Lessons From Books: How Proust Can Change Your Life

In the book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton etches a narrative of self-help and self-improvement which he found in the works of Marcel Proust. Proust was a novelist known most famously for his work In Search of Lost Time, which spans seven novels and tackles themes of friendship, success, love, relationships, and much more.

At the core, the book tries to answer the question of what is the best way to live life? Although the answer varies from individual to individual, Alain de Botton puts forth some practical ways to live one’s life and of course, as Proust was one of the most influential writers, the book is also rich in literary advice.

The lessons:

On Life – Learn To Be A “Good Sufferer”

We suffer, therefore we think, and we do so because thinking helps us place pain in context. It helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions, and reconcile ourselves to its presence. (Alain de Botton)

Life is hard and an important aspect of living is to be a good sufferer. You must be able to detach from grief and to understand why something hurts you or harms you.

Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our hearts. (Proust)

When we can learn from grief, then the pain subsides. In order to learn from it, we must accept it at first and not avoid it.

Perhaps the greatest claim one can make for suffering is that it opens up possibilities for intelligent, imaginative inquiry—possibilities that may quite easily be, and most often are, overlooked or refused. (Alain de Botton)

I found this to be similar to Jocko Willink‘s “Good” method of dealing with hardship.

On Life – Be Observant

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes. (Proust)

Daily life can seem mundane and unimportant. We are too busy living for the weekend or for the summer vacations that most of our life can drift by without notice. Which is why Proust emphasized searching for the unique or the precious in everyday life. This mindset requires one to be observant, to look at your everyday life with new eyes.

When you walk around a kitchen, you will say to yourself this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like Chordin. (Proust)

This is similar to Walker Percy’s idea of The Search which he explored in his novel, The Moviegoer. This can make the everyday special and unique.

Aesthetically, the number of human types is so restricted that we must constantly, wherever we may be, have the pleasure of seeing people we know. (Proust)

In the train rides or bus ride, while waiting in lines at convenient stores or walking around in malls, if we are observant enough we can find people we know and love because humans share similar features, traits, and habits.

For appreciating an object properly may also require us to re-create it in our mind’s eye.” (Proust)

On Writing – Be Original and Care Deeply

Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own tone. (Proust)

An artist should not have an obsession with continuing the style that has been going on but rather he or she should study it and then adapt it to him or herself instead of them adapting to the style. In order to do this, the artist must have faith in their own abilities.

It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull. (Proust)

Proust says that what makes something great isn’t the subject matter but rather the quality of care given to that subject. Cliches show a concern for the end product rather than the process of creation. The process of creation requires patience, attention, and care.

Remainder to myself: Write without care and edit with an abundance of it.

 

Great Lines or Quotes:

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. (Proust)

 

Everything is potentially a fertile subject for art and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap as in Pascal’s Pensees. (Alain de Botton)

 

Those who love and those who are happy are not the same. (Proust)

 

When we discover the true lives of other people, the real world beneath the world of appearance, we get as many surprises as on visiting a house of plain exterior which inside is full of hidden treasures, torture-chambers or skeletons. (Proust)

 

Our notion of reality is at variance with actual reality, because it is so often shaped by inadequate or misleading accounts. (Alain de Botton)

 

We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel’ it is our own thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer’s thoughts that help us do so. (Proust)

 

To make (reading) into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it. (Proust)

 

 

 

Stoic Lessons: How To Act And How To View Death

What then can escort us on our way? One thing, and one thing only: philosophy. This consists in keeping the divinity within us inviolate and free from harm, master of pleasure and pain, doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity, and independent of others’ action or failure to act. Further, accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its own origin: and at all times awaiting death with glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed. Now if there is nothing fearful for the elements themselves in their constant change of each into another, why should one look anxiously in prospect at the change and dissolution of them all? This is in accordance with nature: and nothing harmful is in accordance with nature. (Marcus Aurelius)

According to Marcus Aurelius, philosophy, more specifically Stoic philosophy teaches two things in particular: How to act and How to view death.

Living requires a lot of decision making. So many decisions that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. It’s even more challenging now than it was in the time Marcus Aurelius lived, for there is an abundance of choices in our current age. Far too many paths in life. Far too many ways to think, behave and act. It’s no wonder why the world is full of self-help gurus who instruct other people about how to live their lives.

Stoic philosophy simplifies action. “Doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity,” as Marcus Aurelius put it. Although a simple notion, this advice is difficult to follow because it requires self-reflection. To figure out your aim, your truth and your principles, you have to know yourself. You have to know that humans are part of nature, which means each individual had “divinity” inside them, according to the Stoics. This divinity means that you have to hold yourself up to a higher standard, to demand more out of yourself. To go beyond what is expected of you.

Part of acting also involves “accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its own origin”. Meaning, the outcome is not in your control. All you have control over is your attitude and reaction. There is freedom in this understanding. Concentrate on what you can control.

The Stoic view of death is similar to that of fate: Acceptance. Death is a part of nature and so it must be accepted as such instead of fearing it. “And at all times awaiting death with glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed”. Stoics often practiced an objective point of view.

For example Marcus Aurelius would remind himself that the food he was eating was simply a dead body of a fish of another animal.

How good it is, when you have roast meat or suchlike foods before you, to impress on your mind that this is the dead body of a fish, this the dead body of a bird or pig.

This was done in order to strip away the glamour and to get to the core of the matter because you can dress up the food however you like and add whatever spices you want but in reality what you are eating is just flesh and meat, carcass of something that will soon rot. Similarly, death can seem grand in our head but in reality its just a “dissolution of the elements”, a dissolution which “is in accordance with nature: and nothing harmful is in accordance with nature.”

 

Lessons From Poems: Man Has Created Life

Nor dread nor hope attend

A dying animal;

A man awaits his end

Dreading and hoping all;

Many times he died,

Many times rose again.

A great man in his pride

Confronting murderous men

Casts derision upon

Suppression of breath;

He knows death to the bone—

Man has created death.

Death by William Butler Yeats

This simple, twelve-line poem by W. B. Yeats strikes at an important truth about mankind which is stated in the very last line of the poem, “Man has created death”. Meaning because we are conscious creatures who need to understand life, we have separated the natural occurrences of life into labels and ideas, one such label being that of death. By labeling death and being aware of death we have also given birth to dread and its opposite, hope.

Other animals aren’t conscious as human beings, which is why Yeats says:

Nor dread nor hope attend

A dying animal

They don’t understand death which is why they don’t dread it like humans do and neither do they understand possibilities which is why they don’t hope as humans do.

This idea of manmade problems has been prevalent for centuries. The Stoics believed that people suffered more in imagination than they did in reality. This results from being conscious. We can actively control how our life is shaped and what we can achieve, but we are also aware of what isn’t in our control and what is the natural course of existence. Many anxieties and fears stem from consciousness because we aren’t dumb animals without awareness. Our mind lingers in the past or in the future, areas which we have no influence on. At the same time, consciousness allows us to overcome those anxieties and fears by focusing on the present moment and improving the current situation. This is what I take from the following lines:

Many times he died,

Many times rose again.

Each time we bow to our fears, a part of us dies, but each time we overcome a fear, we are reborn. Rise again as a better version of ourselves.

However, such growth only comes from acceptance. Accepting that death is inevitable and acting regardless of that eventuality. Regardless of your fears and anxieties, regardless of pressure and stress. This is how a man becomes great.

A great man in his pride

Confronting murderous men

Casts derision upon

Suppression of breath;

A great man is someone who knows death but doesn’t fear it. He is willing to confront it and do the right thing even though it may result in him losing his life. “Confronting murderous men” could be taken literal and we can applaud the honorable individuals who do so or, it can be taken as symbolic and applied to life, confronting life, rather than cowering/suppressing from the unknown and unpredictable aspects of life.

The opposite of death is life. If man has created death, then he has also created life, his own life. Meaning that because we are conscious animals, we may be burdened by our knowledge of death but we are also relieved by our knowledge of life. Specifically, our ability to give meaning and purpose to our own lives which can overshadow death. And in doing so, find a sense of comfort with the eventuality of death because each individual has the opportunity or perhaps even a responsibility to take on the dread and hope associated with being alive.

 

I’m A Son Of A Bitch If I’ll Be Defeated By The Everydayness

I have felt hours go by without knowing what happened to them. Hours that turned into days which became months and looking back, there have even been years which I cannot recall with any significance apart from perhaps a single event or two.

I recognize the illness that plagues my mind after reading the Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I had recognized it before too when I came across Proust and I’m sure I recognized it prior to that but I cannot remember now. This makes this illness particularly tricky to deal with because the mind aids the sickness.

This illness is the everydayness of life. The mundane moments that go unremembered as my mind and my thoughts dwell in a hopeful future where I will find myself amidst the ruins of Ancient Rome or traveling the bullet train in Japan along with some friends or seeing the great art pieces of Michelangelo with my own eyes for these moments can cure the everydayness and leave lasting memories of being alive which I can fondly recall later on. Or so I imagine them to be.

But as Proust said, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights but in looking with new eyes. Similarly, Walker Percy puts forth the idea of The Search. It is not new worlds you should seek but rather see the beauty in the everyday that can and should leave a mark on your life.

To search is to be in wonderment of life, all of life.

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.

To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

Walker Percy further explains the idea with regard to movies.

The movies are onto the search but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place — but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.

Walker Percy warns one not to fall into a pattern of known motion. The daily, weekly and monthly routine that makes you feel like just a piece of metal on a conveyor belt, being moved from one spot to another. Instead, he urges you to be observant, to see the changing world around you through which you have been unconsciously drifting. So, to observe is to search. 

People have a different way of sticking themselves into the world. It is a small thing to him but not to me. It is nothing to him to close his eyes in New Orleans and wake up in San Francisco and think the same thoughts on Telegraph Hill that he thought on Carondelet street. Me, it is my fortune and misfortune to know how the spirit-presence of a strange place can enrich a man or rob a man but never leave him alone, how, if a man travels lightly to a hundred strange cities and cares nothing for the risk he takes, he may find himself no one and nowhere.

Without the active struggle to see your own surroundings as something worth seeing and exploring, you might find yourself blind and unaware regardless if you are standing in front of an old library or the Colosseum. If you don’t know how to see properly, moments will simply drift in and out of you and leave behind just the faintest recollections of themselves. Life will be just a dull light instead of the blinding brilliance that it can be. 

For he is no more aware of the mystery that surrounds him than a fish is aware of the water it swims in.

The search is there for one to enrich their own life. It’s a selfish ambition, to make your own life one of awe and beauty.

No, I do it for my own selfish reasons. If I did not talk to the theatre owner or the ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically speaking. I should be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time. There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Lowes in Denver or suburb Bijou in Jacksonville. So it was with me.

This is an active effort to find unique experiences in everyday life. To go out of your way to talk to the theatre owner or the ticket seller as Percy said. Or to give conscious thought to the movie seat or the aroma of the theater. The little things like that matter otherwise life is a blur. Think about all the time you spend in traffic just going from one place to the next. If you can find some kind of beauty or uniqueness in those mundane moments, then you can enrich your life.

Yet it was here in the Tivoli that I first discovered place and time, tasted it like okra. It was during a rerelease of Red River a couple of years ago that I became aware of the first faint strings of curiosity about the particular seat I sat in, the lady in the ticket booth…as Montgomery Clift was whipping John Wayne in a fistfight, an absurd scene, I made a mark on my seat arm with my thumbnail. Where, I wondered will this particular piece of wood be twenty years from now, 543 years from now? Once as I was traveling through the midwest ten years ago I had a layover of three hours in Cincinnati. There was time to go see Joseph Cotten in Holiday at neighborhood theatre called the Altamont — but not before I had struck up an acquaintance with the ticket seller, a lady named Mrs. Clara James, and learned that she had seven grandchildren all living in Cincinnati. We still exchange Christmas cards. Mrs. James is the only person I know in the entire state of Ohio.

To walk through life blind and deaf seems like an awful waste of potential. Knowing that I have been blind and deaf at different points in my life is a painful reminder of wasted opportunity. However, in between that time, in between that space where I can remember to search, where I can actively observe and find the beauty in the mundane and know that everything in nature has its own value if I were to remove my own prejudices and biases at least for those moments I can fight the everydayness that drowns so many and keep the search alive and with it my curiosity and imagination. Thanks to Percy’s novel I am reminded again of the life around me and thanks to him I will be reminded of the fact that sometime in the future I may be momentarily defeated by the everydayness but it will never be a permanent defeat for the search is always there, waiting for you, ready to enlighten your world. 

But for now, I make the same vow as Percy:

Nevertheless, I vow: I’m a son of a bitch if I’ll be defeated by the everydayness.

Lessons From Stories: Unconditional Love Can Be A Bad Thing

Honore de Balzac wrote the novel Old Goriot in 1835, and he explored the social and cultural changes that were taking place in France at the time. There are several themes associated with this novel, but I’d like to focus on one in particular. The theme of parental love and family relationships, specifically the relationship between Goriot and his two daughters, Delphine and Anastasie. The lesson derived from this relationship is that there is such a thing as too much love. That, in fact, a parent’s unconditional love can have negative effects on their children.

(Obvious spoilers ahead)

To set the stage, at this time in France, one’s reputation was everything. This theme is largely explored through the lens of the character Rastignac. He is a young man with dreams of becoming rich and successful. In his story, he interacts with the elites of the Parisian society including both Delphine and Anastasie. The two daughters are married to successful men but the daughters constantly struggle with finances as they attempt to buy rich gowns and wear expensive jewelry in order to keep their high societal image.

It is in this struggle to stay relevant we see how unconditional parental love can be damaging.

But first, we must understand who Goriot is. Goriot is portrayed as the ideal father. He embodies the parenting view that it is the parent’s responsibility to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of their children. We meet Goriot living in an old boarding house along with several other characters. Soon after that, we are given background information about how once upon a time Goriot was a rich merchant and the reason why he went from living comfortably to now having to spend his old age by himself in a small room was because he gave his wealth to his two daughters in order to maintain their image of wealthy Parisian women so they can keep getting invitations to dinner parties and get-togethers.

This idea of Keeping Up with the Joneses is as relevant today as it was in that time period. As people attain more wealth they upgrade their living situations trying to maintain a certain image that they believe is associated with their income level. Goriot’s two daughters are no different than the people we see walking around now. Both of them find themselves in this rich sphere of influence and both constantly struggle to stay in that sphere. When our self-worth and our identity comes to be tied with our reputation and image, we can fail to see what really matters. Such as the love and care of people around us.

The daughters fall into this trap as well. They care little of how their father has downgraded in his living conditions over the years and how he’s had to sell what is precious to him in order to raise enough money to keep a steady flow of income which the daughters can use for material possessions. The daughters are too self-absorbed and here is where too much love and care can be a bad thing.

The overwhelming love Goriot had for his daughters stopped him from thinking rationally. Instead of teaching his daughters about self-worth or raising them to make their own wealth, he kept on feeding their addiction. Love clouded his logic to the point he was essentially causing self-harm in order to keep his daughters happy. His love for his daughters stopped him from putting proper boundaries which would allow the daughters to take on responsibility for themselves. He wasn’t able to raise independent human beings. Instead, even as adults his daughters relied on him to help them and because his love was boundless, he kept on loving and sacrificing until his final breath. Worse of all, the tragedy of the story, the father dies without either one of his daughters there to comfort him and even at his funeral, the daughters don’t come.

Often we hear how moderation in all things is the key to a successful life. When I think of moderation my mind automatically goes to bad habits and vices that we can practice and how we must be aware of such things in order to keep ourselves from overindulging in the bad. Old Goriot opened my eyes to a new perspective. Overindulgence in the good can also be harmful. Too much love, comfort, and support can rob someone’s possibility of being their own individual. The daughters never had to stand on their own two feet because Goriot was there to support and guide them the whole time. It is easy to identify when we are imbalanced due to our bad actions but much harder to pinpoint the imbalance when we are acting out of love and care. This story is a good reminder of the latter. Even our love and care must be disciplined and moderated. Especially if we are to raise proper human beings.