Proustian Habit

In Anna Elsner & Thomas Stern (eds.), The Proustian Mind. London: Routledge. pp. 161-175 (2022)
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The reader of RTP is granted just a few paragraphs before habit is introduced: Habit! That able but slow-moving arranger who begins by letting our minds sufer for weeks on end in temporary quarters, but whom our mind is nonetheless only too happy to fnd, for without it, reduced to its own devices, it would be powerless to make any room habitable. (SW, 9, translation altered; I 8) Implied is a view of mind: powerless to interfere with habit’s course, but equally powerless to reconcile us even to something as innocuous as a room, were it not for habit’s work. Corresponding to this is a view of the world: hostile. The objects are nasty, imposing, menacing: a ‘mentally poisoning’ smell, malicious curtains and a cruel mirror (SW, 9; I 8). Habit, unbidden but welcome, steps in. The mirror becomes compassionate. Habit is a central aspect of the narrator’s worldview. It appears both at major plot points and in signifcant theoretical passages. Proust had already thematised habit in some of his earliest published work – notably in ‘Violante ou la Mondanité’ (1892) (‘Violante, or High Society’) – as well as in unpublished material (see II 1352 fn. 2). His ideas have their roots in his philosophical education, where habit formed a key part of the syllabus. Indeed, in retrospect, we can say that Proust may have been taught philosophy at a time and place where habit, as a philosophical topic, was approaching its high watermark, as a major theme in French philosophical thought. Another major theme, of course, was time.

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Tom Stern
University College London


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