I sit under a tree on a summer morning reading, out loud to myself, three pages of Proust. I savor the syllables shaping my tongue. My mind imbibes his. Time stretches over the frame of described action so that scenes stain and shimmer on his writerly canvas with greater permanence than had I absorbed them silently. When I reach a stopping point, I sip my tea, watch two dark quacking ducks pass overhead, let my mind float.
Then I notice that my mind is flexing. Most mornings, sitting and sipping my tea, my thoughts skitter and scatter. My mind, left to its own way, flits and sprawls. It is capacious and penetrating but it isn’t disciplined. It doesn’t like to work on an idea, is even suspicious of work, as if whatever it will discover will be forced and specious, and that only natural, self-organized thoughts and concepts can be trusted, and that these ‘organically’ organized thoughts must be waited for. Think, think, yes, but never work at it.
When I read Proust, my thoughts gather to listen, to perceive, and to form into rivulets inspired by the writer’s thoughts that meticulously unfurl on the page (and are equally meticulously translated by Lydia Davis.) Occasionally those rivulets digress into nonsense, but more often they gather and develop, either sparking unsuspected ideas or ordering the chaos of already orbiting ideas that have been seeking ways of belonging to one another the way jigsaw pieces finally interlock to reveal the emerging image.
Reading the disciplined mind of Proust encourages my mind to find, collect, and assemble. His writing style of long sentences that wrap and elucidate complex and subtle understandings and scenes gives my mind permission to be smarter, to hoist more than featherweight loads. When I then come to thinking my own thoughts, reading Proust has unlocked a capacity in my mind to not only fully inhabit an idea but to explore it more deeply. He builds my mental muscles. I remember keyboard players saying that Bach is like this–you play his music for its beauty but it also improves your technique.
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