Proust on What Art Does for the Soul and How to Stop Letting Habit Blunt Our Aliveness

“Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory.”

For Proust, the great artists deserve acclaim because they show us the world in a way that is fresh, appreciative, and alive… The opposite of art, for Proust, is something he callshabit. For Proust, much of life is ruined for us by a blanket or shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters. It dulls our senses and stops us appreciating everything, from the beauty of a sunset to our work and our friends.

Children don’t suffer from habit, which is why they get excited by some very key but simple things — like puddles, jumping on the bed, sand, and fresh bread. But we adults get ineluctably spoiled, which is why we seek ever more powerful stimulants, like fame and love.

The trick, in Proust’s eyes, is to recover the powers of appreciation of a child in adulthood, to strip the veil of habit and therefore to start to look upon daily life with a new and more grateful sensitivity.

This, for Proust, is what one group in the population does all the time: artists. Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory.

This film is part of a wonderful series of animated meditations by The School of Life, founded by De Botton, exploring such facets of our quest for meaning as what great books do for the soulhow to find fulfilling workwhat philosophy is for, and what comes after religion.

Complement How Proust Can Change Your Life with De Botton on harnessing the seven psychological functions of great art and what Nietzsche can teach us about true fulfillment

Four Franz Kafka Animations:

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari thought of Kafka as an international writer, in solidarity with minority groups worldwide. Other scholars have characterized his work—and Kafka himself wrote as much—as literature concerned with national identity. Academic debates, however, have no bearing on how ordinary readers, and writers, around the world take in Kafka’s novels and short stories. Writers with both national and international pedigrees such as Borges, Murakami, Marquez, and Nabokov have drawn much inspiration from the Czech-Jewish writer, as have filmmakers and animators. Today we revisit several international animations inspired by Kafka, the first, above by Polish animator Piotr Dumala.

Trained a sculptor, Dumala’s textural brand of “destructive animation” creates chilling, high contrast images that appropriately capture the eerie and unresolved play of light and dark in Kafka’s work. The Polish artist’s1997 Franz Kafka draws on scenes from the author’s life, as told in his diaries.

Next, watch a very disorienting 2007 Japanese adaptation of Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” by animator Koji Yamamura. The soundtrack and monotone Japanese dialogue (with subtitles) effectively conveys the tone of the story, which John Updike described as “a sensation of anxiety and shame whose center cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; a sense of an infinite difficulty with things, impeding every step.” Read the original story here.

Russian-American team Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker created the 1963 animation above using a “pinscreen” technique, which photographs the three-dimensional movement of hundreds of pins, making images from real light and shadow. We’ve previously written on just “how demanding and painstaking an effort” the animators made to create their work. Their previous efforts got the attention of Orson Welles, who commissioned the above short as a prologue for his Anthony Perkins-starring film version ofThe Trial. And yes, that voice you hear narrating the parable “Before the Law,” an excerpt from Kafka’s novel, is Welles himself.

Kafka’s most famous story, The Metamorphosis, inspired Canadian animator Caroline Leaf’s 1977 film above. Leaf’s Kafka animation also takes a sculptural approach to the author’s work, this time sculpting in sand, a medium Leaf herself says created “black and white sand images” with “the potential to have a Kafka-esque feel—dark and mysterious.” However we interpret the content of Kafka’s work, the feel of his stories is unmistakable to readers and interpreters across continents. It’s one that consistently inspires artists to use a spare, high contrast style in adapting him. Below, Peter Kuper, another animator who recently made a short film of theMetamorphoses for Crown Publishing, discusses the intensely visual aspects of Kafka.

Related Content:

The five essential Saul Bellow novels

Adventures of Augie March jacket

The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

This is the novel in which Bellow found his voice. Augie, its picaresque hero, declares himself “a Columbus of those near-at-hand”, by which he means a discoverer of new fictional territory, since he himself narrates his adventures. The “reality instructors” and “Machiavellis of small street and neighbourhood” that Augie delights in portraying, most of them Jewish, come from Bellow’s childhood and youth in immigrant Chicago. The freedom he seeks from their “get real” outlook is a freedom Bellow himself sought. “Look at me!” Augie cries in the final paragraph, “going everywhere”; by which he means, as Philip Roth puts it, “going where his pedigreed betters wouldn’t have believed he had any right to go”. It is not only those near-at-hand that Augie depicts. Bravura episodes are set in Mexico, in Paris, in Depression-era boxcars (“the jointed spine of the train racing and swerving, the steels, rusts, bloodlike paints extended space after space”). Chief among reality instructors is Augie’s brother Simon, a thinly fictionalised portrait of Bellow’s brother Maury, “the totally American brother,” the totally Chicago brother. “Maury overpowered me,” Bellow later confessed, “and in a sense he led me to write The Adventures of Augie March.”

Henderson the Rain King jacket

Henderson the Rain King (1959)

The oddest and most audacious of Bellow’s novels, set in Africa, a continent he had yet to visit. The richly detailed customs Bellow devises for the novel’s fictional tribes, partly drawn from the anthropological texts he studied at university, are what make its Africa so magical and funny. They also connect to the novel’s main themes. Eugene Henderson, its noisy protagonist, “an absurd seeker of higher qualities”, is in despair, lacking or having neglected dimensions of life – mystical, bodily – he hopes to find in Africa.

What he’s missing derives as much from the theories of Wilhelm Reich as from Bellow’s anthropological studies, and Henderson’s attitudes to his African instructor, Dahfu, is like Bellow’s attitude to Reich. Dahfu, king of the Arnewi tribe, has wisdom but he’s cracked. Praise for the novel’s richness of invention has not always extended to the controversial speech of its African characters. Openly artificial, resembling no real African voice, theirs is the language of “blackface”, described by Bellow’s friend Ralph Ellison as “pseudo-Negro dialect”, “a ritual of exorcism”. This language Bellow drew on and adapted in tandem with the poet John Berryman, with whom he shared an office at the University of Minnesota. It is the language of Berryman’s “Mr Bones” in The Dream Songs.

Herzog jacket

Herzog (1964)

“Dear Doctor Professor, I should like to know what you mean by the expression ‘the fall into the quotidian’. When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?” This urgent appeal, addressed to Martin Heidegger, comes from Moses Herzog, in the grip of mania. Like other letters Moses writes (to Nietzsche, Spinoza, Governor Stevenson, President Eisenhower, Freud, God, his doctor, his shrink) it is never sent. Moses is an intellectual historian, author of a book entitled Romanticism and Christianity, and his letters overflow with erudite allusion and reflection. Far from limiting the novel’s appeal, the letters helped to account for its commercial success, sparked by the approving attention they received from reviewers. Herzog spent 42 weeks on the bestseller lists and sold 142,000 in hardback. That Herzog’s learning does him no good may also help to account for the novel’s appeal. When put to the test – betrayed by wife and best friend – the lessons of high culture simply don’t apply. “That’s where the comedy comes from,” Bellow writes. “What do you propose to do now your wife has taken a lover?” Herzog asks. “Pull Spinoza from the shelf and look into what he says about adultery?” Where was Spinoza when Moses married a woman who really does “eat green salad and drink human blood”? Where was he when her lover smarmed his way into Herzog’s confidence? Moses comes to terms with the reality of his situation over the course of an artfully plotted recovery, both moving and funny. In addition, there are brilliant scenes from Herzog’s Montreal childhood, as memorable and autobiographical as anything Bellow ever wrote.

Humboldt's Gift jacket

Humboldt’s Gift (1975)

For Bellow, Chicago was “one of the terms that expressed the depth of our penetration into the physical world”. The power of the city “lay in things and the methods by which they were produced”. The Chicago sections of Humboldt’s Gift, the funniest of Bellow’s novels, offer a wide range of character types, including real and wannabe gangsters, high-powered academics, vengeful wives, femmes fatales, expensive lawyers. Bellow goes after the lawyers with particular relish, partly because he suffered so at their hands (having had five wives and been divorced four times). Here we meet, among others, Forrest Tomchek and Maxie Pinsker. Tomchek is too important for Charlie Citrine, the novel’s narrator. “He wouldn’t put you in his fish tank for an ornament.” Pinsker, hired by Charlie’s shrewish wife, Denise, who is bleeding him dry, is known as “Cannibal” Pinsker, “that man-eating kike”. Both are “completely at home in the fallen world”, a world Charlie, like Bellow, is both attracted to and deplores. “Chicago with its gigantesque outer life,” Charlie declares, “contained the whole problem of poetry and the inner life in America”. The non-Chicago sections of the novel, involving the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, render this problem with comic poignancy.

Ravelstein jacket

Ravelstein (2000)

Bellow’s last novel, written in his 80s, is a loving and openly biographical portrait of the political philosopher Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), a bestselling polemic against trends in university education. To some, the novel’s portrait of Bloom as Ravelstein is a betrayal; to others, it is as much what Bloom would have wanted as the narrator’s portrait of Ravelstein is what his friend Ravelstein wants. Ravelstein is a homosexual, as was Bloom, whose sexual orientation was known to friends and colleagues, though not to the wider public. Ravelstein dies of Aids, or complications from Aids, which Bloom may have died from as well. According to Bellow, the novel was, in effect, solicited by Bloom, just as Ravelstein solicits Chick, the narrator, a biographer of sorts, “to do me as you did Keynes, but on a bigger scale … Be as hard on me as you like.” For Chick, as for Bellow, “it was up to me to interpret his wishes and to decide just to what extent I was freed by his death to respect the essentials”. Bellow was drawn to larger-than-life figures and his fiction is as filled with them as the novels of Dickens or Balzac are. Ravelstein is the last of their number, a brilliantly funny and eccentric character, as exotic and colourful in the grey academic landscape of Chicago’s Hyde Park as the flocks of escaped parrots who nest in its back alleys and tall shrubs. “You don’t easily give up a character like Ravelstein to death,” is the novel’s raison d’etre.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeerA science fiction novel that’s been getting a lot of attention recently, this is the first in a trilogy: I’ll not, however, be going any further. Stephen King says he’s “loving the Southern Reach Trilogy”, describing it as “Creepy and fascinating”. The Guardian describes it as “Hauntingly weird and brilliantly new”, as a “contemporary masterpiece”; a “modern mycological masterpiece” which is “remarkable”, which is “tense, eerie and unsettling”; claiming that VanderMeer “writes much better prose than Poe ever did”; insisting that this is “genuinely potent and dream-haunting writing” and a “lasting monument to the uncanny”; that the reader will find themselves “afraid to turn the page”. I didn’t. According to the Financial Times “VanderMeer’s novel is a psycho-geographical tour de force, channelling Ballard and Lovecraft to instil the reader with a deep, delicious unease”. I wasn’t so instilled. It kinda worked. It’s written in pretty clunky prose. And the story’s dynamic is a bit weak and predictable. Ho-hum.

Mr A

Huxley to Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949)


orwell huxley

In 1949, George Orwell received a curious letter from his former high school French teacher.

Orwell had just published his groundbreaking book Nineteen Eighty-Four, which received glowing reviews from just about every corner of the English-speaking world. His French teacher, as it happens, was none other thanAldous Huxley who taught at Eton for a spell before writing Brave New World (1931), the other great 20th century dystopian novel.

Huxley starts off the letter praising the book, describing it as “profoundly important.” He continues, “The philosophy of the ruling minority inNineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it.”

Then Huxley switches gears and criticizes the book, writing, “Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.” (Listen to him read a dramatized version of the book here.)

Basically while praising Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley argues that his version of the future was more likely to come to pass.

In Huxley’s seemingly dystopic World State, the elite amuse the masses into submission with a mind-numbing drug called Soma and an endless buffet of casual sex. Orwell’s Oceania, on the other hand, keeps the masses in check with fear thanks to an endless war and a hyper-competent surveillance state. At first blush, they might seem like they are diametrically opposed but, in fact, an Orwellian world and a Huxleyan one are simply two different modesof oppression.

Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision but the power of both books is that they tap into our fears of the state. While Huxley might make you look askance at The Bachelor or Facebook, Orwell makes you recoil in horror at the government throwing around phrases like “enhanced interrogation” and “surgical drone strikes.”

You can read Huxley’s full letter below.

Wrightwood. Cal.

21 October, 1949

Dear Mr. Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

Thank you once again for the book.

Yours sincerely,

Aldous Huxley

via Letters of Note


Spurious by Lars Iyer

Spurious by Lars IyerA good novel shows rather than tells. This is a problem with novels such as Orwell’s Animal Farm: it’s pretty “telly” – that is, it pointedly tells you what to think. however, in Spurious by Lars Iyer, there is clearly no ostensible effort to shape our view of the world; however, the reader will feel that something has happened to them whilst making their way through the pages. We have been shown something, but what?

But is this a terribly funny novel or utterly vacuous, or both?

Steven Poole writes in The Guardian…

“It is a tiny marvel of comically repetitive gloomery.

The character who endures the insults and has the damp problem shares a first name with the author: he is Lars. His friend is referred to only as “W.”, and the majority of the text consists of Lars’s uncomplaining reports of W.’s abuse of him. “Something inside you knows you talk rubbish,” W. says. “Something knows the unending bilge that comes out of your mouth.” Or: “I like it when you whine in your presentations [. . .] Like a sad ape. A sad ape locked up with his faeces.” Or, pointing at a shadow on the water when they are on a ferry: “Look: the kraken of your idiocy.”

W admits that he is an idiot too. “We should be drowned like kittens, he says, for the little we’ve achieved.” Yet what remains terribly important to this wonderfully monstrous creation – hideously proud of his new “man bag”, brutally competitive, and dismissive of his friend’s problems – is that he is, on his own estimation, just a little less stupid than his friend, whom he can therefore denigrate to a degree that makes the reader cringe happily. (What might Lars have been like if he had lived elsewhere? “A better person,” W. thinks, “taller, with some nobility of character.”)

Is Lars really as much of an idiot as W. claims? (Would W.’s behaviour be more or less cruel if he were?) All we know is what Lars tells us, and the prose is tuned to such a perfect deadpan that it is hard to be sure, even when the narrator performs an act of simple but striking poetry, evoking, say, “the end of the night [. . .] after we’ve drunk a great deal and the sky opens above us”. But then we know from what Lars tells us W. says that Lars is sometimes capable of lucidity. (“W. immediately lays claim in his essays to any idea I might have,” he comments neutrally.)

What are Lars’s ideas, exactly? He won’t tell us. When W. opens Lars’s notebook, it contains only “Drawings of cocks, of monkey butlers”. In a beautifully indirect nano-scene, meanwhile, the two look through W.’s newly published book. “Neither of us can follow it,” Lars says. “Ah, the long example of his dog! It’s even better than the sections on children in his previous book!” That is all we learn of the book. More would be superfluous.

Is Lars’s impassive recording of W.’s despairingly vicious buffonery a kind of brilliant revenge? Alternatively, or even if so, is there behind the melancholy, purposeless farce of this novel something like a homage to the idea of friendship, or a bracing philosophical theory of it? Well, Lars isn’t going to tell you. Neither, I suppose, am I.”

Mr A

18 Literary Maps of the United States

The first United States transcontinental road trip was completed in 1903, and Americans have been enamored with the open road ever since. The only thing more American than a road trip? A literary route celebrating American authors. The Library of Congress’ Language of the Land exhibit collects bookish state maps that chart the regions and the writers who loved them, either through birth or discovery.





5. LOS ANGELES (not a state, but the ultimate driving town)







12. OHIO