Proust Between Aggada and Halakha


There will never be more than a few people in each generation for whom literature has the force of law, for whom, as Bialik puts it, “real art” is “like Torah.” In Bialik’s generation, one of those few was surely Marcel Proust. The two writers are not often thought of together, but they were near-contemporaries; Bialik was born in 1873, Proust in 1871. And Proust’s seven-volume novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), is among many other things the story of an artist coming to realize his vocation—a vocation which he describes in religious terms, as an ethical and absolute duty. Proust’s greatest statement of this theme comes in the famous passage in The Captive describing the death of the writer Bergotte. Once a writer dies, Proust wonders, what does it matter whether he wrote well or badly, since he will never know the fate of his works in this world? What he is grappling with is the disparity between the artist’s sense of his commitment, which is absolute and infinite, and the finite, transitory nature of all human achievement. In other words, Proust is asking a religious question, and he ends up giving what is essentially a religious answer…

more from Adam Kirsch at Jewish Review of Books here.