In his book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton brings to light a fascinating answer by Marcel Proust to a Parisian newspaper on what we should do in the face of a near-certain death.
Someone looking for a paper to read in Paris in the 1920s might have picked up a title called L'Intransigeant. It had a reputation for investigative news, metropolitan gossip, comprehensive classifieds and incisive editorials. It also had the habit of dreaming up big questions and asking French celebrities to send in their replies. “What do you think would be the ideal education to give your daughter?” was one. “Do you have any recommendations for improving traffic congestion in Paris?” was another.
In the heat of the 1922 summer, the paper offered a particularly elaborate question.
An American scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed, and in such a sudden way, that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people. If this prediction were confirmed, what do you think would be its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm? Finally, as far as you're concerned, what would you do in the last hours.
The last person the paper consulted on the question was the reclusive novelist Marcel Proust. Since its 1913 publication, In Search of Lost Time, was considered a masterpiece. A good sport, Proust sent the following reply of timeless advice and piercing wisdom to the paper.
I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future delays them occasionally.
But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn't happen this time, we won't miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.
The cataclysm doesn't happen, we don't do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn't have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.
de Botton furthers Proust's response and touches on re-evaluating our priorities in the face of certain mortality, asking the important question of what, exactly, does a whole life consist of? How, should a reminder of our mortality change our lives?
Feeling suddenly attached to life when we realize the imminence of death suggests that it was perhaps not life itself which we had lost the taste for – so long as there was no end in sight, but our quotidian version of it, that our dissatisfactions were more the result of a certain way of living than anything irrevocably morose about human experience. Having surrendered the customary belief in our own immortality, we would then be reminded of a host of untried possibilities lurking beneath the surface of an apparently undesirable, apparently eternal existence.
However, if due acknowledgment of our mortality encourages us to reevaluate our priorities, we may well ask what these priorities should be. We might only have been living a half-life before we faced up to the implications of death, but what exactly does a whole life consist of? Simple recognition of our inevitable demise does not guarantee that we will latch on to any sensible answers when it comes to filling in what remains of the diary. Panicked by the ticking of the clock, we may even resort to some spectacular follies. The suggestions sent by the Parisian celebrities to L'lntransigeant were contradictory enough: admiration of alpine scenery, contemplation of the extraterrestrial future, tennis, golf. But were any of these fruitful ways to pass the time before the continent disintegrated.
Luckily for us Proust worked on a book that “set out to answer, albeit in a rather extended and narratively complex form,” a similar question to the one asked by the Parisian newspaper. The title of the book, In Search of Lost time, hints at as much.
The question of what makes a good life is one for the ages, it's also a personal one. What makes a difference to me might not make a difference to you. Proust, however, has much to contribute to the tapestry we're weaving daily. He understood a lesson we all too often forget in the the pursuit of goals and ambitions: the value of life is the sum of its everyday moments. Life is fragile.
How Proust Can Change Your Life goes on to explore the Proustian guidebook and gives us hope that we can learn to adjust our priorities before it's too late, touching on, among other things, Proust's thoughts on enjoying your vacation, reviving a relationship, achieving original and unclichéd articulation, being a good host, recognizing love, and understanding why you should never sleep with someone on a first date.