Breathing: Proustian Therapy

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I begin with a question I would never have imagined myself asking.1This text is from what became the chapter “The Proust Effect” in my book, Living and Dying with Marcel Proust, Europa Press, 2022, pp. 20-27. Is Proust good for you?Might there even be, albeit in carefully controlled doses, a place for him in modern ‘health care’? He certainly belongs in the select, if occasionally scary, company of writers whose name, or that of one of their fictional characters, has lent itself to the designation of a psycho-physical condition often with medical characteristics. A short list includes: Stendhal (‘Stendhal syndrome,’ the condition of obsessional attachment to works of art); Musset (the ‘Musset Sign,’ manifested as an uncontrollable tremor of the head); Gogol’s Plyushkin in Dead Souls (‘compulsive hoarding syndrome’); Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (‘senile squalor syndrome’); Wilde’s Lady Windermere (‘Lady Windermere syndrome,’ associated with pulmonary illness and breathing difficulties).

There is no evidence that Proust was directly acquainted with Wilde’s play, but there can be little doubt that what came to be called ‘Lady Windermere Syndrome’ would have spoken to him loud and clear. In an early story called L’Indifférent, Proust penned an encomium to the air we breathe: “A child who from birth has always breathed without paying any attention has no idea how much the air, which swells so sweetly his chest that he doesn’t even notice it, is essential to life.” A memory of this is doubtless somewhere in the background of the passing mention in Le Côté de Guermantes of “the alpine resort” that teaches him “that the act of breathing, to which we habitually pay no attention, can be a constant source of pleasure.” It was almost certainly also in Proust’s thoughts when, in the final volume, he penned the famous definition of Paradise Lost as the place and time of “an air we have breathed before, this purer air which the poets have tried in vain to make reign in paradise and which could not provide this profound feeling of renewal if it has not already been breathed, for the only true paradise is a paradise that we have lost.”

But the early story, like the novel itself, is also haunted by a subtext in which what is precious to life can also be the enemy of life, as, in an access of fever and sudden convulsion, the child feels himself to be suffocating. The story clearly has its origins in Proust’s own life, the moment of his first asthma attack as a young boy on a family outing to the Bois de Boulogne. It struck out of the blue with a frightening intensity, and was to pursue him throughout his life like a fury, proliferating further symptoms such as emphysema and cardiac seizures. As late as 1919, he writes in a letter of an attack that leaves him “gasping like someone half-drowned who is pulled out of water.” And it was there again at the moment of Proust’s exit from the world, carried off by a bout of pneumonia exacerbated by a pulmonary abscess.

There were treatments and consultations galore, the former on a spectrum from inhalations to cauterizing of the nasal tubes, and the latter including a meeting with his father’s colleague, Dr. Buissand, who inclined to the view– and increasingly fashionable in medical circles–that the prime cause was neurasthenic. Proust himself hesitated: in a letter he described it as “a bodily illness,” but in the Recherche, “asthma crises” are linked to a “mystery” of the “unconscious” and strike out of the blue. The ‘mystery’ is often, and plausibly, associated with fear of separation from the protective mother. This will be one of the major themes of the novel, and the source of the “sobs that never cease” of which the narrator speaks in the opening volume. But whether physical or psychosomatic, a guaranteed trigger was proximity to tree blossoms (apple especially virulent) and certain flowers–that is, the very things that, for Proust, often something approaching quasi-sacred status, thus illustrating the law that it is what you most love that can kill you.

In the novel, however, much of this is distilled into comedy, all terrifying thoughts temporarily banished as Proust the satirist comes out to play. His young narrator suffers periodic breathing “crises,” but for the most part these are ironically framed as a melodrama of neurosis (Proust perhaps using the narrator as a mirror in which to take a long, hard look at himself). His grandmother packs brandy for the first trip to Balbec as a precautionary remedy for “the fits of breathlessness the journey might bring on you.” The adolescent besotted by Mme. de Guermantes experiences a “difficulty in breathing” whenever she is absent from Paris. On the second trip to Balbec, in Sodome et Gomorrhe, the hotel manager expresses concern that “I might have had a recurrence of my breathless attacks from the old days.” In the Bal de têtes sequence of the final volume, the “old days” become all of them, caught up in the vast comic dance of recognition and misrecognition: “I saw someone who was asking my name, and was told it was M. de Cambremer. And then to show he had recognised me: ‘Do you still have your attacks of breathlessness?’, he asked; and at my reply in the affirmative: ‘You see that it’s no barrier to longevity,’ he said, as though I were a hundred years old,” thus evoking a chronology for a story that stretches more or less from cradle to the grave. But there is also lateral spread of the comedy of affliction into the satirical depiction of fashionable society. The Princesse de Parme fakes an effect of distressed suffocation at the outrageous claim that Zola is a “poet.” The young Duc de Châtellerault laments that he can never visit his “magnificent apple trees” because “they give me hay fever,” only to be offered consolation by an unfailingly imbecilic guest: “it’s the fashionable complaint at the moment.” And where would we be without the satirically ever-serviceable Monsieur Verdurin, who, while he may sleep soundly, is vulnerable to “asthma attacks” whenever he catches a whiff of the “sardine fisheries” blown in from the sea towards the Verdurin summer house.

Genuine terror returns with scenes of terminal crisis, above all in the grandmother’s dying moments when the narrator finds her “bent forward in her attempt to breathe properly,” and echoed in the later “Intermittences”sequence where, as she reappears in memory as if from the dead, “suddenly my breath failed.” But there is also something else beyond narrative accounts of medical conditions and agonizing deaths, something inscribed in the very being of Proust’s writing manner. In his great essay, “The Image of Proust,” Walter Benjamin shrewdly observed that “asthma became part of his art—if indeed his art did not create it. Proust’s syntax rhythmically and step by step reproduces his fear of suffering.” If there are certain recurring words in the lexicon of the novel (“breathing,” “breathlessness,” “suffocation”), there are also recurring rhythmic patterns, above all at the micro level of the Proustian sentence.

It is an urban myth, endlessly recycled, that Proust is nothing but long, very long, sentences that on occasion seem to want to go on forever, such that the imposition of a full stop is just that–an imposition, a regrettably arbitrary closure. Indeed, another Proustian party game is hunt-the-longest-sentence. A fancy way of playing the game is to decant Proust for the claret drinking classes by calculating how many times the longest sentence can be made to snake around the base of a wine bottle (the answer, if you’re remotely interested, is seventeen).2The novel experiment in the version of therapeutic Proust that has his novel ‘changing your life’ and thus by implication best located on the self-help shelves of the local bookstore (the jewel in the crown the claim that the Recherche is a how-to manual in learning ‘to suffer successfully’). The more sensible yardstick opts for simple counting, on which the measure of the longest sentence comes in at a cool 958 words. As a syntactic form that proliferates its parts, usually as a myriad of subordinate clauses gathered round a main clause in such profusion that the latter often seems to disappear into the subclausal crowd, the typical Proust sentence performs a number of functions: complexity of thought, density of perception, a view of the mind, both conscious and unconscious, as ‘layered’ after the fashion of an archeological structure, and perhaps above all, a sense of the weave of the world as made from a gigantic network of analogies (hypotaxis in the service of metaphora). One of its many functions is to create a labyrinth in which by the time you get to the end of the sentence, you’ve forgotten its beginning, the latter normally–though not always–the place of the subject of the main clause. Losing the ‘subject’ while losing one’s way (only to go on to find both) could stand as a neat summary of a whole dimension of what it is to read Proust.

However, along with the strenuous work of forgetting and remembering, there is another kind of effortful strain involved in negotiating the Proust sentence, that of the extended breathing exercise, where what we lose is not so much our way as our breath. In what has been called the ‘respiratory rhythm’ of Proust’s prose, we often catch in the swell and ebb of syntax a sense of someone inhaling and exhaling. At one level it is the rhythm that governs a writing style geared to the capture of pure sentience, the visceral depth of Proust’s grasp of “being alive.” It is also something that the writing communicates or transfers to the act of reading, akin to what Proust tells us of his own reading in Contre Sainte-Beuve: “I could very soon make out the melody of the song beneath the words.” This has analogues in the Recherche, for example, the moment of “miracle” when the doctor prescribes oxygen cylinders for the dying grandmother: no longer “a hoarse rattle” or a “laboured groan,” her breathing “seemed to be singing us a long, happy song which filled the room, rapid and musical.” There is also the beautiful description of Chopin’s manner, which must surely stand as a model for one major dimension of both the writing and the reading of the Recherche itself: the meandering, wandering but always returning “phrases” with “their sinuous and excessively long necks, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by seeking out and exploring a place for themselves far outside and away from the direction in which they started…only to come back more deliberately–with a more premeditated return, with more precision, as though upon a crystal glass that resonates until you cry out–to strike you in the heart.”

But as well as striking in the heart and making us cry out, it can also make one laugh, for example in the company of Madame de Cambremer, representative of minor provincial aristocracy and champion of Chopin in the face of the modernist neo-Wagnerians. In one of her more ardent interventions on the subject of Chopin’s ‘phrases,’ she claims to have learned how to “caress them,” a stance that suggests that, as a real-life reader of Proust, she would have been one of his greatest fans. On the other hand, his syntax can also leave us gasping for breath. The respiratory rhythm of the long sentence is where Benjamin thought he could hear something of Proust’s asthmatic struggles, as if the orchestrated, meticulously paced sentences carried within them a symptom of what is feared as well as the effort to keep it at bay. Anatole France is alleged to have said of Proust’s sentences that they were “interminable enough to make you consumptive.” That is a melodramatic way of capturing the opposite of the ‘melodious’ in our negotiation of Proustian syntax, namely, the periodic need to pause, not only for mental rest, but also, and as the saying goes, for breath. This is particularly noticeable when reading Proust out loud, and will brings us shortly and in conclusion to one of three tales I myself have come across in a variety of settings that involve the therapeutic use of Proust to cure a Proustian malady or one induced by reading Proust.

The first concerns a student acquaintance who once described to me the solution he had found to the hell of chronic insomnia. After having tried to no avail various modern pharmaceutical equivalents of Proust’s veronal, he adopted another course of action, namely, a course of ‘Proust.’ It worked both immediately and sustainably. What did the trick was the syntax, the balm of sleep arriving as a consequence of losing his way in the labyrinth of Proust’s sentences. It was only much later that he discovered the salutary aspect of this experience, in teaching him that losing and finding your way is one of the things that Proust is fundamentally about.

Then there’s the one about the victim of Stendhal Syndrome (an addiction to beautiful things) and the case of a reader of Proust so intoxicated by the beauties of Proust’s prose, as to create a drug-addict style dependency so acute as to beggar belief. The case in question was of someone I met at a conference in Paris, who told me of her deep, crazed, and apparently incurable addiction to Proust. Having dominated, and in certain respects ruined, her life for many years with no prospect of release from the ever-present need of a Proustian fix, she eventually found the solution–not by going cold turkey but by reading Proust until she dropped, upping the dose over and over until her system could take no more.

My third story is the one immediately relevant to the present topic a tale of woeful suffering turned to joyous release. It is easy to imagine someone regularly visited by breathing difficulties reading Proust for an illuminating account of some of those difficulties. But as a possible cure for them, Proust as a therapy for what Proust can do to you? This is precisely what a psychoanalyst friend of mine related in connection with a friend of hers. Suffering from chronic respiratory illness, she found a cure in the challenging, initially aggravating but ultimately successful enterprise of reading Proust out loud. Reading Proust aloud to overcome breathing problems is the pharmakon oxymoron in reverse, not the cure that becomes the poison, but the other way around–the poison that becomes the cure.

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