By Scott Sullivan
That Was Then
I’ve not read Marcel Proust’s classic “Remembrance of Things Past” for several reasons.
First, it’s redundant. We remember what else? The future?
Second, it’s seven volumes. What happened to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid? “I would have written shorter but I ran out of time,” is an axiom in my business. One four-letter word for tomes such as Proust’s is “Edit.”
Nonetheless, some think it’s a work of genius. W. Somerset Maugham called “Remembrance” “the greatest fiction to date.” Graham Greene thought its author was the 20th century’s greatest novelist.
Proust (1871-1922) was born rich, asthmatic and spent much of his life in bed. He had time and then some to elaborate on his experiences growing up, learning about art, society and love in fin de siécle France.
“Remembrance” (Á la recherché du tems perdu) concerns itself with the loss of time, lack of meaning in the world and so on. When things like that eat me, I rake leaves, play sports badly and/or yell at loved ones for no reason other than they are there.
Proust didn’t have those luxuries. Here are quotes from him:
- Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them.
- We become moral when we are unhappy.
- The only paradise is paradise lost.
- Love is a reciprocal torture.
- Love is space and time measured by the heart.
For “love” which is it? “Like many intellectuals,” Proust wrote of a so-called fictional character, “he was incapable of saying a simple thing in a simple way.” He got that right.
Another book, by a different author on a similar theme, “That Was Then, This Is Now.”
S.E. Hinton wrote her best-known young-adult novel “The Outsiders” while in her teens. She was 22 when “That Was Then” followed. Like “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish” which ensued, it was set in 1960s Tulsa, Okla.
Paris elites Hinton’s teens were not. But the tensions her novel describes between friends growing up and apart can be universal. I like its title — a call to be freed and empowered by our pasts, not enslaved by them — so well I fear reading the book might ruin it.
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which I have read, starts, “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”
The story begins after Dresden, Germany — where Vonnegut was a U.S. prisoner of war during World War II — was fire bombed. “Unstuck” refers to, in part, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that can leave veterans feeling detached, alone, sometimes prey to flashbacks.
The only “fire bombing” I’ve endured was of my own mental making. But the way I leap topics here — less so in standard reporting elsewhere — reflects the influence of Vonnegut and Freud’s free-association that opens different doors to narrative and discovery.
“With malice toward none, with charity towards all” is another line I have read. Who said that?
Abraham Lincoln, a politician who rose above politics, was not a soldier literally. The line came from his Second Inaugural Address, with Civil War victory over secessionists days away.
He did not speak of happiness, but of sadness. Some see this speech as a defense of the Reconstruction approach in which Lincoln sought to avoid harsh treatment of the defeated South.
He reminded listeners, instead, of how wrong both sides had been for imagining what lay before them when the war began four years earlier.
Thanks to time we are all damaged goods. Even now I’m inclined to react to what I see as malice with less than charity. That was “then” and still is. That response is no more appropriate than what spurred it.
This is now, the Thanksgiving season. Let’s make future history better for us all.