Earlier this summer, I saw a writer on Twitter suggesting that she would hold a “Summer of Proust” – an organized effort to read (at least) the first 200 pages of Swann’s Way. Published in 1913, it's the first of seven books in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time saga. I jumped in, volunteering to organize a chapter for my city, twisting the arm of my best friend until she joined up and tried to recruit people as well. When we had a small but mighty cohort of people, we began to read and scheduled our first meeting. Ok, great.
Choosing Proust is not exactly like choosing a friendly, mainstream book club book—witness the book choices of any public library system that tries to do a “one community, one read” program. They usually choose books that are more straightforward in structure and plot, whereas Proust is a dense pile of run-on sentences and ethereal prose that's hard to pin down, an exercise in extreme aestheticism bordering on phenomenological theory. It's hard to follow even if you're invested in it. Reading it as a collective exercise intrigued me because I, a person with an actual French degree and an established specialization in French art history, managed to never read any of it prior to this summer.
At some point during this process, during a summer replete with my own occupational soul-searching, it occurred to me that exercises like Summer of Proust are, however, the very point of the public humanities—finding ways to bring people to great literature, or art, or music, or philosophy, so that they can experience it on their own terms. Terms that, because they’re set by the participants with minimal guidance from the organizer, are even more valuable than whatever the supposed gospel truth of the cultural import of the text might be.
Related: I’ve been struggling for weeks to write a blog post about Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette comedy special on Netflix and how it uses art history. Her jokes are deeply well-informed and glorious in their confrontation of dangerous suppositions about canonical artists. She clearly knows much factual information about art history, and will hopefully inspire more people to seek out clarifications and truths about their artistic idols. However, another piece of historical commentary struck me to my core. With the frame narrative of this special being her threats to give up comedy, she asks what she’ll do if she does. She says, even with an art history degree, she can’t get a job in a gallery or a museum because they’re “too high class,” and “look at me!"
When people think anything in related to art, art history, or the humanities is “too high class” for them, we’re all doing our jobs wrong. Full stop. The staffs of institutions that deal in presenting arts and humanities content to the public should mirror the public they want to serve, which should certainly apply to museums, if not commercial galleries. Any person should be able to pick up Proust if they want. Maybe, because of what I know of late nineteenth-century French culture, I might laugh a little harder than another person at the scene where the narrator, as a child, meets a Nana-style courtesan for the first time (see, I read Zola instead...) and has to process that through his little brain. But that doesn’t mean that the other person enjoys the text any less.
We should be vigilant of the fact that the humanities, when public-facing and democratic, can offer strength and solace and grounding. Where people disagree on politics or religion, or whatever else, they may find useful discussion in a humanistic text. There’s a reason that thousands upon thousands of people who’ve never read Swann’s Way know that madeleines are synonymous with nostalgia and memories—everyone has had the experience of being triggered to remember something of their past by a smell, taste, sight, or sound. Since we started our Summer of Proust group, we've found one Proust reference in an article on condiment mascots used by the Cleveland Indians and another in a podcast hosted by MSNBC host Chris Hayes.
Much like Proust spun an entire world from the taste of a madeleine, we must put ourselves in the way of experiences that expand our world views. We must resist gate-keeping of difficult and supposedly "elite" humanities content and offer it to all who would be interested. And so, in our little Midwestern city, my friends and I meet in coffee shops and apartments to discuss the words of a long-dead French author and his conceptions of social class that are as deeply puzzling as our own society’s frequently are.