In a permanent effort to identify literary works of abiding value, the human mind has brought forth an entirely superfluous but still engaging activity known as literary criticism. But the faculties of consciousness that deal with criticism are quite different from, and in no sense complementary to, those that actually produce poems and novels and plays. This is owing to criticism’s being, like biology or physics, essentially an analytic project while literary production is, like medicine, synthetic. As any schoolboy knows, synthesis brings elements together to achieve an effect, esthetic or otherwise, and anlysis is a set of procedures by which the opposite is achieved: analysis breaks down a thing or idea into its constituent parts and shows how they are related to each other and to the whole. Criticism critiques (so what else is new?) The first major question to arise as we critique a literary production is, “What is this work about?” (Quickly,now!) If we are successful at finding an answer to this question (which most folks seldom are), then we have arrived at the theme of the work. Ideally the theme of any literary work should be stated in a single word, two at most. But nobody would want to make this a hard and fast rule, would they?
Particularizing, as we must, I suppose, I am always amazed to find people, some of them well-educated, who actually believe that the theme of Remembrance of Things Past/In Search of Lost Time is the passage of time and the not-terribly-flattering things it does to people and institutions. I suspect these folks have not read ALL of Proust and read what they did read, as a course requirement lo’ these many aeons ago. Clear-minded anlysis would reveal, I am convinced, that the major and overriding theme of Proust’s great novel is in fact adoration, perhaps baseless or mistaken adoration and what it does to people. Time and the way it passes would then be the vehicle (unfortunate word) that “carries” the theme. Marcel adores Oriane because in his over-sensitive consciousness she is associated with Romanesque churches, ancient lineage, wealth, land and so on. He is given an abundance of opportunities to see how mistaken his adoration is but he misses all the clues until the very end, or nearly, when he picks up on the incident of the changing of the shoes while Swann is telling the small party that he is terminally ill and will son be exiting the world.
(To be continued, perhaps)