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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Letter to a Friend in Pennsylvania on the Rewards of Immersion

Dear Ed,

Comment ça va chez vous? Très bien, j’espère! Nous sommes en bonne forme ici. Ed, I know you read “Books in Northport” regularly, and today’s topic is one I thought you would especially appreciate, so I thought directing it to you might help me put it together. Hope you don’t mind?

Our “intrepid Ulysses group” (as I refer to them, because we first got together to discuss, in seven or eight sessions, Joyce’s monumental work) met recently to talk about Voltaire’s Candide and Zadig, and at the end of that meeting we agreed that five of us would get together in November for a session on Proust, and the whole group would reconvene in early December. That tells you that while a few of us really wanted to read (or re-read, as was the case for several of us) Swann’s Way, the others just as adamantly did not want to do so. And I am not casting stones, by the way! When the group voted to read Faulkner, I took a time-out myself....

Anyway, I re-read of Proust back in August, worried that if I put it off until later, I wouldn’t get through the entire work again in time, but now October is here, and our meeting yet a month in the future, so must I re-read it again? This is always the big question: read so far ahead that the book is not fresh in one’s memory when the group gets together, or wait until the last minute and risk not finishing in time? But then I had a lucky brain wave: this time I’d re-read it in French!

Which brings me back to you and your recent purchase of Flirting with French and your concerns and doubts about your ability ever to be able to master the language. I stand by my statement that immersion is a necessary condition for learning to relax into a second language and to develop some feeling for its nuances. Of course, the younger one is when first immersed, the more successfully the bond will be formed. And, alas! Years spent away from any cultural-linguistic milieu, whether that of one’s first or second language, but especially a second, tend to blunt the edge of mastery. (A graduate school friend of mine from Yugoslavia told me that she and her husband were “losing” their Serbo-Croatian, as they only spoke English in the U.S., even at home with each other.) When young, I had high hopes of someday learning Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, and Russian, but now if I can hang onto my English and French and a smattering of Spanish words and phrases as I ease into old age, I’ll be well satisfied.

But now I’m going to go off into what will probably seem at first a digression, i.e., poetry. Many Americans, I’ve noticed, readers of fiction and nonfiction, are downright afraid of poetry. They turn away from it with a shudder, convinced they’ll never be able to comprehend the poet’s words, and this seems a terrible shame, for they are missing so much beauty, so many startling new visions of the world. “Don’t analyze every line for meaning,” I urge those reluctant ones. “Think of it as a warm spring rain, and just let yourself stand out in it and get soaked.” You see what I’m saying, right? Immersion again. The sound and feel and rhythm – before worrying about the meaning. After all, isn’t this how all children first learn language? Definitions and rules come much later. Analysis and explanation come at the end, not the beginning.

So as I’ve already read Swann’s Way in English at least three times and maybe more and once in French, this time in reading the French I am not trying to translate in my head at all but simply immerse myself, swim in it, let it rain down on me. When a word comes along that I don’t recognize, I go blithely on without consulting a dictionary. Certain constructions common in French and never used in English slow me down from time to time, but my goal is always to keep swimming. The story is familiar enough to me that I recognize scenes as they come along, and the words and phrases that are clear to me keep me from drowning.

It is so beautiful! I can hardly believe that for so many years of my life I said to so many people, very self-righteously, as if I’d “seen through” generations of less clear-sighted readers’ passion, “Life is too short to read Proust”! Now I would say that life is too short not to read Proust!

Our past, enchanted, immobilized and imprisoned in material objects unless and until, by chance (le hasard), we encounter it again, in some evanescent taste or smell (l’odeur ou le saveur), those senses which, like some souls (comme des âmes), carry the entire immense edifice of memory. The man sips a spoonful of tea containing crumbs from the cookie he has dunked, and suddenly he is filled with joy. A moment’s reflection makes clear to him that the joy, the truth, is neither in the cookie nor in the tea but in himself. No, it was not in him but was him. ...[C]ette essence n’était pas en moi, elle était moi. ... Il est clair que la vérité que je cherche n’est pas en lui, mais en moi. The past was yet alive, present, in his memories, in images (not limited to visual, bien sur) deep within (au fond de moi).

David can be transported back to childhood by crisp bacon. Dried apricots do that trick for me, as does the sharp perfume of a small, nondescript weed that takes me back to driveway make-believe, at my parents’ home and my grandmother’s little place in the country. For Proust, it was the petite madeleine that was the key to an entire era of his life, his summers in Combray. I read his detailed memories of the stained glass windows of the church at Combray and remember enduring long sermons in my mother’s church by imagining myself a tiny creature with wings (not an angel, mind you, or I would be too big in scale), flying among the intricate Gothic spires of the altarpiece carved by German immigrants. However grey the sky, it was always beautiful in the church, Proust wrote.

The church, his old great-aunt’s eccentricities and those of her maid, the shopping and the meals, his longing for the theatre, an unplanned visit the boy makes to his uncle with no idea in the world that it will be their last meeting.... Immersion! You immerse yourself—in poetry, in another language—and then will come, with poetry some personally salient metaphor, with French some strikingly beautiful word, with either a phrase that goes straight to your heart, and that metaphor or word or phrase is a door leading into another world. Proust describes the theatre posters he saw in the street as a child in terms of their colors. How do you see in your mind the color called lie de vin? Maybe it isn’t even the words but only the music (to me, listening to French is like listening to music), as in the musical phrase le roucoulement du colombe. You hear the dove when you murmur the words aloud.

Yesterday when I began writing this letter, Ed, it was a quiet, dreary, rainy Friday afternoon. I’d had several sales earlier in the day, but somehow when the woman was buying the children’s reader from 1930 and I was writing the date on the sales slip, for the first time it registered with me that the next day (now today) would be (now is) the birthday of my #1 favorite philosopher, Henri Bergson, né à Paris, 1859, the last of the great metaphysical dualists.

Bergson argued so brilliantly against materialism that William James thought there was no longer a need to read Kant: “Bergson,” he wrote, “has resolved all the antinomies.” Bergson’s chief contribution was to bring the attention of philosophy to what the phenomenologists after him called “lived time,” as distinguished from the uniformly measured time of clocks. His own term was ‘duration’ (la durée), and he insisted that duration was real. “Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances,” such that “the past in its entirety is prolonged into the present and abides there actual and acting.” Past images living as memories; consciousness enlarged by an increasing field of choice which in its turn enlarges consciousness; the living being as a center of action, a focus of redirected force, a center of “creative evolution” – all this Bergson proposed over and against the deterministic materialism still, oddly, in vogue today.

Today the 155th birthday of Henri Bergson, and Bergson was married to a cousin of Marcel Proust, and I love seeing the thoughts of each in the work of the other. I’m inexplicably glad that Bergson’s birthday did not slip by me unnoticed this year.

Alors, heureuse anniversaire, Henri -- et bon courage, Edouard! We’re here now. Cette petite tranche de maintenant (hold it in your hand!) est à nous d’en profiter!

A la prochaine,

toujours amicalement,



Anonymous said...

Merci pour les mots gentiles et pour ton support avec mon voyage avec la langue francaise. Je me suis un peu console. Je n'abandonne pas mes efforts! Je lis "Le Petit Prince" maintenant. C'est beau en anglais, mais c'est tres poetique en francais.


P. J. Grath said...

T’as réussi! Te voici! Je te remerci pour l’effort et pour ton amitié. Et salut à Don, aussi. Le Petit Prince -- magnifique!

Dawn said...

I'm glad Ed didn't abandon his efforts!f I have only a tiny, less than that, bit of French..but it is at times close to English..enough that I can often follow along with a vague understanding. I could not, however, read a whole book in French. Though bits and pieces would be fun to try.