Anything can change your life, if you’re willing to let it change. Does Proust make the process easier?
“But an advantage of more prolonged encounters with Proust or Homer is that worlds that had seemed threateningly alien reveal themselves to be essentially much like our own, expanding the range of places in which we feel at home.”
The danger is in reducing the real life places in which we feel home—as we start to feel at home only in stories and not in reality, rendering us deracinated from the real world, like Internet hermits.
That is not, of course, a reason to avoid Proust or Homer. We know that the former, like many writers, led a somewhat unusual life. I recently read Frederick Brown’s new biography of Flaubert, which describes Flaubert’s numerous neuroses and generally manic demeanor. This passage in de Botton reminds of Flaubert:
“It is not the contended or the glowing who have left many of the profound testimonies of what it means to be alive. It seems that such knowledge has usually been the privileged preserve of, and the only blessing granted to, the violently miserable.”
De Botton goes on to qualify that statement—being miserable is necessary but not sufficient for one to create profound testimonials, so one should be wary of being miserable solely for that purpose—but it is an insight nonetheless: for aren’t the contented too busy being content to analyze their own souls or become sufficiently introspective about the world? If all is well, why worry?
Still, there is at least some upside to being “violently miserable,” although the violently miserable probably aren’t likely to notice because they are too busy being themselves. They just have to recognize and change—which is what Proust can help us do, if we let him.
(Not that my use of the group pronoun “we” indicates that I think I’m necessarily among the violent and miserable…)