“There is no man… however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded. I know that there are young fellows, the sons and grandsons of famous men, whose masters have instilled into them nobility of mind and moral refinement in their schooldays. They have, perhaps, when they look back upon their past lives, nothing to retract; they can, if they choose, publish a signed account of everything they have ever said or done; but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and sterile.
We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you are not the result of training at home, by a father, or by masters at school, they have sprung from beginnings of a very different order, by reaction from the influence of everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory.”
A selection of this passage is quoted in one of the books I’m currently reading, Clive James’s expansive and brimming collection of essays Cultural Amnesia. On the bus home tonight, as I fanned through its pages, I came across this passage and immediately felt a cool and clarifying sense of uplift — the kind that washes over you in that moment when a paragraph or lyric or painting somehow expresses a thought you had but couldn’t recognize or express until something else spoke it to and for you. This passage from Proust did exactly that, and while I haven’t read his formidable series of novels, this paragraph certainly indicates why they are so loved and lauded.