“how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for pictures that are stored in one’s memory” Marcel Proust 1913*
More than any other major twentieth-century author, it was Proust who codified the modern subject: largely a viewer and consumer with peasant knowledge of plants and place effectively under-valued and reduced to a cultural anachronism. Proust’s writing effectively re-enforced French colonialism, extolling the primary of metropolitan culture, at a time when its empire already in decline. Today, Proustian subjectivity in aesthetic experience effectively excludes a group of vital material and collaborative practices particularly important to making public space more effective for a wider range of audiences and populations. And some of these site-based practices, if sufficiently valued in a post-Proustian world, could, in turn, transmit knowledge on how to better survive both as new urbanists, acknowledging and sometimes learning some of the old peasant and traditional indigenous expertise, and in deteriorating environments where new kinds of creative survival are increasingly necessary.
It has been over a century since the publication of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu: Du côté de chez Swann. This 1913 volume and the following six in the subsequent decade, comprising the entirety of À la recherche du temps perdu, effectively constructed and reproduced modern notions of memory, subjectivity, desire, landscape, and narrative. If there was one single body of text that laid the basis for both contemporary experience of subjectivity, class positioning, sexual autonomy, consumerism, and landscape aesthetics, it was À la recherche du temps perdu. Much of what we consider ‘modern’ and even ‘postmodern’ was codified by Proust.
But today we can see some of the constraints and redundancies embodied in the world of Swann and À la recherche du temps perdu, more generally. Swann lived in an aggressively culturally chauvinist, colonial and imperial world where control, devaluation, often the effective obliteration of the planet’s indigenous communities was the norm when not the oeuvre. Without mentioning colonial economics and cultural politics, À la recherche du temps perdu normalized and sometimes glorified the imperial project on which much of the social changes of Cambray and the new wealth of Swann’s stockbroker family were bankrolled. While Proust outlined a kind of autonomous sexuality, defined by desire and empowered by class and a rigid masculinity, erotic diversity was effectively side-lined when not suppressed. And the transformation of France’s agricultural landscapes and communities lead to a fetishized experience of nature often divorced from ecological and other labour and economic relationships. Thus the waning peasant class, centred on traditional knowledge rooted in manual labour, was considered backward in comparison to the rapacious tastes of the new urban bourgeoisie. From today’s vantage point of deterioration of the biosphere, forms of globalization intensifying social inequities, and a resurgence of indigenous governments and renewed assertion of language, culture, land ownership, Swann’s relatively elite world is receding and becoming less credible.
The galley drafts for the first edition, in 1913, of À la recherche du temps perdu: Du côté de chez Swann
Today the architectures of Proust’s early twentieth century memory is worth exploring as part of the process of decolonizing the narratives of forgetting, remembrance, knowledge, landscape, sexuality, and individuality. Today’s investigations, spanning research, visual art and interventions in public space, becomes devices for exploring the differences in experience, legacies, wealth, and opportunities for Western European communities that were not colonized, such as around metropolitan Geneva, and societies and cultures that are still experiencing neocolonial inequities on a daily basis as with the Salish and other indigenous populations in the rapidly urbanizing south-western corner of Pacific Canada.
Our goal in this 2014-2016 project based at Utopiana, Geneva, is to imagine and propose the re-establishment of wild and traditional fruit trees in some of the public space of Geneva, Romandie, and the Pay du Gex, in Europe, and on the edge of the Salish Sea. To complete this work, we explore the divergent experiences of traditional knowledge, forgetting, and remembrance for uncolonised Western Europe and for postcolonial British Columbia unsorted the contradictory legacies of the colonized and the colonist.
So while there is much to ‘unlearn’ from Proust’s world, there were whispers in À la recherche du temps perdu of what new relationships are coming alive today with clues in the text remaking what we know as the ‘individual’, the ‘community’, ‘remembrance’, ‘nature’, and ‘desire’. Re-structuring these underlying modernist relationships through art interventions in public space to reassert knowledge, cultures, and most importantly ecosystems and human material relationships is the underlying project in responding to Utopiana’s call for the 2015 thematic residence, La Bête et l’adversité, and in our work, À la recherche de certaines récoltes presque perdu: Decolonising permaculture: The greatest adversity comes from forgetting.
Our exploration of La Bête et l’adversité is that ‘The Beast’ in nature also includes human memory. There are perils with the human brain, the typical Homo sapiens ‘hard-wiring’, in what we forget and remember, what our cultures guide us to recall. This ‘beast’ is as natural as nature and as constructed as any other aspect of human culture and community. So at times, we honour the pioneering reflexivity in Proust’s ‘Remembrance’ and moreover rift on it in exploring the new ways, new art, and new interventions in public space, for which the seven volume planted some of the seeds for the uncertain but very fecund present.
*Proust, Marcel. 1956. Swann’s Way. (C. K. Scott Moncrieff trans.). New York: Random House. page 611.