Pastiche of Proust

pastiche: a work of art in the style of another artist

This post is the last in a series of three pastiches of French authors.  As with the other two, there is commentary at the end.

The first post (Stendhal).  The second (Flaubert).

There were in essence two Caltechs: The Caltech with a campus that for the past months I had physically occupied and with students with whom I spent late nights agonizing over physics sets; and there was the other Caltech—the Caltech I had yet to penetrate, which existed in some realm beyond the physical, on some higher plane of being, and which, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its physical proximity, felt all the more distant: The Caltech that I had imagined since my childhood, an attracting stationary point in the Hamiltonian of human intellect where genius reverberates and distills within the very hallways like photons in a laser cavity—situated just south of the Lake Avenue exit from the Foothill Freeway, where, seated in my parents’ Nissan on our way to Joshua Tree, I would peer out of the window, and deduce in the pattern of cracking on the freeway walls the presence of Feynman, Einstein, and Newton, as if their glory was encoded in the physical laws that governed the surrounding region. Nadia Petrov, this goddess with whom I this evening shared the confined space of a single-dorm-room, was of this latter Caltech. For the first weeks of term, I had not noticed her. When every evening at 6:05 we would surge into the dining hall and like gaseous atoms condense in random fashion onto each of the round wooden tables, laid out with food in advance by the student waiters, I would instinctively avoid Nadia’s table, the one exception, just south of the kitchen door, which always attracted the same students, who would sit night after night in the exact same arrangement. In my ignorance, I supposed this stable droplet to be asocial upperclassmen, probable loners who had nothing much to offer; until one Thursday in early November a sophomore sitting next to me leaned toward me and said, with the generous air often adopted by those fortunate enough to have privileged access to a great secret, that the girl with the long brown hair, whom from our vantage point on the northern end of the dining hall we could see in profile, was Crellin House Secretary Nadia Petrov who had been on top of every roof on the Caltech campus.

The reader should be made aware that Crellin House was not without reason the most exclusive House at Caltech. Since its establishment in 1930, it had been home to all the aspects of science that are exciting, if perhaps not strictly legal. The type of science, and of scientist, you see in the movies—scientists who nobly risk their lives in exposure to gene altering radiation for the progress of mankind, who like the Pantheon atop Mount Olympus paint the landscape of the coming cybernetic age, and who we see in the final act laughing maniacally as they ride a bomb to their deaths driven insane like Georg Cantor by the contemplation of infinities. But about ten years before my matriculation, Crellin House, as a compromise with a professor who was threatening legal ramifications after three frosh accidentally shot a potato through his office window, was forced to clean up its act. Gone were the days when during Rotation, Crellin would offer rooftop tours to any prefrosh who “wasn’t a wanker” and “wasn’t gonna narc.” Gone too were the days when members of Crellin House (or cryps as we called ourselves) would at midnight douse each other in lighter fluid so that they could leap flaming and naked into Millikan pond. Nowadays many cryps did not even know their own secret history, and must have assumed I suppose that the mysterious aura Crellin House still maintained in the hopes of cultivating a culture that one day like a phoenix would rise again, was all a fun game, and that the euphemisms (rugby, hiking, crochet) referred literally to a jumbled assortment of hobbies enjoyed by the Crellin House residents; and so with her talent for urban exploration, Nadia seemed to me to be a part of a long lineage of daring freethinkers, like Wolfram or Pauling, stretching all the way back to Thales of Miletus.

We were sitting, her on the couch and me on the floor, in Erik Aguila’s room (where Nadia deigned to visit because although still only a junior, Erik had an Erdos number of two), and because Nadia was watching Laura and Terry who were arguing about the relative prestige of Santa Barbara and IAS, I was able to stare at her without being noticed and to study her features. She wore a vacant expression, like an alien of intellect far beyond human conception who has been as part of some perverse experiment temporarily confined to a human body and who has forgotten for a moment to arrange her face into something resembling human emotion. Occasionally she would shift slightly, or tilt her head almost imperceptibly to the side in appreciation of a meme, and I thought if I could not discern the motors and gears of flying cars in her movements, it must be because she concerned herself with quantum mechanics or with some other abstractified version of reality that as a frosh, I could not readily comprehend.

Laura, who was now detailing her run-in with Stephen Hawking, happened to mention Daffeh. “Daffeh?” said Nadia, her face twisting into a lopsided smirk. “That Flem who is always hanging around Crellin Lounge? I don’t know how he still hasn’t gotten the hint that no one likes him. He acts like a full cryp, even though he’s just got a social membership. He’s always asking me about how to get through such and such a door, how to climb this or that, how to ride on top of an elevator. I heard him the other day bragging to some of our frosh about that one time he set a coconut on fire. Someone should warn them against him. He’s such a creep.”

Until just the day before, I had assumed based on his constant presence and knowledgeability that Daffeh was in fact a full cryp, but when yesterday he had referred to the dinner punishment of a pitcher of water over the head as a “shower” instead of a “dump,” I had been compelled to ask him about his house membership. “No, I’m not a full cryp. Not that I couldn’t be if I tried, but I just don’t think anyone should have to subject themself to that kind of process, you know? Besides, don’t you think the whole Crellin ethos is a bit antiquated? We don’t live in the age of rogue geniuses anymore—with the internet, information spreads more quickly and freely than ever before, and no one man can outpace the human machine. Nowadays science is collaborative, and the best scientists are the coordinators. Anyway, I’ve never cared for Nadia and her crew. Whenever anyone acts all too cool for school like that it just turns me off.”

It was obvious to me even at the time that Daffeh, although sincere, was not being entirely truthful in his dismissal of Crellin House and the values it stood for: As at that point I only partially understood, the machinery necessary to fully fathom a computational system—as Gödel has mathematically proven—must always be more nuanced, more complex, and more complete than the system itself; and accordingly the mechanisms of introspection (because our brains are fundamentally nothing more and nothing less than organic computational machines) must always rely on approximation. Our minds—equally capable of thinking one thought and its opposite—hold nothing to be one hundred percent true, and thus the opinions we express when polled by ourselves or by an external force, although we may believe them to be a complete representation of some aspect of our essential inner-being, are in fact a probabilistic collapse, biased by circumstance and emotion, of our ethereal selves onto an imposed finite set of possibilities. In this way, Daffeh’s disavowal of Crellin House values was a measurement of his internal state that collapsed his being into temporary, complete, all-engulfing belief; but as in the measurement of the position of an electron wherein one loses all information about momentum, so this singularity of thought sent Daffeh spinning into wild contemplation; because although he managed to maintain an anti-Crellin outlook with half of his being, his other half was still tied like mine to notions of scientific heroism, to a conception of science that was a relic of an imagined past and contained promises for a fantastical future, to a theory of science that lacked any tangible foothold in reality to act as a tether to our dreams where figures like Euler and Carnot were allowed to swell like weather balloons to mythic proportions in our minds and floated up into the ionosphere; and so a short while later, Daffeh withdrew from conversation and went to stand staring into the fireplace, drawing desperate ragged breaths as if his lungs had been abruptly transfigured into useless sacks of fluid like Hippasus of Metapsetum drowning in a sea of social rejection.

Nadia continued to talk about Daffeh for several more minutes, and although I had understood all that she was saying from the first few sentences, I continued to avidly listen. It occurred to me that like an android who experiences what the rest of us do in a year within a single second, Nadia must have to constantly remind herself to speak orders of magnitude more slowly than what she found natural, and she therefore might in an occasional misestimation jump so far ahead that it would leave her listeners baffled, or conversely she might linger on a single point for half an hour, uncertain of whether her audience understood. We therefore listened with rapt attention to every word, so that we might be capable, when she finally skipped ahead to her conclusion, of comprehending the leap. About ten minutes later, Erik, realizing that Nadia had finished her single malt Scotch, interrupted to offer her another dram. While Erik went to fetch ice for the whisky, Laura and Terry, nodding vigorously like bobblehead ballplayers in a sedan attempting a washed-out dirt road, reiterated, without expanding on, all that Nadia had just said, and Nadia with a generous smile that offered them co-authorship on ideas that had really all been hers slowly rotated her head forward and back on the axis defined by a line from one ear to the other. Erik returned with the scotch, and since Nadia was across the room, he handed me the glass to hand to her. Nadia leaned down from the couch with her arm outstretched to accept the glass; I reached up, glass in hand, playing the part of man in “The Creation of Adam;” and as the glass transferred from my hand to hers, our fingers touched and our eyes met, and my innards stretched like the core of a moon on an eccentric orbit around a giant planet.

In Search of Lost Time was published in seven volumes from 1913 to 1927.  It takes place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Narrator, a young bourgeois, is obsessed with gaining social acceptance among the nobility.  For Proust, the allure of the nobility is greater than ever after the nobles have been rendered politically and economically obsolete.  The nobles are cruel, and behave like middle schoolers in the popular clique, and yet adult people idolize the nobility and long for their approval.

The depiction of cliques at a school or in high society is of course nothing new, and nothing special.  What makes Proust interesting is the way he investigates the psychology behind admiration of these cliques.  Proust is fascinated with the mechanisms of prestige.  Snobbery in the novel is characterized by a grand historical narrative (not necessarily an accurate historical narrative), that permeates everything the characters do and think. This permeation is deeply integrated into Proust’s style in his feudal, medieval, and Catholic imagery.  What I suggest in my Proust pastiche is that, as with the French nobility, notions of scientific “snobbery” are based on an artificial and constructed narrative of the role of science in society.  Because the snobbery here stems from science instead of nobility, feudal language has been replaced with the language of science fiction, retrofuturism, and science history. Proust’s Catholic references have been largely replaced with references to Hellenistic society and religion, because science traces its roots to ancient Greece (although, perhaps appropriately, this heritage is largely fictitious—Renaissance Europe got most of its mathematical and scientific knowledge from India and the Middle East).

Of course, many scientists really do love science.  I don’t want to tell those scientists that they’re wrong.  But there is a certain artifice in a lot of science cultures.  A lot of scientists are unhappy.  Publication incentives create an attention economy that makes it harder for real intellectual inquiry to happen.  Research is highly specialized and often doesn’t feel like it bears any clear relation to the philosophical questions that originally motivated the scientist.  Advisers are negligent.  And unless you’re lucky, few people care about your results.  A lot of scientists are unhappy.

And yet, these scientists who are unhappy—unhappy for tangible reasons—still find academia difficult to escape.  These people aren’t trapped by economic circumstances: They generally have good career capital and could find higher-paying and more fun jobs elsewhere.  They’re trapped like Proust’s Narrator is trapped in the orbit of the nobility; they’re trapped like Daffeh is with Crellin House.  I have heard unhappy scientists say things like “Yeah in some sense I always knew that this was all there was; that this is what academia is, but at the same time I think I assumed that I would do it and it would somehow work out differently for me.” But in spite of this seeming clarity, these people continue to work in scientific fields.  They work in scientific fields because in spite of their tendency to voice the opposite, they still believe in a narrative of scientific progress and academic meritocracy.  If they can only be better people, then academia will turn out to be what they thought it was when they were children.

This state of both knowing and not knowing is a central theme in Proust’s work.  Proust is preoccupied with the gulf that can divide the experiencing self and the perceiving self.  The thoughts we think we have are not necessarily the thoughts we think when we’re not examining ourselves.  It is in part this difficulty to observe ourselves that can trap us in toxic narratives.  How can we escape a toxic thought pattern when we can’t even see ourselves thinking it?

Proust’s seven volume work is in part an attempt to tackle this question.  It’s not an easy question.  It can be a life-long struggle, and it requires the ability to somehow escape our own heads.  This pastiche more closely follows the themes and style of Proust than either of the other two pastiches.  It is also close to being literally true.  If I replaced superficial details it would be a depiction of actual events.  There are, evidently, strong parallels between the world Proust portrays and the world I occupy.

And yet, this pastiche was the hardest of the three for me to write—and not because of the unusual sentence structure.  I spent about a week agonizing over the lack of Proustian snobbery in my life.  I mean, sure, I’d seen plenty of obnoxious concern about prestige, but it lacked Proust’s historical and linguistic element.  I was ready to give up; I quoted Frederic Jameson “there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from schoolbooks and the lived experience of…our own everyday life;” and I resolved to write an experimental post-modern version of Proust about how modern life feels like an ahistorical cycle, we live in a simulation, etc.

And then a friend asked me why so many scientists work as scientists even though it seems to make them unhappy.

Aha! Of course. It all came together.  The pastiche was easy to write.

In some sense then, my own difficulty writing a Proust pastiche is in keeping with Proust’s themes.  At times, the cognitive dissonance Proust’s Narrator needs to maintain in order to remain infatuated by the nobility is so great that it pushes against my suspension of disbelief.  From an outside perspective, it feels like snobbery should be easy to escape.  When we want things that it doesn’t make sense to want, we should just stop wanting them right?

Proust tells us that it’s not easy.  Proust outlines the obstacles.  And maybe with a better understanding of the obstacles, we have a better chance of escaping and finding true happiness.

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