Are You Being Doing or Doing Being?
In the "Last Shout" episode of Absolutely Fabulous a character played by Mo Gaffney aks her husband, who is attempting to infiltrate the Scientologists, "Are you being doing or doing being?" It's a very funny line. I was reminded of it last night, during our reading group's final discussion of In Search of Lost Time.
D. W. Winnicott, an English Freudian who specialized in infant and child psychology, posited in his Playing and Reality that in the normal course of emotional development, children first learn to be (which he somewhat arbitrarily designates as feminine) and then learn to do (which he equally arbitrarily designates as masculine). Problems develop when, for whatever reason, children either stop at being or jump to doing without first learning being. (So far, this doesn't sound any better than Mo's take on the Scientologists.)
By learning to be, he means that children learn to understand themselves as an entity distinct from their environment, and by learning to do, he means that children learn to understand themselves as an entity acting on their environment. Children who learn to be without subsequently learning to do grow up to see themselves as passive victims of life. They may suffer more than others, but they will have a strong sense of self that allows them to endure that suffering. Children who learn to do without first learning to be grow up to be self-absorbed and driven. They may be more accomplished than others, but they are unlikely to enjoy their accomplishments.
Here and now--in a culture where we respond to questions about who we are with what we do for a living and where children are expected to have a record of accomplishments before nursery school--I suspect that children are being raised with a disproportionate emphasis on doing. And as those children grow up and attempt to read Proust, it doesn't go well. Reading Proust in the hope of gaining some sense of accomplishment will be a frustrating experience. The complexity and length of the prose structures force you to go very slowly, no matter how quickly you normally read; the amount left to read, no matter how much you've already read, will undermine any idea of progress; and the fact that the narrator does very close to nothing over hundreds and hundreds of pages can only accentuate the feeling of stasis.
I don't know how to describe the best approach to reading In Search of Lost Time except as Buddhist--savor every word as you experience it and as it is, enjoy the beauty of the writing for itself. Reading Proust quickly is as dubious an achievement as breathing quickly. Read Proust because you want to be reading Proust, not because you want to have read Proust. That's probably good advice for any book, but it's a necessity in this case.