Monday, February 25, 2013

The Major Arcana #9: THE HERMIT - Marcel Proust

This is the tenth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.

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THE HERMIT: Marcel Proust

It feels strange to associate the Hermit card with Proust, who wrote so much about Paris social life and high society. Yet, there's also something beautifully logical about the paradox... Proust's massive multi-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, framed that Paris social scene in a way that only a ruminative introvert could have managed. He had caught a glimpse of the superficial, drama-driven world of the aristocracy, but for him, it became a mere stage for the unraveling of profound inner mysteries.

The Hermit is a wanderer and a guide, an embodiment of The Fool at a later stage in life: he has circulated through the waking world, and finally returned to isolation to reflect on what he's seen. When the Hermit is ready, he draws his insights up from his inner sanctum and parades them forth to benefit the rest of the world.

Proust's insights were innumerable. Starting with Swann's Way, his generational saga was a flood of thematic play and introspection: the power of memory, the divergence of paths both literal and figurative, the unknowable echoes of choice in the uncertain field of personal history, the thin and fragile line between what we keep secret of ourselves and what we present to the world. These themes were all embodied in the lives and trials of his socialite Parisians, whose privileges did little to relieve their anxieties and interpersonal melodramas.

Of course, Proust also works as The Hermit because of his own biography. He spent some time in the Paris salons, and some time in the army, and some time studying literature, and some time as a literary outcast, but his troubled constitution prevented him from being a capricious world traveler and bon vivant, the occupations of so many infamous literary personalities. His most recognizable setting, the town of Combray, was modeled after a town where Proust was secluded for the sake of his health. His physical condition kept him from having to waste his time in mundane employment, but it also kept him isolated.

Proust's isolation was further exacerbated by his closeted homosexuality, which led him to write so brilliantly about the gap between one's public and private life. He was one of the first novelists in Western literature to openly acknowledge homosexuals, which the narrator of his books referred to as "inverts."

All of these factors, as well as Proust's own genius and disposition, led him to be one of history's greatest inward-gazing prose poets. His introspection, his meditations on expression, self-awareness, and memory, led him to a profound, quiet wisdom, which he threaded into the pages of his great novel. Of course, like a true Hermit, he died nearly penniless, with the majority of his recognition still lingering in the unforseeable future.