Saving the Past: Deleuze's Proust and Signs

Saving the Past: Deleuze's Proust and Signs

Stephen Bernard Hawkins
Proust and Signs: The Complete Text.
Gilles Deleuze
Richard Howard, Trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Stephen Hawkins engages with the “web of counterintuitive, paradoxical, contentious and yet important claims” that he identifies in
Gilles Deleuze’s Proust and Signs.

Lori Emerson:

As Martin Rosenberg shows us, Deleuze and Guattari’s difficult tour de force A Thousand Plateaus is similarly accessible in that it can be used in conjunction with topics as varied as feminist visual art and cognitive science.


Proust et les signes is said to be one of Gilles Deleuze’s more accessible works. Richard Howard’s recent (Proust and Signs, 2000) and fine translation, which includes no introduction or editorial notes, makes the work appear accessible even for English readers. The central questions of the text have to do with the nature of love, art, memory, learning, and our experience of time. One need not be a student of philosophy to reflect on and feel the importance of these themes; one need not, for that matter, be a student at all. Proust and Signs is thought to be accessible because it speaks a language we know. It appears to address the great questions in a way that preserves their significance for us. It sets out not to collapse mysteries into a host of uncontentious facts about a reality more profound than our own experience. We can find Proust and Signs accessible because we can tell immediately what it is about.

Yet Proust and Signs is a difficult book, and it presents difficulties for the commentator who would present the main points of an argument. For Deleuze’s own work shares the exploratory nature of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu): it has the character of a search; it is not the simple presentation of conclusions elsewhere discovered. Deleuze does not see language as a neutral medium for the presentation of thoughts formed prior to their expression in words. The expression of thought in language is not always, and need not be, a translation or copying of an idea from one medium code into another. Before their authors write them, In Search of Lost Time or of Proust and Signs have no determinate existence. They are not the unfolding of a prior, unified vision of things, of the world. Genius is not a pre-given union with the universe, not a mind that takes dictation from divine inspiration. Genius develops itself in a work by pursuing the work’s sinews, by multiplying the relations between characters, within characters, by generating a world within which the author can give expression to forces internal to her, of which even she is not conscious.

To claim that Proust had the notion - even vague or confused - of the antecedent unity of the Search or that he found it subsequently, but as animating the whole from the start, is to read him badly, applying the ready-made criteria of organic totality that are precisely the ones he rejects and missing the new conception of unity he was in the process of creating (Proust and Signs 116).

The author always begins in the middle - not of the work, but of a complex situation: “We search for truth only when we are determined to do so in terms of a concrete situation, when we undergo a kind of violence that impels us to such a search” (15). In the closing pages, Deleuze compares the narrator to a spider in a web - a spider that does not see whole objects, and does not need to: “She receives only the slightest vibration at the edge of her web, which propagates itself in her body as an intensive wave and sends her leaping to the necessary place” (180). The novelist’s choices are determined by the features of the episode or problem encountered, and not by a whole vision of the aim of his work, or by a theory of the world. The philosopher too operates under the pressure of constraints, responds to the violence of the sign that surges through his body. He cultivates a sensitivity to signs and awaits an encounter. “There is no apprentice,” writes Deleuze, “who is not the Egyptologist of something. One becomes a carpenter only by becoming sensitive to the signs of wood, a physician by becoming sensitive to the signs of disease. Vocation is always predestination with regard to signs” (5).

Art may give rise to overwhelming feelings or blinding truths, but it often produces the greatest effects by means of a subtle manipulation of details that remain hidden to all but those trained in the techniques of the art form. We recognize instantly that Deleuze has seen through to the heart of what is meant by ‘vocation.’ But lines such as those quoted above, of which there are too many examples in Proust and Signs to count, are themselves the surface effects of the most remarkable, small decisions made by Deleuze at a level of metaphysical technicality which only now and again become visible in this book. Very often the presentation of a new philosophical discovery is met with contempt or else taken as a simple and obvious truth hardly worth articulating. But the effect, or the communicated proposition (“Vocation is…”), sometimes hides the genuine discovery, the change that takes place behind the scenes which is powerful and extraordinary precisely because it is capable of producing an effect that we instantly recognize as true. Proust and Signs is accessible because it generates effects of this kind. But how does it generate them? What constraints give rise to these ‘moves’ in the work?

Deleuze borrowed from Henri Bergson a theory of problems, questions, and solutions. An organism can be understood as a particular solution to a problem-structure in a given local environment. Organisms are equipped with a set of tricks that enable them to meet environmental obstacles. When an obstacle appears, it appears in the form of a challenge to the organism, posing a question for which the available tricks are possible solutions. No organism instantly seizes the full complexity of the signs communicated by the environment; rather, the structures of a particular organism receive certain signs, are sensitive to them, and cannot grasp others. (Consider, for example, the human ear’s inability to hear the dog whistle.) The environment is interpreted as offering a set of signs that cohere to raise a challenge or question for the organism, but in fact there are always more signs than the organism is ready to receive. The organism’s perceptual structures select signs from the environment to which the organism then tries to respond; in other words, it forms a ‘question’ from the deeper, more complex problem structure, and then responds to it with its action. When the solutions or tricks an organism would use to overcome obstacles no longer work, it becomes necessary to determine a new question from the problematic. The human brain is a remarkably powerful question-generating machine: when we are brought to a state of confusion or aporia - when we have no obvious way out - we can try to reconceptualize the problematic, make ourselves sensitive to new signs, and discover in the environment a new set of constraints from which we can derive an action capable of sustaining us. That is, the human being can convert itself into the solution to questions, the response to challenges, that could never have been imagined or anticipated, but which are generated when sensitivity to the previously unnoticed signs in the environment is increased. A novelist constitutes piece by piece a world in which problems are generated; the poor novelist will respond to fewer or simpler ‘questions’ drawn from the problem-structures (Who killed whom? What was the motive?…)

Bergson’s central problem was responding to the common philosophical habit of spatializing time, attempting to think time on the model of the familiar chronological timeline, where time is reduced to a series of static, eternally present, discrete instants, and the experience of change is considered an illusion. The paradoxes that flow from attempts to understand time on this model, such as those discovered by Zeno of Elea [495?-435? BCE] or in the twentieth century by J.M.E. McTaggart, are well known. Bergson set out to establish that change is real, and his concept of durée, or duration, is his version of the Heraclitean claim that what is real is flux, change, or ‘becoming.’ Deleuze follows Bergson in beginning with change (or difference, or becoming), and abandoning the attempt to reconstruct change out of static instants on a timeline. In passages like those one finds in many of Deleuze’s writings, and on which much of his work rests, we find in Proust and Signs the claim (58) that the very notion of a passing present, or of change, implies the ontological category of an unchanging ‘pure past’ or past-in-itself (elsewhere identified by Deleuze as ‘being’ and as ‘the virtual’) into which these present moments pass. There is no space here to consider the argument in favor of this position, but we can see how Deleuze has found that his own philosophical search has turned up a question to which there is no answer in Bergson. Deleuze turns instead to Proust for reflections on this matter:

Despite his profound pages on dreams or on paramnesia, Bergson does not ask essentially how the past, as it is in itself, could also be saved for us. Even the deepest dream implies, according to Bergson, a corruption of pure memory, a descent from memory into an image that distorts it. While Proust’s problem is, indeed: how to save for ourselves the past as it is preserved in itself, as it survives in itself? (59).

To save the past, to regain lost time: this is Proust’s preoccupation, the problem that constitutes his great work. The memory of Combray is unlocked by the taste of the madeleine cake, and the past appears to return. Deleuze spends the first half of Proust and Signs presenting a theory of signs as they are employed in Proust, though Deleuze is here drawing forth the implications of Proust’s rich but not previously theoretically unified suggestions. Deleuze approvingly cites Proust’s diagnosis of Victor Hugo’s mistake in his philosophical first poems: rather than being content to lead to thought, Hugo makes the mistake of thinking (95). And though Deleuze goes beyond Proust, forces connections that were previously only suggested in Proust, this too is just Deleuze’s attempt to lead to thought.

According to Deleuze’s theory, there are four kinds of signs. There are worldly signs and there are the signs of love; these are signs of passing time, lost time, wasted time. And there are the sensuous signs and the signs of art; these are signs of time regained. As signs of passing time, the worldly signs and the signs of love belong to the primal ‘becoming,’ the original flux. The signs of love are the signs of corruptible, passing bodies. A particular smile is flashed, or a casual touch of the fingertips on the elbow: these signs, says Deleuze, are by nature deceptive, since they point beyond themselves to their origin, in another ‘world.’ The kiss that is the source of joy becomes also the source of jealousy, as the lover wonders, where did she learn to do this? The origin of the sign that gives joy is simultaneously the sign of other possible lovers for my beloved. It is the sign that we are corruptible, that we cannot give ourselves wholly to each other, since we are not whole. Behind the signs that we emit there is no subject or eternal soul to which we might be devoted; there are only signs that point to other experiences of generation, and promise nothing that would endure.

The worldly signs are empty or formal (7). They are said to stand for thought or action (6). Highly sophisticated social codes are formed from such signs: expressions or gestures have the power to convince those present of one’s status, or otherwise to expose oneself as out of place. As we know, they point to no origin; they appear sterile, pointless. The signs of love are actions between bodies, but human beings construct, also, massively complex systems of strictly formal signs, which seem to have nothing to do with love and nothing to do with art. Deleuze nevertheless insists that they are crucial, that even art would be impossible for us if we did not pass through this stage of strictest formality. Art is impossible without the knowledge of how signs come to constitute worlds, determine the limits of worlds, select the inhabitants from the aliens to the circle produced by signs.

We cannot deny the overwhelming irrelevance of worldly signs when they are considered as the rules of worlds that have only contingent existence, that merely replace passing actions or thoughts, but do not provide a solution to transience. They, like signs of art, are signs of passing time, of lost time. If we do not move beyond them, we are likely to be consumed by sadness, overcome by the meaninglessness of it all. Such is the nihilism feared by those who insist we need ideas of a saving God in order to have meaning in our lives. It is Deleuze’s aim to present a materialism that makes no call to such transcendent figures, but nevertheless accepts as real and serious the challenge of accounting for meaning and making joy possible for human beings. It will not be enough to abandon oneself to purely carnal desire, simply because we have been compelled by Darwin. Deleuze’s account of the signs of love, and Proust’s work on the relationship between love and jealousy, show that such abandon is no path to joy.

It is the sensuous sign, instead, that first offers a glimmer of hope for regaining the lost time of becoming: it is when we taste the madeleine and Combray emerges in our imagination that we first sense that what has been lost has some kind of persistence, that it cannot be destroyed by time. Combray is enfolded in the taste of the madeleine - not, Deleuze insists, Combray as it was originally lived, but Combray in a new splendor, all of its own. We experience at once an extraordinary joy and yet anguish at the sense that even Combray, wondrous clue to what we are, is gone: the sensuous sign that points us to another material experience cannot save the past for us, but only suggests that the past might be saved. These signs are also too material (39). They mislead us by compelling us to seek the meaning of the experience of the cake in the experience of Combray; but the truth of being cannot be seized in either of these actual states, even if the Combray recalled is less material and suggests a dynamic character more profound than Combray as it is lived. The experience of involuntary memory, when a seemingly lost world is immediately made present to us, provides us only an image of eternity - Plato’s definition of time itself. Is there nothing Eternal - is the past lost to us?

It is the work of art that evokes the Eternal and saves the past-in-itself for us. But to see how this is so, and why, we must come to some understanding of what is meant by Eternity or the ‘original time’ for Deleuze (45). Eternity is not otherworldly; it is not a world transcendent to the physical universe, which would serve as a ground for this world. And original time is not a ‘first’ time at the beginning of a timeline running from the Big Bang down to our present; recall that Deleuze is Bergsonian, and so he is critical of the idea that the timeline is itself time. Deleuze insists that the present coexists with itself as past (58). What is meant by this deeply problematic and paradoxical claim cannot be decided here, but this much can be said: the past is what is, and it always is, or eternally is. This definition of the past is how Bergson meant us to understand the past-in-itself. Deleuze now draws on the neo-Platonist notion of ‘complication’ as the original state prior to any development or ‘explication.’ Deleuze plays here on the root ‘pli’ - French for ‘fold.’ The universe unfolds itself in every moment - but that from which it unfolds forever is. From the perspective of the new state into which the universe has folded, what was before has changed - but it is a change only relative to the new state or new perspective; in itself, the past has not changed, the universe as ‘being’ itself has not changed. Since the ‘original time’ is a state prior to development or explication, original time is not something that happened once and for all, at the origin of the physical universe in a moment we call the ‘Big Bang.’ Insofar as there are genuinely new creations, original time shows itself to endure as that out of which our developments flow, the being that supports every new creation. By producing a work of art, we bring into full view the resource from which our new connections are made - the virtuality, Bergson would say, that gives rise to our actual thoughts, actions, and our works of art themselves. Whether we create works of art has no effect on the endurance of being in-itself. But the more we allow ourselves to be gobbled up by the passing of time, the less likely we are to recognize the enduring, dynamic nature of the universe itself. Through art we bring into view being itself and give expression to being itself through our unique perspective on what is, preserving thereby our viewpoint, that immaterial opportunity for our own endurance, so precious to Proust.

Proust and Signs can be recommended as ‘accessible’ if we are interested in reflecting on the nature of art, love, time, or learning. There are passages of considerable beauty and significance in this work. Those drawn in by such beauty should expect to find themselves caught in a web of counterintuitive, paradoxical, contentious and yet important claims. What is to be done from there is a matter to ponder in the short time between now and the end.