The time to live: Joseph Czapski and Proust
This article aims at a better comprehension of the series of lectures that Joseph Czapski gave in the Soviet camp of Grazovietz between 1940 and 1941. The case of Czapski is well known, but his exceptional performance (of memory, and critical inquiry) deserves further investigation. Not surprisingly, the Polish painter focuses on memory as a concept and as a possibility to save what seemed to be lost: life itself. Czapski’s reference to an apparently worn-out metaphor (“the river of memory”) hides in fact a deeper conception of literature and art, that are given the task (not metaphorical in the war and suffering context in which Czapski was speaking) of salvation. Art, in Proust’s novel and Czapski’s retrieval of it, is the “pearl” capable of giving life the meaning that seems annihilated. Czapski’s case recalls another one, as surprising and “miraculous”: Gustav Herling’s reading of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead in the Soviet forced labour camp of Yertsevo in 1942, in the same context of suffering and war. Although hardly comparable, Proust’s and Dostoevsky’s works seem to provoke an “essential” relation to life, in which memory plays a decisive role.