When Marcel Proust speaks physics


The 100th anniversary of the death of Marcel Proust gives us the opportunity to remember his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, a sort of French-style Divine Comedy first released in 1913. Just like the way Dante’s 13th-century work forms a neat summary of medieval wisdom, In Search of Lost Time attempts to cover all facets of human knowledge acquired at the dawn of the 20th century.
He approaches aesthetics with archetypal artists (through characters such as Vinteuil, the composer; Elstir, the painter; and Bergotte, the writer), approaches medicine by touching on Freudian psychology, and approaches the art of fight, in the middle of the world war. I. Proust refers extensively to contemporary technological developments, including the telephone, which allows him to communicate with the ghost of his adored grandmother, the train which leaves the Gare Saint-Lazare, and the marvelous airplane which appears to him as a god would. an ancient Greek. He is well acquainted with the theory of evolution, stating that “‘selection’… seemed to me as incompatible…as it would be if it were preceded by the adjective ‘natural’.”
Ultimately, Proust runs through the many landmark scientific breakthroughs of his time. The early 20th century witnessed two revolutions in physics that upended our established worldview: relativity, which challenged the absolute nature of time, and quantum mechanics, whose indeterminacy challenged reality itself. .
Here are some of the passages where Proust refers to major advances in his work.

Humble beginnings in school memories
In Purgatory, Canto 15, Dante alludes to the first law of optics, which theorizes the reflection of light and will be formalized by Descartes in the 17th century. Proust invokes the second law, which concerns refraction, in a tender description of his relationship with his grandmother:
“[My] the thoughts continued in her without having to undergo any deviation, since they passed from my mind into hers without any change of atmosphere or personality.
He also remembers other lessons from high school:
“[To] a physicist, the space occupied by the smallest ball of marrow is explained by the harmony of the action, the conflict or the balance, laws of attraction or repulsion which govern much larger worlds.
These passages are full of the charm of the schools of yesteryear, when Proust would have carried out experiments such as the electrification of an ebonite rod with a cat’s skin. Any physicist would easily spot the Doppler effect in this sentence:
“There was also a new whistle…which was itself exactly like the cry of a streetcar, and, as it was not carried out of earshot by its own speed, one thought of a single car, immobile, or broken down, immobilized, howling at short intervals like a dying animal.
“He found in her the electric shock of a contrary will which repulsed him violently; I could see the sparks fly from his eyes.
However, this last statement would have been disputed by Charles-Augustin Coulomb, whose law stipulates that different charges attract each other while similar charges repel each other!
Proust’s x-ray vision
Going into more modern physics, Proust writes several times about ultraviolet and infrared rays. He also mentions X-rays, discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen. To quote her character, Françoise:
“Madame knows everything; Madame is worse than x-rays.
In the book, this phrase is uttered at a time in the writer’s early youth, even though Proust was actually 24 when Röntgen made his discovery. One could therefore suggest that the servant character of Françoise had a sort of prophetic gift. Later in the book, he returns to this physical phenomenon:
“[This] a strange imprint that seems so unlike ourselves sometimes bears the same stamp of truth, unflattering to be sure, but profound and useful, as an x-ray photograph.
Proust even seems to claim to have a transparent vision of reality:
“It was very good for me to go to dinner at the restaurant. I didn’t see the guests because when I thought I was watching them, I X-rayed them.
Nor is he afraid of the subject of radioactivity. Considered to have therapeutic properties, radioactive anti-aging creams were very popular at the time. In this regard, Proust risks a bold metaphor by marveling at the longevity of his character, Madame Swann, who represents:
“a more miraculous challenge to the laws of chronology than the conservation of radium to those of nature.”
Madame Curie’s precious radium is an unstable element that decays over a period of 1,600 years. A long time, yes, but other elements last even longer, since stable isotopes have an infinite lifespan.

Proust on time
Naturally, time plays a fundamental role in Proust’s seminal work. The concept is present in both the first line of the book (“For a long time I was going to bed early”) and the last (“…in Time”).
Proust’s era saw a total overhaul of our perception of time. Of course, today we still don’t know what time is really better than Saint Augustine, who once said:
“So what is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I want to explain it to whoever asks, I don’t know.
However, Einstein’s relativity posits a type of time which is no longer absolute and eternal, but variable according to the framework of representation, that is to say according to measurement. Proust demonstrates an intuition close to that of the eminent physicist in his description of the church at Combray:
“[All] these things done [it]…a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space – the name of the fourth being Time.
This reference to a four-dimensional space clearly echoes the concept of relativity. But did Proust know Einstein’s theory? When asked this question years later, he explained in a letter:
“Although it has been written to me that I take after him, or he from me, I do not understand a single word of his theories, not knowing algebra. And I doubt for my part that he has read my novels. We seem to have analogous ways of warping Time.
A quantum view of reality
Less apparent in the text are Proust’s trial and error in quantum mechanics. The then nascent theory based on quanta – primary energy corpuscles – was first proposed by Max Planck in 1900.
While trying to comfort his sick grandmother, the narrator nods to this new idea in physics:
“[According] to the latest scientific discoveries, the materialist position seemed to be collapsing.
What discoveries is he thinking of here? We can only assume he is talking about quantum mechanics. Proust’s contemporary, Paul Valéry, also born in 1871, seems to evoke this same scientific theory. In Reflections on the World Today (1929), he wrote:
“[The light] is compromised… in the lawsuit brought by discontinuity against continuity, probability against images… hidden reality against the mind that would track it down and, in a word, by the unintelligible against the intelligible.
Quantum mechanics clashed with the way we traditionally saw the world. Classical physics is deterministic; we can use it to predict how things will turn out. We can understand reality “for what it is”. However, with an electron, we can only calculate the probability that it makes a given path. In this way, determinism becomes collective, because we are aware of the distribution of a group of electrons but do not know where any particular one will end up. Quantum theory, which governs these behaviors, is a branch of physics that sometimes appears counter-intuitive.

It is based on two apparently contradictory assumptions:
Schrödinger’s equation, which relates to evolution, is deterministic in nature. It is a dynamic law governing forces other than gravity, much like a more precise version of Newton’s law of universal gravitation.
However, quantum theory also includes the principle of “collapse”, which applies at the moment of measurement and chooses the result from an infinite set of possibilities.
Proust flirts with this quantum paradox by writing:
“She took on an almost puny air for having (instead of the ten, the score that I remembered in turn without being able to fix any of them in my memory) only one nose, rounder than I thought, which made her look rather crazy and had in any case lost the ability to multiply… Fallen into the inertia of reality, I tried to bounce back.
He opposes the multiple image he retains of this young milkmaid character to the only reality he offers himself, such as his vision “collapses” in the real world.
While quantum mechanics reveals a probabilistic material reality, Proust believes in the spiritual reality of human beings, thinking that “others exist for us only to the extent of the idea that we retain of them” and that “the The evidence of the senses is also an evidence”. operation of the mind in which conviction creates evidence”.
Quantum reality is dependent on the measurement made by the observer, in the same way that any observation generates a subjective mental translation: “[Reality] has no existence for us until it has been re-created by our spirit.
In Search of Lost Time is a magnificent collection loaded with humor, emotion, poetry and philosophy. While Proust peppers his writing with real-life ingredients, the laws of physics nestled in his unbroken sentences are more than just decorative. He filters the world through an impressionistic vision of reality, close to the teachings of quantum mechanics.
Although many experts have considered Proust the greatest French writer of the 20th century, he received no Nobel Prizes, his ashes are not enshrined in the Pantheon, and no waxwork by him haunts the Grévin Museum. But he was ahead of his time, taking solace in such macabre matters:
“[There] is there no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us believe we are obliged to do good… or oblige the talented artist to believe himself obliged to start a work over twenty times? whose aroused admiration will mean little to his body devoured by worms… All these obligations which have no sanction in our present life seem to belong to another world… So much so that the idea that Bergotte was not entirely and definitely dead is by no means improbable.
And so it was that Proust entered that ideal realm he had once desired for his fiction writer. (The conversation)


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