Proust: The Accidental Buddhist

Buddhism is often called a “science of the mind” because, if it’s true to its eponymous first practitioner, it is less a religion than a training in taking the objective measure of reality. When the Fourteenth Dalai Lama describes it, he always stresses that, as a “non-theistic” tradition, its ideas about God and the hereafter are much less important than its commitment to an empirical, scientific investigation of the way things are; the title of his last major work in English was Beyond Religion. The Buddha, as I understand it, ultimately devoted himself to the simple exercise of sitting still and resolving not to get up until he had looked beyond his many delusions and projections to the truth of what he was (or wasn’t) and how to make his peace with that.

Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds very much like someone in a cork-lined room, almost alone for years on end and turning a fierce and uncompromising light on all his experiences and memories so as to see how much of them might be wishful thinking, and what they owe to illusion and the falsifications of the mind? Marcel Proust never formally meditated, so far as I know, and he never officially quit his gilded palace to wander around the world, practicing extremes of austerity and cross-questioning wise men. But if I want to understand the tricks the mind plays upon itself—the ways we substitute our notions of reality for the way things are and need to dismantle the suffering false thoughts can create—I can’t think of a better guide and friend than the author of À la recherche.

Many a Tibetan mystic goes on a three-year retreat and comes back with a sense of stillness and attention that suggests great understanding, but most of these monks are masters of silence more than of the written word. The beauty of Proust is that he ventures into the farthest reaches of self-investigation and reflection on subjectivity, but brings his understandings back into language and archetypal episodes that anyone can follow. “So long as you distract your mind from its dreams,” the painter Elstir tells the narrator at one point, “it will not know them for what they are; you will always be being taken in by the appearance of things, because you will not have grasped their true nature.”

Yet these words of wisdom are at once poignant and droll because we know that their young listener is already far too prone not to distract his mind from dreams. He knows what it’s like to be in faithless love, unable to see what’s in front of him for the memory that arises, awakening to the emptiness of the infatuation that held him not long before—and yet his creator places all these observations on the page, and on the larger canvas that sitting still at his desk for many years opened up to him.

On first picking up Proust, more than twenty years ago, I was startled by how funny he was, as duchesses in his pages compete for the honor of entertaining artists they’ll never understand. Going through his initial volume, passage by never-ending passage, I wondered if Evelyn Waugh was collaborating with the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki. I also realized I could read only a couple of pages at a time, because I had to copy down every other line. These weren’t just aperçus, fortune-cookie epigrams, or flashes of illumination of the kind I cherished in Wilde or Emerson or Nietzsche. They came from some much deeper place, in which language was stretched to the breaking-point, and sentences or paragraphs went on for minutes in their attempt to keep pace with our always agile facility for justifying our projections and then doubling back to investigate our justifications. Proust was the rare master of words with the patience to see how often our use of them stands in the way of truth. And he was the rare master of contemplation who had no aversion to trying to put words around our silences.

To take a few examples, almost at random, from the volume of Proust I was just reading, the second in the series, translated in my edition as Within a Budding Grove: “We do not receive wisdom,” Elstir tells the narrator (who has just realized that “this man of genius, this sage” is a “foolish, corrupt little painter” in another context), “we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us.” Could the Buddha, enjoining his disciples to “Be a lamp unto yourselves,” have phrased it any better? Or: “If there were no such thing as habit, life might appear delightful to those of us who are constantly under the threat of death—that is to say, to all mankind.” I can’t think of a clearer formulation of the Western Buddhist’s teachings that habit is how we keep ourselves away from truth, imprisoned in our heads and not the world. As the narrator also notes, with characteristic dryness, “One short-sighted man says of another, ‘But he can scarcely open his eyes!’”

Few writers have cut through themselves, their assumptions, their romances, so unsentimentally as the intermittently reclusive Frenchman, who notes in the same book that “We ought at least, for prudence, never to speak of ourselves, because that is a subject on which we may be sure that other people’s views are never in accordance with our own.” And after pages and pages on what he so Buddhistically calls “the variability of the self” and on the tenacity with which we cling to an image of someone even as that person is constantly changing, he simply concludes, “What one knows does not belong to oneself,” as if placing the entire frame of his project in a building without a roof.

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