Quantum Theory and the Observer’s Quest in ‘Swann’s Way’

Disclaimer: I’m a science communicator by trade, but not a scientist. This post is adapted from a 2018 paper I wrote for my MA (so please forgive any remaining academic formalities). At the time, I had only read Swann’s Way and not the remaining six volumes of In Search of Lost Time. I would finally do so a couple years later as part of the best-ever pandemic book club: #ProustTogether. There’s abundantly more that could be said on the subject of Proust and physics taking all seven volumes into account; I’m secretly hoping a proper expert takes up that gauntlet someday.

In 1913, Swann’s Way was published in France, the first of seven volumes in Marcel Proust’s modernist tour de force In Search of Lost Time. In the same year, Niels Bohr proposed a new structural model for the atom based on Max Planck’s nascent quantum theory—the latest in a long line of dominos that proceeded to thoroughly destabilize the deterministic paradigms of classical physics.

What might seem an arbitrary connection on its face becomes startlingly relevant upon closer inspection. Like modernism, which rejected traditional narrative techniques in favor of experimental forms reflecting the unstructured nature of human experience, quantum theory upset established models of causality in physics, describing a submicroscopic world based on probabilities, not certainties. On the quantum level, reality is fundamentally shaped through interactions, without which particles seem to have no objective existence.1 When certain properties of a particle are measured, others become dark to the observer, a phenomenon known as the “problem of observation” or the measurement problem.2

The unnamed narrator of Swann’s Way inhabits a literary mirror of this indeterminate realm. While traveling the branching paths of involuntary memory, his role as a conscious observer—superimposing his past onto his present—co-creates the perceived world around him. His reality shifts with his gaze, and with the type and amount of information embedded within that gaze. However, like the physicists of his time, he’s reluctant to abandon the idea that that hidden variables3 might tie his past, present, and future together in ways that make them comprehensible.

But the grand meta-narrative Proust’s narrator seeks remains just out of reach, for it emerges with and alongside the subject that reaches for it, just as the final pathway of a particle manifests only when observed. Far from coincidence, the lockstep emergence of modernism and quantum theory reveals a broader intellectual subversion at work across disciplines in the early 20th century—a reckoning with indeterminism and a privileging of subjectivity that emerge in the themes, structure, and prose mechanics of Swann’s Way.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Proust was directly influenced by brand-new mathematical formalisms while he worked on In Search of Lost Time. Since he wrote the majority of the novel alongside the explosive development of quantum physics, it would defy logic to assert that Proust was capable of fully absorbing the new theory’s multifaceted mechanistic implications as it ballooned into being, especially considering physicists themselves struggled at the time to ascertain what these discoveries would mean for the future of their discipline. But quantum theory does offer an insightful heuristic model for understanding how Proust navigates an early modernist view of reality. As the only volume of In Search of Lost Time to have been published before the outbreak of World War I, Swann’s Way uniquely exemplifies the anxious hope that Proust and his contemporaries maintained before war plunged the world into disillusionment—the belief that innumerable entangled agencies, each individual and unpredictable, might still together shape a coherent whole.

A glimpse of Proust’s notebook for Swann’s Way. (Bibliotheque nationale de France)

Turning the ‘Problem of Observation’ into an Opportunity

In Search of Lost Time resolves into many different forms depending on what each reader brings to it, but at its core, the novel is a Bildungsroman that charts the development of an artist. The narrator’s keen observation shapes what matters to him, and in turn shapes the world through what matters to him. There are no shortcuts in this feedback loop, much to the disappointment of our main character; there is no way to first discover meaning, then live his life according to that meaning. The narrator’s frustration with the fact that he is essentially blocking his own access to larger truths is the novel’s “problem of observation.” The subject influences the object it tries to grasp, constantly pushing the object’s “true” form (if there is one) out of reach. Proust’s solution is to finally stop calling this a problem and to embrace the creative opportunities latent within it.

Before beginning work on Swann’s Way, Proust famously vacillated between the form of the essay and the form of the novel, a struggle that remains crystallized in his unfinished essay collection Contre Sainte-Beuve (written between 1895 and 1900). Throughout Contre, Proust can’t seem to decide whether a rhetorical or metaphorical approach would help him most effectively refute the aesthetic philosophy of French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. He ends up testing both methods—essay and fiction—allowing them become porous to each other when it suits him.4 Characters, places, and scenes that are destined to become fully incarnate in Swann’s Way and the rest of In Search of Lost Time make their first flickering appearances in Contre, relieving Proust of the burden of formal criticism—which, as he argues when contesting Saint-Beuve, seems doomed to make general statements out of particulars, rather than preserving the particular as its own irreducible glimpse of the eternal.

In one Contre piece, “The Artist in Contemplation,” Proust captures both the glory and the agony of the artist’s lot as it relates to the task of observation:

The poet looks, and seems to be looking both into the cherry-tree and into his own mind, where what he sees is from time to time blotted out by something within him, so that he has to wait for a moment, just as he has to wait for a moment when a passer-by blots out the double cherry … [He] stands in front of things like the student who reads and re-reads the text of the problem set him, and which he cannot solve … it is not from the text itself he can hope for a solution.

If not from the text itself, then from what can the artist hope for a solution? Swann’s Way begins to communicate Proust’s answer: his belief that, as Michael Shapiro puts it, a “great writer must … filter shared human experience through the lenses of his own peculiar way of seeing—the light of his own unfindable planet—to reveal the world in a way the reader could not otherwise understand.” The assertion that our shared, universal human experience requires the filter of a subjective viewpoint in order to be revealed in a way that is comprehensible resembles, in its peculiar and paradoxical structure, the “filtering” act that occurs when a physicist observes a quantum particle. The detector attempts to measure something that, in its natural state, has no absolute definition; and yet, the information the detector is able to offer based on these observations nonetheless reveals something of a previously hidden world, even if that something is inextricably tied to the observer’s own limitations. For Proust, these limitations are not shackles; they are the “light of his own unfindable planet” by which the universal will be glimpsed.

Certainly, I make these connections between modern physics and Proustian reality with the full benefit of hindsight, a benefit that allows me to create dance partners out of a more fully developed quantum theory and the novel’s thematic concerns. But in a sense, I am only following Proust’s lead. For the narrator of Swann’s Way, retrospection is just as essential to the formation of a metanarrative as observation. Both acts are the engines through which Proust’s character-avatar unifies the disparate nature of his past and present experiences to grant them meaning beyond himself.

In fact, retrospection in Swann’s Way seems purposefully difficult to distinguish from observation. When he takes a bite of the tea-soaked madeleine, the narrator doesn’t merely think about all the memories of Combray that the taste conjures for him; he vividly relives them. The sensation reconstructs his surroundings: “immediately the old gray house on the street, where [my aunt’s] bedroom was, came like a stage set to attach itself to the little wing opening onto the garden that had been built for my parents behind it.” For a moment, countless past states are superimposed over the narrator’s present, informing and transforming it as vitally as any object that belongs to the present time—if not more vitally. For Proust, the past is latent with meaning that the present lacks. His desire to pull the past into the present in order to make both reveal their secrets reflects the apprehension of the period during which he wrote: a time when new questions about mind, matter, and reality threw absolutes into question. The search for solid ground gave way to a quest for transcendence—not in spite of uncertainty, but through the embrace of it.

Niels Bohr’s 1913 atomic model (Ole Flensted)

Art and Science: Two Methodologies, One Anxiety

Even before quantum theory started dismantling classical notions of a well-behaved, law-abiding universe, public debate on the relationship between mind and matter had begun to cast doubt on the objective reliability of observation, the very mechanism that allows us to arrive at scientific laws. According to Allen Thiher—whose books Fiction Rivals Science (2001) and Fiction Refracts Science (2005) explore the interdependent relationship between science, French literature, and modernist thinking—the general state of the mind-matter argument at the turn of the 20th century hinged on a question: Does a delineation between mind and matter exist? For those who answered no, the mind was best understood as “a kind of computer that knows essentially by using formalisms or algorithms that describe both nature and the mind knowing nature.” In other words, if mind and matter share a common nature, it stands to reason (or at least stood to reason back then) that they would also share a similar internal logic, one that functions according to the same fixed laws of the natural world. Conversely, if mind is separate from nature, then the intuitions of consciousness might not be trustworthy in an objective sense, because our mind “imposes upon nature some kind of epistemological grid that is a projection of mind’s nature, when not the mind’s own creation,” Thiher writes.

We can already see the first traces of what some physicists term “observer-participancy”5 within this latter perspective. As Kelvin McQueen explores in his 2017 Philosophy Now article, the Von Neumann–Wigner interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests that conscious observation triggers the collapse of a particle’s wave function, preventing us from perceiving the seemingly infinite cloud of probabilities and possibilities that play out between particles when they are left undisturbed. In Proustian terms, once we step into the flow of this greater reality, we see only what our minds see fit to process: “only moments,” which we “[separate] artificially today as if … cutting sections at different heights of an apparently motionless iridescent jet of water.” We can’t help projecting this “epistemological grid” on reality, Proust suggests. What’s more, the information we gather from within reality’s greater stream is influenced by our act of gathering it, rendering any objective statement about that information suspect.

Undeterred, Proust’s narrator makes careful note of how his mind collapses time, creating unnatural separations, while simultaneously sensing the ghostlike paths that have become forever closed to him: “… a stone on which a glimmer of light played, a roof, the sound of a bell, a smell of leaves, many different images beneath which the reality I sensed but did not have enough determination to discover had died long before.” Interestingly enough, the narrator here doesn’t accept his perceptual limitations as inescapable; instead, he believes he merely lacks the “determination” to discover the truth that lies behind the images he sees. We’ll return to this point later, but it bears mentioning now because at the time Proust was writing, physicists were likewise determined to find a way to reconcile the unsettling implications of quantum theory with the world that they preferred: one ruled by causality.

When Max Planck introduced his theory of quanta in 1900, it conflicted with everything physicists understood at the time about the nature of energy. Planck’s theory suggested that the energy of an electric field is exchanged in finite packets, rather than in a continuous manner, as science had previously assumed. His model was not easily dismissed. Five years later, Albert Einstein confirmed Planck’s quanta by demonstrating that light itself is granular in an article published in the Annalen der Physik. By the time Niels Bohr came on the scene in 1913 with his postulation that a similar “quantum” energy exchange occurs between electrons as well, physicists were forced to contend with the idea that quanta might not be a mere mathematical quirk, but instead a pervasive trait of reality.

The quest to resolve the contradictions introduced by quantum theory then began in earnest. The mystery of nonlocal action between particles famously frustrated Einstein, despite his own productive work applying quantum theory to the behavior of light. Along with others in the field, he insisted that quantum mechanics could not be described as “complete,” believing that undiscovered variables must exist to account for what he famously called “spooky action at a distance” (Bricmont, sec. 2). Douglas Angus describes this moment as a “deeply disturbing pause” in physics, “a situation in which the physicists themselves are sharply divided over whether the basic methodology of science as hitherto practiced can make any further progress.”

This crisis of methodology was occurring in the visual arts and literature, as well, even if it took different forms there. Faced with an increasingly indeterminate understanding of reality, modernists at once reveled in the generative generosity of such models, while contending with the sudden inaccessibility of objective meaning. As Angus writes, “the spectre beginning to haunt the modern writer [at this time] is the loss of solid, fixed, and certain identity. Stated in its simplest terms, the parallel here with physics is that just as the object is lost in its matrix of physical forces, so is personal identity lost in the matrix of social and psychological forces.” Swann’s Way retains the imprint of this anxiety and disorientation. The narrator’s sense of identity shifts with the people, places, and events he comes into contact with, yet he also fights to make space for the part of him that is not influenced, but influencer—the self that doesn’t merely drift from moment to moment, but engages each instant in a constructive relationship.

However much Proust may or may not have understood the implications of the burgeoning new physics when he wrote Swann’s Way, it surely remains true that, as Nicola Luckhurst puts it, “what fascinates Proust is not so much the science but, rather, the revolutionary and revelatory effects which science can have on perception.” During an era of immense intellectual upheaval, where science and art alike faced the loss of absolute forms and the specter of relativity, Swann’s Way dared to propose that the subjective might still serve as a doorway to the universal.

The Nature of Proustian Reality

In his 2017 book Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli asserts that quantum physics has revealed three basic features of the nature of things: granularity, indeterminacy, and relationality. These traits can also help us better understand the shape of the narrator’s world in Swann’s Way.

The church of Saint-Jacques in Illiers-Combray, one of the models for the Church of Saint-Hilaire in Proust’s novel (Patrick Tourneboeuf)

1. Granularity

Quantum physics first reveals “a fundamental granularity in nature” by modeling the world as a sequence of “quantum events … [that] are discrete, granular and individual; they are individual interactions of one physical system with another,” Rovelli writes. This multitude of individual interactions composes the reality that we perceive. As we perceive it, however, we are always missing information; this missing information in turn informs our perceptions. Observer-participancy is a loop that obscures the full range of possibility from our eyes, revealing the actual only in part—and only when we turn to behold it.

Throughout Swann’s Way, Proust at once resigns himself to the unreliability of observation, and at the same time treats it as a boon, a doorway to subjective realities that the narrator does have authority to shape. While lying in bed in his family’s country home in Combray, the narrator muses on the liminal space between waking and sleeping, thoughts and dreams:

Perhaps the immobility of the things around us is imposed on them by our certainty that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our mind confronting them. However that may be, when I woke thus, my mind restlessly attempting, without success, to discover where I was, everything revolved around me in the darkness, things, countries, years.

In this moment, the narrator extends the transition between unconscious sleep and conscious perception into a blur of unrealized possibilities. What the boy anticipates he might see becomes almost an obstacle in the dark, obscuring the real. Then at last, with the return of full consciousness, “the good angel of certainty” places him once again in a single bed in a single room, to “put approximately where they belonged in the darkness my chest of drawers, my desk, my fireplace, the window onto the street and the two doors.” Still, until the moment the light returns, all the possible rooms he pictures himself waking in, and all the potential configurations he imagines those rooms existing in, have an effect on him that is powerful enough to render the question of their actual presence irrelevant.

Virginia Woolf notes: “In Proust, the accumulation of objects which surround any central point is so vast and they are often so remote, so difficult of approach and of apprehension that this drawing-together process is gradual, tortuous, and the final relation difficult in the extreme.” Indeed, the “final relation” that Proust’s narrator achieves here takes so long to reach that the near-relations preceding it carry a greater weight. This fact is even implied to be sinister or frightening; why else call certainty the “good angel”? Even as he admits that the subjective has the greater pull, the narrator idealizes the quest for objectivity.

Before quantum physics revealed that fundamental reality is also “a queer field of instantly vanishing certainties,” as Serpil Oppermann puts it, Western thinkers believed that the discontinuous nature of human experience stood at odds with the world it inhabited. Planck’s quanta ushered in an understanding of the world much more compatible with the one that permeates Proust: as a web of entangled events, discrete packages of energy that forge reality through their relationships with one another. And yet, these energetic relationships between moments hide truth as often as they reveal it. Quantum mechanics tells us that when measuring entangled particles, “either a position measurement can be performed, or a momentum measurement, but not both simultaneously … it is as if the position measurement disturbs the correlation between the momentum values, and conversely,” to use Jeffrey Bub’s intuitive summation in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In other words, whenever we try to measure, quantify, or possess something, we necessarily lose something of it.

This phenomenon is visible in the very structure of Proust’s prose, where winding, protracted sentences string dependent clauses together in nested groups; each time a new observation is introduced to inform the rest of the sentence, the relationships between variables are disturbed, to the point where a reader may find themselves losing the meaning forged by one or two entangled clauses, and therefore miss the full impact of the sentence. This authorial technique forces readers to perform the same unifying act as the narrator: We must retrace our steps to achieve clarity, superimposing our memory of the passage we have just read over the passage itself as we walk down its corridors once again. To quote Proust himself, it’s up to us to “[direct] the sentence that [is] ending toward the one … about to begin, sometimes hurrying, sometimes slowing down the pace of the syllables so as to bring them … into one uniform rhythm,” as the narrator’s mother does when reading George Sand’s prose to him as a child. In this sense, it is our conscious attention to the unstructured “quanta” of our experience that alone gives them enough definition to form a coherent world. 

Perhaps the most telling example of this belief occurs in the passage in which our main character describes Saint-Hilaire, the church of Combray. First, he isolates every detail he perceives and individually illustrates them for the benefit of the reader—including the ways in which these details combine and shift in concert with light and shadow. He then states: “all this made it, for me, something entirely different from the rest of the town: an edifice occupying a space with, so to speak, four dimensions—the fourth being Time—extending over the centuries its nave which … seemed to vanquish and penetrate not only a few yards but epoch after epoch from which it emerged victorious.” Here, a profusion of distinct, individual details forms an edifice that marches through the centuries to emerge “victorious” in the present, where it speaks, from every angle, of a greater whole. Again, however, this whole cannot be perceived all at once; the observer’s gaze must wander to take in each piece of the church, a single element at a time, in order to understand something of what they constitute. Indeed, almost as soon as the narrator is finished declaring the church as a four-dimensional whole, he is breaking it down into parts again.

The narrator’s stream-of-consciousness description of the church captures in microcosm what Proust strove to accomplish in macrocosm with Swann’s Way (and, eventually, the rest of In Search of Lost Time): a creation that, in its every detail, intimates something of the greater narrative that harmonizes its pieces, even though that harmony can never be extracted from those same pieces that give it shape. They remain fragments of reality that continually vanish, reappear, and transform in the eye of the beholder.

The path of the hawthorns in Illiers-Combray (Gabriella Alu)

2. Indeterminism

The second lesson of quantum physics is that the future cannot be predicted with certainty. Because the variables of particles constantly fluctuate, there is “an elementary indeterminacy to the heart of the world … It is a world of vibrations … a microscopic swarming of fleeting microevents,” Rovelli writes. (This feature of reality is closely tied with the third revelation of quantum mechanics, relationality, since it is the relationships between particles that render them indeterminate.)

The title of Swann’s Way refers to one of two paths, or “ways,” that the narrator’s family takes when walking through the Combray countryside. The first is the Méséglise-la-Vineuse way, nicknamed “the way by Swann’s” because it passes in front of M. Swann’s estate. The second is the Guermantes way, which passes through land belonging to the noble Guermantes family. When introducing these paths us, the narrator focuses on how each “way,” once selected, seems to cancel out the other:

… I set between them, much more than their distances in miles, the distance that lay between the two parts of my brain where I thought about them, one of those distances of the mind which not only moves things away from each other, but separates them and puts them on different planes. And that demarcation was made even more absolute because of our habit of never going both ways on the same day, in a single walk, but one time the Méséglise way, one time the Guermantes way, shut them off, so to speak, far apart from each other, unknowable by each other, in the sealed and uncommunicating vessels of different afternoons.

The “uncommunicating vessels” that separate the two ways from each other in the narrator’s mind echo the consequences of the quantum problem of observation: By measuring one value of a particle, we render other values unknowable. In our narrator’s case, by selecting one path for his walk, the other might as well be on a different plane. Even though he knows, rationally speaking, that it’s logical to say that a person has “‘set off toward Guermantes’ in order to go to Méséglise, or the opposite,” using any element of one way to describe the opposite path destabilizes his world, rendering it less certain. From his perspective, Swann’s way and the Guermantes way are two entirely separate realms—and in Proust, perspective is the master of reality.

But if the subjective is to be our narrator’s instrument of mastery, its tendency to disguise truth must somehow be integrated with its power to reveal. Indeed, this paradox forms the backbone of the novel’s most surreal imagery. From the narrator’s moonlit walk that turns the Telegraph Office into an “immortal ruin” to Swann’s fixation on the traits of Odette that most remind him of Botticelli’s portrait of Zipporah, Proust repeatedly illustrates how our perception creates greater patterns out of its limitations. In each of these cases, human consciousness, with its desire for structure, re-organizes the world of probability in which it has been set adrift, creating meaning from the raw matter of lived experience. Simply by colliding with the subjects he finds in his trajectory every day, the narrator of Swann’s Way conjures definition from the indeterminate.

Proustian wormholes (Benjamin Britton)

3. Relationality

The third (and arguably biggest) paradigm shift offered by quantum theory comes when we realize that, as Rovelli puts it, “[the] world of existent things is reduced to a realm of possible interactions … Reality is reduced to relation … It is only in interactions that nature draws the world.” This concept can be understood as Einstein’s relativity extended on a profound scale: nothing exists on its own; objects can only be defined in terms of their relationship with other objects, and even then, it is not the objects themselves that are real, only the ceaseless energy exchanges between them. As Barad emphasizes: “the object and the measuring agencies emerge from, rather than precede, the intra-action that produces them”—an idea that contrasts with the traditional notion of interaction, which “relies on a metaphysics of individualism (in particular, the prior existence of separately determinate entities).”

The fact that particles only gain distinguishing traits through relationships with other particles suggests that no single feature of anything, no conviction of identity, is fixed or static; everything in reality stimulates the evolution of everything else through links that are inscrutable to us. The web of probabilities that weaves the illusion of determinism refuses to disclose the precise means by which its connections form, leaving us, like Einstein, contemplating the puzzle of “spooky action at a distance”—or, like Proust, determined to establish our own subjective links between disparate events in order to render them meaningful. 

Proust’s intuitive understanding of the interdependent nature of reality and our place in it echoes Niels Bohr’s interpretation of quantum mechanics, which Karen Barad calls Bohr’s “indeterminacy principle,” in contrast to Heisenberg’s more famous “uncertainty principle.” Whereas Heisenberg’s principle states that the more precisely one variable of a particle (e.g. its position) is known, the less precisely another (e.g. its momentum) can be known, Bohr saw the relationship between a particle’s variables as so deeply entangled that they cannot be defined apart from each other. The question for Bohr, Barad writes, “is not one of unknowability, but rather of what can be said to simultaneously exist.” Keeping this in mind—the idea that unknowability and uncertainty might not be the real barrier to a clearer picture of reality, but instead, the fact that the relationship between correlated entities renders them both indeterminate—we can return with fresh eyes to the passage of Swann’s Way cited earlier, in which the narrator fails to grasp the unifying thread he senses beneath the fragments of his experience. Shortly after acknowledging this failure, he shares an instance when he does feel as if he’s glimpsed something true about the nature of reality:

I saw the two steeples of Martinville, shining in the setting sun and appearing to change position with the motion of our carriage and the windings of the road, and then the steeple of Vieuxvicq, which, though separated from them by a hill and valley and situated on a higher plateau in the distance, seemed to be right next to them. As I observed, as I noted the shape of their spires, the shifting of their lines, the sunlight on their surfaces, I felt that I was not reaching the full depth of my impression, that something was behind that motion, that brightness, something which they seemed at once to contain and conceal.

These shifting spires, which seem to change their position based on the narrator’s own, are in a state of apparent flux, seeming to be one place when they are really in another. We can imagine an entanglement between them, a fluid relationality that extends over the entire landscape relative to our narrator-participant. The engine behind the spires’ apparent motion is at once “contained and concealed” in that same motion. By noticing the web of relationships among the objects he sees, Proust’s narrator intuits a glimpse of the whole that they constitute. On the carriage ride back home, he asks the doctor for a pencil and some paper and attempts to capture his epiphany in writing, threading the steeples, the sky, the horizon, the low line of the fields, and the rest of his impressions into a miniature narrative. When he is finished, he feels that the act of writing has “perfectly relieved [him] of those steeples and what they had been hiding behind them.” He is no longer just a passive observer; he is a participant, creating new relationships with the discrete elements of his world to divest it of indeterminacy. This action fundamentally changes reality for him, if not for anyone else. Brazen as it sounds, the phenomenon that occurs in physics when a detector measures a particle is not all that dissimilar: Infinite paths appear to resolve into one for the benefit of the individual who watches.

In addition to beautifully capturing the relational substructure that governs our sense of the real, Proust depicts individuation itself as a process that is never complete. Every act of beholding that the narrator undertakes changes him, and through that change, evolves the people and places he beholds. As the narrator states when meeting Swann outside of family dinners for the first time: “… the ideas which which I now linked his name were different from the ideas which had once formed the network in which it was included and which I no longer ever used when I wanted to think about him; he had become a new person.” We are always transforming, and so is the lens through which we see the world. The people, places, and objects in our radius seem constantly new because we are constantly new.

We’re All Asking the Same Questions

Ultimately, the structure of the fictional universe established in Swann’s Way echoes, with uncanny persistence, the features of the quantum world as it began to take form in scientific thinking in the early 1900s: an understanding of reality as essentially granular, indeterminate, and relational. The fact that this revolutionary conception of the nature of things is contemporaneously found outside of science suggests that these ideas had roots in questions asked by multiple disciplines. At the same time that physicists began to test quantum models of reality in the form of equations, seeking ways to reconcile them with past knowledge, the main character of Proust’s epic tests his ability to use these models to create meaning for himself. In Proust’s reconstituted world, subjective agency becomes a modernist tool for transcendence.

Even today, over a century later, no satisfactory explanation has yet emerged for why the relational ties between particles are what grant their individual existence, rather than the reverse being true. Why quantum physics works remains a mystery; we only know that it does, as experimental evidence testifies to the effectiveness of its formalisms. In a kindred sense, it is only through the narrator’s relational engagement with a multitude of individual moments that a field of meaning emerges for him, through which he is then able to finally understand those moments, and the unique role each has played in forming him. He cannot perceive the metanarrative that unites his experiences in any objective sense; he can only live one as it emerges in step with his observations. Whatever definite illumination that greater narrative may provide is visible only in hindsight, when all other possibilities have vanished, for “reality takes shape in memory alone.”

Perhaps, Proust suggests, human experience in all its discontinuity can yet be made to serve a larger vision through the agency of the observer—even if, by the time this agent has observed anything at all, he has only managed to isolate a single event from reality’s cloud of possibilities. Since we cannot see or access that greater cloud without influencing it, it may be that the world we perceive around us is nothing more than an imprint of past events, a collection of irreversible phenomena awaiting reconfiguration into new futures.

“Such grave uncertainty,” the narrator writes early in Swann’s Way, “whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is also the obscure country where it must seek and where all baggage will be nothing to it. Seek? Not only that: create. It is face to face with something that does not yet exist and that only it can accomplish, then bring into its light.” Even the mind-matter argument of Proust’s era collapses here into a both/and paradox, rather than an either/or quandary. The seeker is an inherent part of the country he seeks, and at the same time, the possibilities within that country are affected by the grid of his gaze. In the end, any thread that unifies all we perceive can only be woven by the observer. For on its most fundamental level, reality does not pre-exist the interactions of its constituents. We emerge with it, granted the power of co-creation.


[1] Carlo Rovelli’s striking summary is: “Electrons … exist when they interact. They materialize in a place when they collide with something else.” (See Reality is Not What it Seems, 119-120)

[2] There is no single widely-accepted resolution to the measurement problem. Karen Barad notes that dissatisfaction with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics—the most popular among the majority of physicists—has prompted a creative range of alternatives (see Meeting the Universe Halfway, 286-287).

[3] A reference to David Bohm’s “hidden variables” theory, which suggests that an undetected wave governs/explains the motion of quantum particles. For further insight into the drive to preserve causality in early quantum physics, see Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen’s 1935 article “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”

[4] Contrasting Contre Sainte-Beuve and In Search of Lost Time, Nicola Luckhurst notes in her book Science and Structure in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu: “Rather than writing an essay which is also a novel, Proust writes a novel which includes the essayistic.”

[5] A term originally coined by John A. Wheeler in a 1989 article: “Physics gives rise to observer-participancy; observer-participancy gives rise to information; and information gives rise to physics.”

Works Cited

Angus, Douglas. “Modern Art and the New Physics.” Western Humanities Review, Spring 1962.

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, 2007.

Bricmont, Jean. “History of Quantum Mechanics or the Comedy of Errors.” History and Philosophy of Physics, Cornell University, March 2017, https://arxiv.org/abs/1703.00294.

Bub, Jeffrey. “Quantum Entanglement and Information.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/qt-entangle/.

Luckhurst, Nicola. “Science and Structure in Proust’s ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’.” Modern Language Review96 (2001), 837-38.

McQueen, Kelvin J. “Does Consciousness Cause Quantum Collapse?” Philosophy Now, Issue 121, https://philosophynow.org/issues/121/Does_Consciousness_Cause_Quantum_Collapse.

Opperman, Serpil. “Quantum Physics and Literature: How They Meet the Universe Halfway,” Anglia 2015, 133(1): 87–104.

Proust, Marcel. By Way of Sainte-Beuve (Contre Sainte-Beuve), translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner, London, Chatto & Windus, 1958.

Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way, translated by Lydia Davis, New York, Penguin Books, 2002.

Rovelli, Carlo. Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, Riverhead Books, 2017.

Shapiro, Michael. “Contre Saint-Beuve.” Modernism Lab.

Thiher, Allen. Fiction Refracts Science: Modernist Writers from Proust to Borges, University of Missouri Press, 2005.

Woolf, Virginia. Granite and Rainbow: Essays, Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1958.

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