‘Le Moyen de lire en eux-mêmes’: 

Self-understanding and the Aesthetic Experience of reading in Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu

I obtained my PhD  in French Research from King's College London in 2013. My work was supervised by Dr Johanna Malt  and Professor Patrick ffrench.

My thesis explored the aesthetic experience of reading in Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, with a special emphasis on the Narrator's proposition that reading a literary work may enable the readers to become 'les propres lecteurs d'eux-mêmes' ('the readers of their own selves'). With this premise as its focal point and through close-reading of Proust’s text, I discussed the suggested parallels between reading and self-understanding.

There is a distinction and an implied hierarchy in the Recherche between talking about an art-object and experiencing a piece of art first-hand where the latter incessantly challenges the former, much in the same way that the Narrator's self-knowledge is constantly challenged by experience.

In order to fully explore the Narrator's suggestion of reading 'en soi-même' ('within oneself'), my thesis proposes a  distinction between self-knowledge and self-understanding in the philosophical landscape of Proust’s novel. The attempt to comprehend the self as some kind of fixed entity that can be objectively grasped only seems to be able to produce the same kind of ostensible knowledge as talking about a book as an art-object, while self-understanding (and indeed being oneself) requires constant involvement in a complex process of becoming, much in the same way a literary work only becomes truly meaningful through the reader when he or she reads it.

While the intellectual interpretation of a book is directed by the text and therefore – to an extent – fixed, the reading process always contains another, kaleidoscopic dimension which individualises the experience: the sensuous and emotional states of the reader which may often remain unmarked during the act of reading but can resurface and be re-experienced in retrospect. Sense impressions and emotive connotations are absolutely crucial to the working of our imagination and, together with those life experiences of which we are more aware, they form a foundation for experiencing the new and the unfamiliar.

My thesis argues that the specificity of the Proustian ‘moyen de lire en soi-même’ stems precisely from the way the reading process may furnish the reader with a sense of being in-between – between the unknown and the familiar, the imagined and the actual, as well as between different places and moments in time – and in so doing reveal to the reader the role of imagination, memory and mediation in the way we experience ‘reality’ itself.

Thesis in KCL Database

Marcel Proust

Photograph: Sygma/Corbis

Related publications

‘“Not my readers but the readers of their own selves”: Literature as communication with oneself in Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu’ in Sell, Borch and Lindgren (eds.) The Ethics of Literary Communication: Genuineness, directness, indirectness (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2013), pp. 29-45.

related papers

‘“La femme de Dostoïevski aussi particulière q’une femme de Rembrandt”: Visual Impressions and Literary Impressions in Proust’s Recherche’ at the Tenth Annual Conference of the Society of the Dix- Neuviémistes The Senses, Limerick, Ireland (30 March 2012)

‘“J’étais moi-même ce dont parlait l’ouvrage”: Literature and Communication with the Self in Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu’ at the ECREA Symposium Literature as Communication, Turku, Finland (2 September 2011)

‘“Votre grand-mère est perdue”: Reading and Losing the Self in Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu’ at the University of Oxford Postgraduate Conference L’Agir des mots/Words in Action, Oxford, UK (19 February 2011)

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