Sunday, July 25, 2010

Reading Proust (ii)

Example of a state in which the self merges with any image or idea "at hand."

Though Marcel's description of his self's merging with first, the subjects of his readings and later, the objects in his bedroom (or bedrooms, extending through space-time like a Romanesque village church) might seem reminiscent of some neurological pathology out of Oliver Sacks (e.g., the man who mistook himself for a quartet), we may observe that over recent decades (the post-Johnston decades, is how I usually think of them) the advance of the "theory of the self" has received crucial support from the examination of just such pathologies, in books such as Thomas Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel, and hence has relevance for the self in its everydayness as well.

The first appeal of the merging passage for me is sheer dissociativeness, the paradox of thinking oneself to be what is ordinarily considered a subject of thought, and the Proustian triangulation of the selection of three seemingly random examples of such subjects.

The next phase of this pleasure is for me the attempt to figure out how such a paradox might somehow "make sense." First, doesn't the subject itself, except in the grammatical sense, have to disappear in the experience of merging with "the rivalry of Francois I and Charles V"? Unlike a church or quartet, this rivalry has no material being or generic existence (into which the self might be "inserted" like a water spirit) apart from the book text, held in mind, that it may be presumed to refer to in summary form. One's sense of self is replaced momentarily with a sense of some text one was absorbing before dozing off: a sense of the text as concept, but even looser than that, as imperfectly remembered conceptual chunk. And after that, there has to be a period of floating in this merged state, being the rivalry of the two kings, before being recalled to oneself simply by the experience of waking more fully. I read this as an intermediate stage of existence between the two better known ones, discovered in a sense by setting up the experiment or setting up the observation station and then patiently waiting for the phenomenon to occur, for the endangered game to wander by on its way to the proper memory bank to which it must be returned.

Personally, I have no problem imagining my sense of self as evaporating for some period into something external, or with the implication that the sense of self ultimately has no more integrity or permanence than any other phenomenon or perception. Would anyone care to take the other side of that debate?

One is sorely tempted to associate Proust's examples of what remains in the mind, or surfaces there, on dozing or waking, with the notion of what is immediately "at hand" popularized by readers of Heidegger, and hence definitive in some sense of the structure of one's personal "space" in some non-Cartesian sense. But I think the association might be a false and misleading one...


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