June 2013

Madeleine Monson-Rosen


Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and Art by Leo Bersani

Leo Bersani is probably most well known, among academics, for his work on sexuality. His 1987 essay, "Is the Rectum a Grave?" a polemical account of the politics of gay sex and sexuality at the peak of public hysteria and paranoid policy in response to AIDS became one of the cornerstones of the field of queer theory. Now an emeritus professor of French at Berkeley, his most recent, solo academic work, Homos, published in 1995, continued his investigation of the politics of sex (Bersani has collaborated on several subsequent volumes, primarily studies of literature and film). Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and Art, first published in 1965 and reissued this year by Oxford University Press, very gently invokes the focus on sexuality that characterized Bersani's later reputation -- even though Bersani's studies of literature and film continued to be expansive, never limited by whatever disciplinary perimeters the academy imposes on such studies of sexuality, psychoanalysis, or queer identity.

The changes within the academy that began in the years just after Marcel Proust was first published never particularly constrained Bersani. Indeed the advent of "Theory”" in the academy only enriched the palette he employed in his explications of literary texts -- an example is the lovely "Sociality and Sexuality," published in 2000, in which he rereads Plato's Symposium within a discussion of contemporary literature and theory. The Symposium's account of desire, adopted, in turn, from Aristophanes, is conventionally seen as privileging heterosexuality. Bersani's clever, against-the-grain account proves that Plato, and so Socrates and Aristophanes, offer an origin of love that is always "in a sense, homoerotic." This profound rereading incorporates "canonical" texts in order to create an entirely anti-canonical account of love, sex, and relationality.

In some sense, the reissue of Bersani's study of Proust appears as itself a kind of Proustian memory, returning from an age before Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze forever changed the academy. Yet the fact that Theory is absent does not mean that Marcel Proust is composed without a theoretical framework. Freud and psychoanalysis profoundly influence Bersani's literary-critical methodology, yet that methodology is never intrusive. The subtlety and sensitivity of this reading make Marcel Proust uniquely ideal for any reader of Proust, for whom the intimidating undertaking of reading some or all of In Search of Lost Time will be made less intimidating with the help of Bersani's elegant explication.

Bersani considers the ways in which Proust investigates the realm of the mind and the self, a realm whose geography Freud, for better or worse, invented. Bersani writes in his introduction to this new edition that "the spiraling movement of Proust's novel, its development from the central point of 'Combray' into ever widening concentric circles of drama and analysis, confirms Freud's claim, in the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents, that nothing is ever lost in mental life." But far from applying Freudian orthodoxy to Proustian memory, Bersani recognizes in Proust a critical reinvention of the self, through particular histories and memories: "Each present is an inaccurate replication -- or, as I now like to call it, a re-categorizing -- of all our pasts."

With Proust perhaps more than any other, the author is a metonym for the work, and it is precisely into that metonymic relation that Bersani's reading intervenes. His later emphasis on sexuality is evident here, although as only one component of an exhaustive reading in which Bersani distinguishes between Proust the author and Marcel, his protagonist: "if there is complicity with homosexuality in the novel, it is not exactly because, as has often been said, Marcel is 'really' Proust and is therefore 'really' homosexual. I would say, rather, that is because of the great mystery Marcel finds in homosexuality, because one part of him finds it totally inconceivable." It is the matter of who "really" is author and who protagonist that Bersani answers most interestingly, arguing that in Á la recherche du temps perdu Proust invents an author, Marcel, the author of the memories and sensations that compose the novel, and the author of the novel itself.

For Marcel, Bersani shows, everything signifies something else. He relates the "panic" instigated at Proust's publisher, Gallimard, when he returned galleys of the novel "covered with additions." For Proust, for Marcel, everything is significant, in the sense that every material thing encountered in the novel signifies something, and everything significant in the novel points back to some specific, material, concrete thing. In this sense, the novel constructs the self of both the protagonist and the author as the product of the interpenetrations of mind and objects. This is a system of interpenetration that goes both ways:

The "désir premier" that most profoundly characterizes the narrator is not to be found in the recurrence of his favorite metaphors (and it has seemed to me unnecessary to determine statistically what his preferred images are), but rather in the constant effort we recognize in his writing to make every aspect of his experience enter into a metaphorical relation with every other aspect. His ambition is to portray a world in which nothing resists the imagination, in which every object of description has the depth, the soubassement of other objects with which it naturally suggests analogies.

And it is this basis, in which experience and memory depend on each other, that makes everything signify something.

Just as the novel does, Bersani's study reveals the contours of love and memory, but always in their particular experience. Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and Art demonstrates the ways in which fiction enables the deepest, most potent truths, and the ways in which meaning and significance emerge from sensitive and thoughtful interactions between the mind and the world. In discerning those meanings in this most significant novel, Bersani's study regains the capacity for an elegant literary criticism that does not require the external apparatus of the academy for its authentication.

Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and Art by Leo Bersani
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0199931514
284 pages