We are very pleased to have published seven new titles for June, and the first of these is Erika Fülöp’s Proust, the One, and the Many. Erika began thinking about this book in Debrecen and finished it in Malta, while an earlier form appeared as her thesis at Aberdeen. Three places I’ve never been to, so of course I feel I have always known them: Debrecen, the asterisked city deep inside the shadowy part of the map beyond the Iron Curtain, as unreachable as another solar system, and much featured in spy thrillers like Anthony Price’s; Malta, the plucky island which wins the medal in the war movie with David Niven; Aberdeen, where granite-eyed oilmen land their helicopters. Marcel, in the novel, has similar feelings for Balbec, Venice, and Florence, “within whose syllables had gradually accumulated the longing inspired in me by the places for which they stood.”
But names of places are the exceptions, in Proust: they are openly declared as references. “Venice” means Venice, or at least a dream, a fable, a memory, or an anticipation of it. Other presences in the novel are more ghostly, and a glossary listing them all would be as long as the book itself. Whereas some of the modernists threw references into their works with a showy use of scissors and glue, Proust is more delicate. Most pervasive of all, but most difficult to locate in any one passage of text, are Marcel’s habits of thought. How does he frame the world he lives in?
What we do know is that Marcel belongs to the generation born in the Europe of the 1870s, able to witness the birth of technologies such as the telegraph and the automobile; the musical school of Debussy and Ravel, the shock of the Impressionists, and so on. But it is just as revealing to look backward from 1870 as forward. The railway to Balbec, completed in the 1840s, was in its heyday as a holiday line when Marcel took it as a boy. Nowadays it belongs to a nostalgic, offbeat world of art-deco posters and seaside hotels. But it was current then. The same might be said of the philosophy of Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), the grand old man of German thought in the generation before Marcel’s. Schelling’s star has fallen a little now: the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy’s biographical essay makes casual sideswipes like “although its empirical claims are largely indefensible”. But in those same 1840s when Irish labourers drove spikes into the new Balbec railway, European intellectuals flocked to Schelling’s lectures. He had roomed with Hegel at university, and students accorded him a certain awe because of that, even though dedicated Hegelians came to think him a gadfly.
Erika’s book takes as its jumping-off point a theme which runs right through Schelling’s philosophies: his Identity, or Absolute, a subtle affinity of everything with everything else. Some of his doctrinal statements are pretty startling: “The ‘I think, I am’, is, since Descartes, the basic mistake of all knowledge; thinking is not my thinking, and being is not my being”. For Schelling, the world isn’t composed of people who know things, and then separately, the things they know about: both are part of a single unity. Schelling’s great task, whether we think he succeeded or not, is to reconcile that unity with the undeniable multiplicity of the world around us: the many heads with their many thoughts, the endless incidents and objects and histories. Perhaps that was Proust’s great task, too.
Just a footnote about our cover image, which is a detail from the Mandelbrot set — a profusion of apparent multiplicity from a single iterative scheme. These computer renderings seem far removed from Proust’s world, but they really are not. For one thing, the man who would make computer plots of this set iconic, Benoît Mandelbrot (1924-2010), grew up in Poland and France just as A la recherche was being published. But for another, the mathematics were largely developed by a school of French analysts, led by Gaston Julia (1893-1978) and Pierre Fatou (1878-1929), who were to mathematics what Debussy and Mallarmé were to music and verse. It is altogether possible that the eminently respectable Fatou, let us say, was one of those young blades at Madame de Villeparisis’s party, laying his top hat on the floor next to him.