The Ubiquitous Proust

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Marcel Proust wrote "the idea of popular art...if not actually dangerous seemed to me ridiculous." Locked far away from society in his cork-lined room (why cork? Why not? It blocked out useless sound and probably had a strong enough smell to evoke memories abound), Proust wrote and wrote (and wrote and wrote) about the inanities of modern society, the limitations of "the now," the importance of feeling and experiencing. Proust spent a good chunk of his 51 years (and several thousand pages) observing just how frivolous popular culture was. And yet, 93 years after he began his massive undertaking, In Search of Lost Time, he's all over the place. He's been at the back of every Vanity Fair magazine since 1993 as the inspiration for their regular questionnaire. Alain de Botton wrote a bestselling book in 1998 that explained just how the French writer, who died in 1922, can change your life. Cate Blanchett's character in The Life Aquatic attempts to read In Search of Lost Time to her unborn child. Proust is mentioned casually in so many newspaper articles that blogger Tom Tomorrow created 'Spot the Pretentious Proust Reference', a game to seek out the Proustian name-droppings in the New York Times. Indeed, if you search Proust on the NYT website, you'll find 1,688 references since 1981, almost five hundred of which have occurred in the past 6 years.

The influence of Proust in the film Little Miss Sunshine made me wonder: why is everyone Proust-obsessed? Steve Carell's character in the film, Uncle Frank, is a depressed, suicidal homosexual who also happens to be the self-declared number one Proust scholar in the U.S. At first I figured this was a completely random association; the writers could have just as easily picked Balzac or John Donne or some other semi-obscure, all-but-forgotten philoso-poet. But maybe these arbitrary snippets of Proust in current popular culture amount to something. In Search of Lost Time is six volumes long and rife with allusions and metaphors, so easy to apply Proust to just about anything. Wondering why that delicious cookie tastes so good? Proust has you covered. Sad that your mother doesn't hug you? Proust feels your pain. Struggling to properly describe the texture, taste, color, smell and sound of asparagus? Proust is your man (In Swann's Way, he writes "My greatest pleasure was asparagus, bathed in ultramarine and pink and whose spears, delicately brushed in mauve and azure, fade imperceptibly to the base of the stalk" Bingo!).

Proust, genius as he may have been, was a bit of a whackjob; even those who have devoted their lives to the study of his literary leviathan have to take him with a tiny grain of salt. There is a website that poses the challenge of summarizing In Search of Lost Time in as few words as possible — seemingly inspired by the brilliant Monty Python sketch "The All-England Summarize Proust Competition." Some brave attempts from this website include "Society Sucks", "Mmmm...cookies", and "Marcel's not gay." So what have we learned? What does Proust teach us about time, memory, love, feeling? The way that he's referenced in pop culture now would have you think that he knows either nothing or everything. With such a hodgepodge of Proustian meanings, references, ideas and impressions being thrown around in the media, it's difficult to synthesize a clear, significant lesson from Proust.

But Little Miss Sunshine, I believe, made a valiant attempt. Halfway through watching the film, I remembered that nothing in the calculated world of Hollywood (or, for that matter, in the quirky land of independent film) is random. Aside from the darling Olive (Abigail Breslin), Frank is really the heart of this sweet film, and it turns out to be perfectly fitting that he has devoted his heretofore empty life to Marcel Proust. Frank's associations with Proust are only mentioned here and there (he likes to remind the family that he is a renowned Proust scholar while he's helping them push their disabled VW bus), but Proust is implicit in the film's best aspects. Frank moves in with his sister's family while he recovers from a suicide attempt after a particularly painful break up (Frank's grad student lover ran off with the number two Proust scholar), and has cut himself off from the world. He immediately relates to his nephew, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence because he "hates everyone." As they are reluctantly dragged along with the Hoover family to help Olive pursue her dream to become a beauty queen, Frank and Dwayne begin to open up. Their own dreams have been crushed, but with Olive's unadulterated hopes as their catalyst, they are able to put their suffering in perspective and learn to feel again. In a particularly perfect scene, Frank explains to Dwayne that Proust was a "total loser" who eventually realized that the times that he suffered were the best times, since they were the times that made him who he was. Dwayne listens intently and concludes that in life you have to "do what you love, and f--- the rest". If there really is one lesson to be taken from Proust in pop culture, I believe Little Miss Sunshine has found it.