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Marcel Proust

Proust’s Guide to Waking up Every Morning


Magic lies in the details. Marcel Proust knew this better than anyone else, and he reminds us of how miraculous it is to fall asleep and then wake up.

There is one thing many of us take for granted most of the time, and which could be the most complex and miraculous event of our lives: falling asleep and waking up the next morning. This situation brings together the double nature of the quotidian and the extraordinary, that which in life’s core reminds us of “the forgotten amazement of being alive” (Octavio Paz).

The process in which our personalities gradually begin to fade until they eventually disintegrate —in other words, the process of falling asleep– is, in fact, a miraculous one. Proust begins In Search of Lost Time with roughly fifty pages that describe how the narrator, at a certain time in his life, would fall asleep: gradually, inadvertently, and one hundred pages later, he explains how he would wake up: that “miracle, the complexity, the reassembling of the self that every day takes place under that bland, cliché, ‘I woke up’”, as Alain de Botton asserted in relation to the narrative gesture which opens the novel.

A couple of books later, in The Guermantes Way, Proust returned to this same motif to propose a possible enigma: could it be that, any given day, we could wake up as a different person?

That kind of sleep is called ‘sleeping like lead,’ and it seems as though one has become, oneself, and remains for a few moments after such a sleep is ended, simply a leaden image. One is no longer a person. How then, seeking for one’s mind, one’s personality, as one seeks for a thing that is lost, does one recover one’s own self rather than any other? Why, when one begins again to think, is it not another personality than yesterday’s that is incarnate in one? One fails to see what can dictate the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings any one of whom one might be, it is on him who one was overnight that unerringly one lays one’s hand? What is it that guides us, when there has been an actual interruption—whether it be that our unconsciousness has been complete or our dreams entirely different from ourselves? There has indeed been death, as when the heart has ceased to beat and a rhythmical friction of the tongue revives us. No doubt the room, even if we have seen it only once before, awakens memories to which other, older memories cling. Or were some memories also asleep in us of which we now become conscious? The resurrection at our awakening—after that healing attack of mental alienation which is sleep—must after all be similar to what occurs when we recapture a name, a line, a refrain that we had forgotten. And perhaps the resurrection of the soul after death is to be conceived as a phenomenon of memory.

(Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff)

This allusion to Proust, the great magician of details, is an elegant way of suggesting that, if he devoted so many pages to the minute moments of this marvelous and daily process, we do not need to go further than that in order to feel alive: we simply need to pay attention to the miracle. We do not need to go to the seaside or climb a mountain to feel alive; falling asleep and waking up every morning is the most appropriate way of feeling absolutely alive. To say: “I lay in bed and by looking at things properly, I felt properly alive.”

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