A good idea from ... Proust
`A scientist announces that the world will end. What would you do?'
Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton is a philosopher, writer and television presenter. His books include Essays in Love (published when he was only 23), How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), Status Anxiety (2004) and Religion for Atheists (2012)
Sunday 26 December 1999
In Paris in the Twenties there was a newspaper called L'Intransigeant. It had a reputation for investigative news, metropolitan gossip, comprehensive classifieds and incisive editorials. It also had a habit of dreaming up big questions and asking French celebrities to send in their replies. "What do you think would be the ideal education to give your daughter?" was one. "Do you have any recommendations for improving traffic congestion in Paris?" was another.
In the summer of 1922, the paper formulated a particularly elaborate question for its contributors. "A scientist announces that the world will end. How do you think that people would behave between the time when they acquired this news and the moment of apocalypse? And what would you do in these last hours?"
The celebrities who responded included a palm reader, an actress, a politician and a reclusive, moustachioed novelist who had spent the past 14 years lying in a narrow bed under a pile of thin woollen blankets writing an unusually long novel. Since the publication of its first volume in 1913, In Search of Lost Time had been hailed as a masterpiece. Reviewers had compared Marcel Proust to Shakespeare and to Stendhal, and an Austrian princess had offered her hand in marriage. Enthusiastic about contributing to newspapers, and in any case a good sport, Proust sent the following reply, which may help some of us to deal with our millennial anxieties. "Life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it - our life - hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.
"But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! if only the cataclysm doesn't happen this time, we won't miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.
"The cataclysm doesn't happen, we don't do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn't have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening."
Feeling suddenly attached to life when we realise the imminence of death suggests that it is perhaps not life itself that bores us, but our quotidian version of it; that our dissatisfactions are more the result of a certain way of living than of anything irrevocably morose about human experience.
By reminding the nervous among us of how short life is, the Millennium may also help to remind us of the point of living.
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