Proust in Pandemic: Part I

Catherine Parker // Saturday, March 14, was my last weekend call day as a third-year medical student on the vascular surgery service. That day, I spent twelve hours at New York Presbyterian Hospital. I also learned that elective surgeries had been cancelled to make Intensive Care Units out of operating rooms. So, it came as little surprise the following day, the Ides of March, when I received an email from the Dean of Medical Education announcing that all clinical training was suspended. I was not to enter a hospital except as a patient until July 2020—over three months away—bringing a momentous halt to what had been a flurry of rotation, a word that encapsulates activity, the medical student’s modus operandi. Overnight, I went from feeling industrious, bolstered by my medical knowledge of infectious disease, to feeling redundant and helpless in the face of pandemic.

Within hours of the Dean’s message, I began to brainstorm how to spend my involuntary 100-day snow day. Of course, I would stay busy with board study and remote coronavirus research, but I missed my patients. I felt connected to them as individuals through our mutual participation in the pre-round, a comical early-morning routine. My concern for elderly parents, an emphysematous neighbor, and experienced colleagues a few blocks away suddenly came into sharp relief. If I couldn’t fight the virus myself, how best to combat this existential unease? In a moment of je ne sais quoi, it occurred to me:

 Proust. I would read Proust.

I calculated that at a rate of 30 or so pages a day for the rest of the spring, I could make a solid dent in the 4,200 page novel.

Published a century ago, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, is one of the French language’s most important texts. Partly autobiographical, it is written primarily in the voice of a protagonist who reflects on his youth and formation as a writer. The novel weaves musings on art, memory, sexuality, and society in an introspective manner that departs from the narrative mode that dominated the nineteenth century. Translated into English soon after publication, Proust’s seven-volume work has been viewed by many critics as the herald of the modern novel, with its characteristic emphasis on the inner-workings of human experience.

Somehow, during my undergraduate and graduate studies of French literature and philosophy, I had neglected Marcel Proust—the equivalent of an English major having never read Virginia Woolf. My mentor had said of A la Recherche: “You need a very long summer.” In the summer before medical school I traveled to France, thinking it was my last shot at one such season—on pilgrimage to see artworks and visit writers’ tombs. On the day before my departure home, I went to the Gallimard bookshop in the seventh arrondissement of Paris and used my remaining Euros to buy all seven volumes in paperback. As I made my purchase, the seller behind the counter said, “Madame, you have hours of reading before you.” I enjoyed the first volume before summer’s end, but then medical school started, and In Search of Lost Time lost out to anatomy and pathology. I no longer had hours for Proust.

Now I do. I am riding out this pandemic in Washington Heights, New York, with my quarantine companions: two roommates and Proust. Frivolous escapism, you might ask? No. This is what I call survival aesthetics. I’m reading alone in my room and perhaps you are too.

So far, my choice has been an excellent one. The novel’s first line is remarkably succinct: “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure” [For a long time I went to bed early]. The young protagonist is sent to his room each evening while his parents and other adults eat dinner. There, he endures a terrible sense of isolation, waiting impatiently for his mother to come kiss him goodnight—and then once she does, daylight. The confines of his bedroom—its clock, its shutters, its furniture—become the source of much anticipatory anxiety, so much so that he uses a magic lantern to distract himself at bedtime. The light of this magic lantern, an early precursor to the slide projector, casts fictional images on the wall that allow him to transcend his present situation, allaying the physical and emotional distress of solitary confinement. However, the magic lantern also brings depth with its transcendence: “L’influence anésthesiante de l’habitude ayant cessé, je mettais à penser, à sentir, choses si tristes.” [The anesthetizing influence of habit having ceased, I began to think, to feel, things so sad].

In a way Proust has become my magic lantern during this crisis. And I think most of us, especially those of us who are not essential workers, are searching for light cast by magic lanterns, as we may find ourselves riddled with anxiety. I believe it is our task to employ this interruption of habit to take a great leap of imagination—which is no different than empathy. In addition to supporting loved ones and strangers within our means while preventing the spread of viral illness, we have the opportunity to think and feel alternate realities. As a medical trainee, I’m taking this time to contemplate what my patients have taught me—patients whose rich and varied stories I’d like my future practice to embrace. For non-essential workers who find themselves newly home bound, the experience might facilitate their capacity to re-connect with neighbors or friends, with whom they had lost touch in the aftermath of trauma or following a diagnosis of chronic disease.  Those individuals perhaps all too familiar with social isolation in the setting of advanced age or disability may find their daily experience of physical distancing further compounded by a heightened risk of contracting coronavirus; they have wisdom to share regarding how to creatively explore emotions and identity irrespective of spatial planes.

While Proust’s description of a child trapped in his room might resemble our subjective experience of quarantine, his focus on lost time may also have something to tell us about our common humanity. At present, individual identities risk becoming subsumed in the anonymity of statistics, as societies around the world grapple with mortality at an unprecedented scale. Each life lost risks becoming a causality of abstraction, invisible as this virus is (except on a chest CT scan). In Swann’s Way, the protagonist posits an epistemology of memory, whose method may serve as an antidote to the kind of ellipsis that is brought about by death in contact isolation. In an oft-quoted passage recalling the sensory experience of a common French dessert, the madeleine, the narrator relives a world relished for its particularity:

“And all of a sudden the memory appeared to me. This taste, it was that of a small bite of madeleine…But when from a departed past nothing survives, after people are dead, after things broken, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more ethereal, more persistent, more faithful, rest a long while yet, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all that remains; and bear unyielding, in the almost impalpable droplet of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

Once the dust from this pandemic has settled and our hands are cracked dry from hygiene, we will gather our lives and go back to our routines. And yes, those who suffered insults to olfaction, a harbinger symptom of coronavirus disease, will smell again. Yet, as Proust reminds us, the objects and spaces we relate to every day can be imbued with imagination’s twin—memory. Reminiscences of our friends, family, and patients lost will be evoked, as if a madeleine from a cup of tea.

Proust, Marcel. Du côté de chez Swann. A la recherche du temps perdu I. Paris: Gallimard, 1988. All translations are the author’s own.

Cover Image: The Dessert: Harmony in Red by Henri Matisse (1908). Painted less than a year before Proust wrote the passages cited in this article.

Catherine Parker is a medical student at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, where she is part of a team investigating the impact of COVID-19 on mental health. She received an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from Cambridge University and a B.A. in Philosophy and French Studies from Scripps College.

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