The Middle
February 9, 2023
Thoughts Over a Cup of Coffee
February 23, 2023

Marcel

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

While flipping through an anthology of military writings, I came across a selection by Marcel Proust. Yes, the novelist. In the passage, Proust has a question about military strategy. More precisely, he asks whether a military genius, like Napoleon, is allowed to bend the rules as he sees fit, or whether military strategy must follow only certain precepts to be successful.

It is an intriguing question, and odder still given the source.

For those unfamiliar with Marcel Proust (1871-1922), he was a French writer from a prosperous French family who devoted his later life to writing his opus, In Search of Lost Time. Spanning seven volumes, it is about the salons and social interactions of French society of the time but with numerous excursions into minutia and the profound.

The work was translated into English between 1922 and 1931 under the title, Remembrance of Things Past. Over time, it set a benchmark as a novel. Graham Greene thought Proust was the greatest novelist of the 20th century, while W. Somerset Maugham thought his work was the greatest fiction written to date.

I‘ve been surprised, perplexed, confounded, and enchanted in equal measure by his writing. That it is difficult to read, voluminous, and expressed in sentences of extraordinary length is also true, but the diversity and scope of his thinking is breathtaking.

The question Proust asks about military genius, I think, applies equally to Proust, the writer. The answer is that genius follows its own path and sets the rules that others follow.

To paraphrase Schopenhauer:

“Talent is like the marksman who hits the target which others cannot reach. Genius is like the marksman who hits the target which others cannot even see.”

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