Sunday, March 29, 2009

Proust’s and Defoe’s Representation of Space and Time

(written 2003)

M.M.Bakhtin gives the name chronotope, which literally means space-time, to “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature. Time takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movement of time, plot and history” (Bakhtin). Using Bakhtin’s understanding of space and time, I intend to compare Proust’s Modernist conception of space and time with Defoe’s Enlightenment view.

Proust and Moments

Proust, like Einstein, observed that time cast a “shadow” on the three dimensions of space. Both think space and time are inseparable categories. However, while Einstein saw the physics behind the space-time phenomenon, Proust saw the memory as the “shadow” created by time on the surface of three dimensional space. In Remembrance of Things Past Proust anticipates Einstein’s understanding of time and space as linked through a frame of reference; when Marcel is travels home in the carriage at the end of the book, he observes the relative nature of the Martinvelle’s church and Vieuxicq on the horizon. As the carriage approaches Vieuzicq, the Martinvelle church seems to change positions, and as the carriage turns a corner, the position of the church and town reverse. According to Joseph Franks, Proust sees time as giving “the value and characteristics of space,” because the objects are observed shifting positions in space while Marcel is traveling over the period of time.

Proust gives the feeling of relative time affecting relative space through memory. Marcel’s carriage ride was a memory in time, but the church is a place in time. The church is associated with the memory, so the church is at the same time in the moment of memory and in the space when it exists. In other words, the church exist the two geometries of an “imaginary time” and a “Newtonian, realist time,” (Vargish). Together, Proust uses both geometries to create moments that are illustrated in memories.

Proust tries to show the impact of each moment he records as he had felt them when he experienced them. The experiences are feelings of permanent essence of the things that are concealed by normal observations. The true self is freed from the concealment by what Joseph Frank calls a “celestial nourishment” that comes from the sensory stimulation in the present and the past. Frank thinks that, “the physical sensations of the past come flooding back to fuse with the present,” (Frank). In these moments, Proust is able to grasp the true reality. Time is transcended in order to reveal the true nature of reality, or in Proust words, his novel “will imprint on it a form which usually remains invisible, the form of time.” Like Plato, Proust does not think humans see the real world, because the real world is hidden. In Plato’s cave allegory, shadows are being reflected on the wall much in the same Einstein’s “shadow” of time is reflecting on the dimension of space.

According to Stephen Kern, “Proust compresses successive experiences into a single heightened moment,” (Kern). The long writing style of Proust creates moment in time filled with important events, but very little action. Proust dedicates fifty-one pages to Marcel lamenting over whether to go to bed without a goodnight kiss from his mother. Joseph Frank wrote, “at a certain moments, the physical sensation of the past comes flooding back to fuse with the present. Proust believed that in these moments he grasped a reality” (Frank). Dimensions above us are realities not fully perceived, but only imagined, however; for Proust, time can become transcendental through memory. This is where the “ultimate nature of reality,”opens up for Proust. For example, Marcel smells madeleine cake and tea, which brings back a flood of memories from his childhood. These memories take up nearly the whole of the novel, though they happened in a moment. Thirty years are experienced in an instant. Roger Shattrick thinks


Undertakes a transposition of spatial vision into a new dimension. The accumulation of optical figures in search gradually transposes our depth perception from space into time. When we finally reach Time Regained, the last volume, the transplanting has been complete and there can be no doubt about the privileged nature of involuntary memory. It allows us not just to see across time, but to see time itself (Shattrick).

Proust returns to Plato’s influence, because seeing time itself would be like seeing a Platonic Form. Einstein seems to think we cannot see time, but only experience time, but Proust thinks, through fiction and memory, one can see time, because the person is experiencing it. Proust uses the memory of the senses as a doorway into viewing time. Proust uses sounds, tastes, and smells to connect the past with the present.

Proust and Fractured Time

Remembrance of Things Past is not a time-sequenced [linear] novel, but rather a novel that fractures time in the Modernist tradition of fracturing the world into new categories. Darwin fractured the theory of survival, Freud fractured the mind through his theory of the ego, Einstein fractured the universe through relativity theory, and Proust fractured the novel through his organization of the novel. Proust’s novel has story arcs, flashbacks, jumps in time, repetitions, and subject leaps. He illustrates the fractures in society where individuals are taken in by huge forces outside of their control: Swann tries to say mobile in society, but gets punished because the societal controls want Swann to keep his place in the middle class. Swann’s adventures in Paris and his marriage are looked down upon by the middle class society. This is because in the novel, the middle class subjugates stability to the masses. They see a fixed space or a Newtonian absolute space, in which everyone must participate. While absolute space is fixed and unchangeable, Marcel breaks this space by becoming an artist, since artists are accepted as class “mobile” people; that is, he can move through the social hierarchy. Using the characters of Swann and Marcel, Proust illustrates his idea that the individual has the ability to fracture society.

With regard to the fractures of the novel, Keith Cohen describes Proust’s writing style as “the idea that through discontinuity,” by breaking up the traditional chronological flow of time, “a more dynamic continuity can be achieved. The discontinuity of the plot and the scenic development, the sudden emersion of the thoughts and moods, the relativity and the inconsistency of the time standards” (Cohen). The discontinuity can be compared to how a film is edited, with its cuts, dissolves, interpolation, and the ability to bring together two incidents that lie many years apart and make the instants to seem only hours apart. Time is fragmented or fractured with a “reflexive reference,” or what Proust would call memory.
Not only can time fracture, it can be missed and, in the case of Marcel’s aunt, time can become completely lost. Marcel’s aunt has the experience of lost time because she is sick, I would argue that although everyone has the experience of lost time, out of habit one forgets they lost this time. Proust shows this by not focusing rather on every second of the day, but focuses on the moment. Seconds are lost to history because the mind is not large enough to encompass all of our own histories, so one has to pick and choose the memories. Memories picked by the individual are memories that have meaning. Marcel’s memories had meaning, in the sense that the memories built Marcel’s character into the man he had become.

Proust and Habit

David Hume defines habit as the experience of cause and effect on reality. Hume thinks humans naturally form habits rather than use their rational minds. Cause and effect is the way eighteen-century thinkers experienced time, but like Hume, Proust rejects the idea of cause and effect on the basis that cause and effect does not account for the idea of habit. Proust uses the idea of habit in the theme of Marcel’s Town. Marcel’s family takes two roads to and from the church. The family wants people to stay in their “class” because they seek stability in society, and the family takes care of his sick aunt out of habit rather than telling her that getting out of bed would make her better. For Proust, habit is not a linear approach to time, because one can look at any particular day in a person’s life and cannot tell when it happened or what was the cause to make these events happen. Cause and effect is noticeable only when one looks at the whole of a life, and then one can connect the knowledge of the particular habits to a cause and effect life. Proust gives clues to the fate of Marcel becoming a writer through facts like his constant reading, his interest in the theater, his observational skills, and attempts to become a writer. However, we can only come to this conclusion when we reach the end, because at the end Marcel is a writer. These same elements that lead Marcel to be a writer could easily have lead to his becoming a politician, an actor, or to an other career; but it just happened that these particular elements made Marcel a writer. This adding up of elements of one’s life gives us a feeling of cause and effect- but in reality Marcel became a writer out of habit and the drive to be a writer.
Henri Bergson tells us that the “law of memories are subject to more general laws of habit.” Habit is a rejected succession of actions which create a relation between the individual and his or her environment. As a result, life is a succession habits. Bergson thinks Proust sees the individual as a succession of individuals, and the world as being a projection of the individual’s consciousness. This is compatible with Kant’s theory of the mind projecting the world. However, Proust differs with Kant in that he sees memory as shaping reality rather than the mind. Kant sees memory as only a part of the mind and not an exclusive factor in shaping reality. For Proust, memory can achieve the same goal as Kant’s transcendental experience. According to Bergson, when one experiences memory, one becomes an “extra-temporal being that lives on another plane of existence outside time and death” (Bergson).

The Eighteen-Century vs Proust on Space and Time

Both eighteenth-century writers and modernist writers had ideas on progress. Progress is symbolic space and time viewpoint. Hopewell Selby writes that eighteenth-century views on the symbolic space of progress was created by Descartes’ placing the soul in the pineal gland, and the subsequent satires that followed. According to Descartes, the pineal gland encloses the soul, and the soul and body interact with each other through it, and different and personalities shape made the gland in different ways. This gland theory made many satirists create new metaphors and phases, such as: “out of your mind,” “body is a prison,” “megalomania,” “belittlement,” and “self-aggrandizement.” Arbuthnot refers to his soul as a tenant in a body that is a mansion. Swift satires the idea of the soul being in the stomach by saying that “we are what we eat,” and that we devoir words and ideas.

This debate was really about space as place vs. space as container. If space is a place, there is no space without objects, geometry is important to space, and, according to Descartes, the soul is distinct from the body. If space is a container, no object is without space, kinematics makes space more important, and, according to Newton, space is superior to the material world. Space as a container was championed by the eighteenth-century satirists, while space as a place or the symbolic seat of the soul was belittled by the satirists as the wrong way of seeing the world.
Henri Bergson elaborates on this discussion by defining chronological time as “the time of history in hours, minutes, and seconds,” (Bergson). Duration is defined as “encompassing those times in a life which are significant to an individual, which are necessarily different for each individual,” (Bergson). Although Proust rejects cause and effect, he does think events in the past, such as memorable achievements and short experiences, while one is growing up, turns one into the person they are as adults. He reconciles the cause and effect with the assertion that, according to Bergson, “one can have several significant moments in your life, which matter to you and the backdrop of the clock-time is irrelevant,” (Bergson). Cause and effect relies upon chronology, whereas for Proust, time only relies on memory.

Cause and effect are responsible for the idea of teleology dominating eighteenth-century thought. The World Book dictionary defines teleology as the doctrine that all things in nature were made to fulfill a plan or design. Volt gave birth to the idea of progress history, Descartes and Kant promoted an idea of the individual becoming a greater man, and Locke promoted the idea that society will give rise to a better society. These philosophers saw symbolic space becoming actualized in time. History, man, and society were in a state of progress. Progress defined as teleology explains why people are in the state they are in before they reach the goals set by the designer. This idea of progress helps one understand Newton’s reasoning that the universe was like clockwork.

Defoe vs Proust on Space and Time

Defoe and Proust approached their treatment of time and space differently, because Defoe is writing at a time when Descartes, Newton, Locke, Hume, Kant, Leibniz and Bacon are highly influential on the views of space and time, where as Proust was influenced by the same writers Defoe was influenced by, however, Proust was anticipating quantum mechanic, Einstein, and cubism. Locke sees time as a simple mode of duration and space as expanding duration. Change is the observation of a sequence of ideas, while time is universally observed as the measurement of duration. Hume sees both Newton and Locke as using “relative” and “absolute” as abstract ideas. Hume rejects the absolute, but uses Locke’s idea of duration, in which he sees time as a simple succession of the mind’s ideas. Leibniz cannot distinguish between the absolute and the relative space and time of Newton and Locke, because there cannot be an establishment of absolute motion through the study of force. For Leibniz, absolute time means God created the universe for no reason; therefore God created a world with the best possible design in mind. “Kant agrees with Newton that time and space are absolute and independent of things and events which occupy them,” and like Leibniz believed that, “time and space are not metaphysically objective.” Kant removes the relativity from Newton because to Kant time is objective and absolute. The knowledge of time comes from our senses.

Defoe and Proust were transitional novelist. Defoe was anticipating the fall of the romance books, because instead of using a fixed, unchanging character as tradition of the romantic books dictated, Defoe used the novelistic character for of the probable character. Ian Watt says “Locke defined personal identity as an identity of consciousness through duration in time,” (McKeon) Defoe’s characters change do to their environment. His character could start out bad and become heroic. These dynamic characters show how a realistic person would develop and grow over time. Proust was writing a fractured novel in a time when the linear novel was the only style of writing. Defoe’s and Proust’s styles of writing show how space and time was perceived.
Defoe, like many other eighteenth-century writers, used a style of writing that appears in contradiction: a writer uses a lot of words to describe a scene, but at the same time, the reader experiences a acceleration of time. In contrast, Proust uses many words to describe a scene, but he does not quicken the pace of the story. Instead he gives the reader a feeling timelessness. According to Joseph Frank, “Proust ideally intend the reader to apprehend their work spatially, in the moment of time, rather than a sequence,” (Frank). Eighteen-century writers, like Defoe use sequential writing in order to give the read a sense of cause and effect. Defoe’s character, Robinson Crusoe, experienced cause and effect through probability.

Probability is the analyzing of data to uncover the mysteries of the unknown. Paul K. Alkon analyzes how Defoe, in his novel Robinson Crusoe, dealt with probability. For example, Crusoe sees a footprint in the sand and calculates the probability of the print being made by Satan. This mystery quickens the pace of the story, playing with the reader’s sense of time by making a lone man on a deserted island have purpose to pass the time. The mystery of Satan’s footprint brings up the debate of whether this is a chance encounter of providence or design. If the universe is designed, it is calculable, but the combinations of calculable results are in numbers too large to factor, unless you are God. Crusoe never uses “the doctrine of combinations of calculable risks” because Defoe is arguing for design rather than chance (Alkon). The proof of design is easier to see in smaller numbers than in the large numbers created through combinations of calculations.

“Crusoe makes a gamble with long odds to travel south with his designed plan which pays off with a rescue,” (Alkon). The odds of Crusoe being rescued is so low that his rescue seems like a “providential deliverance,” (Alkon). In summary, Crusoe progresses from an almost thoughtless state to an awareness that rational planning based on probabilities is not limiting, and he is rewarded in the end with rescue. In short, Crusoe was in a state of sin state, then in a state of discovery through rational means, and finally in a state of deliverance by the use of a leap of rational faith to “salvation.” Probability leads Crusoe to a rescue as science leads man to a solution to the unknowns of the universe. Crusoe lived in a probable universe that was ruled by absolute laws of space and time, but that absolute space and time was not completely known, so artist and scientist had to estimate knowledge about the universe until they can find all the fact to reach the absolute truth.

Probability is picking up on the new idea of the Bacon’s scientific method. Defoe uses the scientific method in order to solve each problem that is presented to him. Crusoe gathers evidence when he encounters the footprint, he hypotheses on the owner of the footprint, and comes to a conclusion on the ownership of the footprint. Mysteries are to be solved by science, and this is the rational scientific method. The scientific method shows that one thing leads to another or what is known as cause and effect. The footprint has a causal relationship toe the being that made the footprint, because the footprint has to be made by somebody.
Max Novak writes that fiction writers of the eighteenth-century were stretching their descriptions, words, and stories out, and at the same time gave a sense of fast action. “Writers were not trying to mirror the world, but create a construct that would pass for real, an illusion,” (Novak). Fiction and reality are blurred for the reader because on occasion these distinctions disappear. The identity of the characters are continuous selves and the narrative becomes internalized. Defoe’s writings focus on an object and expand the time experienced by the reader. He moves the reader from, “a passive observer of the Gothic writers to an active observer participating in events and living in the spaces,” (Novak). The fiction of the book with reality is not the only thing blurred, but the character with the author is hazy.

Proust and Defoe blur the lines between the factual biography and the fictional stories. Here is were we encounter the individual space of the character. The biography of Proust and the character Marcel could be seen as similar, because both come from very similar middle class roots and both become writers. Using Locke’s definition of time, which was a simple succession in the mind, Defoe burs the line because his audience is use to accounts, like Robinson Crusoe, as memoirs of real accounts and not fiction. Many readers of Defoe’s time seem to think he really experienced these the solitude of Crusoe rather than fictionalize the account. Both Proust and Defoe are able to confuse the audience with their apparent biographies, but in reality the individuals they both write about are taking up a fictional space and this space is in the imagination, and therefore symbolic rather than a real space.

Louis Milic thinks Crusoe’s many reflections on solitude “simply shows the duration of time in restricted space,” (Milic). After eighteen months, Crusoe becomes throughly reconciled to his condition. “Eighteen months exist on the calender and in the mind,” (Milic). In contrast, Proust uses Marcel to reflect on solitude, but his is a voluntary solitude of reading and of self educating. Charles Lamb sees Defoe using dates as a painful reminder that is “pressed upon the memory,” (Shinagel). The solitude man has to imagine mysteries and keep track of the days in order to keep his sanity. Defoe is showing how man is connected to the days, nights, minutes, and seconds of the clock. Memories are logs or journals that the characters of Defoe’s novel’s keep in order to stay connected to reality. So, memories are little more than documentation of written facts that are complied over a time period, until overwhelming evidence leads the reader to come to the same conclusions as Defoe’s characters. Crusoe came to the conclusion that only through faith in the design of things can one be rescued.

According to M.M. Bakhtin, “the chronotope of the road is both a point of new departures and a place for events to find their denouement.” Defoe uses time to combined with space to form a path or plan that Crusoe uses for his eventual rescue. For Defoe, any act of planning is a road taken into the future to a destinations. Proust, however, is not interested in goals, because Proust mirrors a Nietzsche philosophy of living life as a journey and not seeing life through theology. If there was a goal of Remembrances of Things Past, it was to give the reader a feeling of the moment in memory and not whether Marcel became a writer. Defoe clearly has the goal in Crusoe mind, throughout the book, he plans to escape from the island and Crusoe is delivered from the island in the end, to return to his rightful place in society. So, I am proposing that Proust thinks that the journey is the important part of the story, whereas Defoe thinks that goal in the important part of the story.

Works Sited

Backscheider, Paula R., ed. Probability, Time, and Space in Eighteenth-Century Literature. New York: AMS Press, 1979.
Vargish, Thomas, ed. Inside Modernism Relativity Theory, Cubism, Narrative London: University Press New Haven, 1999.
Proust, Marcel Remembrance of Things Past New York: Vintage Books, 1982.
Childs, Peter Modernism: The New Critical Idiom New York: Routledge, 2000.
Fleming, William Arts and Ideas Fort Worth: Syracuse University, 1991.
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination Austin: University of Texas Press,1994.
Kern, Stephen The Culture of Time and Space 1880 - 1918 Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.
Calder, Negel Einstein’s Universe Harrisonburg: Penguin Books, 1979.
Shattuck, Roger Proust’s Way New York: W. W. Norton and Company 2000.
Defoe, Daniel Robinson Crusoe: A Norton Critical Edition Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
McKeon, Michael ed. Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press 2000.
Kolocotroni, Vassiliki ed. Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents Great Britain: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Rivkin, Julie ed. Literary Theory: An Anthology Malden: Blackwell Publishers,1998.
Christoph, Cox Nietzsche: Naturalism and Interpretation Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

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