I write in my rental apartment on Rue de Seine in Paris, while trying to simultaneously ignore the tolling of the church bells in my vicinity as well as the continuous barking of my next door neighbor, Georges. I have never seen him or his owners; however, given the permanent scolding I hear, he must do things well behaved dogs should only do outside. After some weeks in the former abbey precincts (here), I can discern between the sharper and impatient tolling of Saint Germain, and the most distant, thunder-like bang of Saint-Sulpice and Notre Dame. Sometimes, I almost wait to hear the famous “cris de Paris” from Balzac’s works and I wish we had repositories of sounds. As in any other old European city, the Parisian soundscape is a palimpsest of still-active echoes, long gone or never heard of in other places, a chunk in an imaginary geologic audio-scale that visualizes the historical age of each ear stimulus. According to the success of the app called Hanx Typewriter or the existence of projects such as the Roaring Twenties, there are some of us who experience some sort of auditory nostalgia. In the age of soundbible.com, pdsounds.org, audioeffects.com, for instance, what impossible-to-reproduce, non-metallic sounds do I want to hear again, what experience do I want to relive?
One writer was at his best when describing, like a seismograph, the effects of the urban soundscape. Precisely at 1 am on 1 January 1909, Marcel Proust’s new year’s resolution or, better said, demand was about noise: "Je vous remercie de tout mon coeur de votre belle et bonne lettre et viens vous demander au contraire de laisser faire à partir de maintenant tout le bruit que vous pourrez" ("I send you my heartfelt thanks for your kind and beautiful letter and I ask you, on the contrary, as of now, to give up all possible noise…", my transl., 22). He writes this in Lettres à sa voisine (2013), a bouquin comprising the author’s recently discovered corespondence with Madame Williams, his upstairs neighbor on the third floor on 102 Boulevard Haussmann. She is the main culprit for Proust’s anguish; his direct complaints to her become the pretext for his inexhaustible observations of Parisian life at the turn of the 20th century and its lack of auditory quality. The tiny volume abounds in details on what we may see as acoustic phobia, a condition turning noise into a frightening and obnoxious character in its own right. Among bookish references to his own writing, Virgil, Victor Hugo, Gerard de Nerval, John Ruskin, Paul Verlaine, and a wide cohort of musicians, Proust finds time for repeated complaints -- in an otherwise unctuous epistolary manner -- about daily and nocturnal activities in his arrondissement. Neighbors can be a bearable nuissance, while construction workers, electricians and contractors, with their yellings, demolishements, and repairments are profoundly disturbing. Between two “evils,” Proust complicitously writes to Madame Williams, once these workers are gone after having become part of his routine noises, he would feel the ensuing silence as abnormal and would regret their ruckus as some sort of “lullaby” (ibid., 39).
In fact, in his magnum opus, À la Recherche du temps perdu, Proust internalizes and maps areas of external world by privileging hearing at the detriment of the other senses. The chasm between inner and outer self is rendered acute in his notations about domestic and public existence in the modern age, which feature noise as the main intrusive “benefit.” In Discourse Networks (1985), Friedrich Kittler articulates the relationship of technology to the modernist aesthetics via what he calls “Aufschreibesysteme.” We have well documented books about the adventures of the ear in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the exposure to telephony, telegraphy, phonography, cinematography, and the technologies of speed, such as cars and trains. The two main realms in À la Recherche du temps perdu, represented by the upper class (the Guermantes) and the bourgeois (the Verdurins), are distinct in terms of social status, milieu and even geographical placement; the new age of modernity engulfs them both in the novel. In this context, external factors, such as aleatory sounds, are part of a newly created, free-for-all, deregulated public sphere, which belongs neither to aristocracy, nor to les nouveaux riches.
Metaphorically speaking, noise is what Michel Serres calls a parasite. This notion, in his words, an “intellectual operator,” has to do with any disturbances produced in a system. It coagulates itself at the crossroads among biology, anthropology, and communication theory (Serres, 18). Like parasites, random sounds always interrupt, distract, and are situated between order and disorder, as links in the chains of relations through which usable energy is spent. As such, noises are operators of irreversible time, the same lost time Proust laments, the time of nostalgia, entropy, and death.
Noise engenders listening strategies and acoustic associations. Various intermittent noises acquire an inherent synaesthesic quality for they are connected in the narrator’s mind to his perception of the change of seasons. The repetitive whistle of the trains in the night meddles with young Marcel’s bedtime routine and announces a brave new world of places and deeds. The banging of the window in the room where Albertine sleeps scares Marcel like a violation of a sacred silence. The bustle of the street functions as a fine-tuned membrane that mediates between the writing self and the outer world. In general, noises both separate and connect Marcel’s subjectivity to what he calls “la vie extérieure.” Even a banal hissing of a pipe has a value in constructing and deconstructing memory in the text [i]
Finally, as in his letters to Madame Williams, Proust sometimes imagines the total suppression of noises (“des suppressions de bruits qui ne sont pas momentanées”), such as, he says, in the case of people with auditory impairments who cannot perceive the crackling of wood in the fireplace or the rambling of the tramways on the street at regular intervals. The “chastity of silence” can turn objects into beings without cause. In this complex fictional world where every connection seems to be a necessary one, random sounds do not lead to narrative deciphering, unlike the madeleine that reminds of Combray, the paving-stone that recounts Venice or the steeples that make Marcel think about young girls. Gilles Deleuze associates sounds in general with his third circle of signs, those that are out there in need for a reading key. However, in À la Recherche du temps perdu, instead of the remembrance of other objects or beings, noise triggers the very process of mental self-focalization, the author’s and our own awareness of how involuntary memory functions.
A longer version of this post will appear as “Cherchez... le bruit! Marcel Proust in Service of Modern Communication” in Inmediaciones de la Comunicación y las Humanidades, No. 9, Montevideo, Uruguay (Fall 2014)
Proust, Marcel -- Lettres à sa voisine, Paris: Gallimard, 2013
Deleuze, Gilles. Proust et les signes, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1971
Landy, Joshua. Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004
Serres, Michel. Le Parasite, Paris: B. Grasset, 1980
[i] The original reads:
Et au moment où je raisonnais ainsi, le bruit strident d’une conduite d’eau tout à fait pareil à ces longs cris que parfois l’été les navires de plaisance faisaient entendre le soir au large de Balbec, me fit éprouver (…) bien plus qu’une sensation simplement analogue à celle que j’avais à la fin de l’après-midi a Balbec (…) (Le Côté de Guermantes in Œuvres complètes, Paris: Edition Gallimard, Pléiade, 1987, 452)
As this passage has stayed in my mind since the time I took a Stanford graduate seminar devoted to Proust, I agree with Josh Landy’s interpretation of the water-pipe sound as a fading away hypotactic device for memory’s remarkable capacity of regaining sensations by way of signs: “Although the first part of the sentence makes it clear that this sound is what provides the link to today’s sensory experience (a similar noise, made by the plumbing in the Guermantes’ residence), it recedes, in the second half, into the background. (…) for involuntary memory is only possible on condition that the sensation is eminently forgettable, so that the intellect overlooks it and fails to record a (voluntary accessible) memory.” (Landy, 2004: 452).