That’s the vision of Marcel Proust, too.

Back in 1895, he submitted an essay to an arts magazine in which he sought to illustrate the vitality-giving power of attentiveness. The wonderful Alain de Botton, in his book How Proust Can Change Your Life, tells the story. It begins with “a gloomy, envious, dissatisfied young man.” This man is “sitting at table after lunch one day in his parents’ flat, gazing dejectedly at his surroundings: at a knife left lying on the tablecloth, at the remains of an underdone, rather tasteless cutlet, and at a half-turned-back tablecloth. He could see his mother at the far end of the dining room doing her knitting, and the family cat curled up on top of a cupboard next to a bottle of brandy being reserved for a special occasion. The mundanity of the scene,” Alain de Botton tells us, “would contrast with the young man’s taste for beautiful and costly things, which he lacked the money to acquire.” “To escape his domestic gloom, [he] might leave his flat and go to the Louvre, where at least he could feast his eyes on splendid things, grand palaces painted by Veronese, harbor scenes by Claude, and princely lives by Van Dyke.” But that was just an escape. His eyes wanted to feast but there was nothing in his own life, it seemed, that they could really feast upon. So the young aesthete felt, essentially, that he was starving to death.

But was he? Proust felt that things could very much be otherwise. His healing prescription was that the young man should adjust his museum-going habits. Let the galleries hung with paintings of great palaces and gorgeous harbor scenes and princely lives go for a time, and instead, go to a different part of the museum. Go see the works of a certain Jean-Baptiste Chardin, whose main focus (as Alain de Botton says) was “bowls of fruit, jugs, coffeepots, loaves of bread, knives, glasses of wine, and slabs of meat. He liked painting kitchen utensils, nit just pretty chocolate jars but salt cellars and strainers. When it came to people, Chardin’s figures were rarely doing anything heroic: one was reading a book, another was building a house of cards, a woman had just come home from the market with a coupe of loaves of bread, and a mother was showing her daughter some mistakes she had made in her needlework. Yet,” continues de Botton, “in spite of the ordinary nature of their subjects, Chardin’s paintings succeeded in being extraordinarily beguiling and evocative. A peach by him was pink and chubby as a cherubim; a plate of oysters or a slice of lemon were tempting symbols of gluttony and sensuality. […] These paintings were windows onto a work at once recognizably our own, yet uncommonly, wonderfully tempting.”

Proust’s vision was that the young man, absorbing the message of these paintings, could return to his own flat, sit down at his table, look around and say to himself, “this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.” “I once felt myself starving, but Chardin has shown me that even in my ordinary life, the things my senses can feast on are endless. The heroic is not the only source of value. Value is everywhere.”

This is the essay he submitted in 1895, and since he was still a nobody—he wasn’t Proust yet—the editors at the art magazine rejected it. But the vision he put out there gives life. People can find themselves starving, but it’s not because they need more stuff or better stuff or they need to hang out with different people or they need some other change to the circumstances of their lives. It can simply be that they’re trapped in unhealthy habits of perception. Maybe the enthusiasm they have for some things is way too much; and for other things, the enthusiasm should be way more. The world loves ostentatious scenes, grand scenes; but look at what this does to our appreciation of what is closer to home, more modest, and yet beautiful in its own way. As de Botton says, “The happiness that can emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.”

Proust is a doctor of the spirit. His father might have been world-famous for his thirty-four books, all addressing practical, physical health issues. But Proust the son became world-famous for his focus on the spirit.

That fame came with his masterpiece novel, In Search of Lost Time, and the title telegraphs his intent. Failure to attend to the world in fresh ways—in ways that escape habit and cliché—cause us to pay. We pay with our lives, with our time. So redeem time. Go in search of it. And that’s what we see the Narrator—who is really Proust himself—doing, throughout all seven volumes of the work. Like a twentieth century version of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Perhaps the signature moment comes in the first volume. The Narrator, feeling sick, feeling dispirited, sits down to a cup of herbal tea and madeleine cookies. He breaks off a morsel, drops it into the tea, takes a sip, and that’s when it happens: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?”

It’s a real question, and Proust’s answer, being the humanist that he was, was not God. God is not the source of this all-powerful joy. Proust had been baptized and later confirmed as a Catholic, but it was a religion he never practiced. As an adult, he saw himself as a mystical atheist—infused with a spirituality that had nothing to do with God and everything to do with life lived richly. He once 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.”

Listen to that. “Creation as perfect.” One side of this is suggested by how an artist like Chardin can teach us that even the most mundane external scenes of our world can be bliss to the senses. And then the other side comes with In Search of Lost Time and the famous madeleine scene. “Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?” Not God, but the world within us, of memories fully released. “When,” he says, “from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment…. And once again I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in [tea] …, and immediately the old gray house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theater.”

This is just not regular remembering. With regular remembering, we merely recollect names and images in the abstract. The feeling is flat. But the kind of remembering that Proust is talking about is when the past rises up like scenery in a theater—it is triggered suddenly, by some unplanned and illogical detail—and we are immersed in the details and we appreciate smells and sounds and tastes. “So we don’t believe that life is beautiful,” Proust says, “because we don’t recall it, but if we get a whiff of a long-forgotten smell we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.”

“Creation is perfect.” Not that there is no evil or suffering—that’s not what Proust is trying to say. Get to know Proust better and you’ll see how much evil and suffering he endured. But it’s that the world is full of the glory of beauty and meaning and delight. The challenge is to develop oneself spiritually so that one knows how to escape perceptual habits and cliché so that one is free to really look, and sense, and know. To seek out artists like Chardin when you are stuck in the rut of scenes of great palaces and gorgeous harbor scenes and princely lives. To learn how to be open to the unplanned and illogical details of life so that you, too, can experience Proustian moments when the past in all its rich detail rises up like the scenery of a theater and you feel renewed and restored, you feel solid with history, you feel the joyful depths of your life.

That work’s on us. To develop spiritually. Why call on God, then, Proust seems to be saying…. When we are miserable and we call on God, is this nothing more than a way of postponing the real work of uncovering unhelpful habits of perception and of learning better ones? It’s like you’re in the checkout line at Publix, and the person in front of you has what seems like a thousand items, and it’s been a long day, and you have a headache, and what do you do? You pick up People magazine and flip through all the pictures and articles about celebrities because there’s instant ecstasy to be had from invoking celebrities. There just is. And it’s only more so when you invoke the Celebrity of celebrities. God. Call on God as a shortcut way to ecstasy—when, in fact, there can be no shortcuts to getting to the point where you can sit down at your table and look around you and say to yourself, “this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.”

Now in saying this, I’m going out on a limb. I’m extrapolating. I don’t think Proust ever addressed the issue explicitly. Nevertheless, it’s something to think about. If you are a God-believer, why do you reach out to God? How does this relate to your doing the ongoing work of living more gratefully and more richly by paying better attention to the world without you and within? How?

As for the humanists and atheists among us, does it come as a surprise that the word “spirituality” is still relevant to you? At least as Proust defines it?

I want to close with an acknowledgement of what seems like the fly in the Proustian ointment. The man could not write concisely to save his life. Proust’s brother Robert once said, “The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have a broken leg in order to have the opportunity to read In Search of Lost Time.” It’s the longest novel in the world. Two million words. Editors, being invited to publish his novels, would say such things as: “I may be dense, but I fail to see why a chap needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep.” “It explains,” says Alain de Botton, “the inspiration behind the ‘All-England Summarize Proust Competition,’ once hosted by Monty Python in a south coast seaside resort, a competition that required contestants to précis the seven volumes of Proust’s work in fifteen seconds or less, and to deliver the results first in a swimsuit and then in evening dress.”

It’s hilarious. But we don’t want to miss the deeper point. To save time, we must look and look again at our lives, we must not go faster but slow down. Thirty pages to describe the nuances of tossing and turning? Why not—if you are trying to extend beyond dull clichés and get to the joy of what’s really going on?

It’s 1919. The young diplomat Harold Nicholson meets Proust at a party. Nicholson had just been at a Peace Conference following World War I. About their conversation, Nicholson wrote this in his diary:

A swell affair. Proust is white, unshaven, grubby, slip-faced. He asks me questions. Will I please tell him how the Committees work. I say, “Well, we generally meet at 10:00, there are secretaries behind….” “No, no, you are going too fast. Start over again. You take the car to the delegation. You get off at the Quai d’Orsay. You climb the stairs. You enter the room. And so? Be precise, my friend, be precise.” So I tell him everything. The sham cordiality of it all: the handshakes: the maps: the rustle of papers: the tea in the next room: the macaroons. He listens enthralled, interrupting from time to time—“Mais precisez, mon cher monsieur, n’allez pas trop vite.”

Do not go too fast.

That day I had lost my MARTA ticket–I had been too fast. And so I had to pay.

Don’t be too fast.

Look and look again at your life.

That’s humanist spirituality.

Attention is gratitude.

Attention is vitality.

N’allez pas trop vite.

Slow down and look.