Proustian Telephone

From Alain de Botton’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life, highly recommended:

Take the unemotive example of the telephone. Bell invented it in 1876. By 1900, there were thirty thousand phones in France. Proust rapidly acquired one (tel. 29205) and particularly liked a service called the “theater-phone,” which allowed him to listen to live opera and theater in Paris venues.

He might have appreciated his phone, but he noted how quickly everyone else began taking theirs for granted. As early as 1907, he wrote that the machine was

a supernatural instrument before whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or to order an ice cream.

Moreover, if the confiserie had a busy line or the connection to the tailor a hum, instead of admiring the technological advances that had frustrated our sophisticated desires, we tended to react with childish ingratitude.

Since we are children who play with divine forces without shuddering before their mystery, we only find the telephone “convenient,” or rather, as we are spoilt children, we find that “it isn’t convenient,” we fill Le Figaro with our complaints.

A mere thirty-one years separated Bell’s invention from Proust’s sad observations on the state of French telephone-appreciation. It had taken a little more than three decades for a technological marvel to cease attracting admiring glances and turn into a household object that we wouldn’t hesitate to condemn were we to suffer at its hands the minor inconvenience of a delayed glace au chocolat.

It points clearly enough to the problems faced by human beings, comparatively humdrum things, in seeking eternal, or at least life-long, appreciation from their fellows.

6 thoughts on “Proustian Telephone

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  2. I always think of these kinds of points when people complain about airplane flights.

    I mean, you can get from North America to Europe in less time than a typical night’s sleep, with air pressure and temperature regulated for you, with meals and electronic entertainment provided, and a bathroom steps away, as you travel more than 500 miles an hour in the stratosphere. That was a voyage that for most of human history either took weeks or months of hazardous cross-country and cross-ocean travel, or was entirely impossible.

    And yet we bitch when we get a plastic fork and knife with our not-quite-gourmet food.

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