Duke professor analyzes Proust

Duke professor and literary critic Fredric Jameson GRD ’56 PHD ’59 gave his interpretation of the works of French author Marcel Proust during a Tuesday lecture in the Whitney Humanities Center.

Jameson, who teaches in Duke’s literature and romance studies program, explored Proustian themes in front of a crowd of roughly 200. During his lecture he analyzed the French writer’s narrative techniques and noted that there is a difference between a character’s desires and wishes.

“A wish really can be fulfilled, whereas a desire never can,” Jameson said.

Jameson analyzed the opening section of Proust’s seven-volume novel “In Search of Lost Time.” At the beginning of the first volume, the protagonist — a boy named Marcel — would be refused a goodnight kiss from his mother whenever the family hosted a dinner party. This made Marcel desperate for his mother’s love, he explained. Proust made Marcel’s simple yearning for his mother’s affection seem more complex by repeatedly revisiting the scenario, Jameson said, adding that Proust narrates the story of Marcel within a “success versus failure” structure similar to the one used by French writer Honoré de Balzac.

In explaining the difference between a desire and a wish, Jameson said that “the former has won out over its modest predecessor.” While wishes are more fleeting and can be gratified, desires are more deeply rooted in the human condition, which makes them harder to satisfy, he explained.

Yale professor of Slavic Languages and Literature, and Film Studies department chair John MacKay, who introduced Jameson, said Jameson posits literary interpretation as a problem. Jameson described the process of writing a modern novel as one that entails constructing and abandoning different narrative types.

Jameson often connects literature to economic forces and to Marxism in particular, MacKay said, and he has inspired the work of many Marxist critics. MacKay added that Jameson is a major critic in the fields of film, art and opera.

“[Jameson] is known for his extraordinary intellectual openness and generosity,” MacKay said.

Jameson is one of this year’s recipients of the Wilbur Cross Medal, the highest award given by a graduate school at Yale to one of its alumni.

 

Correction: Oct. 16

A previous version of this article misstated the name of the protagonist of “In Search of Lost Time” as Marcele. It should have said Marcel. 

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