Lately I have been re-reading Proust. Here is an example of why.
In “À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs” Proust’s young stand-in protagonist is visiting the studio of the fictional painter Elstir at his villa near the seaside resort of Balbec. It is about sunset, and he is about to go home. He asks Elstir about an old watercolor of a young woman in theatrical costume, guessing correctly that it is a portrait of Odette, a woman with a checkered past as a “cocotte”, now married to Swann, a sophisticated Parisian clubman. He also guesses correctly that Elstir was a friend of both of them years ago, when they all were part of the circle of a wealthy woman, a circle where Elstir was remembered as not particularly brilliant. Elstir reacts at first with a discontented facial expression, but then, instead of dismissing his young guest, he offers a philosophical comment:
“There is no man, however wise he might be” he told me “who has not at some time in his youth pronounced some words, or even lived a style of life, the memory of which is disagreeable to him, and he would wish had never happened. But he should not regret it absolutely, because he could not be assured of becoming wise, insofar as that is possible, unless he has passed through all the incarnations, ridiculous or odious, that have to precede the last incarnation. I know there are young people, sons and grandsons of distinguished men, whom their instructors have taught nobility of spirit and moral elegance as soon as they went to school. They have perhaps nothing to regret in life, they could publish and sign everything they did, but they are poor spirits, powerless descendants of doctrinaires, whose wisdom is negative and sterile. One does not receive wisdom, it is necessary to discover it oneself, after a journey which nobody can make for us, nor spare us, because it is a point of view about things. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that you find noble, have not been given by fathers or teachers, they have been preceded by quite different preliminary events, having been influenced by what was around them that was bad or banal. They represent a battle and a victory. I understand that the image of what we have been during an early period is no longer recognizable, and in any case unpleasant. It must not be denied however, because it is a witness that we have really lived, and that is according to the laws of life and the mind, that we have, from the common elements of life, of studios, of artistic circles if we are talking about a painter, extracted something that surpasses them.”
Whatever we regret in the past – an invitation declined, an appointment missed, an obligation ignored, denied, or forgotten, a bad habit, a serious fault- is part of our education in the broadest sense. This is not an argument to repeat our mistakes or cherish them; but our experiences – even the bad ones- give us what is best in ourselves.