(Finding happiness is not easy. Dorothy needed those ruby slippers to help her get there.)
At about 750 pages into “Remembrance of Things Past” Marcel Proust tells a story of a single day while on vacation in Balbec, which is in the South of France. The year is 1871 and he is only a teenager at the time. His grandmother and her friend, Mme de Villeparisis, are both French aristocrats and plan on pampering their young grandson by taking him on a trip to see an old ivy-covered church in Carqueville.
This little story of his day trip takes up 25 pages and about 12,000 words and he only spends two sentences on his impression of the church. The rest is a mesmerizing description of his search for a little joy as he prepares for the day, as he is driven through the French countryside, as he passes by some pretty girls and as he peers out the carriage window at sunset on his return to the hotel in Balbec.
This is storytelling at its best because he simply uses the day trip as a vehicle to introduce us to the human mind in its wild, anguished, lonely, tormented endless search for beauty that lies just beyond our reach and meaning underneath the surface of things. He could just as easily have described his basic philosophy of life without all those stories and it would have only taken a few pages to do so, but then he would have been just another philosopher that no one read.
Storytellers are all up to the same thing. They are telling us picaresque tales in order to teach the reader and to teach themselves something they desperately need to discover before it’s too late. Victor Hugo wrote “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to teach the public that the famous Parisian cathedral was falling apart. Miguel de Cervantes wrote “Don Quixote” to tell the reader that the chivalry of the medieval knights of King Arthur was well worth emulating. Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” to help revive the sagging spirit of Christmas past.
Even modern classics take a look backwards to gather what is about to be lost. The best-selling “Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress” by Dai Sijie is a semi-autobiographical story about the Chinese Cultural Revolution and how much of a tragedy it is to burn books and to lose touch with great literature.
A friend of mine recently found a big white teddy bear that was about to be thrown away by some family in her neighborhood and she retrieved it from the garbage can. I immediately thought that would make a great story entitled “Finding Teddy,” which would go something like this:
Once upon a time a lonely little girl named Annie found a discarded Teddy Bear in the garbage, brought it home and with the help of her mother she cleaned it up and cared for it as if it were the most precious thing on Earth. After many years of loving it, Annie went to sleep one night and had a dream where the Teddy Bear thanked her for her love and in return he gave her a gold ring with one diamond and two rubies. He told her that this ring was very powerful and would always bring her luck, safety and love. Upon awakening she saw that her teddy bear was gone, but in its place was a gold ring lying on her pillow.
My friend was amazed that I could make up the story so quickly but of course this is really the story of Pinocchio who found the Blue Fairy to make him real. It is also the famous children’s book, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” who becomes real thanks to the love of the little boy and a kiss by a garden fairy.
Any object in the world can carry meaning but only after we place meaning into it. Linus loved and needed his blanket, Ismael needed that talisman nailed to the mast in Moby Dick and Dorothy needed those ruby slippers in order to be safe from the Wicked Witch of the West.
The saddest things about becoming an adult is that it’s so hard to find magic or meaning or solace in the things we possess. Pinocchio got along just great since he had Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy, but alas we who are far older than Pinocchio can no longer find magic. That may be why people drink so much. They all seek magic in a bottle.
And that is why Proust’s work is so crucial to read. He endlessly was looking for either beauty or happiness and finally said near the end of his book “that pleasure, the object of which I could only dimly feel, which I must create for myself, I experienced only on rare occasion….and that in attaching myself to the reality of that pleasure alone could I at length begin to lead a true life.”
Of course, he is not referring to sex or any other carnal pleasure but instead the sublimation of desires as we experience them in nature or in our social life. He foretold what Freud was about to lay claim to a few decades later, which is that the answer to happiness is to sublimate one’s urges. And as Proust said that takes a lot of effort and introspection or to put it another way “the more we love our “Teddy’s”, the more they love us back.”