Absurdism in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

At the end of her novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers takes the opportunity to reflect on the inevitable condemnation of man to existential loneliness. Although she ultimately believes that life is Absurd, and existence tragic, she also suggests the possibility of rare moments of genuine connection and glimpses of meaning, which make life bearable.


It is made clear in the novel that the inescapable fate of man is to remain alone, for no one can truly express oneself in a way others can understand. John Singer, a deaf-mute, cut off from the world by his lack of speech and hearing, abandoned to isolation by the death of his one and only friend Antonapoulos, and left with nothing else for which to live, commits suicide, unable to bear his condition. Throughout the novel, in his sleep, he is known to use his hands restlessly, attempting to talk to his friend in his dreams. Thus, Singer is symbolic as a character of the existential state of loneliness; for it is not just the case that he is alone by choice, through his decisions, but rather he himself embodies the very loneliness of man. Unable to convey his thoughts or feelings to anyone—Antonapoulos appears to understand, yet he does not confirm this—unable to get beyond himself, to escape the egocentric sphere of his subjectivity in conversation with others, Singer is literally closed in upon himself.


A self-enclosed monad, Singer is stuck with the polarity of his interior self: On the one hand, his life is significant in that he is able to experience anything at all, form thoughts about his experience, feel things about his experience; though on the other, he is tantalized by the need to share this rich experience of his, this internal world confined to his head and heart. With the death of his friend, Singer succumbs to pure solipsism, as he is the only one who, for him, exists in the world; he is utterly, existentially alone. Accordingly, to begin the ending of the novel with Singer’s suicide, is not just to make a comment on a character, but to make a comment on existence itself: The vain struggle to escape oneself, to connect, is not merely incidental or contingent, but a necessary facet of life within the world.


Yet just as the philosopher Camus recognized that the true question of philosophy regards suicide in the face of an apparently indifferent world, championing in its place the rebellious drudgery of Sisyphus, so the end of the novel, through its final reflection, offers a glimpse of some vague brightness against the backdrop of darkness: Love. In the final chapter, Biff Brannon, owner of the New York Café, closes up his place, occupying himself with his duties when he questions why he even continues, why he keeps the bar open so late. All the love in his life has left him. His wife. A radical Communist. A young girl for whom he was sentimental. But he also realizes that love is not necessarily for anyone; rather, it is indiscriminate, absolute. Upon more thought, he suffers an epiphany that reveals the distant possibility of love amidst the confusion and sadness of the world before questioning his own sanity. Brannon recognizes the Absurdity of existence, the meaninglessness of it: After all, a total war has been waged, a man has killed himself, taking with him the solace of all those who sought solace in him.


At the end of it all, there is nothing to show for any of it. No one has ended up farther than where they started. His own loves, he ponders, have left him neither happy nor sad. He sees life as puzzle to be solved, a mystery, yet he cannot say what it is. However, Camus, in a similar position, acknowledged that, this being our lot, existence must be fought against; it is a given fact that life is Absurd, but that is no reason to give oneself over to despar; instead, one must commit to the very Absurdity of life, wading through it, our universal, shared condition the only means of finding some sort of hope. And, indeed, Brannon, in his meditations, falls upon this same truth, that love, and love alone, for anyone, for everyone—total, all-embracing, hopeless love—is like a flickering candle in the impenetrable cloak of loneliness and desperation. People come and go from his bar, and he gets farther with some than with others; yet he gets somewhere, he meets new people, he sees in the late Singer an odd, bewildering hope, a fascination with the chance for connection. All those who flocked to him, irrational as they were, and for as brief a time as it was, had found something worth living for. His departure from this world—did it change the world? It reinforced the Absurdity of the world if anything, and Biff, understanding this, troubled by its implications, thinking on the entirety of his existence, backward to the past—replete with sorrows and failures—and forward to the future—haunted by uncertainty, future failures, and… love, perchance?—believes himself insane.


Yet, in philosophical fashion, just as he himself is philosophical, the fact that he questions his sanity, unlike anyone else, is what makes him the sanest and, in the eyes of Camus, the most heroic; as shortly after, he breaks his enchantment to prepare for a new day. The significance of this closing act—returning to the banal, the everyday, the toilsome—is Sisyphus’ ascent to the top of the hill, his triumphant defiance of the unrelenting desolation of life. Biff, fixing the awning, issues a rejoinder to the gods who condemned him thus. The willingness with which he does it, furthermore, in hopes of more people coming with whom he can talk—and perhaps see into—as well as to persist courageously, unlike Singer, who was unable to cope with his condition, is his resignation to the Absurd, his way of asserting his existence, his self-conceived value—he upholds the dignity of life, knowing that at every moment it is doubtable, that nothing is assured, that no one may come into his life again, and that this in itself may be Absurd. Yet open the awning he does. One must imagine Biff happy. 


Existence is a solitary adventure, and no one is exempt from the pains of loneliness or the attempts to overcome it because this problem is not some external imposition, but the very root of our lives; however, McCullers, in the ending of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, juxtaposing Singer, who fails to properly reply to this Absurdity, with Biff, who succeeds in tolerating, enduring, and “abiding with” this “ambiguity,” contends that at the top of the summit, after much travail, there is the possibility of love. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.”

Passion and Craft (2)

Read the first part here!


imagesAccordingly, it strikes one as strange and impossible that a mathematician, a physicist, a musician, and a yo-yoer should all stand before a crowd of unshaped, directionless children and, with equal confidence, state matter-of-factly, “My path is the best”: “Math is the highest pursuit in life,” “Physics is the highest pursuit in life,” “Music is the highest pursuit in life”—”No, yo-yoing is!” We know none of this is true, though; even to the most inexperienced and naïve child, this state of affairs is sense-defying. What each speaker really means, and what we understand them to mean, even though it goes unstated, is, “My path is the best for me.”


images-1But this is common sense. We surely understand these adults to be speaking subjectively, so it is absurd that we should expect them to add so trivial a phrase to the end of their speeches as though it were a much-needed disclaimer. If one occupation or passion were truly the best, greatest, and most meaningful, then we would expect more people to be doing it. But even this is a childish claim, as we know not everyone can do what is most meaningful or that about which one cares most considering there are jobs in society that need to be done and that are often neither desirable nor pleasurable. Both of these are fair and evident considerations, yet I do not intend to focus on them; instead, I will be ignoring them, expressing in more detail the uniqueness of one’s calling by sharing my recent thoughts.


UnknownThis year, for class credits, I have been working in my school’s tutorial center as a writing tutor. My responsibility is to help students who need help with their English assignments, typically essays. For what deeper reason, beneath the surface-level motive of getting credits, did I choose to be a writing tutor? Simply and naïvely put, I wanted to get my fellow classmates to enjoy, or at least understand, their English classes. Ever since middle school, nearly every one of my contemporaries has consistently rated history as the most boring class and English the most hated, two opposite explanations being either that “We speak and write in English every day, so there is no reason to have an entire class on it” or that “I barely understand our language or what I’m saying.”


UnknownThen, in response to protests that English is useless and a waste of time, English teachers eagerly and desperately defend their class by arguing that, on the contrary, their class is the most practical in everyday life since we are expected to write and speak well regardless of the field we end up entering, a claim which is then summarily attacked by students who are fed up with analyzing the symbolism hidden in an elaborately described doorway, the passing of nighttime, or a character’s name; explaining why an author used repetition in one place, emphasis in another, and rhetorical questions at the end; or having to engage in a “class Socratic” where participation is required and which is about a book that nobody cared to read or understand, that has no relevance to daily life in the 21st-century, and that is difficult to read—even if, as they occasionally admit with sourness, the book was actually a good one, the fact that it was assigned to them—that is, that they did not choose it, but that it was imposed upon them—being enough to tarnish, pervert, and obstruct their experience of it.


These are just a few of the most recurrent complaints about English, and I do not intend on answering any of them; in fact, even I, who have rated English highly and thoroughly had fun in it throughout my schooling, resort to some of these criticisms from time to time, like last year, when I had to write rhetorical analyses, closely looking at word choice, context, figurative language, etc., in speeches and other writings in order to demonstrate how the author accomplished some specific task. I certainly do not miss rhetorical analyses, and there have been books which I disliked and yet on which I had to write essays and discuss with classmates.


Unknown-1What I find problematic yet unavoidable is that the diversity of opinion regarding experiences in English class is thus attributed to some deterministic aspect; that is, whether one has a good time or does well in English depends upon the type of student one is, some people “just being good” at it while others are not, with those who have a good experience therefore being singled out as the exception because they have something in them, some quality—perhaps genetic, perhaps temperamental, perhaps superhuman—that sets them above the rest, distinguishing them as “those who do well in English,” as though it were a conspiratorial secret which only a few elites know but which is, and shall remain, forever inaccessible to those outside.


Unknown-1Writing well and speaking well are enviable skills that seem as far off as competing in the Olympics, and those who enjoy the class must surely be naturally talented; hence, it is hopeless and futile for everyone else to “train,” as it were, or even to have hope, since “that is just how it is”—namely, they will never be good writers nor do well since writing is “not one of my strengths, fortes, or talents.” The sports analogy runs much deeper and is actually more apt than we might imagine inasmuch as talent is overrepresented and -valued in athletics just as it is in writing, the heritability of the two—sports and writing—quickly deconstructing when we examine them further: Inheriting “athleticism” is a vague, misleading notion since athleticism is nothing but a set or bundle of other inherited variables, like height, weight, body composition, coordination etc., sort of like general intelligence (g), just as “writing/speaking well” is not some specific, discrete code that can be passed down, but is better thought of as a cluster of associated traits, like creativity, comprehension, critical thinking, etc.

Passion and Craft

In middle school, after reading some philosophy, and in emulation of the aphoristic styles of Gracián and Nietzsche, I excitedly began writing short passages on various subjects, almost like an advice column for myself to consult as a guide for daily conduct which, following Plutarch’s example, I titled “Moralia.” On February 6, 2017, coming home from a choir rehearsal at which a musician spoke, I wrote the following entry, number 31:

Ask a musician what the meaning of life is, and they will say music; the engineer, engineering; the painter, painting; the teacher, teaching; and the philosopher, philosophizing. But ask a man what gives life meaning, and you will have naught. Evidently, a man without a craft is but a man, and one without passion, without guidance, and without purpose. Stripped bare, man is a tabula rasa, his abilities latent, his curiosity untapped, and his sense of self yet to be discovered. It is only later in life that man finds his calling; thitherto, he is like a child, in that he is a funambulist who requires railings, for he is uncertain, not only with life, but with himself, full of doubt, hopeless, and insecure. Confer not with an artisan, because, as we have seen, there is no single correct answer wherewith we may answer the question anent the purpose of life. Follow not the path others have taken, for you must pave your own path, disinterestedly, without the approbation or consent of others, since you shall not have it any other way save your own. Find your calling, and pursue it full-heartedly.

The passage is admittedly saturated with youthful, naïve ambition and perhaps a few too many large and outdated words—if I am being honest, my writing has not changed all that much in four years, although I like to think that I have become a bit more moderate and restrained—and it is clearly Emersonian in influence, with its unapologetic gospel of unbridled and Romantic individualism, optimism, and pluralism. Of course, in my young, unworldly enthusiasm, I also ignored the obvious problems that come with the innocent exhortation to “Find your calling,” which is sound in theory, but which is easier said than done: How, for example, does one find one’s calling? How does one know if it is a true, sincere calling? And what is one to do until one finds it—if one finds it at all?


These are difficult questions, to be sure, and I concede that I am no wiser today than I was when I wrote the passage with regard to these formidable questions. The fact is that some people find their “callings” early on, some later in life, and some not at all. One could also make the objection that naming it a “calling” in the first place is problematic because it prevents certain people from seizing opportunities, forcing them into endless, intolerable, and indolent anticipation; for to conceive of one’s purpose in life as a calling is to make the matter into an essentially passive one where all one can do is dim the chatter around oneself in order to hear the far-off, vague sounding of an even-more-ambiguous vocation to which we are assigned and summoned, creating an unreliable and regretful situation much like that in Henry James’ work “The Beast in the Jungle,” in which the protagonist, convinced that something great will happen to him, fails to see that the very thing for which he has been waiting has been in front of him the whole time, ripe and ready to be plucked, his active role and sense of free will surrendered to the hopeful expectation that the event lay outside him.


However, in my defense, I did write “Find your calling,” not “Await your calling”; nonetheless, the important point is that passions, vocations, and purposes are vital aspects of life, and while some people are luckier than others, we should neither stress ourselves out excessively, as many young people do these days, pressured as they are by their families and schools, nor give up on our searches entirely, forfeiting or foreclosing—simply picking the “easy” or “close” option, like doing what one’s parents do, instead of deciding upon preference, to use a term from the developmental psychologist Erikson—our lives to be rid of responsibility. I have not given sufficient thought to the matter to give an informed opinion, but the advice that I often hear is to just experiment—try out new things, explore different activities, and expand your horizons since the wider your circle is the wider are your choices and abilities. 


Having said a few prefatory things about this topic and addressing a couple drawbacks, I want to briefly discuss why I decided to analyze a four-year-old passage in addition to its relevance and some follow-up thoughts.  


As I said in the first paragraph, the context and inspiration for the entry was a choir rehearsal. After we sang, a musician spoke to us about her career path, her successes and failures, her upcoming projects, her joy in choosing music, and her advice for us. At the end, like any speaker, she closed by repeating how happy and fulfilled she was living as a musical artist, declaring emphatically that music was most meaningful thing in life and that a career in music was the best one could choose (she did not literally say that last bit, but the sentiment was certainly there). Throughout our lives, and especially during our schooling, from elementary school through college, we have been familiar with this: A speaker is invited to visit, and he or she tells us how they became what they are, what they enjoy about what they do, and what we should do going forward.


If my observations and memory serve me right, then it is interesting, in my experience, that in elementary school, a diversity of relatively unique speakers would come to visit, like an animal handler, a professional yo-yoer, or a human calculator, creating the impression that our possibilities are endless and stretch the width of our imaginations, no occupation being too “out there,” while as I got older, noticeably in high school and college, more conventional speakers would come, like an engineer, a writer, or a police officer, with a blatant favoritism toward S.T.E.M., not only since is our world increasingly more scientific and technological but since I also live in a highly technological center, the prevailing notion being that some jobs are unrealistic and that if one wants to be successful in life or assured in one’s prospects, then one must adapt to the world’s stringent, unwavering demands and start thinking “realistically,” with a view to the “Real World.”

The Star: A Poem

In the night sky, in black oblivion,
There, above our quaint concerns, a glimmer,
When the eclipse of life is just begun,
And all the light in the world grows dimmer.
So faint, so fair, painfully unaware,
Through the sheath of unholy pall it shines,
Like a beacon amidst depthless despair,
And harboring untranslatable signs.
A star, a guide, and a whole host beside:
The near-end, far-off—Chronos’ irruption,
Sidereal plaints, which our fates betide,
And the eternal, merciless resumption.
Restless, nebular drift in endless space
—And who among us knows if there be grace?

A Mute World: A Poem

Atop the mountain, and atop the world,
He strained to the horizon his tired eyes,
Beyond which many vast vistas unfurled,
And beheld with awe whence all things arise:
The beginning, and the end, of all Time,
The end, and the beginning, of all Space,
The interconnected expanse of clime,
Wherein the tempo of Life sets its pace;
Whereupon his elation subsided,
At the sudden deafness wherewith he met,
And, feeling betrayed, he then decided
That the sum of existence was regret.
Because he refused to let Life be heard,
He resolved that existence was Absurd. 

Bergson and Proust: Intuition and Literature (6 of 6)

UnknownAlone, rising from the level of the plain, and seemingly lost in that expanse of open country, the twin steeples of Martinville rose towards the sky. Presently we saw three: springing into position in front of them with a bold leap, a third, dilatory steeple, that of Vieuxvicq, had come to join them. The minutes passed, we were travelling fast, and yet the three steeples were always a long way ahead of us, like three birds perched upon the plain, motionless and conspicuous in the sunlight. Then the steeple of Vieuxvicq drew aside, took its proper distance, and the steeples of Martinville remained alone, gilded by the light of the setting sun which, even at that distance, I could see playing and smiling upon their sloping sides. We had been so long in approaching them that I was thinking of the time that must still elapse before we could reach them when, of a sudden, the carriage turned a corner and set us down at their feet; and they had flung themselves so abruptly in our path that we had barely time to stop before being dashed against the porch. 

Unknown-1We resumed our journey. We had left Martinville some little time, and the village, after accompanying us for a few seconds, had already disappeared, when, lingering alone on the horizon to watch our flight, its steeples and that of Vieuxvicq waved once again their sun-bathed pinnacles in token of farewell. Sometimes one would withdraw, so that the other two might watch us for a moment still; then the road changed direction, they veered in the evening light like three golden pivots, and vanished from my sight. But a little later, when we were already close to Combray, the sun having set meanwhile, I caught sight of them for the last time, far away, and seeming no more now than three flowers painted upon the sky above the low line of the fields. They made me think, too, of three maidens in a legend, abandoned in a solitary place over which night had begun to fall; and as we drew away from them at a gallop, I could see them timidly seeking their way, and after some awkward, stumbling movements of their noble silhouettes, drawing close to one another, gliding one behind another, forming now against the still rosy sky no more than a single dusky shape, charming and resigned, and so vanishing in the night (255-6).

The charm of this passage comes from its sense of movement and its use of innovative similes, metaphors, and personification. Throughout, the steeples are “springing… with a bold leap,” “like three birds perched upon the plain,” “fl[i]ng[ing] themselves,” “wav[ing]… in token of farewell,” “like three golden pivots,” “three flowers painted upon the sky above the low line of the fields,” then like “three maidens in a legend, abandoned in a solitary place,” finally “seeking their way, and after some awkward, stumbling movements of their noble silhouettes, drawing close to one another, gliding one behind another.” Furthermore, the sunlight is “playing and smiling.”  The array of human behaviors, meanings, and movements attributed to the inanimate objects reveals an intuitive sensitivity which only the philosopher or artist, according to Bergson, exercises.


Unknown-2Rather than providing a stagnant, unmoving description of the world as if it were frozen, or like some exhibit, the narrator gives us plenty of kinetic verbs; few things stand still in the passage, and many are in movement. Bergson, recall, opposes himself to staticity, stillness, stagnation, because reality is dynamic; life is not Parmenidean permanence but Heraclitean hurrying, a flowing river. Thus, the passage demonstrates intuition as “intellectual sympathy,” since we see Proust/the narrator sympathizing with the steeples, considering how they feel, how they react to him just as much as how he reacts to them, and how they interact even with the sun. Of course, this could be criticized and passed off as merely excessive and crude anthropomorphization, which raises anew the question of intuition: Is it even possible?


Assuming we go with this objection—that intuition, as a form of sympathy, inevitably becomes overtly and unapologetically anthropocentric—then we would be forced to concede that the only way of considering how a steeple would feel is if we ourselves were steeples, and that steeple-essence can only be grasped in the vocabulary of steeples, requiring steeple-centrism or steeple-morphization; however, I think we would agree that with this reductio ad absurdum, it is safe to say that such an extreme standard is not worth taking seriously, that it does not work in the long run, and that personification is, to reiterate, an approximation, since Bergson admits that no language is perfect, and since we humans immediately and emotionally connect with and understand human terms. In other words, we must take Wordsworth’s complaint seriously in “The World Is Too Much With Us”: “Little we see in Nature that is ours.” 


imagesIn conclusion, according to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, we achieve true, absolute knowledge not through methodical analysis but simple intuition, and philosophy’s—and art’s—objective is to show the world, life, and experience as they truly are, which means walking a mile in their shoes, proverbially speaking. Marcel Proust, a French early-twentieth-century Modernist novelist, is, I have argued, an excellent representative of intuition as applied to literature, for his book In Search of Lost Time beautifully and lengthily explores the inner life not just of man, but of things, showing how it is possible to achieve insights into life and the world. Are Bergson and Proust perfect? No. Are they successful? Well, it depends how we define success in this case. Do either of them express the world as it truly is? Probably not—we can never know, and that is the point they both stress. Do they get close in approximating the richness of life? I think so. To the extent that they tried with new language and originality to initiate us into the hidden depths, to the extent that they revealed truths of which we were previously unaware, and to the extent that they did this elegantly and movingly—to this extent, I think they were successful. That is just an intuition of mine, though. 

Sentence Analysis: Marcel Proust

When it comes to old writing, we tend to come across long, beautiful sentences—beautiful, but also headache-inducing. It is as though the author wanted to take the scenic route instead of the shortcut while writing, at the expense of the reader’s understanding. It is difficult to pause and appreciate the effort and mastery put into these sentences—resemblant of poetry—when you’re too busy figuring out what is being said. As such, in this series on sentence analyses, I’ll find particularly well-written and melodious sentences, pick them apart, and explain what and how they mean. My hope is twofold:

(1) As a reader, you will be able to understand these sentences when you come across them without stressing, taking time instead to admire them.

(2) As a writer, you will be able to improve your own writing, learning a trick or two from famous authors who knew what they were doing precisely because they, too, learned from authors before them.


Without further ado, here is a sentence drawn from Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (pages 560-2), color-coded to aid in comprehension:

UnknownThe name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me, in action so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target—carrying in its wake, I could feel, the knowledge, the impressions concerning her to whom it was addressed that belonged not to me but to the friend who called it out, everything that, as she uttered the words, she recalled, or at least possessed in her memory, of their daily intimacy, of the visits that they paid to each other, of that unknown existence which was all the more inaccessible, all the more painful to me from being, conversely, so familiar, so tractable to this happy girl who let it brush past me without my being able to penetrate it, who flung it on the air with a light-hearted cry—wafting through the air the exquisite emanation which it had distilled, by touching them with the utmost precision, from certain invisible points in Mlle Swann’s life, from the evening to come, just as it would be, after dinner, at her home—forming, on its celestial passage through the midst of the children and their nursemaids, a little cloud, delicately coloured, resembling one of those clouds that, billowing over a Poussin landscape, reflect minutely, like a cloud in the opera teeming with chariots and horses, some apparition of the life of the gods—casting, finally, on that ragged grass, at the spot where it was at one and the same time a scrap of withered lawn and a moment in the afternoon of the fair battledore player (who continued to launch and retrieve her shuttlecock until a governess with a blue feather in her hat had called her away) a marvellous little band of light, the colour of heliotrope, impalpable as a reflection and superimposed like a carpet on which I could not help but drag my lingering, nostalgic and desecrating feet, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat (391 words!)


Base sentence:
The name Gilberte passed close by me. 

Explanation: This is the sentence in its simplest form. Seriously. These seven words form the basis for the next 384 words, which are used to modify them, elaborating on how the name passed by the narrator and the effects it had on him.


Compound sentence:
The name Gilberte passed close by me; it passed thus close by me with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target. 

Explanation: A semicolon acts as a conjunction, e.g., “and,” “but,” “for,” combining two complete sentences together, which is called a compound sentence.


Compound-complex sentence:
The name Gilberte passed close by me; it passed thus close by me with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat

Explanation: The new addition here is of the “while” clause. Unlike the compound sentence to which it is amended, it is not complete in itself; hence, it is a dependent clause. This is the last of the clauses in Proust’s sentence; the rest of the sentence will be composed of modifying phrases that lack a subject, describing only actions.


Compound-complex sentence with present progressive phrases:
The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target—carrying in its wake the knowledge that she recalled of their daily intimacy—wafting through the air the exquisite emanation which it had distilled from certain invisible points in Mlle Swann’s life—forming a little cloud resembling one of those clouds that reflect minutely some apparition of the life of the gods—casting on that ragged grass a marvellous little band of light, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat

Explanation: In between the independent clauses, the sentence is really divided into five sections, each indicated by the use of a present progressive, a verb ending in “-ing.” The five verbs in question are “evoking,” “carrying,” “wafting,” “forming,” and “casting.” Proust’s mastery here comes from his use of the em dash, the “—,” which functions almost like a set of parentheses “(),” adding extra information, building suspense, anticipation, and excitement. This feeling of being overwhelmed makes sense given the context: The narrator is overcome with love, and the “—” coupled with the “-ing” verbs, each building off of each other, reflects the fact that his very language is overflowing and can hardly be contained: It keeps spilling out.


Compound-complex sentence with present progressive phrases and appositive and adjectival phrases:
The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target—carrying in its wake the knowledge, the impressions concerning her to whom it was addressed that belonged not to me but to the friend who called it out, everything that she recalled of their daily intimacy, of the visits that they paid to each other, of that unknown existence which was all the more inaccessible, all the more painful to me from being, conversely, so familiar, so tractable to this happy girl who let it brush past me without my being able to penetrate it, who flung it on the air with a light-hearted cry—wafting through the air the exquisite emanation which it had distilled from certain invisible points in Mlle Swann’s life,  from the evening to come, just as it would be, after dinner, at her home—forming a little cloud, delicately coloured, resembling one of those clouds that reflect minutely some apparition of the life of the gods—casting on that ragged grass a marvellous little band of light, the colour of heliotrope, impalpable as a reflection and superimposed like a carpet on which I could not help but drag my lingering, nostalgic and desecrating feet, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat

Explanation: The new elements here are appositives, or restatements of a thing, coupled with their adjectival modifications. Proust uses repetition of appositives to create a clear picture of all the implications of the images he uses. For example, Gilberte’s name directs his mind to “the knowledge,” “the impressions”—in short, “everything”—”of [Gilberte and her friend’s] daily intimacy,” “of the[ir] visits,” “of that unknown existence.” In each case, he is essentially getting at one thing—he thinks of her life without him—but with different variations, yet each one is necessary because it adds a new hue to it, as it were. Even though he is saying the same thing over and over,  he is calling it by a different name, drawing attention to other aspects. The adjectives speak for themselves in describing his images, e.g., the “delicately coloured” “little cloud.”


Compound-complex sentence with present participle phrases, appositive and adjectival phrases, and final modifiers (adverbs, similes, tags):
The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me, in action so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target—carrying in its wake, I could feel, the knowledge, the impressions concerning her to whom it was addressed that belonged not to me but to the friend who called it out, everything that, as she uttered the words, she recalled, or at least possessed in her memory, of their daily intimacy, of the visits that they paid to each other, of that unknown existence which was all the more inaccessible, all the more painful to me from being, conversely, so familiar, so tractable to this happy girl who let it brush past me without my being able to penetrate it, who flung it on the air with a light-hearted cry—wafting through the air the exquisite emanation which it had distilled, by touching them with the utmost precision, from certain invisible points in Mlle Swann’s life, from the evening to come, just as it would be, after dinner, at her home—forming, on its celestial passage through the midst of the children and their nursemaids, a little cloud, delicately coloured, resembling one of those clouds that, billowing over a Poussin landscape, reflect minutely, like a cloud in the opera teeming with chariots and horses, some apparition of the life of the gods—casting, finally, on that ragged grass, at the spot where it was at one and the same time a scrap of withered lawn and a moment in the afternoon of the fair battledore player, a marvellous little band of light, the colour of heliotrope, impalpable as a reflection and superimposed like a carpet on which I could not help but drag my lingering, nostalgic and desecrating feet, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat.

Explanation: Because there are a lot of small, subtle grammatical modifiers here, and because I have neither the knowledge nor the patience to carefully distinguish them all, I’ve decided to group them all under “other modifiers.” Here Proust employs a number of different additions: Tags, which show the speaker’s verbal actions or personal comments, e.g., “so to speak,” “I could feel,” “or at least”; adverbs and adverbial phrases, which tell us where, when, or how something took place, e.g., “in action,” “by touching,” “on its celestial passage,” “finally,” “at the spot”; and similes, which compare two things with “as” or “like,” e.g., “like a cloud.” The reason I included the participle phrase “billowing” here under light purple rather than green is because its function is different in this case: It is not modifying the main sentence but rather an element of another modifier, namely, “one of those clouds.”


Compound-complex sentence with present participle phrases, appositive and adjectival phrases, final modifiers (adverbs, similes, tags), and parenthesis:
The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me, in action so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target—carrying in its wake, I could feel, the knowledge, the impressions concerning her to whom it was addressed that belonged not to me but to the friend who called it out, everything that, as she uttered the words, she recalled, or at least possessed in her memory, of their daily intimacy, of the visits that they paid to each other, of that unknown existence which was all the more inaccessible, all the more painful to me from being, conversely, so familiar, so tractable to this happy girl who let it brush past me without my being able to penetrate it, who flung it on the air with a light-hearted cry—wafting through the air the exquisite emanation which it had distilled, by touching them with the utmost precision, from certain invisible points in Mlle Swann’s life, from the evening to come, just as it would be, after dinner, at her home—forming, on its celestial passage through the midst of the children and their nursemaids, a little cloud, delicately coloured, resembling one of those clouds that, billowing over a Poussin landscape, reflect minutely, like a cloud in the opera teeming with chariots and horses, some apparition of the life of the gods—casting, finally, on that ragged grass, at the spot where it was at one and the same time a scrap of withered lawn and a moment in the afternoon of the fair battledore player (who continued to launch and retrieve her shuttlecock until a governess with a blue feather in her hat had called her away) a marvellous little band of light, the colour of heliotrope, impalpable as a reflection and superimposed like a carpet on which I could not help but drag my lingering, nostalgic and desecrating feet, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat.

Explanation: Last but not least, Proust includes a parenthetical phrase toward the end “()” to share one last bit of knowledge with us. It comes as an aside, something not super necessary but worth noting nonetheless. It also provides context for the final words of the sentence.


Having gone over each of the sections, clarifying their purposes, and reverse engineering the sentence, and hopefully without having made things even more confusing, I invite you to reread the nearly 400-word passage, this time without color-coding, and see if you can follow along!

UnknownThe name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me, in action so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the proximity of its target—carrying in its wake, I could feel, the knowledge, the impressions concerning her to whom it was addressed that belonged not to me but to the friend who called it out, everything that, as she uttered the words, she recalled, or at least possessed in her memory, of their daily intimacy, of the visits that they paid to each other, of that unknown existence which was all the more inaccessible, all the more painful to me from being, conversely, so familiar, so tractable to this happy girl who let it brush past me without my being able to penetrate it, who flung it on the air with a light-hearted cry—wafting through the air the exquisite emanation which it had distilled, by touching them with the utmost precision, from certain invisible points in Mlle Swann’s life, from the evening to come, just as it would be, after dinner, at her home—forming, on its celestial passage through the midst of the children and their nursemaids, a little cloud, delicately coloured, resembling one of those clouds that, billowing over a Poussin landscape, reflect minutely, like a cloud in the opera teeming with chariots and horses, some apparition of the life of the gods—casting, finally, on that ragged grass, at the spot where it was at one and the same time a scrap of withered lawn and a moment in the afternoon of the fair battledore player (who continued to launch and retrieve her shuttlecock until a governess with a blue feather in her hat had called her away) a marvellous little band of light, the colour of heliotrope, impalpable as a reflection and superimposed like a carpet on which I could not help but drag my lingering, nostalgic and desecrating feet, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, do up your coat and let’s clear off!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat.

If you found this post interesting and/or informative, then check out my other sentence analyses!
Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man
Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel

Bergson and Proust: Intuition and Literature (5 of 6)

4. Lastly, like Bergson, the narrator, and therefore Proust, too, employ a number of vivid and illustrative metaphors, images, and similes, and use diverse phenomena to capture the mobility of life and our experience thereof. Thus, the narrator invokes treasure chests, a fish kept alive in a picnic basket, and a room full of souvenirs and keepsakes—all familiar and evocative to us, despite their lack of unity—to explain how he perceives and is affected by his environment; he does not stick with one metaphor and beat it to death, but swiftly glides from one to the other, creating a sense of movement, just as he is walking, just as he is taking in his surroundings. Distinct sensations, from “a roof, a gleam of sunlight on a stone, the smell of a path” to “the line of the roof, the colour of the stone,” from “a shape or a perfume” to “the play of sunlight on a stone, a roof, the sound of a bell, the smell of fallen leaves,” assemble in his mind as “a mass of disparate images,” which he compares to his room, with its sundry items. Initially, the narrator is dissatisfied with this: “It was certainly not impressions of this kind that could restore the hope I had lost of succeeding one day in becoming an author and poet, for each of them was associated with some material object devoid of intellectual value and suggesting no abstract truth.” In other words, what does it matter to him if he knows what sunshine, leaves, or roofs are really like? How are superficial, trivial, and insignificant things like these going to help him uncover or get to the bottom of life itself? There is no “abstract truth” in a stone tile, and a bush is just “some material object devoid of intellectual value”; surely there is nothing deep to be gleaned thence. However, we must keep in mind two things: Continue reading