Saturday, July 30, 2016


The latest issue of LRB arrived today. It contains a piece by Adam Phillips, on Proust, which I read immediately. I knew, even as I read it, that I was making a mistake; but it wasn’t the mistake Phillips wrote about.

Phillips says Marcel, the narrator of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, spends his youth fantasizing about aristocrats; but when he becomes an adult, and gets to know them, he discovers they’re not the glamorous people he’d imagined. According to Phillips, this teaches us it’s a mistake to gratify our desires. Whenever we get what we want, we always discover the reality is inferior to what we’d imagined. We should try to remain innocent, or ignorant (‘naïve’ is the word Phillips uses), in order to avoid being disillusioned. Perhaps this is what Proust taught Phillips, but it’s not what he taught me.

I defer gratification not because I fear reality won’t live up to what I've imagined, but because I want to prolong the pleasure of discovering the reality. I know it will be different from what I've imagined, and part of the pleasure for me is discovering how it differs. This is why I usually defer reading a piece by Phillips. He’s always a pleasure to read, stimulating even when I disagree with him.

This also seems to be one of the ways in which I differ from other people. Most of them want exactly what they imagine, which ensures reality will disappoint them.

Phillips seems to believe Marcel is an Everyman who speaks for us all. In reality he’s one of those unreliable narrators common in modern novels, who know less than their readers do. Marcel discovers that every one of the aristocrats he admired as a boy is in reality merely a silly snob, but he can't see that he's one, too; and by the end of the seventh volume he’s discovered that every one of the apparently heterosexual characters is in reality either bisexual or homosexual, but he remains ‘closeted’ to himself.

People usually disappoint me, but not because I have illusions about them. I think I know most people better than they know themselves; and what I know is that they could and should do better. They disappoint me not because I have unrealistically high expectations of them, but because they have unrealistically low expectations of themselves.

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