"The bonds that unite another person to ourself exist only in our mind. Memory as it grows fainter relaxes them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we would fain be cheated and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we cheat other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature that cannot emerge from himself, that knows his fellows only in himself; when he asserts the contrary, he is lying." - Marcel Proust
À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) is a novel written by French author Marcel Proust in the 1920s. The novel comprises of seven volumes and is considered to be the longest novel ever written with over 1.2 million words. In these seven volumes Proust goes through a journey into his mind in search of the meaning of life. I am sure that most of us have at some point in our life asked ourselves the ultimate question of existence, "Why do we exist?" Reading this novel for the last seven months helped me get closer to the answer. The book also discusses questions regarding patriotism, homosexuality, anti semitism and most importantly the structure of memory and the mind.
If you look at the sky at dusk you can easily locate the planet Venus, the second brightest natural object in the night sky after the moon. Venus is about the same size of Earth but is barren to life and you can be sure that there is no one there looking at you. If you wait a little longer you might see Jupiter and once again there is no one looking back at you. About 1300 Earths can fit inside Jupiter yet it doesn't have that special abilities that you have, the ability to experience your surrounding, that is, the ability to be alive.
Life on Earth originated about 3.8 billion years ago with microorganisms living in the sea. These microorganisms were able to self duplicate and each generation adapted to the changing environment over billions of years of evolution, surviving five mass extinctions, to finally produce you, the modern human about 150 000 years ago. Modern humans had to deal with predators such as saber-toothed cats and harsh climates during the ice ages until we eventually created civilization and can now claim to have walked on the moon. Let's not forget that during each step of this process of producing you, one sperm cell had to outrun 40 million others. From that original spark that originated life 3.8 billions of years ago to today, the odds of you being alive is very small. So it is natural that you'll try to find some meaning to life. For most part of this evolutionary journey the meaning of life was simply to survive and to reproduce and having a brain that can think is quite useful. But our brain started over thinking and we even invented contraceptives (not really what evolution "had in plan") and now asks ourselves the question, "What is the meaning of life?"
The first candidate for the meaning of life according to Proust was social status and wealth. From the evolutionary point of view it makes sense that the more wealthy you are the more likely you are to find a suitable mate or mates to reproduce and pass on your genes. But when Proust's narrator in the novel befriended some wealthy people he realised that they were mostly just like him and other commoners. They were only hiding their true nature to the world to maintain their wealth and power. Are you ready to give up your true self for the sake of wealth and social status? The second candidate for the meaning of life was love. Again from the evolutionary perspective, love is an emotion necessary for finding a mate to reproduce in most cases. The narrator fell in love with a number of women in the novel but none of them could complete him in the way he wished. His love eventually turned into jealousy and insecurity and looking at the marriages and romantic affairs of people around him he realised that love cannot be the meaning of life. How many times did you meet someone you thought was the right one and was then heartbroken?
The third and winning candidate for the meaning of life according to the narrator was art. The narrator wanted to be a writer and a philosopher. He wanted to change the world with his writings (this is actually what Proust did) just like artists can change the world with their paintings. The artist observes what is around them, they take time to appreciate what is around them and conveys this to us through art. In the little time that we have on Earth (about 25 000 days- the number of seats in a small football stadium) we should live like artists taking time to cherish the little things around us, the people around us, and the whole world.
In no way does it mean that we should give up our search for love or social status and concentrate on love. We should rather pursue wealth and love through the eyes of an artist. What is the purpose of doing a boring job just because it makes you rich? Try to appreciate how your job is helping people or just quit your job and find something better suited for you. What is the purpose of being married to someone you once considered perfect and now hideous? Try to admire the fact that they are neither perfect nor hideous but another human being just like you going through the human condition or maybe just leave them for someone better for you. The important thing is to stop losing time as death is inevitable (for the time being) and your days to enjoy life are limited. Only then can you attain what the Greeks called Eudaimonia, that is, fulfillment and find meaning to a meaningless life.