77 North Washington Street



Phyllis Rose

"LITERATURE gives us helps," Edmund Wilson wrote. The computer scientist Marvin Minsky had the same idea when he once likened literature to "an expert system on all the ways people can screw up in life." In her delightfully original new book, from which comes the essay titled "The Music of Silence" in this issue, Phyllis Rose tells how she invited Marcel Proust into her life as a source of sage counsel on all things human.

Reflecting on the nature of pleasure, she finds that Proust got there first: "Pleasure is like photography. What we take, in the presence of a beloved object, is merely a negative which we develop later, when we are back at home, and have once again found at our disposal that inner darkroom the entrance to which is barred from us so long as we are with other people." Trying to help her son, who is having trouble with a "downstairs neighbor, who constantly and unreasonably complained about noise," she consults Proust. "Neurotics, Proust counselled, are irritated at the slightest provocation by inoffensive enemies, but as soon as anyone takes the offensive against them, they become meek." She passes the advice on to her son, who has been treating the neighbor with abashed courtesy, and he follows it. The complaining ceases. Proust is proving to be a big help.

With Proust's example stirring her to emulation, Rose examines her own past as daughter, friend, lover, wife, mother, and writer. With Proust's eyes she sees turnings in her life anew. Thus, thinking about why her affair with a man who scorned pop culture (which she loved) ended, she finds that Proust perfectly captured the hopelessness of the relationship. "And ... if I found Saint-Loup a trifle earnest, he could not understand why I was not more earnest still. Never judging anything except by its intellectual weightiness, never perceiving the magic appeal of the imagination that I found in things which he condemned as frivolous, he was astonished that I -- to whom he imagined himself to be so utterly inferior -- could take any interest in them."

Phyllis Rose is a distinguished critic and biographer. Among her books are a critical biography of Virginia Woolf, which was a National Book Award finalist; a portrait of Victorian marriages, and a life of Josephine Baker,

-- THE EDITORS

Photograph by Marion Ettlinger


The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 280, No. 4; page 8.



Presented by

Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors at a world-class life sciences lab are trying to change the way people think about their health.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In