Proust before the culture machine – Michael Naas

Hello, Culture Machine? I’ll assume I’m on, and that you’re listening, the two of us inaugurating somewhere between the U.K. and the U.S. a new space or site for communication. Ignorant about almost all the technical requirements for establishing or clearing such a site (an ignorance that has not hindered me in the past, however, from watching T.V., or picking up the phone, or using a P.C. to compose this), I find myself here writing in – indeed the idiom even allows me to say ‘contributing to’ – a new electronic, on-line journal. From my side, it’s almost a miracle – and writing for the land of Hume I use this term advisedly.

I know that this is far from the first electronic journal, but because the technology is still relatively new, its novelty not yet worn off, its originality and surprise not yet completely concealed by the dull drone of Habit, I feel compelled to begin by commenting upon it. For it happens all the time: one’s first e-mails are invariably about the fact that one is e-mailing, concerned less with the content of the e-mail than with the protocols of writing and response, the idioms to be employed, the possible uses and abuses of the medium, its effects on our time, our relationships, etc. So it is not surprising that a first contribution to an electronic journal should include some mention of the novel medium itself, some remark of surprise, whether joy or dismay, over its nature and possibilities.

It is thus not at all surprising that I would begin by commenting here upon my surprise. For while the on-line journal might be the latest and most advanced technological invention for communication, while the internet may be the last word in culture machines, one might already see it as simply the last in a long line of such machines going back at least as far as the printing press. One might see the on-line journal, for all its rapidity and possibilities for distribution and participation, as simply extending a process of overcoming time and space that would go back to the production of the very first sign. For how is one to distinguish an advance in technology from something really and totally new, a mere development in a process from a genuine epistemic shift or paradigm change? Such questions concerning the status of a new technological development are difficult to answer for both the recent initiate, unable fully to appreciate the nuances and possibilities of the new medium, and the habitué, who has integrated the new technology to such a degree that it is difficult for him or her to remember a world before it. We are thus perhaps always too early or too late to see or reflect upon novelty, upon something really new. Wonder, amazement, surprise, even the feeling that the new machine is something wholly magical, are thus often tempered, if not dispelled, by the memory or recognition that this is what was felt when the last great culture machine made its appearance, the last time we were exposed to the last word in telecommunication.

To help inaugurate – and celebrate – this new site (I do not know in what way it is still a space) of communication, I propose simply to look back about a century to the wonder and promises surrounding the latest culture machine of that day, a machine that is still with us today – and with many of us everywhere we go. I propose listening for a moment to the reactions provoked just about a hundred years ago as the telephone made its way out of Alexander Graham Bell’s laboratory in 1876 and, some 20 years later, came into the life of one of this century’s most important French writers. I propose listening in for a few minutes to the first telephone communication in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, newly translated as In Search of Lost Time (Moncrieff & Kilmartin (eds): 1992), my intention here being not to make any explicit comparisons between telephone technology and the technologies that made Culture Machine possible, not to say anything new about the Internet (as if I could), not to try and take stock at the end of the first telephonic century of the ways in which the telephone has come to infiltrate and influence just about every aspect of our lives. Instead of looking at what the telephone has produced or enabled, how it has extended communication and increased efficiency, I wish to read Proust so as to lend an ear to something at the core of telephone technology that does not work, that cannot communicate, but that may have something to do with the essence of technology itself. Through In Search of Lost Time, I wish to ask about what it is in technology that makes us lose time, what the value of this lost time might be, and what it is that certain telecommunications would like to conceal or recuperate or capitalize upon within technology itself. Having been granted adequate time and space to say something about the general theme of ‘taking risks with the future’, I propose, therefore, to turn toward the past, toward something thoroughly unproductive, absent, even wasteful in the past that may nonetheless tell us something about our future.

I take as my justification for spending all this time on the phone, for yakking away so thoroughly unproductively, something Jean-François Lyotard says in The Differend as he contrasts the work of imagination and technique with that of the economic genre of discourse, whose aim is always to gain time, to reduce imagination and technique as much as possible in the name of pure exchange. According to Lyotard, one of the great dangers of today’s techniques of communication is that they reduce communication to the exchange of information, to a near instantaneous exchange, where nothing is lost because information is given only in order to be recuperated, capitalized upon, and exchanged. No lost time, no delay in communication that is not paid back, that does not gain interest, no joy in technique or imagination apart from the joy of having gained time. Lyotard writes:

Between the phrases of imagination on the one hand, and the phrases of technological effectuation on the other, and finally the phrases that follow the rules of the economic genre, there is heterogeneity. Capital subordinates the first two regimens to the third. Inventing and executing, along with the stakes proper to them, are treated as so much lost time with regard to the concatenation phrase 1-phrase 2 (that is, with regard to the concatenation of phrases in exchange). (Lyotard, 1988: 175)

To work against this capital usurpation of technology, one might, of course, adopt some ludite strategy to criticize, reject, or dismantle technology itself, to revert back to a time before technology, if such a time can actually be thought. Or else one might attempt to listen to – to seek out – the lost time within technology, or within some technologies, the lost time that Lyotard says is itself in danger of being lost in the name of efficiency and gaining time.

My hypothesis here, then, is that amidst the euphoria and the fears about new technologies, amidst the promises of a better life and the concerns over the means by which we seek such a life, we should not overlook a certain purely technological moment, a moment that cannot be recovered within the genre of efficiency and capital, a moment of lost time. My hypothesis would be that there is a moment within technology that resists technology, a moment within technologies of life or death that resist being used for life or death, a moment that resists efficiency, that resists all aims and intentions, and that lets us catch a glimpse – though only for a moment, in a sort of involuntary memory that has no content – of lost time itself.

Proust’s teaching about what is lost in technology, about the absence involved in the greater and greater extension of presence through technical media, occurs at the center of a full-blown theory of the way in which a new medium is first encountered and then eventually integrated into everyday life. Thanks to the temporal scope of Remembrance of Things Past, we are able to witness the narrator Marcel’s first introduction to the telephone, his first reflections upon using it, and then, hundreds of pages later, his adaptation and habituation to it.

The first mention of a telephone in Remembrance of Things Past already suggests in telegraphic form the development that will take a couple thousand pages to unfold in the life of the narrator. Mme Cottard, the wife of the ambitious doctor who plays a prominent role in the salon of the Verdurins during the early parts of the novel, speaks of a friend who has just had a telephone installed – obviously a rarity for the times – and admits having ‘indulged in the most bare-faced intrigues to get permission to go there one day, just to speak into the instrument (pour parler devant l’appareil)’, for ‘it’s very tempting, but rather in a friend’s house than at home. . . . Once the first excitement is over, it must be a real headache (un vrai casse-tête)’ (Proust, 1983: I, 653). Though it is impossible to ascribe a precise date to the time of the narrative, we are most likely in the early 1890’s (Proust himself writing these lines some ten to fifteen years thereafter), as telephone technology was just emerging in France.1 (I note in passing that one hears almost identical deliberations today about whether or not to get on-line at home, for while having access to the outside from home can be exciting, being so readily accessible from the outside can, as we all know, be a real headache. Beckett, who perhaps learned as much about the telephone from Proust as from Joyce, knew what he was doing when he spent all that money to get a phone that made only outgoing calls.)

The first response, then, to such a new technology and the fear of its accompanying headache is simply to ignore it, or, when this becomes impossible, actively to eschew or reject it. With even the most widely distributed technologies there will always be some hold-outs, people who out of principle or fear refuse to be tempted. Such is the case of the narrator’s family’s maid Françoise, whose technophobia the narrator finds both endearing and annoying. Due to an ‘ancestral timidity and melancholy, when she was brought face to face with any object unknown to her fathers’, Françoise proved incapable of ‘approaching a telephone receiver, although she would readily visit a person suffering from a contagious disease’ (Proust, 1983: III, 152). She refused to learn to use the phone ‘as though it were something as unpleasant as vaccination or as dangerous as the aeroplane’ (Proust, 1983: III, 96). Telephone technology had thus allowed Françoise to develop an ancestral trait in a new and particularly aggravating way:

The advance of civilisation enables people to display unsuspected qualities or fresh defects which make them dearer or more insupportable to their friends. Thus Dr. Bell’s invention had enabled Françoise to acquire an additional defect, which was that of refusing, however important, however urgent the occasion might be, to make use of the telephone. She would manage to disappear whenever anybody was going to teach her how to use it, as people disappear when it is time for them to be vaccinated. (Proust, 1983: II, 756-7)2

For those who do use the telephone in Proust, the result is not the contraction of some contagious disease, but neither is it absolute convenience or unmitigated joy. As Mme Cottard says, once the excitement is over the telephone can become a real ‘casse-tête’ – a real headache, a real pain, a true annoyance. But perhaps even more dangerous – and more inevitable – for Proust is the way in which the initial excitement and wonder get covered over by the dull murmur of Habit (often capitalized by Proust and underscored throughout the novel as much as either memory or imagination). The telephone is exemplary of the way in which Habit comes to conceal our memory of what was unique – and thus absent; it comes to represent certain aspects of the entire Proustian aesthetic. Though the first call is exciting, perhaps even magical, as we will see in a few moments, it does not take long for this magic to be concealed by Habit, for mystery to be veiled by use. Just as certain names such as ‘Guermantes’ once contained a magical quality in imagination that became concealed through constant contact and habituation with the reality behind them, so the magic of the telephone – that marvelous new culture machine that, as we will see, brings us closer not only to those who are absent but to absence and death – was concealed by everyday uses that seem simply to extend our presence in life. In ‘The Captive’, approximately two thirds of the way through Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel has become habituated to both the name ‘Guermantes’ and the telephone, using one like the other no longer to feed his imagination, but simply to attain a point of information or order some service.

And I would go down almost without thinking how extraordinary it was that I should be calling upon that mysterious Mme de Guermantes of my boyhood simply in order to make use of her for a practical purpose as one makes use of the telephone, a supernatural instrument before whose miracles we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or order an ice cream. (Proust, 1983: III, 24)

The miracle of the telephone has been domesticated, transformed into a more immediate letter, a more effective telegraph, a more faithful servant. Marcel now uses the phone, indeed he now ‘seize(s)’ it, to discover things about Albertine, to track her every movement. It is no longer magical, no longer a way to communicate with the absent, but an instrument to be used for communicating with the potentially present. Marcel sends Françoise to the theater to find Albertine and asks her immediately to telephone him – or have someone else telephone him on her behalf – to inform him of Albertine’s whereabouts (Proust, 1983: III, 152). He uses the phone without reflection in order to ask Bloch about the whereabouts of Léa, whom he suspects of having a relationship with Albertine (Proust, 1983: III, 148). In the next part of the novel, ‘The Fugitive’, this process is carried to its logical conclusion as the narrator simply makes reference as if in passing to the many telegrams and telephone messages exchanged with Saint-Loup, as if these quotidian events were barely worthy of mention, let alone serious reflection (Proust, 1983: III, 514). As Alain de Botton writes in his humorous little book How Proust Can Change Your Life:

It had taken a little more than three decades for a technological marvel to cease attracting admiring glances and turn into a household object that we wouldn’t hesitate to condemn were we to suffer at its hands the minor inconvenience of a delayed glace au chocolat. (Botton 1997: 160)

The more one gets used to speaking on the telephone, the less one marvels over or speaks about it. The more one becomes habituated to using the phone, the less one thinks about one’s language on it, peppering one’s conversation with stock phrases rather than the products of imagination and reflection. Hearing Andrée, Albertine’s friend, say at the end of a conversation, ‘It’s been a great pleasure to hear your voice’, Marcel reflects, ‘now that the telephone has come into general use, a decorative ritual of polite phrases has grown up round it, as round the tea-tables of the past’ (Proust, 1983: III, 96). Stock phrases, ready-made formalities, come to conceal the uniqueness of imagination and poetic language.

Yet thanks to the isolation of the voice, something of the uniqueness still remains, something beyond everyday perception and mundane speech. Thanks, it seems, to the isolation of Andrée’s voice on the phone, Marcel, ‘deeply affected by the sound of her voice’ (Proust, 1983: III, 96-97), is able to reflect in this scene upon the unique character of each of the women he has known. As he later remarks, ‘one discovers on the telephone the inflexions of a voice which one fails to perceive so long as it is not dissociated from a face in which one objectivises its expression’ (Proust, 1983: III, 538).3 (I note in passing again that Internet chat rooms lack this feature – for good or ill, making masquerading or passing for the opposite sex, for example, more common and the strategies for detecting or attempting to detect the gender of one’s correspondent more elaborate.)

The telephone has given rise to new forms of intimacy, new ways of perceiving the uniqueness of others, but it has come to do so on a mass scale, so much so that Marcel sees in it an untapped source for painting. As the operator is trying to contact Andrée, whose phone is busy, Marcel thinks:

As I waited for her to finish her conversation, I wondered why it was – now that so many of our painters are seeking to revive the feminine portraits of the eighteenth century, in which the cleverly devised setting is a pretext for portraying expressions of expectation, sulkiness, interest, reverie – why it was that none of our modern Bouchers or Fragonards had yet painted, instead of ‘The Letter’ or ‘The Harpsichord’, this scene which might be entitled ‘At the telephone (Devant le téléphone)’, in which there would come spontaneously to the lips of the listener a smile all the more genuine in that it is conscious of being unobserved. (Proust, 1983: III, 94-95)

To react to a voice without being able to be seen reacting – this would be a sign of authenticity, a reaction that does not have to be modified for the social setting, for the benefit of the social self. What are elsewhere called ‘the purposeless smiles on the faces of people who are talking to one on the telephone’ (Proust, 1983: II, 596) can be trusted precisely because they cannot be accused of trying to achieve some effect. While one’s words on the phone might thus be false, the smile or frown would not – and so would provide an opportunity in painting for a genuine reaction, a revelation of unobserved intimacy.4

If, as Marcel seems to suggest, the telephone might help the painter to capture a form of intimacy by portraying a way of being in contact with another without being seen, a way of being with another while being alone, then the placement of the phone comes to make all the difference. In Remembrance of Things Past we can plot the development of the narrative and, perhaps not coincidentally, the development of the narrator’s eventual writing of the novel that will be, or will have been, The Remembrance of Things Past, by watching the interiorization of the telephone.5 Along with an habituation to the telephone comes an integration into one’s habitation; the first phone for the narrator is at a post office, a public phone, which eventually becomes introduced into the home, then into the bedroom, just an arm’s reach away from the bed, where the narrator will spend more and more of his time and where Proust himself, we are told, will write the great majority of his novel. (It should be noted that Proust himself quickly obtained a telephone when they became available in Paris – telephone number 29205 (Botton, 1997: 160)).

In the section of the novel entitled ‘Cities of the Plain’, Marcel, hoping for a call from Albertine, switched the phone connection to his own room and ‘cut it off between the post office and the porter’s lodge to which it was generally switched at that hour. . . . And so the telephone was installed in my bedroom, and, that it might not disturb my parents, a rattle had been substituted for the bell’ (Proust, 1983: II, 756-7). A phone of one’s own in a room of one’s own: convenient, certainly, a real headache as well, as Mme Cottard already knew, but also, potentially connecting us at any moment to the one we love, an instrument of anticipation, anxiety, even torture. Avital Ronell writes of this scene in her remarkable The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech:

. . . he was waiting for Albertine’s call. He waits, maddened by the pause. Saturated with desire – desired to tears, the way we say bored to tears. During this time of waiting, being-put-on-hold, he discovers the phenomenal power of solitude: ‘la violence non adressée du désir’. . . .

Proust crafts a rhetoric of anxiety in the description that follows, and which opens a horizon of ‘torture’ and waiting until finally, the ‘sublime noise’ of Albertine’s call erupts. ‘And I settled down to listen, to suffer’. (Ronell, 1989: 357, 441)

We have now just about exhausted the directory of phone calls in Proust – only one important call remains, the first one, the magical one, the unexpected one where Habit has not yet come to transform imagination into efficiency, where present time has not yet come to integrate into narrative and into a predictable future or a recuperable past a moment of lost time and separation. Considering all that has been said about how Habit obscures surprise, it should not be surprising that the very first time the narrator Marcel himself uses the telephone it elicits by far the longest and most provocative reflections on the telephone in the entire novel – reflections relating this new medium of contact, extended presence, and projected life to separation, absence, and death.

Let us listen, then, to the narrator Marcel in Remembrance of Things Past as he recalls his very first phone call, made, I think we can say, right around 1896, just about a hundred years ago, at another fin de siecle, a phone call he receives while visiting his friend Robert de Saint Loup in Doncières, trying, through this visit, to get over his obsession with Mme de Guermantes, a sort of substitute mother, a phone call, then, which he gets, not coincidentally, from his grandmother – the grandmother who has been his most maternal presence, with whom he once communicated at Balbec by knocking on the walls at night between his hotel room and hers, three knocks and she would come running, a first communication and a first separation, the wall and the code worked out between them being a first moment of technological contact and a first prefiguration of distance, the separation of the wall already prefiguring another, greater separation, a separation that would be breached or overcome it seems by the telephone, but is in fact recalled by it, recalled and amplified so as to suggest the final separation, the ultimate one, the one we all would like to deny but that we all know is coming, since even the longest of lives, the longest of connections, even the longest of Proustian run on sentences, must, at some time or another, come to an end. At a quarter to four in the afternoon in Doncières, then, many miles from Paris, Marcel is there waiting in the post office, waiting expectantly for something he could not have anticipated and for which he could not have been prepared. Recalling the incident some years later, the grown narrator writes:

The telephone was not yet at that date as commonly in use as it is to-day. And yet habits require so short a time to divest of their mystery the sacred forces with which we are in contact, that, not having had my call at once, my immediate thought was that it was all very long and very inconvenient, and I almost decided to lodge a complaint.6

(It does not take long, Proust would remind us, for the miraculous speed of the 386 or 486 to become all too common and all too slow. We wait with impatience as a program containing so little information as, say, the text of Remembrance of Things Past takes a few seconds to come up on our screen.7) The narrator continues:

Like all of us nowadays, I found too slow for my liking, in its abrupt changes, the admirable sorcery whereby a few moments are enough to bring before us, invisible but present, the person to whom we wish to speak, and who, while still sitting at his table, in the town in which he lives (in my grandmother’s case, Paris), under another sky than ours, in weather that is not necessarily the same, in the midst of circumstances and preoccupations of which we know nothing and of which he is about to inform us, finds himself suddenly transported hundreds of miles (he and all the surroundings in which he remains immured) within reach of our ear, at the precise moment which our fancy has ordained. And we are like the person in the fairy-tale for whom a sorceress, at his express wish, conjures up, in a supernatural light, his grandmother or his betrothed in the act of turning over a book, of shedding tears, of gathering flowers, close by the spectator and yet very far away, in the place where she actually is at the moment.

Close by and yet very far away: does this description seem to us close by or very far away? Have we not all at some point in the last twenty years marvelled over the sorceries of e-mail, of faxes, or the Internet? But if each new advance is a miracle – and it is perhaps a miracle – unforeseen and outside what can be expected, we are still able, it seems, to put these miracles next to one another so as to see a sort of filiation between them. Marcel continues:

We need only, so that the miracle may be accomplished, apply our lips to the magic orifice and invoke – occasionally for rather longer than seems to us necessary, I admit – the Vigilant Virgins to whose voices we listen every day without ever coming to know their faces, and who are our guardian angels in the dizzy realm of darkness whose portals they so jealously guard; the All-Powerful by whose intervention the absent rise up at our side, without our being permitted to set eyes on them; the Danaids of the unseen who incessantly empty and fill and transmit to one another the urns of sound; the ironic Furies who, just as we are murmuring a confidence to a loved one, in the hope that no one could hear us, cry brutally: ‘I’m listening!’; the ever-irritable handmaidens of the Mystery, the umbrageous priestesses of the Invisible, the Young Ladies of the Telephone.

(Forgive me for interrupting here once again, annoying as I know it is, like the automated AT&T operator in the U.S. who keeps on saying ’35 cents please, 35 cents for the next three minutes’, because I’m curious – and I know I’m not the first – why telecommunications now and then always seem to be linked to the feminine, why the computerized voice of the AT&T operator is, with few exceptions, still a woman’s, why we speak of home pages, webs (a term taken probably less from spider culture than from care ethics), chat rooms, why the need for the virtual feminine connection, why the desire for the virtual home – assuming that the home has not always been virtual?) Marcel continues:

And as soon as our call has rung out, in the darkness filled with apparitions to which our ears alone are unsealed, a tiny sound, an abstract sound – the sound of distance overcome – and the voice of the dear one speaks to us.

It is she, it is her voice that is speaking, that is there. But how far away it is! How often have I been unable to listen without anguish, as though, confronted by the impossibility of seeing, except after long hours of journeying, her whose voice was so close to my ear, I felt more clearly the illusoriness in the appearance of the most tender proximity, and at what a distance we may be from the persons we love at the moment when it seems that we have only to stretch out our hands to seize and hold them. A real presence, perhaps, that voice that seemed so near – in actual separation! But a premonition also of an eternal separation!

This, it seems to me, is the technological moment concealed within technique: the moment of inversion or reversion from presence and proximity to absence and death. Marcel continues: Many were the times, as I listened thus without seeing her who spoke to me from so far away, when it seems to me that the voice was crying to me from the depths out of which one does not rise again, and I felt the anxiety that was one day to wring my heart when a voice would thus return (alone and attached no longer to a body which I was never to see again), to murmur in my ear words I longed to kiss as they issued from lips for ever turned to dust.

Marcel has not yet heard his grandmother’s voice, but he’s reflecting upon the possibilities of telephone communication in general, and after comparing the call to magic and sorcery, to the evocation of the dead, he does not simply compare the phone but begins using it. Using it, I would say, to mourn, to begin the work of incorporation by severing words from the body that produced them, severing the speech of the telephone from the lips that utter it, from the lips he had once kissed.

Here, then, is the general structure of the trace as Jacques Derrida has analyzed it, the supplement of technique, of the telephone, here revealing the essential non-essential nature of all communication. In a section of ‘Signature Event Context’ entitled ‘Writing and Telecommunication’, Derrida says of writing, by which he means, I think, the possibility of a legible trace in general:

To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a kind of machine [let’s say, to gloss Derrida and pay homage to this new medium, a kind of ‘culture machine’] that is in turn productive, that my future disappearance in principle will not prevent from functioning and from yielding, and yield itself to, reading and rewriting. . . . For the written to be written, it must continue ‘to act’ and to be legible even if what is called the author of the writing no longer answers for what he has written, for what he seems to have signed, whether he is provisionally absent, or if he is dead . . . (Derrida, 1982: 316)

This is the situation that Marcel the narrator has come to understand about telecommunication in general as a result of this very first call from his grandmother, a situation that has obviously been confirmed by subsequent experience. Having come to understand that the legible trace – whether written or spoken, whether inscribed in a text or retained in memory – implies the death of both the one who has produced it and the one who deciphers it, Marcel returns to the phone call at Doncières and to his grandmother’s sudden appearance on the phone, that magical moment when, as we now say, she comes on line:

suddenly (tout d’un coup) I heard that voice which I mistakenly thought I knew so well; for always until then, every time that my grandmother had talked to me, I had been accustomed to follow what she said on the open score of her face, in which the eyes figured so largely; but her voice itself I was hearing this afternoon for the first time. And because that voice appeared to me to have altered in its proportions from the moment that it was a whole, and reached me thus alone and without the accompaniment of her face and features, I discovered for the first time how sweet that voice was . . . It was sweet, but also how sad it was, first of all on account of its very sweetness, a sweetness drained almost – more than any but a few human voices can ever have been – of every element of hardness, of resistance to others, of selfishness! Fragile by reason of its delicacy, it seemed constantly on the verge of breaking, of expiring in a pure flow of tears; then, too, having it alone beside me, seen without the mask of her face, I noticed in it for the first time the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of a lifetime.

Suddenly – tout d’un coup: this is the phrase that signals throughout Proust’s work the unexpected, magical advent of involuntary memory, the emergence of a past that was never present as such. For the first time, Marcel is able to read his Grandmother’s voice, to read death, absence, and sorrow in her voice as he had never been able to before. Here, then, without interruption, is the remainder of the passage, where we hear how the telephone, which promises (in the U.S. at least) to allow us to ‘reach out and touch someone’, also entails, as an essential possibility, that that someone – our Eurydice – sink back into Hades at the very moment we try to touch them, the telephone always promising a successful séance, a real communication with the dead, a presentation of the dead as living, but then, in a crack of the voice, revealing a connection to death in the death of connection, in the disconnection at the heart of life:

Was it, however, solely the voice that, because it was alone, gave me this new impression which tore my heart? Not at all; it was rather that this isolation of the voice was like a symbol, an evocation, a direct consequence of another isolation, that of my grandmother, for the first time separated from me. The commands or prohibitions which she constantly addressed to me in the ordinary course of life, the tedium of obedience or the fire of rebellion which neutralized the affection that I felt for her, were at this moment eliminated and indeed might be eliminated for ever . . . and so, what I held compressed in the little bell at my ear was our mutual affection, freed from the conflicting pressures which had daily counteracted it, and henceforth irresistible, uplifting me entirely. My grandmother, by telling me to stay [in Doncières], filled me with an anxious, an insensate longing to return [to Paris]. This freedom she was granting me henceforward, and to which I had never dreamed that she would consent, appeared to me suddenly as sad as my freedom of action might be after her death (when I should still love her and she would for ever have abandoned me). ‘Granny!’ I cried to her, ‘Granny!’ and I longed to kiss her, but I had beside me only the voice, a phantom as impalpable as the one that would perhaps come back to visit me when my grandmother was dead. ‘Speak to me!’ But then, suddenly, I ceased to hear the voice, and was left even more alone. My grandmother could no longer hear me; she was no longer in communication with me; we had ceased to be close to each other, to be audible to each other; I continued to call her, groping in the empty darkness, feeling that calls from her must also be going astray. I quivered with the same anguish which I had felt once before in the distant past, when, as a little child, I had lost her in a crowd, an anguish due less to my not finding her than to the thought that she must be searching for me, must be saying to herself that I was searching for her, an anguish not unlike that which I was later to feel, on the day when we speak to those who can no longer reply and when we long for them at least to hear all the things we never said to them, and our assurance that we are not unhappy. It seemed to me as though it was already a beloved ghost that I had allowed to lose herself in the ghostly world, and, standing alone before the instrument, I went on vainly repeating: ‘Granny! Granny!’ as Orpheus, left alone, repeats the name of his dead wife.

And so Marcel leaves the post office and resolves to return to Paris immediately, to see his grandmother in the flesh, to see and speak to her living so as to cover over the proximity of her voice that bore her death. Over the phone, her distance was so close, her separation so proximate, that it was necessary for Marcel to return to Paris, to come closer to her, in order to reestablish the distance between them. Technology has opened up a chasm of desire and death, allowing Marcel to see in the absence of sight that those who can leave traces are those who are destined to die, those who will have been dead. In The Culture of Time and Space, Stephen Kern notes that while the telegraph and telephone made communication across great distances possible, ‘the mechanical impersonality of this exchange excluded the expression of human sentiments that could have emerged in a face-to-face meeting. Proust had a vision of death when he first spoke to his grandmother over the telephone’ (Kern, 1983: 268).8 Though the ‘mechanical impersonality’ of the telephone does indeed allow certain ‘human sentiments’ to be excluded – a fact that Kern links, for example, to the explosion of male courting on the telephone at the turn of the century, distance being ‘useful to buffer the intensity of face-to-face encounters’ (Kern, 1983: 215) – Marcel’s conversation with his grandmother demonstrates to the contrary that the most powerful of ‘human sentiments’, the presentiment of the death of the other, is actually enabled by the lack of a face-to-face encounter.

While the telephone appears several more times in Remembrance of Things Past, as we have seen, never again will it evoke this degree of passion or reflection. Almost everything that will be said will be a mere echo of this, or else a forgetting of it. Though he still invokes the ‘implacable deities’ (Proust, 1983: III, 94), the Young Ladies of the Telephone – those disembodied voices that made connections and in many cases controlled destinies during the early decades of the telephone, though he still speaks of a voice that was ‘projected towards me with an instantaneous speed by the goddess whose privilege it is to make sound more swift than light’ (Proust, 1983: III, 96; see 97, 152), these mock epic formulae already ring a bit falsely in our ears, their charm and originality worn a bit thin by our habituation to them.

Though we see the telephone introduced into French life throughout the course of Remembrance of Things Past, it is difficult to imagine Proust ‘before the telephone’. Even if it had not been invented, its effect or affect – its telefection – would have been there, even if it were translated into as simple a gesture as tapping on the wall. Derrida writes in ‘Ulysses Gramophone’, ‘Before the act or the word, the telephone. In the beginning was the telephone’ (Derrida, 1991: 270). Before the logos, before any spoken word, the telephone; before any communication, the connection of an irremediable disconnection.

In Proust, then, the telephone becomes not only a new means of communication to be described in the novel but a new resource for communication itself, a new source of simile and comparison, and, finally, a new model for communication itself. Using the telephone as a new resource for writing, Marcel compares the absolute surprise at discovering a relationship in the life of Albertine that goes far beyond anything he could have imagined to an encounter with the incredible power and potential of the telephone that goes far beyond any of its initial promises or advertisements.

The notion of Albertine as the friend of Mlle Vinteuil and of Mlle Vinteuil’s friend, a practising and professional Sapphist, was as momentous, compared to what I had imagined when I doubted her most, as are the telephones that soar over streets, cities, fields, seas, linking one country to another, compared to the little acousticon of the 1889 Exhibition which was barely expected to transmit sound form one end of a house to the other. (Proust, 1983: II, 1153)

The telephone is thus not only a new subject for writing and communication but a new resource for it – a new resource for describing or reinventing the very nature of communication and writing themselves – including, perhaps, the novel. Not only are metaphors and similes thus multiplied to speak of telephone technology, but telephone technology is now used as a metaphor for communication and writing. When, more than three quarters of the way through the three thousand plus page novel, the narrator sees his first bit of writing published in Le Figaro – the writing he had desired to see published for so long and that prefigures the writing and eventual publication of the novel Remembrance of Things Past – it is by means of a comparison to the telephone that he will describe the relationship between author and reader, dispelling by means of tele-technology the naive belief that meaning is simply transferred intact from the former to the latter.

Although I was well aware that many people who read this article would find it detestable, at the moment of reading it the meaning that each word conveyed to me seemed to me to be printed on the paper, and I could not believe that every other reader on opening his eyes would not see directly the images that I saw, assuming – with the same naivety as those who believe that it is the actual speech they have uttered that proceeds just as it is along the telephone wires – that the author’s thought is directly perceived by the reader, whereas quite other thoughts form on the latter’s mind. (Proust, 1983: III, 580)

In these similes, in all similes perhaps, there is a domestication of one thing by means of another; the telephone – a new medium – is domesticated by implicitly being compared to that for which it was to serve as the basis for comparison. The subject of comparison invariably becomes the object, since the current runs in both directions. But if, at the center of telephone technology there is an essential disconnection, an irrecuperable separation, then quite the opposite might also be said: the telephone introduces back into speech, and into writing, the absence and loss that would reside at the very heart of their communication. Between speaker and listener, author and reader, there is an essential disconnection.

Speaking earlier in the novel with Andrée about Albertine, Marcel believes he detects a second meaning in Andrée’s words, a hidden meaning that nonetheless reaches him, ‘certain gestures which, although they have no logical rational form directly devised for the listener’s intelligence, reach him nevertheless in their true meaning, just as human speech, converted into electricity in the telephone, is turned into speech again when it strikes the ear’ (Proust, 1983: I, 990). The telephone demonstrates that even if meanings are deformed or transformed – transferred in a way that removes them from their habitual state – they may nonetheless reach and strike us, not as some truth deformed but as the truth itself, a truth that would go beyond everyday, clichéd, domesticated language, a language that would go beyond intelligibility, beyond perception and presence, which is to say, a language of loss.

Who knows what Alexander Graham Bell was thinking – or what was being thought – when he uttered that very first telephonic phrase in 1876, ‘Mr. Watson, come here; I want you’: Was it joy and satisfaction over a new discovery or a premonition of death, of separation? Was it uttered out of excitement or fear, this first telephonic sentence that said, perhaps, ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want to show you what we have done, I want to share this with you, share what could have been done only in your absence, with you over there, Mr. Watson, are you there?, did you hear?, will you come to tell me that you heard, that you were here when you were there, that you were living when you seemed to be dead, come here, Mr. Watson, so that we can share your distance, so that we while living can share your death, come here while over there, I want you to bear witness to our separation . . .’, these words of anxiety over death thus being immortalized while the lips that uttered them have long ago turned to dust.

Though modern technologies of communication would work hard to conceal this original separation, the technology within technology has a way of repeating, amplifying, and multiplying it. Each technology would no doubt do so in different ways and to different degrees, some being more suitable than others for searching out lost time. The telephone, it seems, would be exemplary of this search, for our experience of and with it allows us to say with Derrida, who really could have been on the phone with Proust, ‘In the beginning was the telephone’. In the beginning and, I would add, in the end – for in the end, at the end, two receivers are always dangling somewhere in the world, words still coming out of both ends though the speaker and the listener are long gone, their lips long turned to dust, words still coming out to be overheard by some third party who one day too must die.

To end, I would simply like to cite a short passage Derrida recently wrote on the occasion of the death of Emmanuel Levinas, with whom he had been friends for many years. Levinas, we recall, was himself no stranger to Proust, having once written in an essay entitled ‘The Other in Proust’: ‘The mystery in Proust is the mystery of the other’, and again, ‘Albertine’s nothingness uncovers her total alterity. Death is the death of other people, contrary to the tendency of contemporary philosophy, which is focused on one’s own solitary death’ (Levinas, 1996: 102-3). Just after Levinas’s death, then, Derrida says in the context of a eulogy spoken before Levinas’s family and friends:

If the relation to the other presupposes an infinite separation, an infinite interruption where the face appears, what happens, where and to whom does it happen, when another interruption comes at death to hollow out with even more infinity this prior separation, a rending interruption at the heart of interruption itself? I cannot speak of the interruption without recalling, like others among you no doubt, the anxiety of interruption that I could feel in Emmanuel Levinas when, on the telephone for example, he seemed at each moment to fear being cut off, to fear the silence or disappearance, the ‘without response’, of the other whom he tried to call out to and hold on to with an ‘allo, allo’ between each sentence, and sometimes even in mid-sentence. (Derrida 1996: 7)

‘[A]llo, allo’ – written by Derrida without the circumflex so that one may see even more clearly, it seems, a relationship to allos, the Greek word for other; ‘allo, allo’ – words spoken in French exclusively on the telephone, words that let us hear how the technology of the telephone gave Levinas the chance of recalling the other, of calling them back, or of calling upon them as lost, calling them as other – hello, hello, allo, allo, Granny, Granny – calling out to the other while at the same time fearing that they might be cut off, as we must all at some point be cut off, by the ‘implacable deities’ of a culture machine.


1. A note in the Gallimard edition of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (535) informs us that the number of telephone subscriptions increased from 27,000 in 1893 to 44,000 in 1897.

2. In the above passage Proust had written Edison rather than Bell, an historical inaccuracy that the translators felt obliged to rectify.

3. Proust speaks in one place in Remembrance of Things Past of a form of tele-technology that had been foreseen at the turn of the century but that, oddly, is still not yet with us on a mass scale: ‘her voice was like what we are promised in the photo-telephone of the future: the visual image was clearly outlined in the sound’ (Proust, 1983: I, 992).

4. With this reference to ‘feminine portraits’ one has to resist opening up here an entire chapter or window – one that would risk becoming a whole new site – on the question of sex and the sexes in the age of the telephone. For while it might be thought that the phone in and of itself is gender neutral, there is little doubt that it is used rather differently by different sexes – for business or pleasure, in public or private, with anonymous voices or friends. Though ‘phone sex’ surely came into existence in some form almost immediately after the very invention of the telephone, it is clear that it was not widespread during the telephone’s early years in France – otherwise it would surely have found its way into Proust’s novel. (The presence of an operator more or less constantly there, able to connect or disconnect, and able to listen in, may have contributed to this – unless, of course, the disembodied but sexually marked voices of what the narrator calls, as we will hear momentarily, the ‘Vigilant Virgins’ were the unwitting forerunners of the 900 number.) The fact that, at the very moment I am writing this, millions of Americans are learning via the Internet about their President’s phone sex escapades and about his receiving the phone sex novel Vox from a phone sex partner, indicates how technologies supplement rather than simply replace one another. Hence the telephone, instead of ceding to internet technology, has made something of a comeback in recent years, due in part to its greater and greater mobility, the internet being still restricted for the most part to one’s domicile, workplace, or the occasional internet café.

5. Other technologies or inventions that might also be fruitfully tracked through Proust include the telegraph, the railroad, airplanes, automobiles, elevators, electricity, artificial lighting, etc.

6. This and the following passages from Proust, 1983: II, 133-37.

7. Notice too that while Proust speaks of the time it takes for voice to cover distance, we who are used to near instantaneous transmission attribute delays not to the great distances that need to be covered but to the network or our hardware, the information already potentially there but not yet on our screen.

8. Kern earlier cites a letter in which Proust speaks of hearing his mother’s voice on the telephone shortly after the death of her parents. This letter would later be transformed into the call between Marcel and his grandmother (from Letters of Marcel Proust, ed. and trans. Mina Curtiss (New York, 1966), 73). Kern also has some fascinating passages on the way in which the telegraph and telephone made it possible for people – indeed for the world – to ‘share a common grief’, the most striking example being the spreading of the news of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Finally, Kern demonstrates how technologies such as the telephone contributed to a certain democratization and leveling of class distinctions, the very leveling that Proust documents and in many ways laments throughout his novel.


Botton, A. de. (1997) How Proust Can Change Your Life. New York: Random House.

Derrida, J. (1996) ‘Adieu’, Critical Inquiry, Volume 23, No. 1, and Philosophy Today, Volume 40, No. 3.

Derrida, J. (1982) Margins of Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1991) ‘Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce’ in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge. London and New York: Routledge.

Kern, S. (1983) The Culture of Time and Space. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lévinas, E. (1996) ‘The Other in Proust’, in Proper Names. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lyotard, J-F. (1988) The Differend. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Proust, M. (1983) Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-III. New York: Vintage Books.

Ronell, A. (1989) The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press.

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