Proust’s Search for Happiness by Jimmy Liu

Proust’s Search for Happiness

During Proust’s stay at Aunt Leonie’s estate over the summers of his youth, whenever a storm broke out, his grandmother would beckon him to go outside. Not wishing to pause his reading, he would station himself with his books in a sentry box in the garden. Immersed in the world of the novel, young Proust was shielded from the torrential downpour in his little hiding hole both physically and mentally. From time to time, tearing his eyes away from the page, the garden sprung into being in his mind, mediated by the lingering thoughts of what he had just been reading: 

When I saw any external object, my awareness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, enclosing it in a slender, incorporeal outline that prevented me from ever coming directly in contact with the material form; for it would volatilize itself in some way before I could touch it, just as an incandescent body that is moved toward something wet never actually touches moisture, since it is always preceded, itself, by a zone of evaporation. (Proust 95)

This shimmering zone of evaporation, like the aura around the head of Vermeer’s sleeping maid, is a meeting place of two worlds—the life of the mind and the external world. Rather than favoring one over the other, Proust is fascinated by their interweaving, which the garden so aptly symbolizes. In his exploration of the interconnections and gaps between the mind and the world, Proust touches on a trinity of themes: the malleability of the imagination, the way it sustains and guides our desires, and the search for a permanent happiness. The interplay of these three themes will be the focus of my essay, and I will explore their movements in different characters, beginning and ending with Proust himself. 

Johannes Vermeer, A Maid Asleep, 1656-57, oil on canvas, 34 1/2 x 30 1/8 in, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

When young Proust asks himself why he is so engrossed in the book he is reading in the garden, so much so that he would miss the bell marking the hour, he ascribes a sort of mental reality to the characters in the book. Even though they are not physical beings, we feel genuine emotions for them when we read about their misfortunes. We have a mental picture of the characters, and that alone is enough for our emotions to latch on; even in real life, we do not feel for others’ joys and misfortunes except through a “mental picture” of them (Proust 96). That is to say, we could not be compassionate if we did not have the ability to put ourselves in their shoes. The genius of the first novelist lies in the realization that, because emotions respond to mental pictures, one can feel for people who do not “exist.” Characters are more transparent and less cumbersome than real people because they mold themselves freely to our mental representation; as such, our imagination is free to fill the gaps in description, and great writers use this to tremendous effect. Proust describes the trance-like state we enter when we are immersed in a book to a dream state to be “more lucid and of a more lasting impression than those that come to us in sleep … in which every emotion is multiplied tenfold” (96). The mechanism by which our emotion is amplified is precisely through the imagination. In turn, our emotion supplies our imagination with details that arouse more pity, turning our mind into an echo chamber of passions and ideas. 

In this way, our engagement with fictional worlds is an allegory for real-life interpersonal relationships. There is just one embarrassing difference—namely, when we look the other way, real people still exist, love, and suffer all the same. Our subjective understanding of others is bound to experience a shock when it bumps up against their objective existence, and this tension is in full force when Proust writes about love affairs in the book. The eponymous character, M. Swann, is the father of Proust’s first love, Gilberte. Though Proust learns of Swann’s love affair much later, his own relationship with the daughter shares many fundamental similarities with Swann’s love affair with Odette de Crecy narrated in the self-contained novella Swann in Love.

In what might be called the Proustian inversion, Proust’s characters tend to desire precisely what they cannot have, and Swann is no exception. His romantic interests are not only of an inaccessible social milieu but of different aesthetic qualities. Proust recounts, “The physical qualities that attracted him instinctively were the direct opposite of those that he admired in the women sculptured or painted by his favorite masters” (220). With subdued humor, Proust describes Swann’s history of using relations from high society to secure an introduction to servant girls. Given this history, his romance with Odette de Crecy is hardly out of the ordinary; what is special is the love affair the romance develops into. Swann’s eventual attachment to Odette is two-fold: it comes from his possessive nature combined with Odette’s promises to give herself over to him completely. If we stopped here, this would be a typical love story, but Proust imbues both characters with a duplicity that complicates their relationship. On the one hand, there is a flightiness to Odette epitomized by her dress:

While as for her figure, and she was admirably built, it was difficult to make out its continuity (on account of the fashion then prevailing, and in spite of her being one of the best-dressed women in Paris) for the bust, jutting forward in an arch, as though over an imaginary stomach, and ending in a sharp point, beneath which bulged out the balloon of her double skirts, gave a woman the appearance of being composed of different sections badly fitted together. (Proust 226)

One gets the sense that Odette comes straight out of a Picasso painting, that she, like the steeples of Martinville, seems “at once to contain and conceal” (201). In this respect, she is for Swann the unknown other, the possession of whom signifies a permanent happiness. Paired with Odette’s flightiness is Swann’s maturity in love. Unlike young Proust, who attributes pleasure to a loved one’s particular charm and seeks an escape from the self, Swann is content with a subjective pleasure (180). Proust writes, “In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses the heart of a woman may be enough to make him fall in love with her” (225). One might call this kind of love self-deceptive or even solipsistic, but such language is not value-neutral: it assumes the supremacy of facts over the imagination. If Proust is right, however, and it is only through mental representations that we come to have an understanding of the world and ourselves, we should be more hesitant to denounce this kind of pleasure outright. 

To track the evolution of Swann’s affair, one cannot do without “the little phrase” from Vinteuil’s sonata. The siren song becomes the token of Swann’s love for Odette, but he can never shake off the feeling that contained within the melody is a secret language that cares not for them. Casting aside this secret, Swann convinces himself of the self-sufficiency of their love, “This is our little bit; that’s all we need” (250). Nonetheless, he suffers from the knowledge that there is, in the music, “an intrinsic and unalterable beauty, foreign to themselves” (250). As Odette’s love for Swann wanes, the secret language of the little phrase comes to have an external manifestation. Cast out of the little clan and denied access to her, Swann jealously spies on the cheating Odette. Standing beneath the illuminated window of her house in the dead of night, he feels, beyond an appeasement of his jealousy, “an intellectual pleasure” (312). Proust recounts that jealousy for Odette has recovered Swann’s will to truth, “interposed between himself and his mistress, receiving its light only from her, a very personal truth” (313). Thus, another dimension is added to Swann’s pursuit of happiness—the pursuit of truth. Swann projects both of these desires onto Odette, whom he orbits around like a celestial body. 

Concurring with his friends, we can conclude that “Swann was no longer the same man” (269). But if Swann has changed, so has the object of his desires. Grown stout, Odette is no longer the bohemian beauty she was when they first met. Yet, as Proust points out, “The facts of life do not penetrate to the world inhabited by our beliefs” (170). No amount of physical change could alter Swann’s belief that, within this new chrysalis, “it was still Odette who lived, still the same elusive, deceitful, and fugacious temperament” (333). One could ask if Odette is, in fact, the same person that she once was, but such a question is in some sense misplaced: it is not Odette herself who is fixed, but Swann’s conception of her. It has so changed his perception of her real self, that this new altered Odette becomes nothing but a vessel for the integral, permanent, Platonic conception of her carefully preserved from the first days of their love. It is easy to write Swann off as perpetuating a toxic relationship. Indeed, much could be said about the way toxic masculinity projects an impossibly idealized lover onto the real individual, but Proust is not interested in placing blame so much as untangling subterranean drives, warts and all. He is sympathetic to Swann’s pursuit of truth and happiness in Odette, not only because he seeks the same things in his daughter Gilberte, but also because he is awake to the way in which our deepest beliefs are sustained by a different kind of fire than is found in the physical world. 

The extinguishing of Swann’s fire has to come from within himself. In the end, it is neither his friends’ poorly veiled gossip nor his twilight awareness of Odette’s fading love that makes Swann feel the full force of his doomed romance. The harbinger of the end is no other than that which sustained his love in the early days—the little phrase. Like what the tea-soaked madeleine is to Proust, the little phrase is the bearer of so much of Swann’s early happiness that he has not the time to cover his ears at Marquise de Saint-Euverte’s soirée before the floodgates of memories break loose. He feels in all its raw immediacy “the network of mental habits, of seasonable impressions, of sensory reactions, which had extended over a series of weeks its uniform meshes, in which his body now found itself inextricably linked again” (395). In place of the abstract notion of a happier time, moments of happiness come alive again within him: Odette’s trembling letters, the chrysanthemum petals, the cattleyas. Odette will never love him again as she did in those moments, a fact that fills him with a sense of irreparable loss.

As the sonata meanders to its inevitable end, and the musicians continue the rites of summoning the captive genie for a final time, a miraculous shift occurs within Swann. The little phrase’s indifference to his love, which he had found so intolerable in the early days, fills him suddenly with a sweet serenity.

For he had no longer, as of old, the impression that Odette and he were not known to the little phrase…Whereas, in that distant time, he had divined an element of suffering in its smile, in its limpid and disillusioned intonation, today he found there rather the charm of a resignation that was almost happy. (Proust 397)

One gets the sense that despite the immortality of the little phrase, it possesses a mobility that mirrors and magnifies Swann’s gradually changing heart. How could something be both still and moving simultaneously? I am reminded of the image of Proust, riding away on Dr. Percepied’s carriage with the three steeples of Martinville receding behind him. Struck by the deep profundity of the moment, Proust captured the mobility behind the steeples on a notepad: “While we drew away from them at a gallop, I could see them timidly seeking their way … drawing close to one another, slipping one behind another.” (208). It is Proust’s movement that gives the steeples the appearance of motion—the dance of the steeples perfectly mirrors Proust’s own winding departure. If, indeed, the movements of the heart are so gradual that one is spared the actual sensation of the change, we could only come to know ourselves through a fixed point we are departing from. The little phrase is just such a fixed point for Swann. Throughout his love affair, his innumerable desires and jealousies were aimed not at Odette herself, but at an idealization of her that the little phrase bears witness to. No longer a passive observer, the little phrase participates in their love, matching Swann’s every move. The serene resignation Swann finds in the little phrase is no other than his own transformation. In this sense, it becomes a divine captive who shares Swann’s fate. And Proust writes, “Death in its company is something less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less certain” (400). The “death” Proust writes about is a spiritual death of the self—for Swann to destroy his dream of Odette would amount to the death of all that is now. Alas, what little courage is required to fall in love, compared to the courage to fall out of love? And to fall out of love is exactly what the little phrase gives Swann the courage to do, at the end of the novella.

It is telling that the closest semblance of a permanent happiness for Swann lies not in the act of loving but in the little phrase, a divine captive that immortalizes his love. The concept of embalming a happy moment to keep it alive through time’s passage is very much central to Proust’s own quest. Indeed, from Proust’s own search for happiness could be read all the elements of Swann’s love affair that we have mentioned. One avenue he pursues in the shadow of Swann is his budding first love for Gilberte. Paralleling Swann’s desire to possess what he cannot have, Proust’s love for Gilberte springs from the foreignness of her name and what it represents. His first encounter with Gilberte in the Champs-Élysées is one-sided: he hears her name flung out by her playmate carelessly, hinting at an inaccessible, unknown existence, “Goodbye, Gilberte, I’m going home now; don’t forget that we’re coming to your house this evening, after dinner” (448). He is unknown to Gilberte and her playmate, his presence in the scene invisible.  

That otherness in the name “Gilberte” never quite goes away. Even after becoming Gilberte’s playmate, Proust imbues her name with the same mysterious qualities from that first day at the Champs-Élysées. It becomes a condensation of all that is inaccessible and beyond his control (449). He writes her name out in exercise books, repeats it in his mind, and contrives for his parents to say it, as though they knew of his secret love for Gilberte. This last act hints at an important divergence between Swann’s love for Odette and Proust’s love for Gilberte: whereas Swann is content with a subjective love, Proust ascribes ontological weight to that separate existence. The latter dreads the prospect of discovering that his love is a reflection of an unrequited desire, “something purely personal, unreal, tedious, and ineffective” (455). When his parents utter Gilberte’s name in his presence, it is as though his love becomes more solid and not just an obsession in his mind.

But if the name “Gilberte” is brought to an insurmountable height in Proust’s private dreams, it must come careening down to earth every time he meets the real Gilberte. Despite developments in their intimacy, a fundamental gap remains between the name and the person. Whereas “Gilberte” signifies a sister soul who understands Proust’s love for him and loves him back in turn, Gilberte is a physical being with an independent existence. Proust dreams of a mutual confession between him and Gilberte, but because of the confusion between Gilberte herself and her name, the confession never materializes. “She threw me a ball,” Proust recounts, and there is so much weight behind the physical object that his imagination must shatter. He is compelled to catch the ball and act the part of the playmate in the game of prisoner’s base (456). The trajectory of the ball carries with it the force of external time, so different from the eternal image of Proust’s love. But what could Proust have done, other than catch the ball? The game inevitably goes on, and Proust’s love is trapped within the confines of his mind. 

With devastating self-consciousness and less sympathy for himself than Swann, Proust the author looks back at his young love for Gilberte and concludes, “They were the only moments in my life on which I concentrated a meticulous, relentless attention, and yet I could not discover in them one atom of pleasure” (454). Perhaps it is precisely the immensity of Proust’s concentration on the name “Gilberte” that prevents him from feeling any pleasure in the moment; the motion of bending down to scrutinize every single moment in search of a semblance of joy could only be straining, and this position is in fact antithetical to the image of happiness for him. We get a closer sense of what happiness looks like for Proust when his mind meanders along the currents of the Vivonne:

How often have I watched and longed to imitate, when I would be free to live as I chose, a rower who had released his oars and lay stretched out on his back, his head down, in the bottom of his boat, letting it drift with the current, seeing nothing but the sky that slipped quietly above him, showing on his features a foretaste of happiness and peace. (Proust 194)

Proust’s fascination with the mental estimation of happiness is apparent here: the rower that Proust imagines shows not happiness itself, but a foretaste of it. The expectation of happiness is more interesting than happiness, because the former subverts facts about the world, operating independently on a plane of its own. Indeed, it is not altogether clear what “happiness itself” could be, if it could even be expressed. Insofar as we could only see external expressions of happiness, we could not be happy except by imitating the surface appearance. What does the image of the rower, Proust’s image of happiness, tell us about his conception of it?

Rather than straining to fight the current, the rower puts down his oars to read the constellations, letting the river bear him to his destination. There is no mention of attention here—the rower could very well be drifting between dreams and wakefulness. One could liken the Vivonne to the River Lethe and read in the rower’s serenity an understanding that true memory is not an act of conscious recall. The rower is at peace with what memories the waters will permit him to keep and what memories the river will wash away; to cling onto every memory, as young Proust tries to do with Gilberte, is to witness their gradual death.

Perhaps the rower, like Proust furiously at work from his sickbed, abusing his dying body, could no longer muster up the strength to fight the current. Writing about the symbiosis between Proust’s art and his malady, Walter Benjamin observes, 

For the second time there rose a scaffold like Michelangelo’s on which the artist, his head thrown back, painted the Creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: the sickbed on which Marcel Proust consecrates the countless pages which he covered with his handwriting, holding them up in the air, to the creation of his microcosm. (Benjamin 215) 

The simplicity in so literal a comparison strikes straight to the heart. Proust, too, laid stretched out on his back in his final days as he held in his hands the work with which he had imbued his life. Does he, like the rower, also show on his features a foretaste of happiness, seeing his life’s work before his eyes?

A misguided way of answering this question is to look to Swann’s Way on its own, sticking only to the text itself without considering Proust the author. If we do this, we find at times an insecure neurotic dreading his lack of qualifications to be a writer. For, walking along the Guermantes way, he would daydream about telling Mme. de Guermantes about his future works. As soon as he asked himself what kind of books he would write, “my mind would cease to function, I would see before me a void, I would feel either that I was wholly devoid of talent, or that, perhaps, a malady of the brain was hindering its development” (Proust 197). At the end of Swann’s Way, when he revisits the Bois de Boulogne in search of the “masterpiece of beautiful strolling women that the trees enclosed each day for a few hours,” he could find nothing of the splendor of the old days (480). His disappointment, growing beyond the boundaries of the strolling women, even extends to the vehicles, “Can anyone really find these automobiles as elegant as the old carriage-and-pair?” (482).

There is a sense of loss in the closing pages of Swann’s Way that could lead one to conclude that Proust is not happy with his work. Time has slipped through his fingers, and his remembrance of the past fills him with a longing to escape the present. Of course, this is the caricature of an interpretation, an intellectual exercise that tries in vain to separate Proust the character from Proust the author. In truth, the cyclical nature of the book means that the latter is always subtly commenting on the views of the former. This occurs in both of the examples I used to falsely suggest that Proust is unhappy with his book in its ability to capture time. In the first example, quite apart from his literary preoccupations on those walks along the Guermantes way, Proust would suddenly be struck by “a roof, a gleam of sunlight reflected from a stone, the smell of a road,” each of them evoking an obscure, individual pleasure (204). Unable to decipher them in the moment, he would carefully preserve those images until he had more time to think about them in his room. This foreshadows how Proust eventually writes his book—in the quietude of night. As to his disillusionment with the ugliness of the motor cars along the Bois, he subtly contradicts himself by scattering metaphors likening automobiles to the mind throughout the book (124, 444). For example, he writes, “To reach the end of a day, natures that are slightly nervous, as mine was, have at their disposal, like automobiles, different ‘speeds.’” This is the voice of Proust the author, as automobiles were not around in his youth; for him to liken his mind to an automobile marks a change of hearts toward the technology. In fact, this subtle conversation extends beyond Proust’s different selves—the reader, too, is invited to go beyond the pages of the book and engage with it personally. As Proust watches boys lowering glass jars into the Vivonne to catch minnows, he observes,

Filled by the currents of the stream in which they themselves also were enclosed, [they were] at once “containers”, whose transparent sides were like solidified water, and “contents” plunged into a still larger container of crystal, liquid and flowing, suggested an image of coolness more delicious and more provoking than the same water in the same jars would have done, standing on a table laid for dinner, by showing it as perpetually in flight between the impalpable water, in which my hands could not arrest it, and the insoluble glass, in which my palate could not enjoy it. (Proust 192)

Like the water in the glass jar, the content of Swann’s Way is not stagnant but continually in flux. Each reader brings with them the odds and ends of their own days, their own lives. When I read In Search of the Lost Time, there is a sense of rapture in every corner, filling even the most melancholic moments like the death of his grandmother with spiritual exultation. Like Swann’s sweet recollection of Odette, my recollection of Swann’s Way conjures a series of images and fills me with an indescribable feeling of happiness. The steeple of St. Hilaire, the sentry box in the garden, the hawthorns along the Méséglise way, the Grand-Hôtel of Balbac … these places form the constellation of my understanding of Proust. What’s more, even though Proust is writing about his own life, I get the sense that he is writing about mine, too; with my head tilted back, I read off from the constellation my own position on the earth. His winding paragraphs feel not so much like a stranger telling me about his life, but two friends engaged in an act of shared recollection. For me, the happiness of reading In Search of Lost Time comes not in deciphering what is in the glass jar but in submerging my hand into the water and letting the currents of thought wash over me. What more could an author hope for than for his work not only to sail on after his death, but for different people to find in it different joys? One imagines Proust happy. 

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. The Image of Proust, Accessed 9 May 2023. 

Proust, Marcel, and William C. Carter. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Yale University Press, 2015.

Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way. Edited by William C. Carter, Yale University Press, 2013.Proust, Marcel. Time Regained. Charles Rivers Editors, 2018.

Authors Bio

Jimmy Liu’s first contact with In Search of Lost Time came during the start of the pandemic. Understanding little but much taken in by Proust’s meandering imagination, it was two years before he would revisit the book. On the second go, he could not put down the book until he had reached the last page of the final volume, Time Regained. Jimmy’s undergraduate background is in Philosophy and Mathematics, and he is pursuing English and Comparative Literature through Columbia’s BA/MA program. In this essay, he tries to make sense of what Walter Benjamin calls “Proust’s senseless quest for happiness.”