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Four-Dimensional Proust

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I am rereading Proust. If anyone asks why, I tell them the story of Franklin Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Roosevelt paid a visit to the aged Holmes to find him reading Plato in Greek. He asked him why and Holmes replied: ‘To improve my mind, Mr President.’ My first encounter with Proust was in the spring of 1959. I was finishing my second year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I had won a National Science Foundation fellowship which allowed me to work anywhere I wanted for two years. I chose Paris even though I knew almost no French. I thought that reading Proust in English might be a useful preparation. Needless to say it wasn’t. When I got to Paris, I enrolled at the Alliance Française and five nights a week I went to class. I studied very hard and that is why I can now read Proust in French.

It is commonplace to observe that both Proust and Einstein, in their different ways, were concerned with the subjectivity of time. I find most of these comparisons uninteresting. There is at least one moment in A la recherche du temps perdu, however (I’m on page 71 of 2599), at which Proust reveals himself to be au courant with contemporary physics. In 1907 the mathematician Hermann Minkowski realised that the best way to understand relativity was as a four-dimensional continuum with time being the fourth dimension. In 1908 he wrote:

The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.

Minkowski introduced a four-dimensional formalism which Einstein at first rejected but then adopted in his theory of gravitation. Proust was writing his novel at about this time. ‘An edifice occupies, if one might put it this way, a space of four dimensions,’ he wrote near the beginning of the first volume, ‘the fourth being that of time.’ I cannot believe that the idea of time as the fourth dimension simply sprang out of his head. He must have read it somewhere.


  1. Joe Morison says:

    I love the fact that at the end of Malcolm Bowie’s wonderful Proust Among the Stars, he starts ‘Further Reading’ with “Those who have read Proust’s novel once could not do better than to read it again. They could reread it complete, from the top, or they could dip and skip and skim, taking their pleasures lightly and, it is to be hoped, stumbling upon half-remembered marvels at every turn.”

  2. I am now on page 125 and it has inspired this so far.
    In the Search of Lost Tsuris
    I: The Way of the Goldfarbs
    There are two ways to get to Cohen’s delicatessen-the way of the Goldfarbs and the way of the Finkelstein’s. The way of the Goldfarb’s is shorter but then you might run into Mrs.Goldfarb. She Is a short stocky woman with a few black hairs coming out of her nose. She wears polka dots usually in the blue of hatching egret eggs. She always asks why I have not called on her daughter Millicent. Her daughter also has black hairs coming out of her nose. Her intended future is to marry an accountant. My intended future is to avoid the Goldfarbs so I will take the way of the Finkelstein’s which will mean walking two extra blocks. I have been sent to buy challah for the Sabbath. This was the bread that the God of the Hebrews supplied them during their stay in the desert. It looks as if you have taken a half dozen brioches and glued them together. If I had had a chance to talk to God I would have asked for a bagel with a schmear.
    Last night as I lay in bed with my head resting on those oblong duck down pillows my great aunt Zopra gave me for my thirty seventh birthday the faint smell of knishes came into my bedroom…the Levine’s cooking again-he with his black patent leather shoes with the off white shoe laces and mauve socks. The smell of knishes is the perfume of memory. I am once again a child in my bedroom in our apartment on Orchard Street. Mother is down stairs. Schine has come to dinner. He was a man with a pointed chin and the fine manners of someone who is accustomed to get best tables at Sardis. He generally wore a three piece suit. He has a button in his lapel showing that he he donates large amounts to Bnai Brith.He could quote whole pages from the Daily Forward in Yiddish.Aunt Zopra does not approve of his wife and said that she was someone that Schine won in a raffle. The knish with its little doughy cylinder is filled with potatoes. There Is a heaping mountain of sour cream on top of it. You could almost toboggan down it. Doctor Goldfarb once said that sour cream has killed more Jews than Hitler. He was a man who always wore a vest even when plying tennis. I have once again remembered the way of the Finkelestein’s.

  3. AnnaV says:

    The first chapter of H. G. Wells’s ‘The Time Machine’ (1895):

    ‘There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time.’

    The discussion of time as the fourth dimension continues for several paragraphs.

  4. AndrewL says:

    The conception of time as a fourth dimension goes back a bit further than Minkowski in 1907. Perhaps 150 years or 200 years earlier…

    Lagrange wrote about three dimensions of space and one of time in his “Mecanique analytique” published in 1788. See https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Q8MKAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA248 where he is treating time is a coordinate in much the same way as the three spatial coordinates.

    And then Lagrange was more explicit about time being treated as a dimension in his “Théorie des fonctions analytiques” of 1797: see https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=15IKAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA316

    D’Alembert was writing that time could be considered a fourth dimension in 1754 in the entry “Dimension” in the “Encyclopédie” he edited with Diderot (perhaps influenced by Lagrange). For example, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=SbjfdaZyjgMC&pg=PA548 “on pouvoit regarder la durée comme une quatrième dimension des corps”

    And arguably Leibnitz was nearly there by the late 1600s/early 1700.

    Perhaps Proust was just carefully reading and remembering passages from Diderot’s encyclopedia, which was in effect the Wikipedia of its day.

  5. I thank my learned readers for the references to Welles and Lagrange. Welles’s time machine can go backwards in time which relativity does not allow. You cannot reverse cause and effect. Lagrange used a plot in which time is along the vertical axis and space is along the horizontal axes. This is in principle a non relativistic Minkowski diagram in four dimensions .What influenced Proust I do not know.

  6. Henri Kellogg says:

    Heeding Mr Bernstein’s call for forward-moving (e.g., “Einstein’s”) time machines v. backwards-moving ones (e.g., Wells’s), it might be worth calling attention to a later writer who – perhaps inspired by the same passage in Proust – explored the “time as the fourth dimension” idea. To this reader, the Proustian formula of an edifice occupying “a space of four dimensions” brought Georges Perec’s “La Vie mode d’emploi” to mind. Turning 40 this year, Perec’s magnum opus remains an unarguably worthy descendant of Proust’s mega-novel. Closer to our concern here, what “La vie mode d’emploi” presents, in the most accessible of its own incalculable number of dimensions, is a Parisian apartment building’s blueprint in time.

  7. Perec’s book is one of my absolute favorites.

  8. I an surprised that none of my sophisticated commentators mentioned Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Durrell claims to have been inspired by relativity although he acknowledges limited understanding. Three books of the Quartet describe events at the same time while the fourth deals with their tine evolution. This is not what Proust is describing. He claims that all events have four components three of space and one of time and that no event can be completely described without taking this into account. This is a much more sophisticated view and one that a modern relativist would endorse. I tried re-reading Durrell but gave up.

  9. spinebound says:

    Who really cares? The coincidental relations Proust’s views on time hold to modern physics is so beside the point.

    Proust was basically a mystic in his views on time, not remotely a scientist. His was an attempted literary demonstration of a trans-temporal soul.

  10. The Editors of my 1987 Plèiade edition of Le Temps provide a footnote to the following text on p. 5,

    Que s’il s’assoupit dans une position encore plus déplacée et divergente, par example après dîner assis dans un fauteuil, alors le boulversement sera complet dans les mondes désorbités, le fauteuil magique le fera voyager à toute vitesse dans le temps et dans l’espace, et au moment d’ouvrir les paupières, il se croira couché quelques mois plus tôt dans une autre contrée.

    The footnote references HG Wells’s ‘The Time Machine’.

    In the fragment, Proust not only alludes to the space-time, but also to relativity, which distorts it at velocities approaching the speed of light.

    That said, something doesn’t add up in Bernstein’s account of his encounter with Proust’s space-time. The text of interest appears on p. 5, not on p. 71 (there’s nothing about space-time on p. 71). Format differences cannot account for a disparity of c. 65 pages.

  11. This is the passage I was referring to.“…all that made for me something entirely different from the rest of the village: an edifice occupies, if one might put it this way, a space of four dimensions-the fourth being that of time…” A La Recherche du temps perdu,” Combray, p.56 Gallimard edition..translation mine.One thing relativity does not do is to reverse the order of events. As the poem goes
    There was a young lady named bright
    Who could travel faster than light.
    She started one day in a relative way
    And arrived peceeding night

    • This clarifies it.

      For those interested in the original, it goes like this (p. 60, Pléiade, 1987),

      “…tout cela faisait d’elle pour moi quelque chose d’entièrement différent du reste de la ville : un édifice occupant , si l’on peut dire, un espace à quatre dimensions — la quatrième étant celle du Temps…”

      Proust’s grasp of relativity was limited; relativity indeed doesn’t reverse the order of events, even though physics, in principle, does allow a negative flow of time.

      Bernstein’s translation is creditable. Perhaps the next imprint of the MKE edition should incorporate it. My 1992 Random House edition doesn’t have it.

      • Thank you. I do not want to get into time reversal which would take a whole article. Weak interactions are not time reversible. I noticed that Proust does refer to musical genius as being comparable to that of Lavoisier and Ampere which means that Proust had an interest is science.

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