As I’m just about to finish Within a Budding Grove, I keep thinking about Proust’s use and exploration of the word Habit, Habitude in French, in different contexts. Both the French and English words are derived from the Latin noun habitus (fourth declension, masculine) which itself is taken from the perfect passive participle of the verb habeo, habere. It is an important and fundamental Latin verb and is taught as one of the first words in beginning Latin. Its most basic meaning is to own or possess (as in I have a book), but it is also commonly used to mean that one possess certain physical or mental attributes (as in I have a powerful intellect). It is this latter meaning that I keep contemplating in relation to Proust and how habit is intertwined with ideas of memory and time.
Habit is first, and most famously, used in Swann’s Way when the narrator, as a child, is trying to sleep and is comforted by his familiar surroundings: “Habit! that skilful but slow-moving arranger who begins by letting our minds suffer for weeks on end in temporary quarters, but whom our minds are none the less only too happy to discover at last, for without it, reduced to their own devices, they would be powerless to make an room seem habitable.”
Within a Budding Grove, the narrator, now a teenager, is going to Balbec with his grandmother for a summer holiday, but upon arrival he is miserable because the room he occupies in the hotel and his new surroundings are not part of his habits which, in Paris, make him happy and comfortable. But as a young man he is quickly realizing that Habit is maybe not always a good thing. As he has new experiences, and especially as he meets new people in Balbec he comes to understand that it is this same Habit that, although it comforted him as a child, as an adult it keeps one from having new experiences and therefore happiness and enjoyment in life:
As a rule it is with our being reduced to a minimum that we live; most of our faculties like dormant because they can rely upon Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services. But on this morning of travel, the interruption of the routine of my existence, the unfamiliar place and time, had made their presence indispensable. My habits, which were sedentary and not matutinal, for once were missing, and all my faculties came hurrying to take their place, vying with one another in their zeal, rising, each of them, like waves, to the same unaccustomed level, from the basest to the most exalted, from breath, appetite, the circulation of my blood to receptivity and imagination.
It is this second example of Habit which Proust also applies to a discussion of art. When he meets the painter Elstir in Balbec, he knows right away that the artist’s work is something different. It is the Habit of looking at similar works of art, of reading similar books that dulls our minds and keeps us from new, aesthetic experiences:
Since Elstir began to paint, we have grown familiar with what are called “wonderful” photographs of scenery and towns. If we press for a definition of what their admirers mean by the epithet, we shall find that it is generally applied to some unusual image of a familiar object, an image different from those that we are accustomed to see, unusual and yet true to nature, and for that reason doubly striking because it surprises us, takes us out of our cocoon of habit, and at the same time brings us back to ourselves by recalling to us an earlier impression.
And finally, in Within A Budding Grove the narrator applies the ideas of Habit to his own understanding of love. He becomes smitten with Swann’s daughter, Gilberte and it becomes his habit to visit her and her family on a daily basis. When he realizes that Gilberte is not going to love him the way he loves her, he is mature enough to understand that the only way to rid him of his unhappiness is to change his habits. He understands, even at a young age, that sometimes it is not love that keeps us in a relationship but instead we stay because another person has become part of our everyday life and has essentially evolved into another habit. The sooner he can let go of this habit, the sooner he can find happiness elsewhere: “In Paris I had grown more and more indifferent to Gilberte, thanks to Habit. The change of Habit, that is to say the temporary cessation of Habit, completed Habit’s work when I set our for Balbec. It weakens, but it stabilises; it leads to disintegration but it makes the scattered elements last indefinitely.”
I am eager to see how Proust further develops and explores the concept of habit as the narrator ages and encounters different surroundings, novel artwork and new love.