Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust begins with the narrator sipping tea and nibbling a Madelaine. He is instantaneously brought back to his youth where he spent time in his aunt’s house in the French countryside. From there, the narrator examines his life for what makes his existence special and wonderful. He takes a close look at three things: fame, love, and art.
The narrator is able to climb the ladder and rub elbows with the celebrities of his time. He learns there is nothing special about these people. They are just as boring, just as cruel, and just as depressed and the ordinary man on the street. He learns that virtues and vices are scattered evenly throughout the population and are not balanced with more of the good on the rich end any more that an excess of evil lives amongst the poor. Neither wealth nor popularity made you in any way a better person that the anonymous wretched of the earth.
It may be a common error for the young to assume that there is a class of people up there somewhere who is in some ways better, else why would be not be elevated? Not only is this not correct, but the upper crusts open themselves up to great ridicule because of how poorly they behave and how inferior they are to many of the common people. The grass is never greener on the other side of the fence, and there is not a better life out there somewhere going on in the upper and distant circles.
Later in the novel, the narrator meets a girl on the beach and falls for her, and she is named Albertine. The narrator fixates on her for a few hundred page, but it all falls apart when he is finally allowed to kiss her. He thinks of the nature of humans as compared to animals. Our anatomy is far more complex than creatures of the sea or beasts in the wild. And yet, we lack the essential organ required for kissing, so we substitute our lips. This proves to be as weak of a substitute as animals rubbing noses.
More than the failures of physiology, Proust’s narrator holds out hope that love will cure that one almighty ailment that curses all of mankind – loneliness. By falling in love, we can find that person who will understand us fully and, in some way, complete us, as if we are somehow lacking when we are by ourselves. The narrator concludes that no one can ever truly understand anyone, that the notion of love is pure folly, and we are left to do nothing more than offer beast-like kisses in the dark. And in the end, we are all alone, even the ones who say they are in love.
That leaves only one more area of life remaining, and that is art. It’s not that we need to spend all of our time in the museum or opera house. We need to see the world as an artist does. In the novel, art is foiled by habit. We fall into ruts and do the same thing every day and it is not special at all. Children do not live by any habits. That is why so many things are so special to them, like splashing in a rain puddle, eating candy, or chasing butterflies.
The shroud of familiarity blankets our minds from everything that is truly special merely because we have become so accustomed to them. We are bored by the events of everyday life and think the cure lies in seeking fame or love, which do no give life anything wonderful. The only other ones who see life like a child is the artist. Most people walk over a swampy bridge, but the artist paints the water lilies. A farmer may plow up a nest of varmints and give no other thought, but the poet writes verses apologizing to the mouse and contemplates how their two lives are not too different.
The artist can look at the simple things of everyday occurrence and see it as something wonderful and special and beautiful just like a child. So the solution according to the narrator is not so much to be an aesthete, but learn to look at life as an artist does and take great pleasure in the small and simple things just like a child. Life will be appreciated when we strip away from it all the fluency of habit and fill life with the glory of enjoying the ordinary as something extraordinary.
We see this return to a child-like view of being alive from the very beginning when the narrator is swept to a youthful past by the taste of a Madelaine. He, like any of us, can dispel the boredom and restore the gratitude of life by living like a child who sees every small and insignificant thing as wonderful. Truman Capote once famously said that if were given the choice between reading Proust or the Pau Pau’s that he would chose Proust. I would, too. This isn’t to knock the people of New Guinea. Maybe they just have yet to master to baking of French cookies.