Our Cocoon of Habit: More thoughts on Proust’s In a Budding Grove

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.

22 Comments

Filed under French Literature, Proust

22 responses to “Our Cocoon of Habit: More thoughts on Proust’s In a Budding Grove

  1. This is great, Melissa, thank you!
    (I am sorely tempted to read along with you, I’ve read Swann’s Way four times, but the others only once, and I’ve always meant to reread it.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have so many other things on the go, I don’t think I could keep up with you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Liz

    What a brilliant post, Melissa. I have always understood on a logical level the maxim that to change a bad habit one must replace it with a good habit. But how very powerful to see it in action here. Wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Daniel Fraser

    Lovely post! Am heading towards the end of Sodom and Gomorrah (first time through) and delighted someone else is reading at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nathaniel Parr

    Great post, I’m really happy to have found it. I found this as I was attempting to find analysis of habit in Proust, and there is surprisingly little written on it. I am in my first read of the series, currently in the sixth book, and it has been one of the most intriguing themes to me throughout. All I have been able to find written on the subject is a dissertation by one Amy Ross Loeserman, titled “Proust and the Discourse on Habit.”
    Looking forward to following your thoughts on the rest of the series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Nathaniel! So glad to find someone else who is reading Proust. I just started Volume III. Which translation are you reading?

      I am surprised that there isn’t more written on Proust’s idea of habit. It seems just as important for him as time and memory and all three are deeply intertwined.

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      • Nathaniel Parr

        I’m reading the Terence Kilmartin edit of the Scott Moncrieff translation. How about you?

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      • Yes, the same. What turned me off of the Penguin version is that they are done by different translators. I think I was right, consistency is absolutely necessary to understand these books.

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      • Nathaniel Parr

        Regarding habit, Loesenberg has this to say in the abstract to her dissertation:

        “It is not by chance that habit was deeply explored in Proust’s novel or that it has been largely overlooked by the critical commentary. Historically, philosophers have paid substantial attention to habit. Habit was a focus of controversial philosophical/psychological theories in 19th century France regarding memory and consciousness, spirit and matter. Proust’s commentary was directly related to the prominent philosophical issues of his time.”

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  6. Samuel Beckett, in his Proust (1931), goes into habit (and its relationship with memory) pretty energetically. An example (marked in the margin of my copy) —

    “The laws of memory are subject to the more general laws of habit. Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the lightning-conductor of his existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit…” (pp 18-19)

    &c &c.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much. I’m aware of this essay but wanted to save it, and a few others on Proust, until I finish all of In Search of Lost Time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nathaniel Parr

        I didn’t know about the Beckett essay but I definitely want to read that. Melissa, do you have a reading list going for essays/criticism/books to read about In Search of Lost Time after you finish? I don’t have a formal list but I do have a handful of commentaries I want to read. In my view, a great part of the benefit of undertaking such a massive reading is being able to then read and understand what everyone else has said about it.

        Maybe we should create a master list of interesting Proust commentary for reading after the series?

        Liked by 1 person

      • My plan was to do exactly that. I was going to do a post, when I’m done reading, of all the resources and related books, essays, etc that I’ve come across. I did the same thing with Dante last year. I also compiled a Kafka reading list after reading Stach’s biography.

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  7. I want to read it again now.

    The word “habitude” is something I have trouble translating into English. We use it a lot in French, in different ways and I never found the perfect equivalent in English. I wonder if it has an impact on how Anglophones read Proust.

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  8. Something else about “habitude” and “j’ai l’habitude de”.

    It’s really something we say often and as I said before, there’s no real equivalent in English. In school, they teach us to say “I’m used to doing…” and there’s also the word “routine” but when you start speaking English without thinking in French first, you realize that “I’m used to doing…” is not something you use very often. Or you’ll say “usually”.

    It’s an example of the untranslatable part of a language, I suppose. It’s a word and a concept I miss in English, like “faire plaisir” and other expressions with the word “plaisir”

    Of course, Proust managed to put the two in the same sentence 🙂 : “Le plaisir de l’Habitude est souvent plus doux encore que celui de la nouveauté.”

    About “habits”. I think that they are a blessing and a curse.

    I’ve read somewhere that employees who work in flex-offices have a lower productivity that the ones with a dedicated cubicle. Reason: the ones with flex-offices lose at least 15 min in the morning to re-create their working space whereas the others slip into their chair, reconnect with their environment and start working. Plus there’s the anxiety of not knowing where you’ll sit. Much like the Narrator’s trouble with his unknown room in Balbec.

    We need habits to function efficiently. That’s the blessing side of the coin.

    The curse side is what you pointed it out : at some point, it chains us to our quotidian and prevents us from experiencing new things.

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