On Reading Ruskin (Prefaces to La Bible D’Amiens and Sesame et les Lys)

Proust was influenced by Ruskin early in his writing career, as seen in these prefaces to the two translations Proust did of Ruskin’s work, La Bible d’Amiens in 1900 and Sésame et les Lys in 1906, including the long prefaces and extended notes that are included in this. My favorite, of course, is his preface to Sesame and Lilies, On Reading. This is the essay in which he called the moments of unity between reader and writer “that fruitful miracle of communication in the midst of solitude.”

Books “are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished….” Proust loosely quotes Descartes in that “the reading of all good books is like a conversation with the most cultivated men of past centuries who have been their authors.” Fetishistic respect for books is dangerous, maybe even unhealthy, and the “taste for books grows with intelligence.” He points out Schopenhauer as an example of a mind “whose vitality bears lightly the most enormous reading, each new idea being immediately reduced to its share of reality, to the living portion it contains.”

“No doubt friendship, friendship for individuals, is a frivolous thing, and reading is a friendship. But at least it is a sincere friendship, and the fact that it is directed to one who is dead, who is absent, gives it something disinterested, almost moving… In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its first purity. With books, no amiability. These friends, if we spend an evening with them, it is truly because we desire them. In their case, at least, we often leave only with regret.”

So why do writers most often seek the classics for mental solace? Proust thinks it’s “doubtless because contemporary thought, which original writers and artists make accessible and desirable to the public, is to a certain extent so much a part of themselves that a different type of thought entertains them more. It requires, in order form them to proceed to it, more effort, and also gives them more pleasure; we always like to escape a bit from ourselves, to travel, when reading.”

Translated and edited by Jean Autret, William Burford, Phillip J. Wolfe